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,See Important Quotations Explained
Early in the morning, the host and his guests get out of bed and prepare to ride forth from the castle. They attend Mass, eat a small breakfast, and leave with their hunting dogs as dawn breaks. They ride through the woods, chasing after the deer and herding the does away from the bucks and harts. In the fields, they slay the deer dozens at a time with their deadly arrows. The hounds hunt down the wounded animals, and the hunters follow to kill them off with their knives.
Back at the castle, Gawain lingers in bed until daybreak. While still half asleep, he hears the door open quietly. Peeking out of his bed’s canopy, he sees the host’s wife creeping toward his bed. Gawain lies back down, pretending to be asleep. Stealthily, the lady climbs inside the bed curtains and sits beside Gawain. Confused but curious, Gawain stretches and pretends to wake up. Upon seeing the lady in his bed, he feigns surprise and makes the sign of the cross. The host’s wife smiles and greets him, teasing him for sleeping so deeply that he didn’t notice her entering his chamber. She jokes that she has captured him, and she threatens to tie him to the bed, laughing at her own game. Gawain laughs and “surrenders” to her, then asks her leave to get up and put on his clothes. She refuses, saying that instead she will hold him captive. She tells Gawain that she has heard many stories about him and wants to spend time alone with him. She offers to be his servant and tells him to use her body any way he sees fit.
The two continue bantering, and the lady tells Gawain that she would have chosen him for her husband if she could have. Gawain responds that her own husband is the better man. Until mid-morning, the lady continues to lavish Gawain with admiration, and Gawain continues to guard himself while still being gracious.
When the lady gets up to leave, she laughs and then sternly accuses her captive knight of not being the real Gawain. Alarmed and worried that he has failed in his courtesy, Gawain asks her to explain what she means. She responds that the real Gawain would never let a lady leave his chamber without taking a kiss. Gawain allows one kiss, and then the lady leaves. He dresses immediately and goes to hear Mass, then spends the afternoon with the host’s wife and the old woman.
Meanwhile, the lord has been hunting deer with his men all day. As evening comes on, the hunters begin to flay the animals, separating the meat and skin from the carcasses. The poet describes the dismembering of the deer in gory detail, from the removal of their bowels to the severing of their heads. After they finish their bloody task, the hunters return home with their meat.
The host greets Gawain and gives him the venison he won during the hunt that day. Gawain thanks him and in return gives him the kiss he won from the lady. The host jokingly asks where Gawain won such a prize, and Gawain points out that they agreed to exchange winnings, not to tell where or how they were acquired. Happy, the men feast and retire to bed, agreeing before they part to play the game again the next day.
The next two days follow a similar pattern. On the second day, the lord hunts a wild boar, risking his life as he wrestles it to the ground and stabs it with his sword. At the castle, the lady continues to teasingly challenge Gawain’s reputation, pressuring him into allowing her two kisses and continuing to make convincing arguments for how his acceptance of her love would be chivalrous. That night, the host brings home the boar’s head on a stick and exchanges it with Gawain for the two kisses.
On the third day the host hunts a fox, and Gawain, awakened by the lady from horrible nightmares about the Green Knight, receives three kisses from the lady during the course of their conversation. However, while they banter, the lady asks Gawain for a love token. Gawain refuses to fulfill her request, claiming he has nothing to give, so the lady offers him a ring, which he also refuses. She then offers him her green girdle, which she claims has magical properties: it possesses the ability to keep the man who wears it safe from death. Tempted by the possibility of protecting his life, Gawain accepts the girdle.
That afternoon, Gawain goes to confession. At the end of the day, he gives the three kisses to his host but fails to mention the lady’s gift. After the exchange, the host and his courtiers hold a farewell party for Gawain, who later retires to his chamber, prepared to leave the next day to seek out the Green Chapel. Whether he sleeps or not, the poet cannot say.
