Skip to Content

SFF: Publications : Essays

The Green Knight's Progeny: Medieval And Modern Romance(S)

Sylvia Kelso

The texts I'm looking here both spring from the Matter of Britain, meaning the body of Arthurian legend, and they are both "romances" in some sense. The medieval romance was the equivalent of our fantasy and SF: an non-realist form, concerned, indeed focused on wonders, operating on the edge of the known, presenting, if not other worlds, then remote and/or imaginary countries, or just forests where anything could happen. Like much modern fantasy, romance's most common story was the Quest.

GGK, often called the best English romance, is second-generation in the Matter of Britain: an independent story hooked to a Round Table knight. The Cauldron of Story, to use Tolkien's term (Stories 125), boiled Arthur up with a possible Welsh folk hero (Graves 270) and a story told of Cuchulain in the Irish Fled Bricrend (Tolkien and Gordon, xiv). In this version the supernatural Green Knight challenges Arthur's court to a beheading game: as Arthur's champion, Gawain beheads the knight, and, when he doesn't die, pledges to accept the return blow, at the Green Chapel a year later. Seeking the chapel, Gawain wanders North Wales and Cheshire till he is welcomed at a castle whose host is the Green Knight in disguise. They start an exchange of winnings game: the host goes hunting, promising to give Gawain his kills. Back in the castle, Gawain is propositioned by the Green Knight's wife, and then offered a girdle to turn the blow. He passes on the lady's kisses each evening, but not the girdle. When the Green Knight wounds him to mark his cowardice, Gawain wears the girdle thereafter to mark his shame.

As most SF and F is "a document of our times" as Samuel Delany said of his Neveryon series (322), GGK uses the motif of another time - Arthur's day - to distort as well as comment on some element of its own present. Medieval romances do this with unblushing anachronism: GGK is best dated by its descriptions of late 13th century armour and castle architecture, and its elaborate descriptions of hunting, clothes, and above all, manners. Courtesy is indeed a priority in GGK. It has been read as a northern attempt to intervene in the court culture of Richard II, recasting Gawain, not as supreme fighter, but as the ideal of Richard's political initiatives, summarized in the term "courtliness" (Walker, 125-26) .

At the same time GGK nicely fits Barbara Fuchs' formulation of romance as a combination of "narratological elements and literary topoi" that include, "idealization, the marvellous, narrative delay, wandering and obscured identity" which both "pose a quest and complicate it" (9.) So GGK idealizes Gawain as an (almost) perfect courteous knight, the Green Knight is a marvel for Arthur, but a quest and then a complication of the quest for Gawain, and he "wanders" to reach his test. Identities are also obscured, firstly for the Green Knight as courteous host, and then for the old woman in his castle as Morgan le Fay, instigator of the whole intrigue.

Narrative delay is particularly important in romance because from The Odyssey onward, Fuchs suggests, the journey itself is central to romance's desire (14-20). Romance does not "[start] here and [go] straight there" as Ursula Le Guin once said about heroic stories (169). It is a genre, in Fuch's term, of "detours" (14). But this non-linearity also foregrounds its gender politics: from The Odyssey on the romance hero and Quest are masculine, associated with motion, while delay, temptation and conflicting desire are feminized. Odysseus' return is hindered worst by Circe and Calypso. Aeneas' affair with Dido in The Aeneid very nearly derails the founding of Rome. And in GGK, Gawain's temptation not merely to shirk the blow but to avoid the Green Chapel altogether, comes packaged with the lady's sexual lures, while old and young women together engineer his eventual fall from grace.

Medieval Gawain romances were popular, and at least eleven Gawain stories appear in the medievalist phases of late 19th and early 20th century. These could be called third-generation in the Matter of Britain, whereas Laura Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart, published in 1993, is a third-generation descendant of GGK itself. Like GGK, Heart is commonly labelled romance. But today's "romance" is distinct from the medieval or late 19th century "imperial" versions. Carol Thurston once remarked that in modern romance, men supply the money and marketing, while the readers, editors and writers are women (196-97). Heart then belongs to the genre of modern, or women's, or female romance, and to its historical rather than contemporary sub-genre.

