CREATIVE PROJECT BY JODY LIM (’25)
Female Companionship, Reciprocity, and Relation with Nature: Two Scenes
An Interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)
Behind the boisterous crowd, a beech table was set.
Likewise, the Lady and Morgan Le Fay lingered despite
a more meagre meal mapped between them.
Despite her divine beauty, the Lady’s eyes darted around in distress.
Noticing her nervousness, Morgan needed to say:
“What matter troubles you, my most beloved?”
Slowly, the lady shifted towards her, her face solemn.
Always gracious, she sighed, “Great Goddess, how do I charm
the gallant knight Gawain? My Green Lord commands it.
If he is as heralded as hearsay, how
can I captivate the most chivalrous knight of Arthur’s court?”
The Dame disagreed and disrupted her despairing:
“Have you forgotten already, how I came to your home?
I wandered the woods for years, every waking moment I wanted vengeance.
By God, I desired Guinevere gone.
Recall, how I was received at the rickety Green Chapel,
you cleaned and cared for this old crone.
Your husband hoped I would reside in his house,
and I stayed, but scarcely for someone like him.
I yearned for your grace and your affection.
Do not worry, Gawain cannot withstand your wiles.
Afterall, you have entranced the most eminent enchantress.”
The Lady blushed bashfully, but rebuffed her praise:
“Many thanks, Morgan. But the knight must break his wager.
What gift will Gawain refuse to give back?”
The witch grinned and plucked a green grape from its plate.
She said: “Do you still remember
the green girdle you gifted the Lord?”
The Lord slipped into his Lady’s lavish room.
The Lady was on the bed, swathed in silk, shimmering in the candlelight.
What a rare moment that they were alone, without her attending ladies.
She shifted the silky duvet for him to sit beside her.
Her Lord took a seat and touched her hand, “Dear Lady, do tell,
how far has the fabled knight fallen for you?”
She smiled slightly at her husband and said:
“Do not deny this, your eyes were on us throughout dinner. Despite
always acting affable, were you not thrilled by our silent affections?”
The Lord laughed and landed two
kisses on her. The Lady knew they were from the knight,
he remained too courteous and chivalric; she must be more cunning.
Deep in thought, the Lord despaired: “This deferential,
virtuous knight is venomous. I have become vulnerable to
bouts of fondness. As I battled the boar, my brutality
was encouraged by the easy charm he exudes.
In exchange for a kiss, I would invade the darkest lairs,
slaughter the stealthiest beasts.” The shrewd Lady had suspected
her husband held the knight close to his
heart. In her chest, a hidden affection had also
bloomed for that beautiful lord. Bunching up
his tunic, she grasped the green girdle and
the Lord leaned forward. On his lips, she laid three
kisses and whispered: “I’ll pass these to the kindly knight.”
The green silk sash slipped off his waist.
I reimagined Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by writing two scenes that I imagine could have happened within the story. The first scene was an interaction between Morgan Le Fay and Lady Bertilak sometime before meeting Gawain. The Lady expresses uncertainty about her ability to charm Gawain, according to her husband’s instructions. Morgan reassures her, pointing out how she was charmed by the Lady as well. When the Lady is still anxious, Morgan suggests the gift of the green girdle as something Gawain cannot decline. The second scene details an interaction between the Lord and Lady between the second and third night that Gawain resides in their castle. They discuss their progress in the wager, and revealed their growing admiration towards Gawain. In explaining my reimaging, I will also explore my interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I used two secondary readings which extended my perspective on aspects of the text relating to gender and sexuality– Geraldine Heng’s Feminine Knots and the Other and Carolyn Dinshaw’s A Kiss Is Just a Kiss.
Regarding my first scene, I was inspired by a key tension of the romance, which was the fact that the entire story is motivated by Morgan Le Fay’s grudge towards Guinevere. Morgan is a peripheral figure who is uncovered as the central driving force behind the tale, while barely making an appearance throughout the narrative. Morgan’s motivation is rather confusing: “She imagines this mischief would muddle your minds / and that grieving Guinevere would go to her grave / at the sight of a spectre making ghostly speeches / with his head in his hands before the high tables.”1 Her method of scaring Guinevere through sending Gawain to meet his death seems roundabout. Additionally, Morgan’s grudge against Guinevere is never expanded upon despite being an integral plot point.
This led me to explore the dimensions of female companionship and sexuality within the romance, through the characters of Morgan, the Lady, and Guinevere. I was first inspired when Prof Dalton suggested I write a scene of female companionship between Lady Bertilak and Morgan. Furthermore, a quote by Heng cemented my approach to this scene: “Guenevere is also inextricably bound to Morgan by the push and direction of the desire in Morgan’s game, which claims Guenvere for its subject”.2 The ambiguity of the past relationship between Guinevere and Morgan left me very curious. Furthermore, the text draws a parallel between Guinevere and the Lady in their initial appearances, which entail descriptions of their beauty and their seating positions.3 For me, a natural parallel was created between the Morgan-Guinevere and Morgan-Lady relationships, which formed the base for this scene. Thus, I reimagined the relationship between the Lady and Morgan as a romantic one. Morgan also played a mentoring role due to her experience and age, which was reflected in how she suggested the green girdle as a gift. I wanted to apportion more agency to the Lady, showing her as a more active conspirator with Morgan in the wager, rather than wholly being controlled by her husband. Overall, I intended to illustrate the women’s roles and agency that stemmed from their companionship.
