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Themes

Temptation and testing

At the heart of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the test of Gawain's adherence to the code of chivalry. The typical temptation fable of medieval literature presents a series of tribulations assembled as tests or "proofs" of moral virtue. The stories often describe several individuals' failures after which the main character is tested.[18] Success in the proofs will often bring immunity or good fortune. Gawain's ability to pass the tests of his host are of utmost importance to his survival, though he does not know it. It is only by fortuity or "instinctive-courtesy" that Sir Gawain is able to pass his test.[19]

In addition to the laws of chivalry, Gawain must respect another set of laws concerning courtly love. The knight’s code of honour requires him to do whatever a damsel asks. Gawain must accept the girdle from the Lady, but he must also keep the promise he has made to his host that he will give whatever he gains that day. Gawain chooses to keep the girdle out of fear of death, thus breaking his promise to the host but honouring the lady. Upon learning that the Green Knight is actually his host (Bertilak), he realises that although he has completed his quest, he has failed to be virtuous. This test demonstrates the conflict between honour and knightly duties. In breaking his promise, Gawain believes he has lost his honour and failed in his duties.[20]

Hunting and seduction

Scholars have frequently noted the parallels between the three hunting scenes and the three seduction scenes in Gawain. They are generally agreed that the fox chase has significant parallels to the third seduction scene, in which Gawain accepts the girdle from Bertilak's wife. Gawain, like the fox, fears for his life and is looking for a way to avoid death from the Green Knight's axe. Like his counterpart, he resorts to trickery in order to save his skin. The fox uses tactics so unlike the first two animals, and so unexpectedly, that Bertilak has the hardest time hunting it. Similarly, Gawain finds the Lady's advances in the third seduction scene more unpredictable and challenging to resist than her previous attempts. She changes her evasive language, typical of courtly love relationships, to a more assertive style. Her dress, relatively modest in earlier scenes, is suddenly voluptuous and revealing.[21]

The deer- and boar-hunting scenes are less clearly connected, although scholars have attempted to link each animal to Gawain's reactions in the parallel seduction scene. Attempts to connect the deer hunt with the first seduction scene have unearthed a few parallels. Deer hunts of the time, like courtship, had to be done according to established rules. Women often favoured suitors who hunted well and skinned their animals, sometimes even watching while a deer was cleaned.[21][22] The sequence describing the deer hunt is relatively unspecific and nonviolent, with an air of relaxation and exhilaration. The first seduction scene follows in a similar vein, with no overt physical advances and no apparent danger; the entire exchange is humorously portrayed.[21]

The boar-hunting scene is, in contrast, laden with detail. Boars were (and are) much more difficult to hunt than deer; approaching one with only a sword was akin to challenging a knight to single combat. In the hunting sequence, the boar flees but is cornered before a ravine. He turns to face Bertilak with his back to the ravine, prepared to fight. Bertilak dismounts and in the ensuing fight kills the boar. He removes its head and displays it on a pike. In the seduction scene, Bertilak's wife, like the boar, is more forward, insisting that Gawain has a romantic reputation and that he must not disappoint her. Gawain, however, is successful in parrying her attacks, saying that surely she knows more than he about love. Both the boar hunt and the seduction scene can be seen as depictions of a moral victory: both Gawain and Bertilak face struggles alone and emerge triumphant.[21]

Nature and chivalry

Some argue that nature represents a chaotic, lawless order which is in direct confrontation with the civilisation of Camelot throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The green horse and rider that first invade Arthur’s peaceful halls are iconic representations of nature's disturbance.[23] Nature is presented throughout the poem as rough and indifferent, constantly threatening the order of men and courtly life. Nature invades and disrupts order in the major events of the narrative, both symbolically and through the inner nature of humanity. This element appears first with the disruption caused by the Green Knight, later when Gawain must fight off his natural lust for Bertilak’s wife, and again when Gawain breaks his vow to Bertilak by choosing to keep the green girdle, valuing survival over virtue. Represented by the sin-stained girdle, nature is an underlying force, forever within man and keeping him imperfect (in a chivalric sense).[24] In this view, Gawain is part of a wider conflict between nature and chivalry, an examination of the ability of man's order to overcome the chaos of nature.[25]

Several critics have made exactly the opposite interpretation, reading the poem as a comic critique of the Christianity of the time, particularly as embodied in the Christian chivalry of Arthur's court. In its zeal to extirpate all traces of paganism, Christianity had cut itself off from the sources of life in nature and the female. The green girdle represents all the pentangle lacks. The Arthurian enterprise is doomed unless it can acknowledge the unattainability of the ideals of the Round Table, and, for the sake of realism and wholeness, recognize and incorporate the pagan values represented by the Green Knight.[26]

Games

The word gomen (game) is found 18 times in Gawain. Its similarity to the word gome (man), which appears 21 times, has led some scholars to see men and games as centrally linked. Games at this time were seen as tests of worthiness, as when the Green Knight challenges the court's right to its good name in a "Christmas game".[27] The "game" of exchanging gifts was common in Germanic cultures. If a man received a gift, he was obliged to provide the giver with a better gift or risk losing his honour, almost like an exchange of blows in a fight (or in a "beheading game").[28] The poem revolves around two games: an exchange of beheading and an exchange of winnings. These appear at first to be unconnected. However, a victory in the first game will lead to a victory in the second. Elements of both games appear in other stories; however, the linkage of outcomes is unique to Gawain.[1][10]

Times and seasons

Times, dates, seasons, and cycles within Gawain are often noted by scholars because of their symbolic nature. The story starts on New Year's Eve with a beheading and culminates on the next New Year's Day. Gawain leaves Camelot on All Saints Day and arrives at Bertilak's castle on Christmas Eve. Furthermore, the Green Knight tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in "a year and a day"—a period of time seen often in medieval literature.[3] Some scholars interpret the yearly cycles, each beginning and ending in winter, as the poet's attempt to convey the inevitable fall of all things good and noble in the world. Such a theme is strengthened by the image of Troy, a powerful nation once thought to be invincible which, according to the Aeneid, fell to the Greeks due to pride and ignorance. The Trojan connection shows itself in the presence of two virtually identical descriptions of Troy's destruction. The poem's first line reads: "Since the siege and the assault were ceased at Troy" and the final stanzaic line (before the bob and wheel) is "After the siege and the assault were ceased at Troy".[29]

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