Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Part III

As Gawain’s quest moves toward its climax, thematic patterns shape the narrative more and more.  There are three days of hunting.  The host hunts in the forest: deer, boar, and fox.  The hostess hunts Gawain in the bedchamber.

On the first day, echoes of British wintertime abound.  The old carol “The Holly and the Ivy” sings of “the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,” the processes of nature that go on while evergreens thrive in the snow.  We learn all about hunting in this poem.  It takes “a hundred brave huntsmen,” some mounted on horseback, some beaters in the brush, plus a large pack of baying hounds, to bring down a single non-aggressive wild forest creature.  Male deer are spared by law in this realm, a practice that’s hard to understand, especially since the deer have just passed mating season and pregnant females should assure a healthy population.   But if you ever wanted to know how to field-dress a deer, this poem has very detailed instructions.  The same kind of passage is found in Gottfried von Strasburg’s Romance of Tristan, so apparently the process was significant in the Middle Ages.

Lamia

John Waterhouse, “Lamia.” This image is often used to illustrate the temptation scenes in “Sir Gawain,” though it pictures a topic from classical myth. Note the “scaly” pattern of her dress, evoking the Serpent of Eden.

The castle activity is sandwiched between the poem’s description of the departure of the hunters and the narrative of the kill.  Gawain is sleeping in, under a coverlet and surrounded by the curtains of a canopy bed.  He hears the latch lifted, peeks out of the curtains, sees the hostess, and promptly pretends he’s still asleep.  Discretion is the better part of valor.  But she “cast aside the curtain and came within,” a very dramatic breaking of a social barrier and an invitation to intimacy.  Gawain is freaked out; he can’t discern her motives or intentions, but finally decides to pretend to wake up and engage in conversation.  As if he has much choice; she’s sitting on his curtained bed!

His first move is to cross himself as if in total surprise.  Then he suggests that she allow him to get dressed so they can have a proper conversation.  But the lady is having none of it, and she vows that he will not get up.  She pointedly defines the situation: her husband and his men are away hunting, the servants and her handmaidens are asleep, the bedroom door is secured with a “well-driven bolt.”  Just in case Gawain misses that phallic analogy, she proclaims “My body is here at hand, / Your each wish to fulfill.”  Apparently she’s not there to chat.

Their ensuing conversation is a torrent of mutual admiration and commendations to Mary and Christ.  She says many women would give the anything to lie beside him, and that her dearest hope in life would be to marry a man as perfect as Gawain is.  He praises her to the highest, says he is not worthy of her admiration, and mentions that she is married to a better man (a delicate reminder of the moral issue at hand).  She suggests that Gawain is not living up to his reputation as a lady’s man, but the poet emphasizes a subconscious drag on his passions; he’s aware that “he must bear the blinding blow” of the Green Knight’s axe in two days’ time.  Then she departs, but not before claiming one kiss as a matter of courtesy.  Afterwards, Gawain can’t get dressed and to the chapel for Mass quickly enough.

At the end of the day the host and his hunters return to the music of hunting horns and baying dogs, with a huge sack of prime venison.  This goes to Gawain, and Gawain responds by kissing the host.  He won’t disclose where or how he got the kiss, however.  There’s much joy, feasting, and jesting before bedtime.

Over the next two days, the routines repeat themselves.  Each hunt is executed according to the traits of the prey: the brute strength of the boar and the cunning of the fox.  The pattern is in ascending order of difficulty, with the physically weakest but wiliest prey providing the biggest challenge.  In the bedchamber the same patterns prevail.  On the second day the lady argues that Gawain, being a strong man, could have his way with her.  The unspoken implication is that she wishes he would overpower her with passion.  She faults him for not speaking any words of love, thereby being discourteous.   He only says his intent is to please her, and gives her another kiss.

girdle

The Magic Girdle

On the third morning, Gawain experiences the lure of sex, if only figuratively: “His heart swelled swiftly with surging joys. / They melt into mirth.”  But that’s after he has awakened from “the black dreams” about his upcoming confrontation.  After yesterday’s appeal to Gawain’s brute strength, the hostess has shifted to vulpine wiles.  Gawain tells her he has no lover and has no plans to take one; she seems to accept defeat and offers the exchange of love tokens.  After refusing an expensive ring, he accepts her cloth belt, or “girdle,” which is green with gold ornamentation.  Gawain misses the color clue.  But he takes the girdle because she explains that it has magic powers that prevent the wearer from coming to any harm.  Gawain thinks it could be of great value the next day.  She admonishes him to keep the exchange secret from her husband, and ends up kissing him three times before she goes.   When he exchanges gifts with the host that evening, he gives the three kisses, and says “all that I owe here is openly paid.”

Dramatically, suddenly, Gawain has compromised himself morally and ethically.  He has trusted in magic rather than in God and his own valor; he has dishonorably betrayed his host by accepting a gift from his wife, and he has lied about it.  Gawain went to confession at chapel that morning, and at night there is much mutual admiration and thanks.  The host provides a servant to guide him the next morning, while the whole household “commend[s] him to Christ with disconsolate sighs.”  But Gawain is disquieted; all he can do is lie in bed and wait for dawn to come, when he must take a journey to a confrontation he fears he will not survive.

©Arnold J. Bradford 2018

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