Sir Gawain and the Green Knight By Anonymous Summary and Analysis Lines 1,126–1,411 (Stanzas 46–56)

Summary

Before dawn, the hunting party prepares to leave. The lord hears Mass, and then sets off with his hounds and men. The lord hunts deer in the forest all day long, with great joy.

In the castle, Gawain is in bed. The host's wife comes and sits on his bed, saying she will keep him captive. Gawain answers that he should get up and dress, but the lady refuses to let him go. The lady compliments Gawain on his fame and his courtesy; he protests his unworthiness. Finally, she insists that if he is really the famously courteous Gawain, he will not let a lady leave without a kiss. Gawain consents, and the lady kisses him and leaves. Gawain dresses, goes to Mass, and is then entertained by the two ladies of the castle.

Meanwhile, the lord has killed many deer, and they are butchered in the field for carrying home. Everyone gathers in the castle's great hall, and the lord offers Gawain his catch of venison. In exchange, Gawain kisses the lord, but he will not say where he won his prize. They agree to the same arrangement for the next day.

Analysis

Day 1 of the exchange-of-winnings agreement sets up a pattern that is followed exactly on the other two days: The lord and his hunting party are up very early, and after breakfast and Mass, they set out on the hunt, which they pursue with gusto. Meanwhile, Gawain sleeps late, and the host's wife sits on his bed, flirting with him. Gawain politely fends her off, but is obliged to kiss her before she leaves. After dressing and going to Mass, Gawain then spends the rest of the day with the young wife and the old hag. The lord butchers the animals he has killed and brings them home to Gawain, for which Gawain gives his host the lady's kisses.

The alternation of the hunting scenes with the bedroom scenes leaves the unmistakable impression that the two are related: The lady is hunting Gawain in his bedchamber, just as the lord is hunting animals in the forest. Most modern readers are unused to large-scale hunts of the kind the poet describes, so it can be difficult to decide whether the lord's hunt is intended to be a gruesome spectacle or good, vigorous sport. Readers see hints of both in the poet's depiction. Hunting was a favorite pastime throughout the medieval period, and many noblemen pursued it with enthusiasm. Hunting was considered good training for military service as well as good exercise, and skill in hunting was a prized talent. Hunting also had a double meaning: One medieval English term for hunting was venery, from the Latin venari (to hunt), but the same word also mean5 the pursuit of sexual conquests; in the second sense, it was derived from the name of Venus, the goddess of love.

The lord of the castle is clearly an excellent hunter, and he loves his sport. The poet displays an intimate knowledge of the details of a noble hunt: the packs of hounds, the "beaters" who circle the prey to direct it toward the hunting party, the rules and regulations of hunting, and the best ways to butcher a deer. The poet even notes two different breeds of deer involved in the hunt and also includes the fact that only the barren females of one breed could lawfully be hunted at that time of year. But amid the energy and gusto of the hunt, the poet still finds space for touches of pathos, like the terrified cries of the deer as they die on the hillsides.

In sharp contrast to the action and energy of the hunt, Gawain is being decidedly unheroic by lying in bed all morning; he is already awake when the lady of the castle slips into his room. There is something comical about the way he fakes being asleep in the hope that she will leave him alone and then crosses himself — a defense against evil — when he "wakes up" and sees her. Another comedic touch, but one that is not directly stated, is that Gawain cannot get away from the lady because he is naked (as most medieval people were in bed), and if he gets out of bed he will be indecently exposed.

The assertive lady is in complete control of the situation, leaving Gawain constantly on the defensive. This is a reversal of the usual courtly love scenario, where the man initiates the relationship. The lady comments that she will bind him in bed, and Gawain calls himself her prisoner, comically surrendering to his captor. Their light and witty battle of words is full of double entendres and veiled references. The poet supplies an interesting bit of wordplay at line 1,237, where the lady tells Gawain that he is welcome to her "cors." The Middle English "cors" can mean "myself, my person," in which case it can be an innocent offer of her company, but cors literally means "body," giving the offer an obvious sexual overtone. However, cors can also refer to a band of silk fabric, and this foreshadows the lace that finally tempts Gawain. He invokes the Virgin Mary at one point, as if using the purest of women as a defense against the lady's advances, but she does not take the hint. She blatantly says that Gawain would have been her first choice for a husband. Gawain delicately turns away the remark by complimenting his host, saying that she made the better choice already; in doing so, he also gently reminds her that she is married.

The poet provides a curious view into the lady's thoughts at lines 1,283–1,287. Unfortunately, the syntax of the passage is obscure, and scholars have debated how much of the thought is the lady's and how much is an observation made by the poet about the situation. One way of reading the passage: The lady thinks to herself that even if she were the most beautiful of women, Gawain could not love her, preoccupied as he is by his impending death-stroke at the Green Chapel. Some readers have objected to this reading on the grounds that the lady could not know anything of Gawain's situation, because he has not mentioned the promised ax blow while at the castle. However, the host makes clear later that his wife was his ally in the deception of Gawain, so it is quite possible the host has explained the entire situation to her, and the poet's mention of it at this point is meant to alert the audience to the deception.

Whatever her thoughts, the lady finally relents, but not without demanding a kiss from Gawain, if only for the sake of courtesy. The lady's major line of attack against Gawain is his reputation as the most courteous of knights — meaning, in the lady's view, the most adept at courtly love. If Gawain really is the courteous knight everyone thinks he is, surely he cannot refuse a lovely lady's advances. Gawain cannot offend a beautiful lady without transgressing courtesy, but he certainly cannot accept her apparent offers of herself without committing a Christian sin, as well as violating his duty toward his host. Gawain responds to the lady by appealing to a different aspect of courtesy, namely modesty and humility, saying that he does not deserve his reputation or the lady's love. At the end of the day, Gawain also walks of fine line of courtesy: He stays true to his agreement with the lord by giving him the lady's kiss, but he also does not betray the lady by saying where he got the kiss.

The temptress wife is a stock figure in literature; the motif is usually called Potiphar's wife, in reference to Genesis 39, in which the servant Joseph has to leave his clothing in the hand of his master's wife to get out of her clutches. The Gawain-poet may have had Arthurian inspiration in The Carle of Calisle. In Carle, Gawain arrives at the castle of an enchanted giant, who tells Gawain to get into bed with his wife and daughter. Gawain must do no more than kiss the beautiful wife, although he sleeps all night with the daughter. Gawain cuts off the giant's head, thereby freeing the giant from his enchantment, and is married to the daughter.

The juxtaposition of the failed seduction with the butchering of the deer is one of the most jarring contrasts in the poem. The other two hunts are also followed by the cutting up of the prey, but the level of detail rapidly diminishes on the next two days. The description of the deer butchering reads almost like instructions for how to correctly cut up venison, so clear and specific is the poet's portrayal of the scene. In fact, many of the poet's observations can be verified from medieval hunting manuals. Catalogs of details (as of weapons and armor, or the names of the heroes) have been a feature of epic poetry from its earliest origins, when it functioned as a kind of oral history. The poet may simply be appealing to this tradition, or perhaps entertaining his noble audience with recitation of a favorite sport. Such extraordinary detail is one characteristic of the poet's style. The passage on butchering of the deer also contrasts this highly developed human art with the world of nature, a theme repeated throughout the poem.

Glossary

numbles edible parts of the deer entrails.

corbies' fee a scrap left for the scavenging birds. Either ravens or carrion crows were known as corbies.

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