Malice and Masculinity: The Dark Underbelly of the Culture at King Arthur’s Court in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
King Arthur’s court has long been lauded as a symbol of chivalry, equality, and great heroics, and yet there is a darkness that curls around its edges. While Camelot in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appears to be a glittering centre for medieval chivalric culture, it is in actuality a festering nest of unhealthy masculine standards and reckless behaviours. The appearance of the green knight is the catalyst for this revelation, as his dare to the knights reveals the underlying problems inherent in the culture surrounding King Arthur’s court. The picture of extraordinary masculine victory that King Arthur and his knights project is the very magnet that drew such a dangerous entity as the green knight in the first place, and, furthermore, it is this culture of chivalry and challenge-seeking that forces the young and vulnerable knight, Gawain, to accept the green knight’s outrageous proposal. Camelot is not some shining beacon of knightly behaviour but is rather a breeding ground for unrealistic notions of masculinity and duty with certifiably dangerous repercussions, a disturbing trend not only present in Arthurian works but throughout the medieval literary genre.
The first descriptions of Arthur’s court presented in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seem positive:
There [Camelot] knights fought in tournament again and again
Jousting most gallantly, these valiant men,
Then rode to the court for dancing and song.
There the festival lasted the whole fifteen days
With all the feasting and merry-making that could be devised:
Such sounds of revelry splendid to hear,
Days full of uproar, dancing at night.
Everywhere joy resounded in chambers and halls
Among lords and ladies, whatever pleased them most
With all of life’s best they spent that time together,
The most famous warriors in Christendom,
And the loveliest ladies who ever drew breath,
And the finest king who rules the court.
This is the first encounter we have with Camelot, and it comes across as a place of fantastic revelry and chivalric honour. There is a focus on the knights who serve there and their prowess in things like jousting and tournaments. Not only does the description focus on their physical abilities but it also places great emphasis on their knightly characteristics; they are “gallant” and “valiant”. Camelot has become the centre of the medieval chivalric world, the place where the “most famous warriors in Christendom” gather, a hub of activity and culture, and, in fact, “[h]ard it would be/Bolder men to find” (58-59). It is clear that Camelot has a tradition of housing extraordinary men who do extraordinary things; its standard is extremely high.
Not only is Camelot described in such positive terms, but so too is its leader, King Arthur:
He was so lively in his youth, and a little boyish.
He hankered after an active life, and cared very little,
To spend time either lying or sitting,
His young blood and restless mind stirred him so much.
King Arthur is presented as a young, indomitable king, one keen for action and never still. He is the very embodiment of knightly masculinity, he has no fear in him, nor is he lazy, but rather hungers for adventure, which comes across even more strongly in the next passage:
And another habit influenced him too,
Which he had made a point of honor: he would never eat
On such a special day until he had been told
A curious tale about some perilous thing,
Of some great wonder that he could believe,
Of princes, battles, or other marvels;
Or some knight begged him for a trustworthy foe
To oppose him in jousting, in hazard to set
His lie against his opponent’s, each letting the other,
As luck would assist him, gain the upper hand.
That was the king’s custom when he was in court…
Therefore with proud face
He stands tall, masterful,
Valiant in New Year,
Joking with them all.
King Arthur appears to be the perfect leader of men. He is a “tall, masterful” king, “valiant” like his knights, never shying away from adventure or quest.
Interestingly, not only does King Arthur display these heroic characteristics but he also demonstrates perfect hospitality and manners. For example, when the gigantic green knight bursts into the hall uninvited, the king welcomes him and treats him with the utmost respect, despite the fact that he has come to stir up trouble among them. This chivalric hospitality is clear when
…Arthur confronts that wonder before the high table
And saluted him politely, for afraid was he never,
And said, Sir, welcome indeed to this place;
I am master of this house, my name is Arthur.
Be pleased to dismount and spend some time here, I beg,
And what you have come for we shall learn later.
Arthur, despite the violence with which the green knight “bursts” (136) into the hall, and despite his ferocious, supernatural appearance, is quick to offer the green knight a place at the table, indicating a supreme sense of royal cordiality and fearlessness.
These things, the gallant bravery and skill of the knights and Camelot and their king, as well as they perfectly polite atmosphere created there, would seem to be all positive; the narrator certainly paints it so. Camelot seems to be the perfect symbol of knightly revelry, chivalry, and action. There is, however, a dark side to this environment; it is the over the top nature of the men at King Arthur’s court that drew the malicious eye of the green knight in the first place, which becomes clear as he states his reasons for arriving at the court:
To spend time in this house was not the cause of my coming
But because your name, sir, is so highly regarded,
And your city and your warriors reputed the best,
Dauntless in armor and on horseback afield
The most valiant and excellent of all living men,
Courageous as players in other noble sports,
And here courtesy is displayed, as I have heard tell,
And that has brought me here, truly, on this day.
