Gawain as medieval romance
Many critics argue that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight should be viewed, above all, as a romance. Medieval romances typically recount the marvellous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who abides by chivalry's strict codes of honour and demeanour, embarks upon a quest and defeats monsters, thereby winning the favour of a lady. Thus, medieval romances focus not on love and sentiment (as the term "romance" implies today), but on adventure.
Gawain's function, as medieval scholar Alan Markman says, "is the function of the romance hero … to stand as the champion of the human race, and by submitting to strange and severe tests, to demonstrate human capabilities for good or bad action." Through Gawain's adventure, it becomes clear that he is merely human. The reader becomes attached to this human view in the midst of the poem's romanticism, relating to Gawain's humanity while respecting his knightly qualities. Gawain "shows us what moral conduct is. We shall probably not equal his behaviour, but we admire him for pointing out the way."
In viewing the poem as a chivalric romance, many scholars see it as intertwining chivalric and courtly love laws under the English Order of the Garter. The group's motto, 'honi soit qui mal y pense', or "Shamed be he who finds evil here," is written at the end of the poem. Some critics describe Gawain's peers wearing girdles of their own as evidence of the origin of the Order of the Garter. However, in the parallel poem The Greene Knight, the lace is white, not green, and is considered the origin of the collar worn by the knights of the Bath, not the Order of the Garter. The motto on the poem was probably written by a copyist and not by the original author. Still, the connection made by the copyist to the Order is not extraordinary.
The poem is in many ways deeply Christian, with frequent references to the fall of Adam and Eve and to Jesus Christ. Scholars have debated the depth of the Christian elements within the poem by looking at it in the context of the age in which it was written, coming up with varying views as to what represents a Christian element of the poem and what does not. For example, some critics compare Sir Gawain to the other three poems of the Gawain manuscript. Each has a heavily Christian theme, causing scholars to interpret Gawain similarly. Comparing it to the poem Cleanness (also known as Purity), for example, they see it as a story of the apocalyptic fall of a civilisation, in Gawain's case, Camelot. In this interpretation, Sir Gawain is like Noah, separated from his society and warned by the Green Knight (who is seen as God's representative) of the coming doom of Camelot. Gawain, judged worthy through his test, is spared the doom of the rest of Camelot. King Arthur and his knights, however, misunderstand Gawain's experience and wear garters themselves. In Cleanness the men who are saved are similarly helpless in warning their society of impending destruction.
One of the key points stressed in this interpretation is that salvation is an individual experience difficult to communicate to outsiders. In his depiction of Camelot, the poet reveals a concern for his society, whose inevitable fall will bring about the ultimate destruction intended by God. Gawain was written around the time of the Black Death and Peasants' Revolt, events which convinced many people that their world was coming to an apocalyptic end and this belief was reflected in literature and culture. However, other critics see weaknesses in this view, since the Green Knight is ultimately under the control of Morgan le Fay, usually viewed as a figure of evil in Camelot tales. This makes the knight's presence as a representative of God problematic.
While the character of the Green Knight is usually not viewed as a representation of Christ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, critics do acknowledge a parallel. Lawrence Besserman, a specialist in medieval literature, explains that "the Green Knight is not a figurative representative of Christ. But the idea of Christ's divine/human nature provides a medieval conceptual framework that supports the poet's serious/comic account of the Green Knight's supernatural/human qualities and actions." This duality exemplifies the influence and importance of Christian teachings and views of Christ in the era of the Gawain Poet.
Furthermore, critics note the Christian reference to Christ's crown of thorns at the conclusion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. After Gawain returns to Camelot and tells his story regarding the newly acquired green sash, the poem concludes with a brief prayer and a reference to "the thorn-crowned God". Besserman theorises that "with these final words the poet redirects our attention from the circular girdle-turned-sash (a double image of Gawain's "yntrawpe/renoun") to the circular Crown of Thorns (a double image of Christ's humiliation turned triumph)."
