Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Summary and Analysis
Fitt III Summary:
Part Three of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight covers the three days before Gawain must leave the lord's castle to meet the Green Knight on New Year's Day. On the first day, as planned, the lord arises early to go hunting. The poet describes in detail the hunting party as it moves through the winter forest, hounds and blaring horns in hot pursuit of deer. Then, almost drastically, the scene switches to the interior of the castle, to Gawain's bedroom where he still lies beneath the covers as the morning breaks. The lovely lady of the castle silently enters his bedroom and sits on his bed, watching Gawain. The knight is already awake, but he pretends to sleep, wary of the situation and the lady's intentions. Eventually, he "wakes up" and acts surprised to find the lady there.
A careful dialogue follows between Gawain and the lady, where he delicately and diplomatically evades and parries her sexual advances. First, the lady threatens flirtatiously to keep him prisoner; then praising his greatness as a knight, she assures Gawain that their situation is secret and offers her body to him. Gawain replies that he is "certainly honored" (Gardner l. 1247), but declares himself wholly unworthy for a lady as good as her. The lady denies this and replies that if she were to choose any husband, she would choose Gawain himself. Gawain tells her that she has done better already, subtly reminding her of her own husband, and their pleasant conversation continues until mid-morning. As she is about to leave him, she asks for a kiss, and Gawain, as befits the chivalrous knight, grants her that. The rest of the day Gawain spends at mass and then in the company of the two ladies of the castle.
In the meantime, the lord's hunting party has slaughtered a great number of deer by sunset, and they then begin the meticulous process of cutting and dividing the bodies of the game. Once this is done, they return home and Gawain commends the lord for his fine hunting. As promised, the lord gives the game to Gawain and Gawain, in exchange, gives the lord a sweet kiss he received that day, but refuses to reveal who it was won from, claiming that it was not part of the agreement. The two men revel for the rest of the evening and agree to continue their contract, by exchanging their winnings of the next day.
The second day begins with the hunting party out before dawn, frantically on the trail of an ancient, huge, and vicious boar. Both men and hounds are injured in the dogged pursuit of this savage beast. Meanwhile, Gawain welcomes the lady as she enters his bedchamber, as dogged as ever in her pursuit of him. More flirtatious conversation ensues: she reprimands him for forgetting to kiss her, he states that he does not like to take things by force, she says that he would hardly need force. Then she praises his reputation in Courtly Love and asks to be taught; he wisely replies that she already knows more in the art of love. In the end, Gawain evades the lady's amorous intentions, with only two kisses being exchanged. Outside, the hunt of the boar continues viciously, and the savage swine is eventually cornered in a pool of water. The lord boldly wades in the water alone to confront the beast and wins the battle by thrusting his sword into the boar's heart. Another complicated process divides the body of the boar, and the triumphant hunting party returns to the castle. Again, Gawain and the lord are joyously reunited; just as the lord gives the boar to Gawain, the younger knight bestows two kisses on him. For the rest of the night, there is much merriment and singing of carols, while the lady continues to dote adoringly on Gawain. The lord convinces Gawain to stay a third day, with the same contract of exchanging winnings. He intones ominously: "For I've tested you twice, my friend, and found you faithful, / But it's always the third strike that counts" (Gardner ll. 1677-8).
The third day dawns with a description of its brilliant, wintry beauty, and the hunting dogs fall on the trail of a cunning fox, which constantly outwits and eludes the hunting party. Inside the castle, the lady enters Gawain's bedchamber while wearing a lovely and very revealing gown. She wakes him from his sorrowful slumber, as he dreads the impending day of doom at the Green Chapel. Relentless and charming as ever, she kisses him and asks if he is not promised to another lady elsewhere. Gawain denies this, and the lady begs him to leave her a token of remembrance. He has nothing to give her, but she in turn offers him a valuable ring of gold, which he kindly refuses. The lady then offers him a green silk tunic, which he at first refuses, but then she reveals that whoever wears the green girdle cannot be killed. Aware of his impending meeting with the Green Knight, Gawain accepts the girdle, which the lady begs to keep secret. After receiving a third kiss from her that morning, Gawain dresses, confesses his sins to a priest in preparation for his challenge the next day, and then spends the rest of the day in utter merriment. Meanwhile, after much dogged pursuit, the hunting party succeeds in stunning the wily fox, and the lord triumphantly captures the sly creature. That evening at the castle, Gawain gives the lord three kisses, who in turn gives him the lone product of the day's hard work, the "foul-smelling fox". But the party continues into the night and the lord assigns a servant to guide Gawain to the Green Chapel the next morning. Heavy-hearted, Gawain bids farewell to the people of the castle, all of whom are sad to see him go. That night, Gawain has trouble sleeping for fear of the next day's events.
