In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the kisses Gawain delivers to Bertilak are not perfunctory; what does queer eroticism contribute to the poem?

1 Answer | Add Yours

booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Having read several translations of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," I cannot agree that Gawain's kisses delivered to Berilak are anything BUT perfunctory. Gawain delivers the kisses to Berilak as tokens of the gifts of kisses that his host's wife has given Gawain. Though her kisses are meant to seduce, Gawain refuses to engage in any manner that is dishonorable; he partakes of the kisses in only the most chivalrous and courteous way with his hostess, and shares those kisses in the same manner with his host.

As a knight, chivalry is Gawain's life's code. (It is also socially abhorrent to people of the time to deliver any kind of disrespect or harm to one's host in honoring the laws of hospitality.) Gawain, remember, is not just a member of Arthur's court, but the laws of chivalry that guide him are from the Holy Church; on his shield he has painted a picture of the Virgin Mary, to keep him true, honorable, and steadfast in his dedication to do the noble and honorable thing in all situations.

When Berilak's wife visits Gawain secretly, her intent is to seduce him. However, this is part of Berilak's plan to see if Gawain is as honorable a knight as being a member of Arthur's court would require, as well as being a soldier for the Church. Gawain presents a courteous kiss to his hostess and a perfunctory kiss to his host. "Perfunctory" is defined as something 'performed merely as a routine duty; hasty and superficial:...[with] courtesy.'

Suggesting that there is "queer eroticism" would make all the translations of this epic poem erroneous; it would also destory the premise that this is a tale written in the tradition of medieval romantic poetry, and I do not believe this is the case.

Gawain is a man of honor and character. Berilak's wife's kisses are nothing more than tests: she's not really interested in him. Gawain answers her advances as courteously as he can, without any inappropriate action on his part. And Berilak is only concerned in determining whether Gawain is an honorable man. Gawain proves that except for concealing the "girdle" or "sash" given to him by Berilak's wife to save his life, his honor is, for the most part, beyond reproach—something even Berilak recognizes—and even in light of the hidden sash, his host forgives the young knight.

I do not see anything but a test here that Berilak believes Gawain passes. The Green Knight (Berilak) explains the "test," and they part on good terms, though the noble Gawain is shamed by using the girdle/sash to save his life. Even in this, Berilak is kind in his understanding of the young knight's fear of death. Berilak and Gawain are both honorable men, and there is nothing dark in a story that speaks of honor to one's code and to the Church's teachings for its knights being anything but honestly and straightforwardly presented.

We’ve answered 318,967 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question