Throughout the poem, Gawain encounters numerous trials testing his devotion and faith in Christianity. When Gawain sets out on his journey to find the Green Chapel, he finds himself lost, and only after praying to the Virgin Mary does he find his way. As he continues his journey, Gawain once again faces anguish regarding his inevitable encounter with the Green Knight. Instead of praying to Mary, as before, Gawain places his faith in the girdle given to him by Bertilak's wife. From the Christian perspective, this leads to disastrous and embarrassing consequences for Gawain as he is forced to reevaluate his faith when the Green Knight points out his betrayal.
An analogy is also made between Gawain's trial and the Biblical test that Adam encounters in the Garden of Eden. Adam succumbs to Eve just as Gawain surrenders to Bertilak's wife by accepting the girdle. Although Gawain sins by putting his faith in the girdle and not confessing when he is caught, the Green Knight pardons him, thereby allowing him to become a better Christian by learning from his mistakes. Through the various games played and hardships endured, Gawain finds his place within the Christian world.
Feminist literary critics see the poem as portraying women's ultimate power over men. Morgan le Fay and Bertilak's wife, for example, are the most powerful characters in the poem—Morgan especially, as she begins the game by enchanting the Green Knight. The girdle and Gawain's scar can be seen as symbols of feminine power, each of them diminishing Gawain's masculinity. Gawain's misogynist passage, in which he blames all of his troubles on women and lists the many men who have fallen prey to women's wiles, further supports the feminist view of ultimate female power in the poem.
In contrast, others argue that the poem focuses mostly on the opinions, actions, and abilities of men. For example, on the surface, it appears that Bertilak's wife is a strong leading character. By adopting the masculine role, she appears to be an empowered individual, particularly in the bedroom scene. This is not entirely the case, however. While the Lady is being forward and outgoing, Gawain's feelings and emotions are the focus of the story, and Gawain stands to gain or lose the most. The Lady "makes the first move", so to speak, but Gawain ultimately decides what is to become of those actions. He, therefore, is in charge of the situation and even the relationship.
In the bedroom scene, both the negative and positive actions of the Lady are motivated by her desire. Her feelings cause her to step out of the typical female role and into that of the male, thus becoming more empowered. At the same time, those same actions make the Lady appear adulterous; some scholars compare her with Eve in the Bible. By forcing Gawain to take her girdle, i.e. the apple, the pact made with Bertilak—and therefore the Green Knight—is broken. In this sense, it is clear that at the hands of the Lady, Gawain is a "good man seduced".
From 1350 to 1400—the period in which the poem is thought to have been written—Wales experienced several raids at the hands of the English, who were attempting to colonise the area. The Gawain poet uses a North West Midlands dialect common on the Welsh–English border, potentially placing him in the midst of this conflict. Patricia Clare Ingham is credited with first viewing the poem through the lens of postcolonialism, and since then a great deal of dispute has emerged over the extent to which colonial differences play a role in the poem. Most critics agree that gender plays a role, but differ about whether gender supports the colonial ideals or replaces them as English and Welsh cultures interact in the poem.
A large amount of critical debate also surrounds the poem as it relates to the bi-cultural political landscape of the time. Some argue that Bertilak is an example of the hybrid Anglo-Welsh culture found on the Welsh–English border. They therefore view the poem as a reflection of a hybrid culture that plays strong cultures off one another to create a new set of cultural rules and traditions. Other scholars, however, argue that historically much Welsh blood was shed well into the 14th century, creating a situation far removed from the more friendly hybridisation suggested by Ingham. To support this argument further, it is suggested that the poem creates an "us versus them" scenario contrasting the knowledgeable civilised English with the uncivilised borderlands that are home to Bertilak and the other monsters that Gawain encounters.
