James Bond - The Last Knight of the Round Table
"The name's Gawain, Sir Gawain." Cue theme music.
The knight—the quintessential figure of western masculinity. Astride a brilliant charger in gleaming armor, a lance in his hand and a sword belted at his thigh, the knight rides forth to win honor, wealth, and glory. The knight, bound by a code yet always the master of his own fate. He bows to his chosen liege-lord, but never to another—and is destined for the charms of a lady awaiting him somewhere. Indeed, the knight is the western hero.
And basically the coolest guy ever.
The word spy is synonymous with the character of James Bond. Slick, svelte, and dark, Bond is the classic British special agent. Flying around corners in his trusty Aston-Martin, snatching his custom Walther sidearm from inside his tuxedo, and bedding inexplicable numbers of woman are all in a day’s work for Bond. Bond, in many ways, seems to be the modern world’s best depiction of hyper-masculinity. He's bold, brash, and undeniably attractive--and in the worst way possible. So why are we so obsessed with Agent 007?
Perhaps we aren't. Perhaps it isn't Bond that we are drawn to so magnetically, but rather what he is an echo of. Something much, much older. A knight in shining armor, deadly and self-controlled. Bound by his honor and not much else. This is Bond. And it's Sir Gawain, the most famous knight of the Round Table (back off, Lancelot). Both of them are the last line of defense against an outside world that is mystical, confusing, and deadly.
We'll begin with Gawain.
Gawain is the ultimate Medieval knight. He's the defender of Camelot, and a true king's man. He'll do anything, anything to keep his homeland safe. Bond, of course, shares this maddening preoccupation with his homeland. At the same time, however, Gawain is tied to a kingdom in decline. By the time Gawain reaches his true heights of greatness, Camelot is doomed to fall because of the infidelities of Lancelot and Guinevere.
And this is the tie that binds Bond and his predecessor.
Gawain serves as a mythic representation of the lost age of Anglo-Saxon dominance in a post-Hastings world. The Green Knight, Gawain’s nemesis, is both strange, sorcerous, and alien. Like Silva, the strange villain of Skyfall, the Green Knight is a being who dwells in the land and yet is a distinctly foreign threat. Bond, likewise, reflects the aging and yet still noble and vital role of Great Britain in a post-World War II era. Even on the darkest day, the film conveys, Britain can rise again. The odds can never beat Mr. Bond.
Nor do they intimidate his knightly forerunner. Gawain demonstrates all the boldness we could dream of in a medieval knight. Rather than shying away from his promise, Gawain “seizes his helmet and kisses it quickly,” setting out to fulfill his oath (Winny 605). Gawain’s ability to leap into the challenge at hand, dealing with the unseemliness of a task not fit for his change will be a recurrent theme in British literature. In Bond, it will be reflected in his unflinching ability to deal with the sordid actions committed on behalf of national security. In Skyfall, when Bond returns to MI5, M questions his motives rhetorically. Bond’s response is simple, if opaque: “Well, I’m here”. When the need arises, Bond will always be prepared to combat whatever Green Knight faces Britain.
The heart of Gawain’s tale lies in his encounter’s with the wife of the eponymous Green Knight. The lady’s ongoing efforts to seduce Gawain—the most charming being her encouragement to “show me your expertise while my husband is away”—are repeatedly rebuffed by Gawain (Winny 1533-1534). Gawain’s tact in this situation is in classic British taste, and quite comical. He must, to the amusement of the reader, both avoid claims of homosexuality and discourtesy whilst simultaneously avoiding the obviously disastrous outcome of sleeping with his host’s wife. The great irony of this tale, of course, is that to maintain his honor as a heterosexual Gawain must lavish kisses upon his host, who exclaims with delight, “By St. Giles, you’re the best man I know” (1644-1645).
It is difficult to imagine Bond caring much about decency in such a situation. However, despite Bond’s “excessive masculinity,” one does not have to look far to find a somewhat similar encounter (Cox 190). In Skyfall, Bond must confront the homosexual advances of Silva while still maintaining his cool under pressure. Like Gawain, Bond’s response is to demean himself. Gawain attests, feigning stupidity while praising his hostess, that he is “the servant of your wishes” even as he slyly refuses to engage in adulterous sex (Winny 1548). Bond is equally adept in his handling of Silva, quipping “what makes you think this is my first time” when Silva mentions the intimidating effect of his advances towards Bond (Mendes). Indeed, Bond’s tactic is a step above Gawain’s, with one author noting that it places “Silva is positioned as both a failed heterosexual…and exhibiting the wrong kind of resilience” (Dodd 126). Much like Gawain, Bond’s demonstration of his comfort with a homosexual act establishes his heterosexual credibility.
Bond’s captivity at the hands of Silva is played off as the means of Silva’s capture, establishing Bond as a man willing to serve as bait in a trap at the behest of his county. Thus, Bond exhibits the ability to suffer a defeat and still emerge as the knight in shining armor. This theme echoes, of course, Gawain’s scarring at the hands of the Green Knight, wherein he triumphs despite breaking, to a small extent, the rules of his agreement with the enchanted knight. “True man must pay back truly,” the Green Knight informs Gawain (2354). Gawain’s sufferings flow from this need for self-preservation—a consequence of his decision to take what he believes is a danger-warding belt. The price he pays is thus a reflection on his momentary elevation of self above his nationalist roots. Like Bond, then, his redemption is in blood and sex, both sacrificed in the name of county.
To this day, I do not think I am alone in treasuring the mythic image of British knighthood. The ticket sales at each Bond film reflect this very same universal infatuation. This should not surprise us. Bond thrives today as a throwback to a more conventional time. Ever resilient, Bond emerged from every scrape triumphant, the savior of queen and country. The crisis of Anglo-Norman England is, in many ways, our own crisis. We look to a Gawain, a Bond, a knight, to save us from the turbulent changes of modernity.
Is this the right call? Probably not.
The issue with the archetype of the knight is that the stakes are much higher in the modern world. A warrior like Gawain might by the right person for a world of lances and men-at-arms, but perhaps not in the nuclear age. The misogyny, cruelty, and anger of Bond illustrate how risky the embrace of this ideal has grown. Gawain is portrayed as a saintly knight; while Bond is a sex-crazed spy. Yet both fall prey to notions that self-preservation is to be preferred to doing the right thing.
The older ideal in Christianity was that of the sacrificial lamb, an image borrowed from Judaism and distilled into perfection by the suffering Christ. The message of this approach is not "victory at any cost," but "victory through sacrifice." And that's preferable, I think, to even a slick-looking Daniel Craig in a tuxedo.
Campbell, Martin, director. Casino Royale. Performance by Daniel Craig, MGM, 2006.
Cox, Katharine. "Becoming James Bond: Daniel Craig, Rebirth, and Refashioning Masculinity in Casino Royale (2006)." Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, June 2014, pp. 184-196. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09589236.2013.783462.
Dodds, Klaus. "Shaking and Stirring James Bond: Age, Gender, and Resilience in
Skyfall (2012)." Journal of Popular Film & Television, vol. 42, no. 3, July 2014, pp. 116-130. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/01956051.2013.858026.
Mendes, Sam, director. Skyfall. Performance by Daniel Craig, MGM, 2013.
Winny, James, editor. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Broadview Press, 2011, online.hillsdale.edu/file/great-books-101/week-11/Week-11---Jackson-GB-101-2014-Readings.pdf.
Tolkien, J.R.R., and Eve Gordon, editors. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1967, quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/Gawain/1:1?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.