Sir Gawain and the Green Knight By Anonymous Summary and Analysis Lines 2,389–2,478 (Stanzas 96–99)

Summary

The Green Knight laughingly accepts Gawain's confession and offers him the green belt as a souvenir. He invites Gawain back to his castle, saying Gawain will certainly get along better with the host's wife now. Gawain declines, and says it is no wonder if he has been deceived by a woman, because greater men than he have suffered the same fate. Gawain says he will keep the belt as a reminder of his failing, and he asks the Green Knight his name. The Green Knight says he is Bertilak of Hautdesert, and Morgan le Fay, who lives in his castle, made it possible for him to appear as the Green Knight at Camelot in order to frighten Guenevere. The two men commend each other to Christ and go their separate ways.

Analysis

The Green Knight accepts Gawain's confession and offers him forgiveness. In doing so, he uses language that suggests he is absolving Gawain from his sins, much in the way that a priest would during confession — he calls Gawain as pure as if he had committed no wrongs since the day he was born. In offering Gawain the belt as a keepsake, the Green Knight also calls it a "pure token," a phrase that recalls the pentangle as a "token of truth." Gawain accepts the belt as a mark of his shame, saying that it will remind him to be humble whenever his skill at arms moves him to pride. Gawain calls the belt a "luf-lace" or love-lace. The label is consistent with the belt's status as a love-token from a lady, but the belt has also been for Gawain both a reminder of his self-love and a charitable lesson in virtue from the Green Knight.

The host is in a mood for celebration, but Gawain is not, and he responds to the host's invitation with a jarringly bitter diatribe against the wiles of women. Anti-feminist rhetoric was commonplace in medieval literature, and literary examples of bad women were pervasive. Gawain selects some traditional Biblical examples of feminine deception, starting with Eve's deception of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Wise King Solomon, the supposed originator of Gawain's pentangle, is next on the list. Like many other symbols in the poem, Solomon has a dual significance. Though he was famed for his wisdom, he was also famous for squandering his kingdom due to his foolish love for his many wives. This misogynistic set- piece seems misplaced, given the refined courtly tradition to which the poem belongs, in which women were to be worshipped and served. Its inclusion may be another criticism of the courtly tradition, which has already received implied criticism from the poet for its lack of moral content. However, Gawain has thus far demonstrated only the greatest courtesy and kindness for the women in the poem, so his outburst here may be another reflection of his flawed nature: He is the perfect knight, yet he accepts the belt in an apparent moment of cowardice; he is the most courteous knight, and yet he can engage in diatribe against women. Gawain's attempt to displace blame from himself to the woman who tempted him also seems ironic, particularly considering Adam's attempt to pass blame to Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The Green Knight finally tells Gawain his name and the name of his castle. He is Bertilak (or Bercilak, depending on the translator's reading of the manuscript), and his home is called Hautdesert. Bertilak's name may derive from a knight called Bertelak or Bertalais, who appears in the tale of the "false Guenevere." In this story, Guenevere's identical half-sister takes her place at court as part of a plot by Morgan le Fay; Bertelak is the false Guenevere's husband. Although both Bertilak and Bertelak have temptresses for wives and take part in plots engineered by Morgan, there are few other connections between the two characters. Hautdesert has no apparent antecedents in Arthurian tradition; the name, however, is suggestive. Literally, it means "high desert," perhaps in reference to the wilderness in which it is located. As early editors of the manuscript observed, "desert" often connoted a place where hermits retired for religious contemplation. However, "desert" may also have a second sense of "what one deserves." Gawain's high merit is exactly what has been tested at Hautdesert.

Bertilak reveals that the old woman living at Hautdesert is actually Morgan le Fay, the famous enchantress who learned her arts as the lover of Merlin. Morgan has a mixed reputation in Arthurian tradition. In some legends, she is a benevolent healer, one of nine mystical sisters who cures Arthur's wounds when he is brought to Avalon. In other legends, she is the enemy of Arthur and his court, constantly plotting the downfall of Camelot. Morgan is generally considered a literary survival of a Celtic goddess of death or the underworld, and Bertilak underlines this connection when he calls her Morgan the Goddess. Many critics have considered Morgan and Lady Bertilak two halves of the same figure, much as Bertilak and the Green Knight are, one natural and the other supernatural. Morgan and the lady can also represent paired archetypal images of the feminine: mother and lover, crone and maiden. Freudian interpretations portray Morgan as the dark, forbidding mother-figure resented by the psyche, while the lady is the welcoming, desirable love object.

Most readers feel that Bertilak's explanation of the poem's events is simply a clumsy plot device, one the poet was forced into by the need to provide some motivation for the Green Knight's original appearance at Camelot. According to Bertilak, Morgan enabled him to appear as the Green Knight and planned the episode at Camelot in order to frighten Guenevere to death. Given Guenevere's marginal importance in the action, the explanation sounds contrived. It fails to account for Gawain's solitary journey into the wilderness, and it also fails to account for Bertilak's plot to tempt Gawain with his wife. Why Morgan should be a member of Bertilak's household at all is never explained. Her age and status in the household might almost make her a mother or mother-in-law, but no such connection exists in Arthurian tradition. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight's pale imitation, The Greene Knight, removes Morgan from the plot entirely and makes Bertilak's mother-in-law an enchantress.) The poet does get some mileage out of the fact that Gawain, Morgan, and Arthur are all related. Morgan is, as Bertilak points out, Arthur's half-sister and also Gawain's aunt. As half-siblings, Morgan and Arthur represent both the light and the dark aspects of Arthurian tradition. In most legends, Arthur's Camelot is eventually destroyed by the treachery of Arthur's nephew (and perhaps son) Mordred, and by the infidelity of Guenevere and Lancelot. Considered in this light, Gawain serves as a reminder that the noble and honorable tradition he represents will ultimately be undone by personal treachery and lack of faith. Defenders of Morgan's importance to the action argue that she is the near-invisible but all-powerful master of the game, and that she in fact succeeds in severely testing Arthur's Camelot, in the person of Gawain.

Contrary to the usual patterns of romance, the villain — if the Green Knight can be called a villain — is neither defeated nor punished at the end of the story. Instead, he and Gawain part as friends, and while Gawain journeys back to Camelot, the poet has the Green Knight going not to his castle, but "wherever he would," the traditional literary device for the departure of otherworldly beings.

Glossary

Solomon Solomon had many wives, and his devotion to foreign women caused the downfall of his kingdom. (See I Kings 11:1–13.)

Samson, Delilah The Israelite hero Samson received his great strength from his long hair. He was betrayed by his lover, Delilah, who had his hair cut off while he was asleep and turned him over to his enemies. (See Judges 16:4–20.)

David, Bathsheba David, the greatest king of Israel, saw the beautiful Bathsheba bathing and fell in love with her. They became lovers, and David arranged to have her husband killed by sending him to the front lines of battle. David then married her, although God took the life of their first child in retribution for David's sin. Their second child was Solomon. (See II Samuel 11–12.)

Uther Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father.

Tintagel Tintagel, said to be Arthur's birthplace, is a real place in Cornwall, in the west of England. Arthur's mother, Ygraine, bore Morgan to her first husband, Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall.

Prince of Paradise Jesus Christ.

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