A Critical Analysis of the Arthurian Tale Sir Gawain and The Green Knight in the context of Literary Theory

This story is in the tradition of Arthurian stories about the Legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. This is a alliterative poem belonging to the romantic genre of Arthurian legends.

The author is anonymous and is simply referred to as the Gawain poet or the Pearl poet and is dated Ca. 1340-1400 from West Midlands in England, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells a tale of how Sir Gawain, a member of the esteemed Knights of the Round Table in King Arthur’s court at Camelot, accepted a challenge from a mysterious stranger, referred to as the Green Knight, who suddenly barges in on a merry feast in King Arthur’s Court.

The story contains points, both in a Feminist and in a Marxist reading, that exhibit both positive and negative symbolisms, thus, inevitably furthering the contention that this is also very Deconstructivist; which is another literary theory and reading of the story. Certain symbolisms, themes and tones in the story show this is so, by being capable of having both pro and anti- Feminist and Marxist elements, which would be discussed in a more detailed manner in the following pages.

FEMINISIT READING

“Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority.” (Wollstonecraft, 1759)

Much can be gleaned when giving this piece a feminist reading. To start with, this belonging to the classic Medieval Age Romance and it being one of the Arthurian Legend makes it a very easy target for being tagged as anti Feminist.

The very concept of the Medieval Age, and the mere mention of Arthurian Legends is in itself enough subject of anti Feminist repartee’s. The very fact alone that this era is characterized by patriarchal dominance and machismo is a strong enough qualification to label this outright as an anti Feminist story, without even going to the analysis of the story. The most obvious of all is the general tone and obvious patriarchal system of the story.

There is a King who is high and mighty, and he rules over his subjects. The most loyal, admired and feared heroes are the Knights of the Round Table, whom, are all men. The Queen Guinevere is described as if she was a wall flower in all these brave bold display of masculine superiority, and is even deemed to be quiet, and not to say anything. In some translations of the story she is even said to sit beside Gawain, and not beside his supposed husband.

The mention in the text that she presides over the festivities is merely titular, if at all, a token too trifle. With such a patriarchal system, it follows that the story also shows phallocentrism. If Camelot, the supposed Utopia is all patriarchal, what more could be expected of in the ‘real’ world?

When Sir Gawain left on his quest to fulfill his vow to the Green Knight, he came upon a castle, where the lord of the castle, Bertilak of Hautdesert told him to give to him whatever he gets in exchange for the game he hunted. While the lord is away, the lady of the castle is left idling away on the castle, and falls to seducing the visitor. This brings to mind another archetypal typecasting or stereotyping of women; the Sinner/Saint stereotypes.

In this story, Guinevere is the pure maiden; the saintly woman of virtue, while the Lady Bertilak is typecast as the sinner/slut/whore impure woman. There is an imposition of impossible virtues to the women as patently due to a macho image and in contrast to how a man should be chivalrous and upright.

The seduction of the Lady Bertilak as opposed to the chastity of Queen Guinevere is clearly a male imposed virtue and rule of morals to how women should act. They should silently preside over ceremonies, as Guinevere does, or should patiently wait for his husband to come home, as the Lady Bertilak should have done.

 

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