Fitt III Analysis:
In analyzing Fitt III of the poem, it is impossible not to ignore the careful structuring of the three days of events, each with their parallel scenes of drama, both outdoors and indoors. On all three days, the structure is very similar: the lord hunts outdoors, while indoors, Sir Gawain is being hunted by the lady. At the end of each day, these two separate and very different hunts are brought together by the exchange of winnings between Gawain and the lord. The poet clearly intends to parallel the lord's hunting of beasts with the lady's hunting of Gawain. The very masculine pursuit of animals is thus equated to the lady's very feminine sexual pursuit of this chivalric hero.
But much more remains to be said about this deliberate parallel of hunting episodes. In many ways, this parallel de-constructs the superficial constructions of society which the poet has, throughout the poem, subtly questioned. By equating the delicate, artfully crafted pursuit of the knight to the rough, primal pursuit of the beasts, the poet has effectively reduced to basics all that medieval society has built up as the ultimate in chivalric behavior. The lady for the most part pursues Gawain by using complex flirtations and societal conventions that recall his sense of duty to a noble lady; yet she is banking on a very basic human instinct lust. Their dialogue is complex, drawing upon many medieval attitudes to courtesy and humility. Yet what it all comes down to is something very primal, very (in a sense) uncivil and animalistic. Again, then, we get a sense of the falseness of societal constructions. As with the descriptions of luxurious clothes and architecture, the careful, diplomatic dialogue between Gawain and the lady is extremely complex. But ultimately, they are only used to mask the real nature of human lust another example of societal artifice imposing itself falsely upon nature.
Interestingly enough, though, Gawain uses this very sense of civility to fend off the dangers of lust. It is only through his diplomatic responses and references to social rules (her existing marriage to the lord, his refusal to use force, etc.) that he is able to extricate himself from a very complicated situation. Indeed, Gawain's conflict is a very complex one because in rejecting the lady's requests he runs the risk of offending a moral code which until this moment, had never posed a problem to him. Chivalric duty had always required service and deference to both one's lord and one's lady, but only now does Gawain's fervent belief in chivalry create a conundrum for him. On the one hand, he is tempted to give into the lady's advances by his own human nature and by her appeal to his sense of chivalry to a noble lady. On the other hand, he counters this with his sense of chivalry to a sworn lord and his strong Christian belief. As with the earlier trial in the dark forest, it is Gawain's sense of Christian righteousness which ultimately saves him. The poet writes: "But the danger might have been great / Had Mary not watched her knight!" (Gardner ll. 1769-70)
But Gawain does not entirely evade the lady's seductions. His acceptance of the green girdle may at the time seem small, but it has huge consequences by the end of the poem. Thus, it is something worth examining. By secretly accepting the girdle and refusing to give it away, Gawain violates the agreement he had with his lord thereby violating the chivalric code of honor that binds such contracts. It is not nearly as great a violation as adultery would have been, but it nevertheless shatters the code of chivalry which Gawain lives by. Thus, where the lady failed to seduce Gawain by appealing to his desire for sex, she succeeds by appealing to his desire to live. Both are basic animal instincts, and while Gawain can smother the one through his strong moral sense, he cannot ultimately ignore the other: the fear of death hangs too much on him. In this way, the idealistic Gawain finally allows himself to be guided by his own nature, and not by his sense of societal duty.
