Endless knot/tangled web – my Middle English final paper

The evolution of a paper. I really enjoyed this research, and am considering doing more work in Arthurian stories.

This paper begins four years ago in English 302, in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of male homosociality, which exists on a “continuum between homosocial and homosexual” (2435). It takes root in various Women’s Studies classes, with the exciting prospect of uncovering queer readings and recovering feminine histories. The first green leaves of this paper, the first iteration of the thesis, is that the female homosociality of Dame Tryamour and Gwenore in Sir Launfal and Morgan le Fay and Guinevere in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is both a queer presence within the texts and an indication of the anxiety and tension between hegemonic Christianity and the paganism represented by the fairy women. This homosociality exists, said the original thesis, and it is as conflict-driven and violent as the homosociality that Sedgwick articulates for men. It was a reach towards collapsing the gender binary, recognizing women’s power and violence, and recognizing the potential for women’s queerness in restrictive Christian social contexts. It was founded on the idea that Christian conceptions of gender must necessarily be heterosexual and heteronormative, and that reading queerness into the text – a queerness that is dependant on the heteronorm – would be a form of resistance to the contemporary norm, and would contribute to a history of feminist scholarship that uncovers queer histories and exposes the ways in which patriarchy is always already undermining itself.

But this paper, an analysis of these texts, cannot flourish in the homo/hetero binary that the original thesis was planted in, because as James Schultz points out, “the heterosexual norm… clamps down on the present and… colonizes the past” (20). Both Schultz and Karma Lochrie argue convincingly that “[t]he heteronormativity of modern scholarship ends up creating its own modern categories where they did not exist before… flattening the gender dynamics of medieval sexualities” (Lochrie xvi). This paper, then, becomes an effort at decolonizing my own scholarship, at freeing my thesis from the contemporary constructions of sexuality that battened it down into intelligible, articulable binaries.[i] It shifts, and in the shifting comes back to Louise O. Fradenburg, and the productive scholarly practice of recognizing and accepting the “undecidability” of a text. My thesis tracks along both an ‘endless knotte’ of contemporary binaries and a tangled web of complexities and undecidabilities.

[i] Although Schultz and Lochrie have convinced me that an uncritical, unintentional projection of contemporary categories of identity into medieval texts is problematic, I am not convinced that an intentionally anachronistic reading doesn’t have a place in contemporary scholarship. For example, although “bisexuality” is not a category that would hold any meaning for a medieval poet, and reading bisexuality into Sir Gawain and the Green Knight would perform exactly the “colonizing” that Schultz warns again, a bisexual reading of Gawain and Bertilak could have multiple positive outcomes for both queer and medieval scholarship. We read these texts within our own time, and the ability to see ourselves represented – even if the original author may never have conceived of our identities – is invaluable. But that’s a different paper!

And here is the paper I actually wrote:

Endless Knot/Tangled Web:

Religious Complexity and Undecidability in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Launfal

Both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Launfal incorporate explicitly non-Christian imagery in the form of the fairy women Morgan le Fay and Dame Tryamour. This intersection of the pagan and the Christian represents both a cohesive and self-contained “endless knot” of religious syncretism and a tangled web of complication and undecidability. The poems are uncategorizable as either purely Christian or purely non-Christian and are, instead, “neither a reaffirmation of Christianity, nor a tool of conversion, but… of religious synthesis in which paganism and other ideologies are presented as parallels to Christianity, not wholly appropriated or obliterated” (Tracy 31). This reading does not dismiss or discount the poems’ emphases on Christian virtues and Christian doctrine. Rather, it tangles these virtues up with “other ideologies,” including the local pagan traditions from which the fairies and the goddess may stem. Although there is cohesiveness between the non-Christian and the Christian elements, there is also unresolvable tension introduced by the supernatural women in the poems. The various performances of feminine gender can be read as both theologically[1] and culturally relevant, and every major woman character can be read as queer against a procreative model of Christian marriage but not queer against an ahistorical model of heterosexuality. There are distinct categories represented within the poems but these categories are not stable or consistent, nor are they discrete.

Larissa Tracy argues that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight cannot be simply read as a poem that appropriates pagan symbols and obliterates their original meaning in a Christian reimagining, but must be seen as allowing the two ideologies to coexist (31). This theory contradicts earlier scholarship, which saw the poem “as a purely Christian poem, one that embodies the rational virtues of Christian chivalry and righteousness or penitential doctrine” (Tracy 31) but Tracy is not alone in this interpretation. Tracy cites Ludo Milis’ The Pagan Middle Ages (1998) well as John Darrah’s Paganism in Arthurian Romance (1997). Tracy bases this syncretic reading primarily on the pentangle, and the idea that the pentangle is “an ancient symbol to which Christian values and virtues have been applied, not to replace the pagan significance, but to reinforce the similarities between different religious traditions” (32). The Gawain-poet creates a mythology for the pentangle “which is unknown in any other medieval English literary works” (Tracy 32), stating that Solomon set it,

“In bytoknyng of trawthe, bi tytle that hit habbes,

For hit is a figure that haldes fyve poyntes,

And uche lyne umbelappes and loukes in other,

And ayquere hit is endeles, and in Englych hit callen,

Overal, as I here, the endeles knot.”

