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The Lady’s Man: Gawain as Lover in Middle English Literature

The Lady’s Man: Gawain as Lover in Middle English Literature

By Cory J. Rushton

The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain, edited by Amanda Hopkins (Boydell and Brewer, 2012)

Sir Gawain, by Howard Pyle from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903)
Sir Gawain, by Howard Pyle from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903)

Introduction: Eroticism and the heroic go hand in hand for today’s audiences: the male hero is often only as good as his ability to bed attractive women, a trait that allows the male reader or viewer to identify with the hero’s serial love affairs. An integral part of the James Bond myth is that Bond can have any woman he wants, despite (or perhaps because of) his misogynistic attitudes:

With most women his manner was a mixture of taciturnity and passion. The lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement. He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each affair. The conventional parabola – sentiment, the touch of the hand, the kiss, the passionate kiss, the feel of the body, the climax in the bed, then more bed, then less bed, then the boredom, the tears and the final bitterness – was to him shameful and hypocritical. Even more he shunned the mise en scène for each of these acts in the play – the meeting at a party, the restaurant, the taxi, his flat, her flat, the week-end by the sea, then the flats again, then the furtive alibis and the final angry farewell on some doorstep in the rain.

Bond often sleeps with women who are his enemies as well as allies; either way, his lovers often end up dead, leaving him free to pursue further sexual encounters. Byron’s Don Juan and the historical Casanova are renowned for little else beyond their romantic escapades, becoming heroes of the boudoir rather than the battlefield. The trend has been brought to its logical conclusion in George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman, a coward whose only real skills lie in the bedroom:

Let me say that while there have been hundreds of women in my life, I have never been one of those who are forever boasting about their conquests. I’ve raked and ridden harder than most, no doubt… That’s by the way; unless you are the kind who falls in love—which I’ve never been—you take your tumbles when you’ve the chance, and the more the better.

The presence of male wish-fulfilment is readily apparent in these love-them-and-leave-them characters; do the English Middle Ages have an equivalent figure, a character whose serial adventures involve sex and violence in equal measure?

Click here to read this article from the University of Warwick

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