Here we are in Fitt III of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the wondrous, thoughtful, magical fourteenth-century poem. If you’ve missed the previous three installments, I’d recommend reading those first, because we are now on the downward slope towards the exciting conclusion. Gawain has found himself in an enchantingly beautiful castle in snowy, distant woods, just in time to celebrate Christmas and the New Year. And much to his relief and trepidation, he has learned that the Green Chapel, where he must meet the blow given by the mysterious Green Knight, is only two miles distant. Despite all Gawain’s negative past experience with games offered by strangers, he has entered into yet another one, with the host of the castle, Lord Bertilak. Bertilak is going hunting for the next few days, and anything he kills in his hunt he will give to Gawain—if Gawain gives him anything that he has received at the castle in Bertilak’s absence.
Fitt III is constructed in a really interesting way. It’s split, between scenes of Bertilak hunting and scenes of quite a different kind of hunt. I will be frank with you: this is my least favorite fitt. Hunting scenes are not my jam. However, hunting was an elaborate, important medieval ritual for the nobles of the time. I say nobles, because that’s mainly who hunted. The King owned forests for the most part in medieval England, and he granted permission to hunt in them. Otherwise, anything caught in those forests belonged to him. Peasants were even killed for daring to hunt for food in those areas.
Hunting was also another area in which to display your aristocratic, well-bred courtesy and expertise. There were entire handbooks written for the correct way to kill and then process a deer. There were entirely different rules for the hunt of each kind of animal. And so this passage is another chance for the Gawain-poet to show his aristocratic audience that he’s in the know. The hunt was a place to show your style as much as the court was. We can still see the ancestors of this idea today, in England, with fox hunting. Fox hunting is an elaborate ritual, with the right kind of gear, the best horse, and its own vocabulary, incomprehensible to the uninitiated… or the not-so-high-class.
The Gawain-poet writes with a savage, bloody beauty in these hunting scenes, deploying that correct vocabulary with precision. It’s unbelievably skilled, but more difficult to appreciate today due to our distance from that culture and taste. Maybe if you’re a hunter you would enjoy it more; I am not one. Also, it seems to me that hunters and poetry folk might not coexist in the same Venn Diagram. I’d be happy to be proven wrong! Listen, briefly, to Simon Armitage’s translation of the hunting of the female deer:
But the hinds were halted with hollers and whoops and the din drove the does to sprint for the dells. Then the eye can see that the air is all arrows: all across the forest they flashed and flickered, biting through hides with their broad heads. What! They bleat as they bleed and they die on the banks, and always the hounds are hard on their heels, and the hunters on horseback come hammering behind with stone-splitting cries, as if cliffs had collapsed. (Armitage, 1158-1166)
From this loud, hacking, driving scene, the poet leads us into a quiet bedchamber back at the castle. Exhausted after all his journeys, Gawain sleeps late in a room dappled with sunlight. He awakens when he hears the door gently open. He quietly peers to see who the intruder is. It’s the lady of the castle, and Gawain decides to pretend like he’s still sleeping, and meditates on what this visit might mean. She’s gorgeously arrayed, beautiful as ever. Gawain decides he should stop pretending to sleep and ask her what she’s doing here, and this part cracks me up:
So he stirred and stretched, turned on his side, lifted his eyelids and, looking alarmed, crossed himself hurriedly with his hand, as if saving his life. (Armitage, 1200-1204)
I love the fake crossing himself with shock. I think the poet is having a little laugh at Gawain’s bad acting, especially with the glimpse into his thought processes. And by the way, we take such interior monologuing in literature for granted, but this is a really early example of “interior consciousness” in poetry. This is also why you should roll your eyes at anyone who thinks modern people are more conscious or self-aware than medieval or ancient people.