Gawain's fear of mortality is obviously linked to his impending meeting with the Green Knight, and this is where the poet so masterfully connects this story about Gawain in the castle with the larger framework of the first, more imposing story about Gawain and the Green Knight. Furthermore, the poet's careful cross-cutting between outdoors and indoors hunting scenes equates Gawain with the hunted beasts both are pursued, both are gripped by the fear of death. Hence while Gawain does not at the time connect the lady's advances with the Green Knight's return stroke, the magical, death-defying green girdle does it for him, causing him to break his ever-important code of chivalry because of his fear of death.
To push the hunting parallel further, the language used during the bedroom scenes often employs metaphors of fighting and fencing. For example, a polite Gawain at first says to the forward lady: "I surrender my arms at once and sue for kind treatment" (Gardner l.1035). Later, the poet writes: "But Sir Gawain remained, in his graceful way, en garde. / Even so, his mind would be drawn to the dark that he need not long await, / The stroke that must destroy him" (Gardner ll.1279-83) At the same time, Gawain, aware of the lady's advances and afraid of his impending doom, is equivalent to the deer that the lord is hunting right now both await their final stroke. The overall effect of these parallels is to equate the two scenes of the exposed, dangerous exterior forest and "sheltered," "safe" interior bedroom. Thus, the poet reduces the complicated, artificialized world of human society to the basic, primeval world of nature, and shows that the societal code is merely a pretense which sometimes cannot always hold up.
The Role of the Lady and Temptress and Healer: In Fitt III, the character of the lady until now a pleasant companion to Gawain takes a turn for the worse. She suddenly becomes a temptress, attempting to seduce Gawain into violating his sense of morality. In this way, the lady easily resembles archetypal female characters in earlier literature.
Medieval, Arthurian, and Celtic lore often had such female temptresses, all of whom existed to distract the knight errant from his moral task. The Lady in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight obviously fits this role, but we should also not forget the Biblical story of the Fall of Man which we discussed in our analysis of Fitt II. There we saw how the castle in the poem resembled popular medieval representations of Paradise, emerging miraculously from a dark wasteland. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this "Paradise" is not all it seems to Gawain, for rather than bring him salvation, it now only provides him with further perils, in the guise of the predatory lady. Indeed, by appealing to Gawain's sexual desire, the lady becomes an Eve-figure in this false Paradise, tempting the hero to violate his moral agreement with his higher lord.
Another resemblance should be noted, and that is to the archetypal enchantress/healing women of Celtic myth. Folklore abounded with Otherworldly women who could cure wounded warriors and bring them back to health. The lady in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, strangely enough, offers Gawain a cure in the form of the green girdle. Its magical healing properties associate her with such archetypal female healers, yet it is this very girdle which lies at the root of Gawain's moral deception. Instead of curing him, it only taints him in a moral sense. Thus, the lady does not heal but instead wounds Gawain, and, just as with the false Paradise of the castle, nothing is as it seems.
Symbols: The most obvious symbol in Fitt III is the green girdle which Gawain secretly accepts from the lady. As discussed above, it is a deceptive object, for it claims to protect a man, but in this case has only caused Gawain to breach his moral code and (as we will see) ruin his sense of self. Although Gawain accepts it because of his fear of death, there are still all the trappings of romantic love: the lady unties it from her waist and wraps it around Gawain's. On the outside, it still appears as a love-token, thereby emphasizing the sense of deception when Gawain hides it from the lord. Also, of course, it is green, linking it immediately with the Green Knight whom Gawain must meet the next day. In a sense, it is a sort of a reverse-magic to that of the supernatural, indestructible knight or at least Gawain hopes so. Yet both the Green Knight and the green girdle seem to hark from a world of the magical, the otherworldly, the natural and fertile and indestructible. Again, there are pagan connotations with the obvious emphasis on fertility. We can even see the pagan, magical green girdle as representing everything that is not acceptable by chivalric and Christian standards: in keeping it, Gawain goes against his code of honesty, courage, and faith.
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- Summary and Analysis of Fitt II
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