The Red Pill in the Green Knight: The Games Outside the Identity Matrix
Updated: Mar 14
By Carys Richards, Polyphony Volume 3, Issue 3. First published 28th July 2021.
In her seminal 1994 article on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Carolyn Dinshaw claims that the poem ‘produces the possibility of homosexual relations only to [...] establish heterosexuality as not just the only sexual legitimacy but a principle of intelligibility itself.’ (1) This essay aims to argue against Dinshaw’s claim by critically assessing the theme of games and asserting that, within these games or play element, the poet finds a way to tacitly sub-
vert the enforced ‘cultural matrix constituting heterosexual identity’ (Dinshaw, p. 208) as the poem veers between the playful and the sincere. As Martin Stevens emphasises, ‘everything from the duel, to storytelling, love making, deer and fox hunting, polite conversation, even the pentangle, is at one time or other called “game”’. (2) It is in this personal, playful sphere of games that we can see the matrix of stringent sexual and gender identity begin to collapse.
The poem opens with the majestic Green Knight proposing a beheading game, in which he himself and a knight at Arthur’s court attempts to survive decapitation. This puts Gawain at an immediate disadvantage — he is human and unlikely to succeed. If one is to read beheading as a Freudian symbol of castration, one can conclude that the underlying drive of the entire poem is Gawain’s inevitable emasculation. Simply by being in the presence of this ‘most massive man, the mightiest of mortals’, (3) Gawain’s masculinity is greatly undermined — the poet dedicates the majority of the seventh stanza to the ‘bulk’ (l.143) of the Green Knight’s figure; nine stanzas later, Gawain admits to being ‘the weakest of [Arthur’s] warriors and feeblest of wit’ (l.354). In drawing the two characters together through the beheading game, emasculation is secured as a major theme of the poem. This is not the only occasion in which the Green Knight, who is eventually revealed as Bertilak de Hautdesert himself, acts
as a masculine antithesis to Gawain, as seen in the third fitt, where the game of the hunt parallels the game of seduction. As the lord of Hautdesert ventures out of the castle to hunt, Gawain remains within the privacy of his quarters and is metaphorically hunted by the lady, thus, feminised by this inversion of courtly gender roles. He here takes on the role of the paramour, wooed by the lady whose dialogue is fuelled by surprising agency and sexual innuendo. As Dinshaw emphasises, ‘her gaze fixes him, she names him, she offers herself as his servant (just the night before... he offered himself as their “seruaunt”)’ (Dinshaw, p. 212). As implied by the wheel of the stanza where the first kiss occurs, Gawain is content to be in
this passive, courted position: ‘No man felt more at home... Their gladness grew and grew’ (ll.1315-1318). Tony Davenport elucidates that the knight faces most of his challenges in this passive position — either in bed or kneeling in wait of decapitation. (4) This reversal of
courtly roles is not only atypical of the medieval romance genre and of courtly behaviours of the time but of the character Gawain himself — while Gawain is passive in the face of a beauty’ (l.952) in this poem, in other legends he is a lascivious knight. Within the context of the seduction game, Sir Gawain’s Pearl Poet alters Gawain’s usual libidinous behaviours and thus subverts the idea that this dominant sexuality is inherent within the masculine gender and absent within the feminine. The poet allows Gawain to be submissive rather than licentious, as is expected (and perhaps enforced) by the masculine reputation that precedes him. It is within this private sphere of the game that the characters can escape this unspoken matrix of gendered expectation.