Gawain is “trapped” as the lady laughingly announces, just like the deer driven down towards the water then slaughtered by the hunters in wait. Gawain carefully “loads his words with laughter” as he asks permission to rise and put on his clothes (we think perhaps he is sleeping naked, making this scene all the more vulnerable!). The Lady winkingly refuses—she notes she has pinned the famous Sir Gawain, and now she and he are left all alone, she suggestively emphasizes. “Do with me what you will.” Not very subtle!
Thus begins a game of romance chess. Each player in this game counters the other. The Lady moves with overt seduction, layering each speech of hers with sexy innuendo. Gawain, too, layers his speech. He flirts with her, compliments her, but avoids her seduction at all costs, determined not to betray his host. But he is truly trapped, more than just being caught in bed with his pants down. Both know that one of the chivalric values of knighthood is that very love-talk we discussed in the last episode. So Gawain is effectively caught between two facets of his identity: the knight Gawain and the Christian Gawain are at odds. The knight Gawain is expected by his society and tradition to woo and court this beautiful lady (whom, the poet makes perfectly clear, Gawain does desire). The Christian Gawain, with Mary on the inside of his shield, must not commit adultery nor betray the person who took him in from the bitter cold, Bertilak.
Finally, the Lady taunts Gawain into giving her a kiss:
“May the Lord repay you for your prize performance. But I know that Gawain could never be your name.” “But why not?” the knight asked nervously, afraid that some fault in his manners had failed him. The beautiful woman blessed him, then rebuked him: “A good man like Gawain, so greatly regarded, the embodiment of courtliness to the bones of his being, could never have lingered so long with a lady without craving a kiss, as politeness requires, or coaxing a kiss with his closing words.’ (Armitage, 1292-1301)
And yes—Gawain enfolds her in his arms, and kisses her. Alarm bells should be ringing right about now. The original verse of Gawain as the embodiment of courtliness to the bones of his being clues us in to some big problems: “Cortaysye is closed so clene in hymseluen” (1298), or courtesy is closed clean in himself. Remember Gawain’s shield? Cleanness, or purity, and courtesy, or impeccable knightly manners, were both points on the pentangle. And now they are at odds with one another.
As so often happens in real life, parts of our identities clash with one another. Difficult choices or foolish mistakes reveal the selves we desire to be, and who we really are. We see this all the time in public apologies, to make a brief point. I hate the phrase “that’s not really who I am” after someone messes up publicly and has to apologize. Though you may not like that you did that, and now see the error of your ways, it was you who wrote that stupid tweet, made that ill-advised comment, and so on.
This poet lived before public apology was really a thing. But he sees that the values we build up around ourselves—the public and private identities, the shields and self-portraits—simplify deeply complex motives and fragile ecosystems of inner peace. This, of course, doesn’t mean that virtue isn’t real, or undesirable. But it does indicate that when we use them to construct ourselves, to portray ourselves to the world, they can be just as breakable as anything else. Any virtue, as every medieval theologian knew, can be susceptible to that ultimate corruptor, pride. Gawain is actually not proud at all, the way we are used to thinking of it. He’s constantly aware of the others around him, serving those he needs to serve, not trumpeting his skills or flaunting how much people love him. But Gawain, like any of us, can become so aware of, so enchanted with, this ideal, wonderful version of himself that he presents, that it becomes the driving force behind all his actions. Gawain so desperately wants to live up to his reputation as the perfect knight that he can resist this breathtaking woman who so clearly wants to sleep with him—up until she invokes that very identity as the perfect knight.
Once he kisses her, she leaves him, to his great relief. He attends mass and feasts joyfully with her and the old crone who is her companion. No damage has truly been done yet. In a famously homoerotic moment, the two men exchange their winnings at that night’s feast. Gawain merrily kisses Bertilak after receiving what seems like countless deer corpses. And onto the next day.
Yet again, Bertilak happily slaughters. Today, instead of deer, he pursues a ferocious, massive wild boar. I thought of this scene recently when a wild boar attacked the pop singer Shakira in a park in Madrid, an absolutely wild headline that sounds generated by the web. It really happened though! Too bad Bertilak wasn’t there. And by the way, wild boars can be extremely dangerous. He handily kills the great, savage beast, again in the flawless, brutal web of specialized hunting poetry woven by this poet.
