“The Defence of Guenevere” by William Morris is a poem detailing King Arthur’s wife’s defense against the accusation of adultery by Arthur’s nephew Gauwaine. Gauwaine, or Gawain, as his name is spelled in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was challenged by a Green Knight, ended up making and then breaking a bargain with to a noble, and then being told that the noble was the Green Knight all along. Gawain freaks out, because he believes that he has made a terrible moral mistake by not keeping the bargain he made with the noble man and his wife. Gawain being concerned about his actions makes sense, because he has decapitated the Green Knight and then was nearly decapitated by the (still very much alive) Green Knight, and even in Arthurian legend, this is crazier than usual. Morris uses Gauwaine to provide a person to whom Guenevere is theoretically responding to in his dramatic monologue poem. Gauwaine is referenced nine times by name in the poem, most of which by Guenevere herself, as she frames her response as a direct rebuttal of whatever Gauwaine had said before the poem began (Morris 1667-1675). Morris uses Gauwaine to provide an accuser beyond reproach, who has no reason to lie and no desire to do wrong ever again.
Gauwaine exists within Arthurian canon as a paragon of virtue, so if anyone were to accuse her, it makes sense that it would be Gauwaine. But at the same time, Gawain never shows any signs of being biased against Guenevere in his own text. The poem exists outside of Arthurian canon, so there is no reason to base the accuser on an actual figure in the canon. Morris does not have to use another character from the canon in order to make his poem seem more authentic, as the rest of the poem echoes enough of Arthurian legend already to remind people of where and when it is set. But Gauwaine is famously virtuous, so to make him one side of the case against Guenevere makes her seem more wrong or sinful in her affair because of his guilt over his broken bargain. After being challenged by the Green Knight, he travels to the Green Chapel where he is supposed to meet the knight, but before he gets there he stops at a castle where he meets, among others, the lord of the castle and his beautiful wife (Sir Gawain 47, 55). After meeting the lord, he makes a deal with him that the lord will hunt, and Gawain will stay at the lord’s house, and the lord says “Whatever I catch in the wood shall become yours,/And whatever mishap comes your way give me in exchange” (Sir Gawain 61). Gawain agrees, and each day he stays at the house when the lord goes hunting, the lady of the house gets closer to Gawain and kisses him, and at the end of the day, Gawain gives those kisses back to the lord of the house. When Gawain leaves the house to fight the Green Knight, he takes a girdle that the lady of the house had given him as a love token and good luck charm, and does not give this to the lord of the house in accordance with their agreement (Sir Gawain 117). In the end, it turns out that the Green Knight who had come all the way to Arthur’s court was the lord from the castle, and it had all been a test of Gawain’s loyalty to whatever lord he was under, as well as his virtue in not cheating with a man’s wife, even when she is willing to kiss him all day long.
Gawain breaks his bargain, but when the Green Knight goes to decapitate him, he only causes a scratch on his neck because of Gawain’s other adherence to the agreement, and that shows his useful virtuosity. He then leaves, with no hard feelings, despite having kept the lord’s wife’s underwear. The strangeness of these consequences is best suited for a paper written for another class, and it does not necessarily add meaning to the “The Defence of Guenevere.” What does, however, is the way that the Arthurian court reacts to Gawain’s mistake. Gawain not killed by the Green Knight because he apologized and assigned himself penance (Sir Gawain 133-135). He decides to wear the girdle as a constant reminder to himself to keep bargains, but the court of Arthur treats it as a joke when he returns, as if the girdle is a trophy of his success, which is so against what Gawain believes about himself that it stuns him. Thus the author of Sir Gawain has formulated a character that is more virtuous than the entire court, and than the king himself. According to Arthurian scholar Alan M. Markman, Gawain is the “ideal feudal Christian knight” (576). So as someone to accuse Guenevere, there is no one more virtuous than Gauwaine himself.
Morris did not need to include another character as an accuser, but he added Gauwaine anyway, because besides Gauwaine’s self flagellation for his crime, Guenevere’s admittance to the affair would stand out. Her consistent rhetorical position that Gauwaine lied has to be a reason for to keep speaking, or to at least show the rest of the audience at her trial that she is not unwilling to attack one of Arthur’s men for lying if it means saving herself. Perhaps it was an attempt to add time to her explanation and to keep her audience interested so that they do not execute her prematurely. Perhaps it was a way to retaliate against Gauwaine for supporting a king who provided her “little love” (Morris 1669). Either way, Morris uses the preexisting knowledge people might have about Gawain, (and the likelihood increases due to the Victorian’s interest in medievalism) to make clear that Guenevere has done something the court considers wrong, without having to introduce Arthur being at the trial and him feeling wronged. Gauwaine’s presence makes it clear that she is being tried on a moral crime, not just a crime against the king.
Markman, Alan M. “The Meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” PMLA, vol. 72, no. 4, 1957, pp. 574–586. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/460169.
Morris, William. “The Defence of Guenevere.” The Longman Anthology British Literature, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Longman, 2010, pp. 1667-1675.
British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) f. 090/94 verso (illustration to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). British Library, London. Wikimedia, Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gawain_and_the_Green_Knight.jpg.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Middle English Text with Facing Translation. Edited by James Winny, Broadview Press, 2011.