This produces two obvious changes: firstly, as a historical novel, unlike GGK or most SF&F, Heart is ostensibly realist. It is set, not in Arthur's day, but in Edward II's. Consequently, it is not anachronistic. Instead it taps into what Fredric Jameson called the "well-nigh libidinal" post-modern historicist hunger (66) for a (sometimes) accurately reclaimed past, such as drives the SCA. The wealth of detail Heart shares with GGK then works for historical verisimilitude rather contemporary recasting. This detail ranges from the appearance of its castle, drawn from GGK itself, to precise Middle English terms for hunting and hawking - not simply horns blowing, but a "mote" and a "rechase" (Kinsale 194) not just a "huntsman" but a "vewterer" (195) - to the dialogue, also mostly Middle English, with some differentiation of South-East - Chaucer's dialect, most familiar to us - from the North-Western dialect of GGK itself, but replete with ME syntax and idiom, a feat well beyond most historical novelists. There is too a fair representation of a Middle English sensibility, especially about religion. Heart even repeats GGK's enigmatic local emphasis, to have its main characters wander the same ground: North Wales, the mouth of the Dee, and the wilderness of the Wirral. More importantly, Heart revises the story of GGK to suit its own project and genre. Most radically, it combines Gawain and the Green Knight as the hero, Ruck. Ruck retains Gawain's supreme "courtesy" - demonstrated in similar circumstances of female temptation - but in disguise he calls himself the Green Sire, wears green armour, and appears as the Green Knight does, galloping into a court to issue challenge (27-29). Unlike Gawain or the Green Knight, however, he displays military prowess. In the joust that replaces the beheading game, Ruck beats all comers, including his liege lord, the Duke of Lancaster.

Secondly, and more radically, Heart transforms the "delay pattern" and gender coding of romance in GGK. Instead it leans to the Hellenistic Greek romance, such as Heliodorus' Ethiopica, whose central story is a love affair. But where, as Fuchs points out, Ethiopica, begins by dividing the lovers, so the story's wanderings and delays follow their struggle to rejoin (24-29), the focus of Heart is the relationship itself. Consequently, it begins by throwing the lovers together, then isolating them in the wilderness to wander in company; and it keeps them there until they succumb to mutual desire. This time is an idyll for the highborn Melanthe, the heroine who could not consider Ruck, an obscure knight, as a lover inside society. But for Ruck it is closer to the temptation motif in GGK: one long test as he tries to control his desire and keep his "courtesy" to the higher-ranked lady he is supposed to protect. This altered storyline also shifts GGK's formulation of the feminine as delay and detour from the linear progress of the hero's Quest. For Ruck, the object of the quest is Melanthe. But in Heart the story is half-told from Melanthe's viewpoint. Melanthe enters as a coldly calculating noblewoman prepared to enchant and use Ruck for his military skill (200). Like the woman in GGK, she quickly becomes a sexual temptress. But unlike the Green Knight's wife, her calculation turns to genuine attraction on her own side. Moreover, and again unlike the wife, Melanthe's temptation prevails. Ruck's 13-year vow of chastity, his courtesy, even his fear of going to Hell for adultery (215), cannot resist her. Given this text is categorized as a romance, assumed to be for an almost entirely female audience, this offers an empowering view of women's active sexuality, diametrically opposed to GGK's rejection of such power. Indeed, as more recent critics have noticed, this rejection leads Gawain after his "fall" to change exaggerated courtesy to women for outright misogynism (de Roo, 247). In contrast, Melanthe achieves not only subjectivity but the name denied, as Harvey de Roo notices, to the lady in GGK (244-47): this subjectivity makes her a Quester in her own right. Her goal is, at first, to survive her enemies' threats to her life, and later, to marry Ruck as well.

In one area GGK and Heart speak as one: they both reject adulterous love. In GGK this follows the Moslem strand in the famous code of "courtly love" developed in the 12th century under the aegis of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughters Marie and Alix (Parry, 13-16). One of these Arab precursors categorically rejects adulterous love (8-10); but the main and older strand of courtly love comes down from Ovid's time. In this version, whether practiced, as in the purported story of the knight executed in 1175 for an affair with the countess of Flanders (20), or preached, in its central stories of Tristan and Iseult and Guinevere and Lancelot, courtly love is by default adulterous. Hence it emphases not only the higher rank of the beloved, or the lover's courtesy, in the exaggerated sense suiting both Ruck and Gawain: extreme politeness and exaggerated humility to women - but the need for complete secrecy (6-7). After courtesy, a lover's most important attribute is to keep his mouth shut. If courtly love was practiced as in the Countess Isabelle's story, this was very practical. In Heart's case, it again becomes practical: if Ruck and Melanthe's love and/or marriage become known, her worst enemy will kill him. But she may also lose her inherited lands, and hence any power to protect him if he does survive.

Even in Eleanor's day, some romances refused the adulterous love pattern: at Marie's own court, Chretien de Troyes would not use it in "Yvain" or "The Story of the Grail" (Parry, 14-15). In GGK this rejection reappears, used firstly to elevate Gawain's courtesy as he declines the married seductress, and then to underline the shame of his surrender to the girdle's temptation. In Heart, it aligns with the central project of modern romance: though the sex may be sizzling, and can occur outside marriage, the real aim is a lasting heterosexual relationship; and that relationship is usually cemented by marriage. Indeed, given the stratagems that romance writers employ to ensure their heroines marry, one might say that the ideological project of modern romance is to promote marriage rather than love. So in Heart, for all their mutual heavy breathing, Melanthe and Ruck only go to bed after they have exchanged binding marriage vows (Kinsale 219). And in Heart, as in a number of other romances, for example by the best-selling Jennifer Crusie, sex is the middle but not the end of the narrative arc. The true end comes when Ruck and Melanthe are securely and legitimately as well as happily married.