It is this reputation for dauntless chivalry that attracted the green knight to the court, and is eventually what puts young Sir Gawain in harm’s way. This reputation also becomes a bargaining chip for the green knight as he plays on the pride of the court to get them to engage with his games:
When no one would answer [his quest] he cried aloud
Drew himself up grandly and started to speak.
“What, is this Arthur’s house?” said the man then,
“That everyone talks of in so many kingdoms?
Where are now your arrogance and your victories,
Your fierceness and wrath and your great speeches?
Now the revelry and repute of the Round Table
Are overthrown with a word from one man’s mouth
For all you cower in fear before a blow has been struck!”
The green knight here is able to use the extraordinary reputation of the court for his own means; the pride the knights and the king have put them at a disadvantage, as it allows them to become embarrassed enough to engage with the green knight’s dangerous request.
Not only have the extreme values of the court drawn the attention of the green knight and become a tool for embarrassing the knights into participating, but these examples of perfect knightly behaviour and bravery are unrealistic, and set up a dangerous, almost impossible standard of masculinity. There is no backing down from any challenge, no matter how pointless or dangerous. The green knight’s proposal is a perfect example of this; he asks someone there to cut off his head, and then, by next Christmas, allow the green knight to reciprocate and cut the knight’s head off in turn. This is obviously a bizarre and dangerous game he has set up, and even Arthur acknowledges that the idea is “absurd” (323), and yet he goes on to say that
“No man known to me fears your boastful words;
Hand over your battle-axe, in God’s name
And I shall grant the wish you have requested.”
Arthur at once recognizes how pointless and strange this exercise is, and yet he will not refuse to do it, despite the accompanying dangers. The reputation of extraordinary masculine chivalry that surrounds Camelot has become poisonous, forcing the knights to engage in more and more reckless behaviour.
It is not only the leader of Camelot, Arthur, who is affected by this construction of masculinity and sense of pride; his young nephew, Gawain, is so stirred by these examples that he offers himself in his uncle’s place:
I beg you in plain words
To let this task be mine….
For it seems to me unfitting, if the truth be admitted
When so arrogant a request is put forward in hall,
Even if your are desirous, to undertake it yourself
While so many brave men sit about you in their places
Who, I think, are unrivalled in temper of mind,
And without equal as warriors on field of battle.
Gawain, in imitation of the gallant standard set before him, has felt it necessary to offer himself almost as a sacrifice to the green knight in order to protect his uncle. This stems from two things: a desire to live up to the heroic standard of the court, as well as a sense of blood-duty to protect his uncle, even though he recognizes the fact that he is “the weakest of them… and the dullest minded” (354). Instead of allowing one of the stronger, more experienced knights to grapple with the invader, the culture of the court has so warped Gawain’s judgment that he feels the need to volunteer himself for this foolhardy task. Gawain, as one of the youngest and weakest of the court, should not feel pressured to jump at a task for which he is perhaps not ready, and yet he believes it is his duty do to so. Even Arthur agrees with Gawain’s decision as he “cheerfuly bids/That [Gawain] bring a strong heart and a firm hand to the task” (370-371). Arthur does not appear at all concerned for his young nephew’s safety, but rather falls prey to the sense of bravado that pervades the court and joins in with the general enthusiasm at Gawain’s participation.
When it becomes clear that the green knight has some sort of unearthly power about him, when cutting off his head does not kill him, it should have become obvious the danger that young Gawain was now in, however, “although inwardly Arthur was deeply astonished,/ He let no sign of this appear” (468-469). Neither Arthur nor Gawain acknowledges how foolish it has been to engage with such an entity as the green knight, and they continue on with their revelry in an absurd state of denial. It is only much later, as the year once again draws towards its end, that “into Gawain’s mind/ Come thoughts of his grim quest” and the consequences of what he has done become all too real, so that “[m]uch sorrowing was heard in the hall” (558). There is no way for Gawain to extricate himself from his almost suicidal mission, the values of the court forbid him from doing so, and so he must, despite his own misgivings, travel forward in search of almost certain death.
Whether it be Beowulf deciding to take on the murderous dragon alone, or young Gawain volunteering himself in his uncle’s place to face off against the green knight, much of medieval literary culture is dominated by a dangerous standard of masculine performance. Camelot is a perfect example of the malignant aspects of this kind of environment. King Arthur’s court seems to be the epitome of chivalric perfection, a lively hub of bravery and revelry where the greatest men in the world connect. It is a shining image of medieval honour and duty, and yet it has its shadows. Camelot has in many ways become the centre of a dangerous set of ideals, as it and its occupants manufacture and perpetuate an almost impossible standard of masculinity. It is this standard that fuels the actions and reputation of the court, which in turn brings the green knight down upon them, and ultimately forces the young and inexperienced Gawain to take on a monumentally treacherous task. Camelot is not the symbol of all things wonderfully warrior-esque, but is rather a warning against the dangers of this type of knightly behaviour and masculinity, a court sickened with its own sense of chivalric bravado.