Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Important Quotations Explained

Quotes Important Quotations Explained

Quote 4

“Sir, if you be Gawain, it seems a great wonder—
A man so well-meaning, and mannerly disposed,
And cannot act in company as courtesy bids,
And if one takes the trouble to teach him, ‘tis all in vain.
That lesson learned lately is lightly forgot,
Though I painted it as plain as my poor wit allowed.”
“What lesson, dear lady?” he asked all alarmed;
“I have been much to blame, if your story be true.”
“Yet my counsel was of kissing,” came her answer then,
“Where favor has been found, freely to claim
As accords with the conduct of courteous knights.”
         (1481–1491)

In Part 3, Gawain and the host’s wife have this exchange on the second morning of Gawain’s game with the host. The lady’s comments highlight the tension between courtesy and chastity, a tension she exploits in an attempt to get what she wants. The lady starts out by challenging Gawain’s name and reputation, claiming that her guest cannot be the real Gawain, because that famous knight would not forget to be “gracious.” She likens him to an errant student who has forgotten his lesson from the day before and herself to his teacher. In doing so, she calls upon a huge store of cultural imagery from the courtly love and classical traditions.

In the courtly love tradition, the beloved lady ideally works as a kind of erotic teacher, instructing the lover in proper spiritual comportment as well as in the courtly “art of love.” The courtly lady is supposed to ennoble her knight by teaching him how to be a proper lover and a better man. At the same time, the host’s wife evokes the classical tradition of education, in which female allegorical figures such as Lady Grammar and Lady Philosophy are responsible for the education of boys and men. Not only does the lady construct herself as Gawain’s sexual teacher, but she also imagines herself as his schoolmistress in the arts of speaking and behaving properly. The courtly and the classical traditions are by no means mutually exclusive, but their cooperation here lends force to the lady’s attempts to persuade Gawain to give up his chastity, as Gawain’s troubled response attests.