For the second scene, I unpacked the natural evolution of the wager and the concept of reciprocity, through exploring how Lord and Lady Bertilak discuss it. In the original, the obligation of reciprocity ties Gawain and the Green Knight together. Likewise, I wanted to extend this dynamic to play out within Lord and Lady Bertilak’s marriage. While unsaid, the kisses travel through Gawain, the Lord, and the Lady, and are both reproduced and reinterpreted by the parties. While the kisses between husband and wife are a display of love towards each other, they also convey a silent update on the wager’s progress and a mutual understanding of their attraction to Gawain. I wonder whether their personal moral code of ‘reciprocity’ liberated them from the constraints of Christian heteronormativity of the time. The ambiguity of the Gawain-Bertilak kisses have been long debated by scholars. Dinshaw, for example, writes: “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.”4 Consequently, I was excited to play with the queerness in the narrative that evolved from the theme of reciprocity.
Peripheral to the complicated relationships and feelings of the characters, I wanted to exhibit the proximity to nature that characterised the alternative court of Lord Bertilak. The relationship between interiority and exteriority is introduced in the setting of the first scene, where Morgan and the Lady eat away from the men, who are noisily revelling after a hunt. The women are confined from anyone who has contact with the outside, in line with courtly norms. However, Morgan retells her experience of living in the woods after leaving the Arthurian court, which suddenly pulls the wilderness into startlingly close proximity to the deepest interior of the castle. Furthermore, she mentions that the castle started as the “rickety Green Chapel”, which was overgrown with plants and overtaken by nature. I intended the alternative court to be more permeable to nature than the strict boundaries that were at first drawn in the Arthurian court.
Similarly, Lord Bertilak’s dialogue links humans and animals. “This deferential, / virtuous knight is venomous. I have become vulnerable to / bouts of fondness.” Lord Bertilak likens himself to the prey of the venomous Gawain, which is at odds with his constant portrayal as the hunter. His position as prey inverts his relation to Gawain, whom he intended to kill. Thus, I attempted to convey a tension in Lord Bertilak’s court – a constant domination of nature through his hunting, coexisting with nature in the Green Chapel.
My next line speculates on Bertilak’s performance of courtly etiquette through the savagery of his hunts: “As I battled the boar, my brutality / was encouraged by the easy charm he exudes. / In exchange for a kiss, I would invade the darkest lairs, / slaughter the stealthiest beasts.” Bertilak exemplifies an extreme domination of nature and performs courtly masculinity in order to impress Gawain. This line was inspired by the original text: on the second night, Bertilak “shows off the meat slabs and shares the story / of the hog’s hulking hugeness, and the full horror / of the fight to the finish as it fled through the forest. / And Gawain is quick to compliment the conquest, / praising it as proof of the lord’s prowess”.5 Bertilak’s hunt and “conquest” of the animal is a performance of his power and masculinity, which Gawain picks up on immediately, praising him. Within these complicated displays of courtly chivalry, I aimed to explore the feelings that go unsaid in the original text. How much of this exchange is a performance? Does Bertilak genuinely yearn for Gawain’s affirmations? In the background, nature is continually subjugated and bears the brunt of frivolous human rituals. Bertilak “invades” animal habitats and “slaughter(s)” animals. He recounted the “full horror of the fight”, showing an overall irreverence for the wildlife that provided him with the opportunity to show off his hunting performance in the first place.6
Stylistically, I used the aaaa/c alliteration scheme of the original romance. It was such a fun challenge to pick the words that would alliterate, while roughly maintaining my intended meaning. The benefit of this writing style was that I would stumble across words that fit my intention better than my original picks. For example, using the word “venomous” to alliterate with “virtuous” allowed me to bring in elements of nature into the text. It also let me retain the tone of the text, through mixing the alliteration scheme with my more dialogue-heavy writing style.
1 Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007), 185.
2 Geraldine Heng, “Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” PMLA 106, no. 3 (1991): 502, https://doi.org/10.2307/462782.
3 Heng, “Feminine Knots,” 502.
4 Carolyn Dinshaw, “A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Diacritics 24, no. 2/3 (1994): 215, https://doi.org/10.2307/465173.
5 Armitage, Sir Gawain, 129.
6 Armitage, Sir Gawain, 129.
Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007. ISBN: 9780393334159
Dinshaw, Carolyn. “A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Diacritics 24, no. 2/3 (1994): 205–26. https://doi.org/10.2307/465173.
Heng, Geraldine. “Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” PMLA 106, no. 3 (1991): 500–514. https://doi.org/10.2307/462782.
[Featured Image] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Bertilak#/media/File:Lady_tempt_Gawain.jpg