7

At the end of Gawain and the Green Knight (Weston's translation) says to Gawain

"Bernlak de Hautdesert am I called in this land. Morgain le Fay dwelleth in mine house, and through knowledge of clerkly craft hath she taken many. For long time was she the mistress of Merlin, who knew well all you knights of the court. Morgain the goddess is she called therefore, and there is none so haughty but she can bring him low. She sent me in this guise to yon fair hall to test the truth of the renown that is spread abroad of the valour of the Round Table. She taught me this marvel to betray your wits, to vex Guinevere and fright her to death by the man who spake with his head in his hand at the high table. That is she who is at home, that ancient lady, she is even thine aunt, Arthur's half-sister, the daughter of the Duchess of Tintagel, who afterward married King Uther. Therefore I bid thee, knight, come to thine aunt, and make merry in thine house; my folk love thee, and I wish thee as well as any man on earth, by my faith, for thy true dealing."

This seems to be quite a cordial attitude, considering that the two have been acting as foes for the entire tale up until this point. I initially read Tolkien's translation, and interpreted it as saying that Morgain bewitched Bernlak (also called Bertilak) and kept him under a spell. However, it Bernlak's actions here suggest that he is no longer under such a spell, as he voluntarily gives away the information. At the same time, it seems odd that he would willingly carry out Morgain's wishes, as he seems to bear no enmity towards Guinevere or Arthur, nor could easily profit.

Was the Green Knight willing to fight Gawain, or was he forced to under a spell?

4

Rather than thinking of Bernlak as being "enchanted", most scholars seem to discuss the story in terms of Bernlack acting as an emissary/agent of Morgan. One of the problems with reading translations online is that they are usually old (i.e. out of date) translations. So I think your confusion about whether Bernlak is "enchanted" (i.e. controlled using magic) partly comes from the fact that Tolkien's translation isn't up to date. I'm not sure if the word bewitched is the right word to use in this context.

Of course, part of your confusion comes from the fact that the story is deliberately confusing. The fact that Morgan is the mastermind behind the plot of Bernlak considerably changes how we interpret the story. Yet at the same time, this fact is revealed almost as an afterthought, at the end of the story after all of the action has taken place. It's almost as if Morgan is being used as an excuse for the action that took place during the story.

So as a way of answering this question, here are some of the ways that this revelation changes the story.

  1. A key feature in the story is that although the narrative primarily focuses on male characters, it turns out that women characters are the ones who are in control of the story. So most analyses of the story focus on how this fact influences the gender dynamics of the story. One of the interesting things about celtic literature is that it subverts a lot of gender roles, and as a result it's studied by people interested in gender.

  2. The paper Sodomy, Misogyny, and Displacement: Occluding Queer Desire in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" focuses on the exchanges that Gawain and Bernlak make during the course of the story. As you know, Gawain and Bernlak make a promise: for three days Bernlak would give Gawain whatever he found in the forest, and Gawain would give Bernlak whatever he found in the castle.

    When Gawain is in the castle, Bernlak's wife attempts to seduce Gawain. Gawain is able to avoid this, and they only kiss. But throughout the story, Gawain has to avoid committing adultery with Bernlak's wife. The obvious, stated reason for this is that doing so would -- to put it mildly -- be disrespectful.

    The less obvious, unstated reason is that if Gawain had sex with Bernlak's wife, Gawain would have to share that experience with Bernlak. At the time the story was written, Britain was extremely homophobic. So Gawain having sex with Bernlak would be extremely problematic, as well as dishonorable to Arthur's court.

    Gawain manages to avoid having sex with Bernlak's wife (and thus Bernlak). But Bernlak, as the person who came up with the game that potentially could have led to Bernlak and Gawain to violate Britain's gender norms, could be interpreted as wanting to have sex with Gawain. More to the point, the story could be interpreted as depicting a man wanting to have sex with another man. So hence the fact that Morgan is blamed for causing the events in the story.

This is only the tip of the iceberg: there are a lot of different interpretations of the story out there.

3

However, it Bernlak's actions here suggest that he is no longer under such a spell, as he voluntarily gives away the information.

This observation would be true if Bernlak had been transformed into something other than a human. However, there are scores of Celtic tales wherein the human victims of evil-doers freely tell the "white knight" about their fate because of the perpetrator. Moreover, Mabinogion has at least one story wherein the victim is at first an adversary himself, just as in this case.

The willingness to put himself into a match which might end with death by beheading is remarkable. If there is a taboo, a doom or a spell in the knight's motivation, this is a more probable circumstance.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.