[In betokening of truth, by the title that it had / For it is a figure that holds five points, / And each line envelopes and locks in the other, / And forever it is endless, and over all England it is called, / as I hear, the endless knot.[2]] (626-30).

The poet’s creation of a Christian meaning for the pagan symbol can be read as an overwriting of pagan beliefs. However, because the pentangle is not the only place in the poem where Christian and non-Christian ideas are overlaid with each other, tangled together, reading the poem as purely Christian suggests a conclusiveness and decisiveness that the text does not fully support.

Similarly, Tracy sees roots for the Gawain-poet’s description ofMorgan le Fay in local pagan traditions, such as Celtic Sheela-na gigs and the tripartite goddess, the Mórrígan (42). This is a deeply contested view when applied to the transtextual character of Morgan le Fay (Tracy 41), but Tracy makes a convincing argument by using the poet’s own reference to Morgan as a goddess (Gawain 2452). Other critics have also taken up the reference to Morgan le Fay as a goddess and interpreted it in more oppositional terms. Albert Friedman argues that this places her unambiguously in conflict with the poem’s Christian theology because “a pagan goddess becomes automatically a Christian demon,” and her ugliness can “be taken as an indication of her evil nature and sinful purposes” (267). Helen Cooper, in contrast, sees Morgan le Fay’s title as purely courtesy because “although fairies might perhaps exist, goddesses, in a Christian world, do not” (12). Although she is not described in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a fairy, Helen Cooper describes her as being one of a “group of fairy-derived mortal women” (12), indicating her fairy origins in early Arthurian stories. Cooper’s argument that goddesses do not exist in a Christian world may be doctrinally true, but Tracy points out that Morgan le Fay is juxtaposed with the Virgin Mary, who is “the ultimate Christian goddess figure” (45). Larissa Tracy suggests that the Gawain-poet “may have been influenced by the same threads of religious thought as the Lollards and Julian of Norwich” (36), and it is possible that this is evident in the presence of divine femininity in the poem.

The poem can support reading Morgan as a goddess. The Green Knight views Morgan as a goddess, and this is evident when he gives her the title and discusses of her power. The Green Knight also serves as her priest, “hearing Gawain’s final confession and absolving him of his sin of self-preservation” (Tracy 41). In Fitt IV, the Green Knight says,

“Morgne the goddes

Therfore hit is hir name:

Weldes non so hyghe hawtesse

That ho ne con make ful tame

[Morgan the goddess, / therefore it is her name; / None wields high pride / That she cannot make fully tame] (2452-5).

The Green Knight’s acceptance of Morgan as a powerful goddess[3] seems to fit comfortably with his Christianity, which is evidenced by his frequent attendance at Mass, and his many references to his God, such as at line 2470. To read Morgan le Fay as either simply a mortal woman as Helen Cooper suggests or as a demon as Albert Friedman argues requires dismissing the poem’s own framing of her actions and status. Tracy points out “the fact remains that the Green Knight refers to her as the goddess and serves her as a priest, according to his own testimony” (41). Further, Morgan “regularly attend[s] mass and receive[s] communion, which would be impossible for a demon or a devil” (Tracy 42). As Cooper claims for fairies in general, Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remains “unassimilable” (2), and cannot easily be incorporated into a purely Christian interpretation of the text. Her pagan roots are showing, but the poet does not vilify or demonize her for this.

