Gawain and the Green Knight

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In the poem Gawain And the Green Knight, a wager begins between Gawain and Bertilak. This poem was first written in England, where knights were expected to follow a code of Chivalry—which tells them how to behave. Gawain, the main character, is no different from any other human, as every decision he makes has to follow the code of chivalry—except one. This one decision he makes causes him to be punished, suggesting that a man must strive to be chivalrous, even when faced with temptation. Although the poem constantly depicts Gawain as the perfect knight: Gawain’s shield, the way he dresses on his search to find the green chapel and even advertises his glorious virtues. But there is a moment in time where we see Gawain not being so virtuous—he was tempted by a woman. Bertilak’s wager which reverts back to the one with the Green Knight in front of King Arthur. Both are tests masked as games, hinting that the wager may not be as easy and safe as it first seems. The structure of the text is such, that it combines separate plots of the hunting scenes and the bedroom scenes, inferring an analogous relationship between the two. This suggests early on in the poem that the action taking place in the hunting scenes is more than likely to mirror the bedroom scenes. With the lord’s hunt for his prey becoming a metaphor for the lady’s attempts to entrap Gawain. Besides looking wonderful, Gawain And the Green Knight depicts parallels because of the three hunts and the three bedroom scenes.

The Author invites a comparison early on in the passage with the use of similar language to set each scene. On the first day, “As morning was lifting its lamp to the land / His lordship and his huntsmen were high on horseback,” (1137-1138) Whilst Gawain lay in bed “dozing as the daylight dappled the walls” (1180). In both cases the scene is set with the image of morning light, drawing us in comparing the two and highlighting the contrasts within the text. Gawain is relaxed in the comfortable surroundings of his bedchamber while Bertilak is off, and out in pursuit of the deer. Bertilak is off hunting a deer while Gawain is relaxing in the surroundings of his bedroom. This can suggest that Gawain’s surroundings might not be as easy and safe as we are led to believe. They seem to warn the audience of the intense danger he is facing or going to face in the future. For example, the deer is disturbed while the men are hunting—so is Gawain. While back in the bedroom, Gawain is surprised to see the lord’s wife suddenly appear in his bedroom. This implies Gawain can be caught like prey just like the deer being caught. “But my gracious lady, if you grant me leave, / will you pardon this prisoner and prompt him to rise” (1218-1219). He calls himself a prisoner like he is being held captive and the lady says, “the man I have pinned” (1225). This language further initiates the parallels between the hunt and the seduction. Moreover, both scenes ran fluently and there is no apparent danger to Gawain or the hunters. The lady was able to advance comfortably “He loaded his light-hearted words with laughter” (1217). It was even stated, “Every move she made / he countered case by case” (1261-1262). Considering the fact that he also remained on guard the whole time. The language in this passage sounds as though he was preparing for a sword fight rather than a conversation. The ending of each scene centers on the joy of Gawain and Bertilak, “It would be pure joy” (1247). There are similar descriptions that link the scenes together and serve as a reminder of the deliberate proximity of these scenes, attracting the audience’s attention and demanding further evaluation and pairing of the two scenes. “Through the sliced-opened throat they seized the stomach/ and the butchered innards were bound in a bundle. / Next they lopped off the legs and peeled back the pelt/ and hooked out the bowels through the broken belly/ but being cautious not to cleave the knot. / Then they clasped the throat, and clinically they cut/ the gullet from the wind pipe, then garbaged the guts” (1330-1336). This one quote suggests that the deer hunt was able to run smoothly because it has a clear plan to follow, especially at the opening to the precise clinical preparation of the dead deer all the way to the end. The hunters knew what they were doing, what would happen, which deer to kill, which to surrender and where to steer the herd. The author describes the hunters as perfect and practiced—highlighting that this was an easy task. This, in turn, implies that lady Bertilak is both perfect and precise with her art of seduction in the bedroom. The plunge between the indoor scene to the slaughter of the hunts shows the contrast, but also the similarity: they are both scenes of dignified amusement.

At the end of the third day, Bertilak gives signs that the final day will be the most challenging “But think tomorrow third time throw best” (1680). This time around, the hunt is a fox—with the human tribute of cunning, making this a challenge for Bertilak. Although, a Fox is not a noble kill like the boar and the deer, thus showing Bertilak lack of pride in the kill. This hunt changed and so did the seduction; when the lady enters Gawain’s room, she changed her dressing. She was more alluring—this is especially challenging for Gawain, as seeing her like this makes “a passionate heat take in his heat” (1762). Lady Bertilak’s language also becomes less like courtly love and more forceful “For that the noble princess pushed him and pressed him, / nudged him ever nearer to a limit where he needed / to allow her to love or impolitely reject it” (1770- 1772). The lady was forcing Gawain to make an important decision: does Gawain break the knightly code of courtesy or his chastity. Looking at this another way, Lady Bertilak is like the fox—she was crafty, and Gawain will have to approach that day’s trial differently to the previous, as will Bertilak with a different kind of kill. Gawain survived the preceding days, taking only kisses which are harmless enough, as he had taken them from the ladies and the lords at Camelot when he departed on his quests, however, the difficulty of the moral testing Gawain is receiving has increased with each day. Just as the kisses have grown, the shifts to one less about charity and more about his loyalty to his wager. Lady Bertilak fails in seducing Gawain with her appearance and teasing because he was cautious, so she tests him in another way; by appealing to his desire to live instead.

Majority of the audience accepts that this is where Gawain fails because he takes the protective girdle and doesn’t give it to Bertilak—this suggests that he has more desire to live which outweighs his loyalty to the wager. Because he was offered a ring, this begged the question as to why Gawain—not knowing that the girdle would also be offered, would refuse the ring. One theory for not accepting the ring would be because there is a possibility as to why Gawain doesn’t accept the ring because of its value. If Gawain accepts the ring there is a possibility of him being guilty of the deadly sin of greed which in the moral testing view would be a failure. Another possibility as to why Gawain doesn’t accept the ring is because it’s red which can symbolize hell. The red on the gold ring can also be inferred that the red symbolizes love and lust since Gawain is used to resisting the temptations which made turning down the ring part of his refusal to be seduced. This could be because rings are a token of love in today’s society and often used in marriages. This suggests that Gawain was turning down Lady Bertilak as a lover, not rebelling against greed. Although, his acceptance of the girdle makes him seem more human as reflected in the killing if the fox, but both cases are small wins for the hosts. Though the fox is worth nothing to Bertilak and Gawain has taken only the girdle. The audience can infer Gawain was only trying to be respectful to a lady, something that is expected in a knight’s code of chivalry.

Gawain understands the importance of keeping a wager, considering he is determined to find the Green Knight, however, in trying to be chivalrous he doesn’t keep the wager with Bertilak. Although he is forgiven, punished and not killed this was the Green Knight’s right to choose such mercy. The importance of keeping to the rules much like keeping to the law is still a clear theme that runs throughout the text. Gawain’s shame reinforces this, and the girdle is no longer a symbol of protection, but an emblem of weakness and sin. The nature of chivalry (the knight’s code) is a key theme in the text and is explored in Gawain’s moral testing. Chivalry is a significant part of Arthur’s court, but these hunting scenes and the bedroom scenes show that the rules of chivalry cannot always be followed—a good knight would make the right choices anyway. Although, a knight can never be perfect because he is human.

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Gawain And the Green Knight. (2019, Jan 11). Retrieved from

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