Review: Sir Gawain: Knight of the Goddess

I picked this book up because, as I’ve mentioned, I’m currently nurturing an obsession with the Matter of Britain which will hopefully culminate in my writing a series of Arthurian legends with a queer twist. Since I’m kicking it off with my version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it seemed like a good idea to get this book, which I found recommended by an Arthurian enthusiast over at the Cauldron forum.

In Sir Gawain: Knight of the Goddess, prolific writer and mythologist John Matthews looks at the character of Gawain and how his role changes from that of the most excellent of knights, champion of women, and Arthur’s favoured nephew to a licentious, violent individual who is ultimately eclipsed by Lancelot and Mr. Purity Sue Galahad. The reason behind Galahad’s greatly diminished role, Matthews posits, is because he was originally the Champion of the Goddess, the true Green Knight of Camelot, and possessor of Sovereignty over the land. Throughout the text, Matthews attempts to reconstruct the “original” Gawain cycle, beginning with his birth and childhood, through his many encounters with women, his decline, and his eventual ignoble death.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter looks at the possible origins of Gawain in Celtic myth, particularly his similarities to the Irish hero Cuchulainn and various figures from the Mabinogion, chapter two looks at his upbringing and childhood (including the time that he almost became Pope, someone needs to make an image macro for Pope Gawain now, Gawain would make an awesome pope), chapter three looks at the text of Gawain and the Green Knight, arguably his most famous adventure, chapter four looks at Gawain’s relationships with women (there are a lot), chapter five looks at the decline of Gawain’s character, culminating in his failure to attain the Holy Grail, chapter six ponders whether there’s an alternate Grail cycle in which Gawain really does attain the Grail, and also examines his devotion to the Virgin Mary, and chapter seven looks at Gawain’s death, and reconstructs the “true” story of Gawain as Champion of the Goddess from all the information gathered in the previous chapters.

I’m assuming I don’t have to point out the most obvious thing that’s wrong with Matthew’s theory, do I? No, but if I didn’t this review would be pretty short. Matthews posits an interesting theory, that Gawain goes from “friend to all women” to violent rapist because Gawain was originally the Champion of the Goddess, representative of a Pagan way of life that made Christians very nervous. This theory, while intriguing, is ultimately blown to pieces because there never was a singular entity known as “the Goddess” and although many different goddesses come in trinities, they aren’t usually divided into Maiden, Mother, and Crone stages,  as Matthews seems to assume whenever three ladies pop up in any of the stories. Suffice it to say that it’s best to take most of the goddess-y talk with a grain of salt. In any case, it pretty much amounts to: “Gawain is the bestest knight evar! Galahad is just Gawain with a chastity belt! ZOMG teh Goddess!”

Another issue Matthews has is that he tends to jump around a lot, going from text to text and name-dropping different scholars like you should know who they are. The tone of the book is sort of academic in times (even though the ideas within wouldn’t fly in academic circles these days) but it’s not so stuffy as to be unreadable. Still, all the jumping around can get confusing at times, as he goes from talking about one story, then another, then jumps back to the next story.

The true value of this text lies in all of the tales it tells (some of which, according to my source, are hard to find). Yours truly is really only familiar with the stories in the Mabinogion, Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Marriage of Sir Gawain (Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady) so it was interesting to read some of the other stories. La Vengeance Raguidel and La Pulzella Gaia (The Merry Maid) are particularly awesome and someone really should make a movie out of La Vengeance, because it has everything: adventure, mushy stuff, the Black Knight, disguises, conniving women, epic battles. I’m assuming since the most likely author dates from c.1165-c.1230 that means the work isn’t under copyright (no copyright in the Middle Ages). Some of the stories are pretty trippy (like the one involving Pope Gregory and incest) and definitely worth a look.

Bottom line, take the “Goddess-y” bits with a grain of salt and see it as a collection of Gawain-centric tales (or, if you prefer, a look at how Gawain went from number one knight to a major asshole). My own version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight should be coming….soon….

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