Dame Tryamour performs a similarly “unassimilable” (Cooper 2) role in Sir Launfal, representing “an ancient symbol [a fairy] to which Christian virtues have been applied” (Tracy 32). There are only four direct references to Christianity in this poem, and of the four, two are in direct relation to Dame Tryamour. The first instance is Tryamour’s own statement to Launfal that “Ther nys no man yn Cristenté / That y love so moche as the” [There is no man in Christendom / That I love so much as thee] (304-5). The second reference directly related to Dame Tryamour occurs when King Artour welcomes Tryamour’s retinue in lines 908-9, “’Well come, ye maydenes schene, / Be Our Lord the Savyour!’” [“Welcome, you beautiful maidens / by Our Lord the Saviour!”]. There is a reference to the feast of St. John at line 618, and the poem ends with a dedication to Jesus and Mary on lines 1042-1045. Unlike Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where religious references abound and multiple characters explicitly reference their Christian beliefs, Sir Launfal requires a closer reading in order to determine the Christian, non-Christian or syncretic meaning. The author aligns Tryamour with Christianity by positioning two of his four references to Christianity around her in a poem that risks positioning her, exotic fair that she unambiguously is, too far outside the Christian realm. However, it is not only these references that align Tryamour with Christianity and Christian virtues. Tory Vandeventer Pearman notes that Tryamour enables and supports Launfal’s Christian virtue and that “Launfal uses the funds from Tryamour’s purse to participate in the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy, or the physical acts of kindness one can do to demonstrate Christian compassion, including caring for, feeding, and clothing the impaired, sick, and poor” (144). In addition to Tryamour enabling Launfal’s virtue, her own virtues of “generosity, trouthe, and kindness” are contrasted “starkly with Gwenore’s greediness, duplicity, and cruelty” (Pearman 142). It is more complicated to make an argument for Tryamour’s Christianity because she is not seen going to Mass, and despite her invocation of “Christendom” at line 304, she does not ever claim to be Christian. She is entirely “other,” in Helen Cooper’s definition of the term for fairies. An “other” is “alien because of unfamiliarity, or sexual or cultural difference, or social or geographical distance” (Cooper 2), and Tryamour incorporates all of these elements. She is sexually available, lives in the fairy realm, her “kerteles wer of Indesandel” [gowns were made of Indian silk] (232) and her “pavyloun was wrouth, forsoothe, ywys, / All of werk of Sarsynys” [pavilion was wrought, in truth, indeed, / all of work of Saracens] (265-6). She is a fairy, and “[f]airies occupy that dangerous borderland that cannot be controlled by human will and is not susceptible to the normal operations of prayer” (Cooper 2). However, the poem’s dedication to Christ and Mary situates the poet and the poem in a Christian context and Tryamour as virtuous in contrast with Gwenore’s lack of virtue.

Gender roles are central to both poems[4], and both poems feature sexually aggressive wooing women. Lady Bertilak takes on this role in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lady Bertilak takes on this role. She tests Gawain’s virtue and highlights the impossibility of his chivalric ideal of masculinity, tangling the “endless knot” of his “fyve sythes” (656). In Sir Launfal, Gwenore and Dame Tryamour are both highlight the difficulty of maintaining the balance of virtues required in order to perform knightly masculinity. The misogynistic attitude of the poem towards Gwenore coexists with its approval of Dame Tryamour (Guy-Bray 37), and this opens up an interesting new tangle. As a result of the actions of the aggressively wooing women both poems are open to contemporary queer readings. Many of these queer readings depend on the idea that both Gawain and Launfal have their heterosexuality challenged.

However, while it may be true that, as James Schultz argues, “to insist that medieval scholarship limit itself to medieval concepts in their medieval meanings is to insist on an impossibility” (14), it is also true that “the [ahistorical] heterosexual norm… clamps down on the present and… colonizes the past” (20).[5] Both Schultz and Karma Lochrie argue convincingly that “[t]he heteronormativity of modern scholarship ends up creating its own modern categories where they did not exist before… flattening the gender dynamics of medieval sexualities” (Lochrie xvi).

Lochrie argues that when we let go of the modern construction of heterosexuality and its attendant heteronormativity, “[a] new Middle Ages comes into view… one that is not structured along the heterosexual/homosexual axis and is also not saturated with modern heteronormativity” (xxii). In this “new Middle Ages,” the ‘natural’ does exist, but it is different than contemporary ideas of the ‘normal,’ and, critically, encompasses both a “prelapsarian [Nature] that represented all that was good and perfect” and a “postlapsarian nature that was not so naturally natural but was instead the result of reason’s subversion” (Lochrie xxii). According to Lochrie, “this postlapsarian nature is responsible for many aspects of the human condition that are today regarded as given [such as] gender difference [and] sexual desire” (xxii). This shifts the focus away from an identity-driven binary between heterosexual and homosexual, where both Gawain and Launfal have their heterosexuality challenged and towards a queerness that is based, instead, on procreative marriage, where sexual desire is a result of the Fall and procreation is the only acceptable goal. Queerness can still be read in this context, but it is a queerness that is positioned against a Christian ideal of procreative marriage, and not against heterosexuality.

