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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Literature

Part 3 (lines 1126–1997)

Summary Part 3 (lines 1126–1997)

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” (1253), and she seems pious when she praises God for putting in her hands “all hearts’ desire” (1257). Yet we know that she is pinning a naked Gawain to the bed, holding him in her arms.

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.