Again unlike GGK, however, reaching this end produces another form of equality. Though Ruck can defend Melanthe in arms, and he has the devotion to "die" by a handy death-faking poison she administers to anticipate his assassination, Melanthe has to stave off attempts on her own life. And it is Melanthe who must sort the very real political problems for a literal medieval princess who wants to marry, not merely far beneath her, but without the consent of her liege lord, in this case the king himself (221-22).

Both texts do involve a tenuous but functional sense of "Britishness." In GGK the northern dialect and the emphasis on Welsh and Cheshire locales have led to reading the text not merely as a provincial intervention in court culture, but, with the Green Knight's mixture of savagery and elegance, to the hypothesis that GGK is a "border" text, competing with the centre to assert its shifting Welsh-English hybridity (Knight).

In Heart Heart , Britishness is both local and national. Like the nobility of the time, Melanthe and Ruck switch easily from French to English. But English born, Italian married Melanthe comes to enjoy speaking English (192), even the uncouth Northern variety, and it becomes a way for her to approach Ruck. At the same time, "Englishness" works as a moral marker. In Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising sequence, the supernatural villain is very early described as a stranger, having an accent "not of the South-East" (Cooper 33). In Heart the villain is the Italian noble Gian de Navona, who will kill anyone, down to her infant daughter, that Melanthe might love (Kinsale 401). He has even made an assassin of his sixteen-year-old bastard son. Navona's reliance on poison and assassins, his sinister courtesy and his pathological jealousy, then contrast with Ruck's "rough and runisch" (108) but straightforward English battle-skills. And Navona himself becomes the pattern of the stereotypic non-English villain, back to the days of Mrs. Radcliffe's 1796 Gothic bestseller, The Italian.

Heart then uses the Matter of Britain like GGK itself, shifting the past and its "storie stif and stronge" (GGK Fitt 1, l.34) to suit its own project. GGK sidelines Arthur and remodels the beheading game to emphasise Gawain's flawed humanity but faultless courtesy. Heart loses the beheading and exchange of winnings games, but keeps GGK's regional and/or national inflections, and three of its central aspects: the 13th century detail, the resistant use of courtly love tenets, and the emphasis on courtesy. But Arthur becomes the doting and slightly senile Edward II, Gawain and the Green Knight combine, and his role is shared by the woman who is both quester and object of his quest. Further, his courtesy falls before the power of female sexuality, and most importantly, before that of an idealized, one might say fantasized heterosexual love. "quenys I might have inow," says Arthur in Malory's culminating medieval romance, "but such a felyship of good knyghtes shall never be togyders in no company" (XX,ii, 31 2). This inelegant underbelly to the supposed chivalric attitude to women reappears in the closure of GGK. Even in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale," though Palamon wins Emily, it is at the cost of his cousin Arcite's life, and the story is more of a tragedy than a happily ended romance. As De Roo notes about GGK, Chaucer's tale is "male literature, where our interest lies in the male figure and his experience" (247). Things in Heart go very differently, and one may say, more equitably. Clearly, however, the Matter of Britain itself remains capable of new and flexible re-visions, as in this most recent but hardly the last of the Green Knight's progeny.

Acknowledgement

With thanks to Natasha Giardina, who first alerted me to the alignment of British/non-British with other fantasy oppositions of good and evil in Cooper's Dark is Rising sequence.

Works Cited:



Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Knight's Tale." Canterbury Tales. Ed. A.C. Cawley. London: Dent, 1970. 38-82.

Cooper, Susan, The Dark is Rising. 1973. Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1982.

De Roo, Harvey. "What's In a Name? Power Dynamics in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." The Chaucer Review, 31.3: 1997. 232-55.

Delany, Samuel R., Flight From Neveryon. 1985. London: Grafton, 1989.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. The New Critical Idiom Series. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London: Methuen, 1981.

Kinsale, Laura. For My Lady's Heart. New York: Berkley, 1993.

Knight, Rhonda. "All Dressed Up with Someplace to Go: Regional Identity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Studies in the Age of Chaucer. 25: 2003. 259-84.

Malory, Thomas. Le Morte D'Arthur. (Works of Sir Thomas Malory.) 1954. Ed. Eugene Vinaver. 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.

Parry, John Jay. "Introduction." The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1959. 3-24.

Thurston, Carol. The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy-stories." 1939. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. 1983. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1993. 109-61.

Tolkien, J.RR. and E.V. Gordon, eds. 1925. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 2nd edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Walker, Greg. "The Green Knight's Challenge: Heroism and Courtliness in Fitt 1 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." The Chaucer Review, 32.2: 1997. 111-28.