Against this ideal, all of the women in the both poems are queer and introduce a tangled and ambiguous representation of acceptable femininity. Other than the Virgin Mary, none of the women are referenced as mothers. In particular, “[t]he bodies of Guenevere and her literary successors such as Gwenore … simultaneously take on the mutually exclusive but equally threatening conditions of infertility and the ability to bear illegitimate offspring” (Pearman 140). These non-reproductive bodies act “as a site of the potential disruption of political, marital, and social unity” (Pearman 140), and there is no easy resolution of this potential disruption within either text. Stephen Guy-Bray notes that Dame Tryamour’s material generosity is one way in which she challenges Launfal’s masculine gender and takes on a masculine role (37-38) and Pearman also notes that Tryamour’s materiality takes on gendered aspects, though Pearman sees the purse and the gift as linked to Tryamour’s reproductivity (143). Although she is not supernatural, Lady Bertilak also challenges gender roles by taking on the more masculine wooing role (Rowley 167). If Lochrie’s assertion that gender differences are a result of the Fall, then the blurring of gender roles by supernatural women (and their allies) in the poems may represent their alignment with prelapsarian gender unity. This presents another moment of undecidability within the poems. While some of the women such as Gwenore, the women named in Gawain’s diatribe at lines 2411-2428, and Lady Bertilak are chastised for their deviance from an ideal of procreative Christian marriage, Dame Tryamour is not. In fact, despite the fact that she is “as hyper-sexual as Gwenore” (Pearman 142), “[t]he tale… presents Tryamour’s open sexuality as productive, generous, and even ethical” (Pearman 144).

Morgan le Fay and Dame Tryamour are both representative of “medieval hybrids that are incomprehensible today,” encompassing “a much more diffused and complex interaction of categories than we are used to” (Lochrie xv). As aggressive, supernatural, powerful women with clear pagan roots who are not vilified by the poems, they complicate any attempt to find a clear and decisive Christianity or non-Christianity in the poems. Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Dame Tryamour in Sir Launfal are both fairies, creatures that are often “complicated by the difficulty of knowing whether they are representatives of God or the devil, or exist outside theological schemes altogether” and who “sit very uneasily with a Christian context” (173), and yet both Morgan le Fay and Dame Tryamour sit comfortably in their texts. Neither is vilified by their narratives, and both are shown in alignment, to various degrees and in various ways, with both Christian ideologies and other ideologies.

Works Cited

Chestre, Thomas. “Sir Launfal.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: English 406 Course Pack. Ed. Jacqueline Jenkins. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2014. 130-146. Print.

Cooper, Helen. “Fairy Monarchs, Fairy Mistresses: ‘I am of ane Other Countree’.” The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press/Oxford Scholarship Online, 2007. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.

Friedman, Albert B. “Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Speculum 35.2 (1960): 260-274. Jstor. Web. 09 Apr. 2014.

Guy-Bray, Stephen. “Male Trouble: Sir Launfal and the Trials of Masculinity.” ESC: English Studies in Canada 34.2-3 (2008): 31-48. Project Muse. 09 Apr. 2014.

Lochrie, Karma. Heterosyncrasies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Schultz, James. “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006): 14-29. Web. 06 Apr. 2014.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Simon Armitage. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. Print.

Rowley, Sharon M. “Textual Studies, Feminism, and Performance in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’.” The Chaucer Review 38.2 (2003): 158-177. Jstor. Web. 09 Apr. 2014.

Tracy, Larissa. “A Knight of God or the Goddess?: Rethinking Religious Syncretism in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’” Arthuriana 17.3 (2007): 31-55. JStor. Web. 06 Apr. 2014.

Pearman, Tory Vandeventer. “Refiguring Disability: Deviance, Blinding, and the Supernatural in Thomas Chestre’s Sir Launfal.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 3.2 (2009): 131-146. Project Muse. Web. 09 Apr. 2014.


[1] I am entirely unqualified to speak to medieval (or even contemporary) theology, and am relying entirely on secondary sources where, again, I recognize that I have barely even dipped a toe into the existing body of scholarly work. When I argue that the portrayals of Dame Tryamour and Morgan le Fay are “theological,” I mean only that they have religious implications within the text, not that I understand or can articulate what those implications mean. I recognize that I am speaking about medieval theology with the subtlety and grace of a sledgehammer.

[2] Translations are my own, unless otherwise noted.

[3] It is beyond the scope of this paper but it would be disingenuous not to note that this stanza and its reference to Morgan’s “myght” is deeply contested by medievalists, and my reading is not the only possible interpretation.

[4] This paper does not address the ways in which both poems challenge gender roles for both men and women, unfortunately. Another time, because that’s a rabbit hole I could happily lose myself down!

[5] This is especially true of contemporary scholarship by newcomers to the field of Middle Ages literature. Although this paper rekindled a forgotten love for Arthurian stories, the fact remains that my research has only barely scuffed the surface of scholarship on these topics.

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