There are many ways to read "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", since it is important as a poem, as a document of Middle English and as an early fantasy work. I first read it in my teens, because I found a translation by JRR Tolkien, but when I read it just recently, in the past few days, the thing that I noticed the most were how different the social customs in it were, compared to how we might stereotypically view a story about a knight's adventures. I will give a brief synopsis of the plot, before giving my own analysis.
The story starts with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table having a feast, when they are interrupted by the arrival of the Green Knight, who challenges a knight to strike off his head with an axe. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge, decapitates the knight---who picks up his head, walks away, and tells Sir Gawain to meet him in a year to suffer a return blow. The next part of the book shifts to Sir Gawain's venture across Britain, where he finds a castle with a Lord, named Bertilak, who tells him he can stay there while waiting his meeting with The Green Knight. Additionally, the Lord strikes a bargain with Sir Gawain-- each day, they will exchange what they found during the day. Lord Bertilak goes off hunting and brings home wild meat to share. Meanwhile, his wife has taken a liking to Sir Gawain and spends each day trying to seduce him, which Sir Gawain is too chivalrous to refuse, while trying to maintain his own chastity. He also feels that to keep his end of the bargain, he must return the kisses of Lord Bertilak's wife back to him. In the denouement of the work, Sir Gawain finds the Green Knight, who frightens him but only gives him a scratch, revealing that he is Lord Bertilak and that the entire seduction of Sir Gawain was a test of character. Everyone departs happy.
So several things about that above paragraph might jump out at the reader. The foremost might be "Was it really proper Medieval sexual ethics that it wasn't cheating if you kissed her husband, too?" I mean, personally both times I have kissed men, it has been for that reason, but that was in 2000s Portland, Oregon, not in either the 14th century (when this was written) or the 6 or 7th century (when it takes place). To the modern reader, the description of Sir Gawain, as a sensitive, well-mannered and artistic man who continually rebuffs a woman's advances while sharing long kisses with her husband certainly seems like it has homoerotic overtones. The poem repeatedly describes Sir Gawain as being gay, meaning merry, but it isn't just the middle schooler in me who giggles every time it comes up.
The book actually treats, briefly, of Sir Gawain's journey across Britain before finding Bertilak's castle. But the narrator doesn't think they are worth describing, saying (in my translation):
So many marvels did the man meet in the mountains
It would be too tedious to tell a tenth of them
Followed by a full four lines mentioning that he was fighting dragons
, all of which are apparently too boring to describe, as opposed to the dozens of pages describing food, clothing, and the subtle flirtation between Sir Gawain and Bertilak's wife. But this is my key insight into the text: this is only unusual because of how we have anachronistically viewed the idea of chivalric literature
, as if they were the equivalent of action movies
, with square-jawed heroes defeating physical menaces. But in this poem, despite the initial horrific appearance of the cephalophore
Green Knight, the basic conflict in this book is not of physical challenges. The conflict is whether Sir Gawain can keep his personal integrity, as well as balancing the different social obligations a Knight would be under. And that is why his internal conflicts are given so much description, while the dragons he fights get a single line.
I am probably missing a lot of the subtext, since I am not really aware of all the social and literary currents present at the time of composition, but my basic insight is that what we might view as "masculine" behavior is anachronistic, and that the author of this poem probably had a vastly different view of what interpersonal and social conflicts entailed.