The alternating hunting scenes and bedroom scenes narrated in Part
There are a number of parallels between the hunt scenes and Gawain’s own quest. The host considers his gory and dangerous hunts “sport” in the same way the Green Knight considers his pact with Gawain a “game,” and, like the Green Knight’s challenge, the hunt scenes test the hunters’ nobility. The way the doe hunt starts out by separating the victims from the herd brings to mind the Green Knight’s challenge to Arthur and his company. The deer hunt happens at a group level, with multiple hunters and the mass execution of dozens of animals. In medieval hunting guides and bestiaries, deer are ranked as “beasts of venery” or “beasts of chase.” Though not fierce or confrontational, the animals were considered noble to hunt because they challenged their hunters’ skill and because their meat and hides have use value.
The boar hunt, on the other hand, engages the host and his prey in one-on-one combat. Boars were also considered beasts of venery, but were among the most dangerous game when cornered. That the host decapitates the boar and carries his head into the castle on a pike also recalls Gawain’s imminent decapitation. Interestingly, the foxes hunted on the third and final hunt were, in the Middle Ages, considered mere rodents, of the lowest class of the beasts of venery. Though difficult to hunt, they represented no real nobility or value, and were considered ignoble and deceitful animals whose fur possessed little usefulness or beauty. Thus, to spend the entire day hunting and to bring back nothing but what the host calls a “foul fox pelt” seems like time and energy wasted (
The three bedroom scenes also take the form of games, and they also build toward an anticlimax. The lady plays a new kind of game with Gawain, putting him in a precarious situation by testing two knightly virtues that she places at odds with one another: his courtesy and chastity. When Gawain refuses to give in to the lady sexually, she accuses him of being discourteous; as soon as he responds in a more courteous manner, the lady again pushes him toward being unchaste. The lady’s arguments, which are duplicitous and highly persuasive, vary between complex subtlety and bawdy suggestion. During their first bedroom encounter she claims innocently that she wants to “pass an hour in pastime with pleasant words” (
By claiming that she possesses Gawain only through God’s grace, the lady evokes a complicated system of religious and political imagery. As the host’s wife and as a noblewoman more generally, the lady exceeds Gawain in rank, and his chivalry requires him to obey her, facts of which she reminds him when attempting to seduce him. Also, the notion that courtly love—the love a knight might have for a lady of higher rank than himself—leads to spiritual ennoblement had been popularized centuries earlier in continental literature. Invoking religion at this erotically charged moment reminds Gawain that part of his spiritual education as a knight should involve courtly love. For Gawain to refuse her advances, he must break his knightly responsibility to be courteous; for him to accept, he must break his chastity.
On the third day, Gawain’s resolve weakens when the stakes shift radically from courtesy versus chastity to honesty versus safety. On the surface, the green silk girdle that the lady offers Gawain looks exactly like the kind of token that a courtly lady might give her lover (and Gawain initially rejects it for this reason), yet the ethical dilemma it represents is related to self-preservation rather than to chastity. When the lady tells him that the girdle also protects its wearer from being wounded or killed, Gawain is eager to be able to fulfill his promise to the Green Knight and still survive. What Gawain wants is a loophole through which he can escape death but still honor his covenant with the Green Knight. Unfortunately, using this loophole requires him to deceive his host—a breach of honesty and gratitude for hospitality. Gawain does not notice that the girdle’s silk is green and gold, like the Green Knight’s clothing, and he disassociates the girdle itself from the lady’s body, which it surely symbolizes, despite its magical properties, or else accepting it would not have been taboo in the first place.
Though in the end Gawain does not sleep with the host’s wife, and though he does not view lying about the magical girdle to save his life to be as big a crime as adultery, the omission nevertheless breaks his vow with the host. In desiring to find a loophole in his covenant with the Green Knight, Gawain also seeks to create one in his agreement with the host. The fact that Gawain goes to confess his sins immediately after taking the girdle indicates that he knows he has broken his vow.
One medieval scholar famously asked what Gawain would have to give the host if he had in fact slept with the lady, and the possibility of Gawain and the host’s wife having sex certainly raises this question. Consequently, homoeroticism is at the heart of the exchange-of-winnings game, since Gawain’s winnings are inevitably in the form of sexual favors, and since he is required by his pact with the host to give his winnings to the host at the end of the day. The logical outcome, if the lady had succeeded, would be that Gawain and the host would have to sleep together. The erotic scenario in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight creates a triangulation of desire: through their mutual attentions to the host’s wife, Gawain and the host establish an implicitly sexual connection with one another.