Dinshaw describes these scenes between Gawain and the lady as a ‘sexuality-troubling seduction’ (Dinshaw, p. 213), however, as the poem weaves through the games at Bertilak’s castle, we find that this is no longer the only ‘sexuality-troubling’ affair. It is possible that the games of beheading and exchange of winnings were engineered by the duplicitous Bertilak all along to bring himself closer to Gawain — his devilish green demeanour acting as a clue from the medieval poet of his tricking, Machiavellian ways. As Dinshaw posits, ‘we could imagine that Bertilak had more agency in this whole plot than he finally admits to Gawain — that his sending his wife in to Gawain was a way of bonding himself, via the woman, to the man’ (Dinshaw, p. 215). When the narrative structure is examined through this lens, it becomes distinctly apparent that it is Bertilak, transformed into the Green Knight, who lures Gawain to his castle via the beheading game, then, as himself, proposes the exchange of winnings. While Bertilak has colluded with his wife behind the scenes for her to seduce Gawain, he must also know that by the logic of the game he himself has proposed, he too would have to have sex with Gawain. Despite Dinshaw labelling this possibility ‘unthinkable’ (Ibid) — as in, impossible — the prominence of Bertilak’s unspoken awareness of the terms of the games suggests that it is entirely possible that the poet has deliberately avoided addressing this as it proposes radical questioning of the unspoken cultural matrix of heterosexual relations. If addressed, the narrative of the poem and the heteronormative structure of society within it would begin to fall apart. The Pearl Poet uses the frame of games to escape from this matrix and comes dangerously close to legitimising these homosexual interactions; but what happens within the game remains just that — a game.
In a paradoxical manner, the Pearl Poet, according to Dinshaw, renders homosexuality unintelligible in Sir Gawain, but acknowledges the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the poem ‘Cleanness’. This parable is often interpreted as a didactic condemnation of homosexuality. Thus, in acknowledging and condemning homosexual relations, the poet has contradictorily made them more intelligible. The flawed argument in favour of heterosexuality in ‘Cleanness’ claims that pleasure is proper in sex, however, in its
description of heterosexual relations, there is an ‘omission of procreation’ (Dinshaw, p. 217). Thus, the commonly acknowledged defining moral difference between homosexual and heterosexual intercourse is omitted. The subtle irony of praising sexual pleasure in but not procreation in ‘Cleanness’ amplifies the radical questioning of the heteronormative structure in Sir Gawain. Can a reader not deduce that there is pleasure in the kisses the lord of Hautdesert receives from Gawain when he is described to be ‘grateful’ (l.1392) for them? While this kiss occurs in an appropriate, homosocial context, Gawain is undeniably returning an erotically charged kiss from the earlier scene. It is under the guise of the game and the matrix of normative heterosexuality that this irrefutably homosexual kiss escapes condemnation. The poet creates these exceptions to the rule of heterosexuality as part of the fundamental structure of the poem in a manner that allows them to occur without consequence.
‘Cleanness’ ‘objects to homosexual intercourse... because it requires a man to act like a woman’ (Dinshaw, p. 219), when our hero Gawain acts as such in three of the major games of the poem: he is the paramour when the lady is the suitor (or suitress) in the seduction game; he kisses a man in a manner that, according to the dicta of the time, a woman should, in the exchange of winnings game; and he spends the majority of the poem preparing for his symbolic emasculation in the beheading game. This essay argues that the poet has subverted their own supposed strictures on gender expectations and sexuality through the concept of games in a manner that proves this matrix not to be, in fact, inherent. As Martin Stevens emphasises, within the poem, ‘game and earnest are inextricably entwined’ (Stevens, p. 68). He reminds us that games serve as a surrogate for our desires and needs in real life, for example, ‘sport as play... becomes a surrogate for physical combat’ (Stevens, p. 66). By this logic, the games in Sir Gawain reflect the characters’ earnest desires and provide grounds upon which they can escape the stringent enforced, but not inherent, matrix of heterosexual identity.
By setting the majority of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight around the theme of games, the Pearl Poet creates a playful space in which characters are free from the confines of the so-called identity matrix. Within this sphere of the ludic, the poem deviates from enforced structures and subverts medieval expectations, tacitly proving that these gendered ideals are not, in fact, inherent.
1- Carolyn Dinshaw, ‘A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Diacritics, 24, (1994), 205-226 (p. 206).
2- Martin Stevens, ‘Laughter and Game in Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight’, Speculum, 47, (1972), 65-78 (p. 67).
3- Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Revised Edition (London: Faber & Faber, 2018), l.141. Further references to this text will be made in parenthesis following quotations.
4- Tony Davenport, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, in A Companion to Medieval Poetry
, ed. by Corinne Saunders (Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell, 2010), pp. 385-400 (p. 390).