Bertilak Reads Brut:History and the Complications of Sexuality in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 17 (2000)
Gawain’s travels in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight suggest a world in which home–i.e., Camelot–is “normal,” while away–the opposing castle of Hautdesert where Gawain perforce spends his Christmas vacation–is “other,” characterized by unfamiliarity, dislocation, perversity. And in fact the atmosphere at Hautdesert appears somewhat peculiar, with various challenges to “normal” sexual identity, and with permutations of physical intimacy, or at least the suggestion of such intimacy, that are, to say the least, surprising. The typical journey of medieval romance juxtaposes a “real” world where things and people behave according to expectation with a “magical” world in which the usual rules are suspended. According to this paradigm, we might expect that this poem would place Hautdesert outside the bounds of tradition, separated by its difference from the expectations that govern Camelot and the remainder of the Arthurian world.
However, Gawain’s journey away from Camelot and back is framed by references, in the first and last stanzas, to the journeys into exile of Aeneas and of Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain, that complicate this apparent opposition. As this paper will argue, this framework complicates the poem’s presentation of gender and sexuality. Rather than a clear opposition between, say, marital sexuality and everything else, we find a situation in which potentially adulterous acts and kisses among men are vested with varied–and shifting–values. The poem uses references to the (imagined) British past to complicate any simple reading of the tale it tells in terms of sexual morality or transgression.