In contrast to this perception of the colonial lands, others argue that the land of Hautdesert, Bertilak’s territory, has been misrepresented or ignored in modern criticism. They suggest that it is a land with its own moral agency, one that plays a central role in the story. Bonnie Lander, for example, argues that the denizens of Hautdesert are "intelligently immoral", choosing to follow certain codes and rejecting others, a position which creates a "distinction … of moral insight versus moral faith". Lander thinks that the border dwellers are more sophisticated because they do not unthinkingly embrace the chivalric codes but challenge them in a philosophical, and—in the case of Bertilak's appearance at Arthur’s court—literal sense. Lander’s argument about the superiority of the denizens of Hautdesert hinges on the lack of self-awareness present in Camelot, which leads to an unthinking populace that frowns on individualism. In this view, it is not Bertilak and his people, but Arthur and his court, who are the monsters.
Several scholars have attempted to find a real-world correspondence for Gawain's journey to the Green Chapel. The Anglesey islands, for example, are mentioned in the poem. They exist today as a single island off the coast of Wales. In line 700, Gawain is said to pass the "Holy Head", believed by many scholars to be either Holywell or the Cistercian abbey of Poulton in Pulford. Holywell is associated with the beheading of Saint Winifred. As the story goes, Winifred was a virgin who was beheaded by a local leader after she refused his sexual advances. Her uncle, another saint, put her head back in place and healed the wound, leaving only a white scar. The parallels between this story and Gawain's make this area a likely candidate for the journey.
Gawain's trek leads him directly into the centre of the Pearl Poet's dialect region, where the candidates for the locations of the Castle at Hautdesert and the Green Chapel stand. Hautdesert is thought to be in the area of Swythamley in northwest Midland, as it lies in the writer's dialect area and matches the topographical features described in the poem. The area is also known to have housed all of the animals hunted by Bertilak (deer, boar, fox) in the 14th century. The Green Chapel is thought to be in either Lud's Church or Wetton Mill, as these areas closely match the descriptions given by the author. Ralph Elliott located the chapel ("two myle henne" v1078) from the old manor house at Swythamley Park at the bottom of a valley ("bothm of the brem valay" v2145) on a hillside ("loke a littel on the launde, on thi lyfte honde" v2147) in an enormous fissure ("an olde caue,/or a creuisse of an olde cragge" v2182-83).
According to medieval scholar Richard Zeikowitz, the Green Knight represents a threat to homosocial friendship in his medieval world. Zeikowitz argues that the narrator of the poem seems entranced by the Knight's beauty, homoeroticising him in poetic form. The Green Knight's attractiveness challenges the homosocial rules of King Arthur's court and poses a threat to their way of life. Zeikowitz also states that Gawain seems to find Bertilak as attractive as the narrator finds the Green Knight. Bertilak, however, follows the homosocial code and develops a friendship with Gawain. Gawain's embracing and kissing Bertilak in several scenes thus represents not a homosexual but a homosocial expression. Men of the time often embraced and kissed and this was acceptable under the chivalric code. Nonetheless, the Green Knight blurs the lines between homosociality and homosexuality, representing the difficulty medieval writers sometimes had in separating the two.
Carolyn Dinshaw argues that the poem may have been a response to accusations that Richard II had a male lover—an attempt to reestablish the idea that heterosexuality was the Christian norm. Around the time the poem was written, the Catholic Church was beginning to express concerns about kissing between males. Many religious figures were trying to make the distinction between strong trust and friendship between males and homosexuality. Still, the Pearl Poet seems to have been simultaneously entranced and repulsed by homosexual desire. In his other poem Cleanness, he points out several grievous sins, but spends lengthy passages describing them in minute detail. His obsession seems to carry into Gawain in his descriptions of the Green Knight.
Beyond this, Dinshaw proposes that Gawain can be read as a woman-like figure. He is the passive one in the advances of Lady Bertilak, as well as in his encounters with Lord Bertilak, where he acts the part of a woman in kissing the man. However, while the poem does have homosexual elements, these elements are brought up by the poet in order to establish heterosexuality as the normal lifestyle of Gawain's world. The poem does this by making the kisses between Lady Bertilak and Gawain sexual in nature, but rendering the kisses between Gawain and Lord Bertilak "unintelligible" to the medieval reader. In other words, the poet portrays kisses between a man and a woman as having the possibility of leading to sex, while in a heterosexual world kisses between a man and a man are portrayed as having no such possibility.