And yet again, the Lady sneaks into Gawain’s room in the morning. And again, when he does not follow up on her more explicit advances, she challenges his identity, and suggests he could take what he wanted anytime by force. If you are truly Gawain, use those muscles to get what you want. Interestingly, just like in the last game, we see the inherent connection between knightly identity and the violence always just one step away. Gawain rebuffs her, saying that while he does have nice big muscles, he doesn’t take gifts not given freely. If she demands a kiss, he will courteously supply it. And so she does, and he does. And she teasingly doubts him again, wondering aloud why such a renowned knight is not schooling her in love-talk while her husband is away. Gawain cleverly says that he should be learning from her, not vice versa, and dodges the attempt. And so finally they kiss again, and she leaves, and he heads off to mass.
Bertilak and Gawain exchange their winnings again, kissing twice and proffering boar meat. But at the feast that night, the Lady is so flirtatious with Gawain, that he is
maddened and amazed, but his breeding forbade him from rebuking a lady, and though tongues might wag he returned her attention all night. (Armitage, 1660-1663)
Dawn of the third day. Bertilak hears mass and leaves to go hunt a wily fox. And the wiliest fox, Gawain, finds himself again with the Lady in his bedchamber. He had been in fitful sleep, dreaming of the Green Chapel and the coming blow. This time, the poet tells us, the Lady is dressed to truly impress. I read in Middle English:
No hwef goud on her hede, but the hayer stones Trased aboute her tressour be twenty in clusteres; Her thryuen face and her throte throwen all naked, Hir brest bare before, and bihinde eke. (1738-1741)
That naked expanse of skin dazzles Gawain with flowing, warming joy. And the poet warns us that he stands in great peril, unless Mary will save her knight. Gawain knows the boundary between chivalrous flirtation and adultery is thin, but he swears he won’t pass it. They kiss, and the lady begs him to give her a gift to remember him by, or at least to take a gift from her.
You may be familiar with this system of knightly behavior. Think of a movie you’ve seen with a tournament scene. The one I embarrassingly immediately think of is Disney’s Robin Hood, with the archery tournament. Fox Robin Hood in disguise takes Fox Maid Marian’s handkerchief and wears it proudly as a token of her esteem and affection. Knights wore the token of their lady, secretly or proudly, and in return they won whatever tournament in her name. Often, such tokens signified fealty to the wife of their lord—sometimes they signified more.
The Lady tries to give Gawain a ring, and when he refuses, she offers something smaller. She unties a girdle, a belt or lace, from around her body. It is green, trimmed with gold, and tries to give it to him. But she urges him to take it: “If you know, Gawain, of the power this girdle possesses, you wouldn’t say no.”
‘“For the body which is bound within this green belt, as long as it is buckled robustly about him, will be safe against anyone who seeks to strike him, and all the slyness on earth wouldn’t see him slain.” The man mulled it over, and it entered his mind it might just be the jewel for the jeopardy he faced…’ (Armitage, 1851-1856)
The one condition upon taking this green, life-saving girdle is not telling her husband. Gawain agrees, and kisses her. He hides the girdle away, and goes to confession so that if he dies on the morrow, he will be clean. Fully and frankly, the poet tells us, Gawain confesses his sins.
This part always confuses me. The priest pronounces him clean. But did Gawain tell the priest of his lie of omission in keeping the girdle? Does it not count as a sin? The poet gives us no clear answers.
And he and the Lord exchange winnings, and Gawain merrily feasts. He believes he has weathered the temptations of Bertilak’s castle without dishonoring his host and damaging his own reputation. Yet in the back of his mind, he cannot escape the recognition that he will face his doom the next day. Will he live? Will he die? Is the girdle truly magical? He has broken the rules of one game. Does it matter? Only tomorrow can tell.
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