Summary and Analysis
Lines 1,690–1,996 (Stanzas 68–79)
After Mass, the lord's party rides out into the wintry woods. The hounds pick up the trail of a fox and chase it through the forest, baying loudly.
At the castle, the lady is gorgeously dressed as she comes to visit Gawain in bed, and she kisses him. Before waking, Gawain suffered bad dreams, and he is pleased to see the lady when he wakes. She is more seductive than ever, and she asks Gawain to tell her the name of his true love, because she believes he must be in love with some other woman. Gawain responds that he has no lover and will not take one. At this final refusal, she sadly asks whether he will give her a parting love token, a glove. He refuses, saying he has no tokens to give. She offers him a token, a gold ring with a red stone; he refuses it. She offers him her belt, and he again refuses. She tells him that the belt has a special power, for any knight who wears it cannot be killed. Thinking of his appointment with the Green Knight, Gawain accepts the belt, and the lady kisses him three times. Gawain goes to the chapel to confess his sins and be absolved. Then he spends the rest of the day making merry with the ladies.
In the forest, the lord catches the fox and skins it. After the lord returns to the hall, Gawain kisses him three times, but he does not mention the belt. After the feast, Gawain thanks the lord for his hospitality and asks for a guide to lead him to the Green Chapel the next day. The court sadly bids Gawain farewell as he goes off to bed.
The action of the final day, New Year's Eve, forms the moral crux of the poem. Having withstood the obvious sexual temptations offered by the lady, Gawain is at last snared by a less obvious temptation: a magical silk belt.
The lady comes dressed to kill for the third day's hunt: Her hair is adorned with jewels, and she is wearing a daringly low-cut dress. The poet comments that Gawain is in the greatest danger and that the Virgin Mary must defend him, for clearly he is beginning to enjoy his seduction. Nonetheless, Gawain realizes that he must finally make a decisive refusal of the lady's advances; there will be no more graceful sidestepping and verbal sparring. Gawain abandons the indirect language of courtly love and declares that he has no lover to keep him from the lady, but he will not take any lover. In doing so, he invokes St. John. Gawain may be referring to John the Baptist, who, much like Gawain, lived in the wilderness and was killed by beheading. But it seems more likely that he means John the Evangelist, a saint revered as a model of chastity and the constant companion of the Virgin Mary in medieval depictions of the Crucifixion; his feast day, mentioned at line 1,023, is December 27.
Gawain and the audience may think his unambiguous statement is the end of the matter. But the lady still has three more temptations to offer, although they are no longer sexual. The first is her request for a love-token from Gawain, a glove. A glove was a traditional lover's gift, but it was usually given by a woman to a man. Although Gawain has avoided the real sin in refusing his hostess's advances, the exchange of a love-token would still be an impropriety and an offense against his host, so Gawain sensibly responds that he did not pack any love-tokens for his travels. The lady tries another approach: She offers him one of her rings. The poet describes it as "red gold," like Gawain's pentangle — red being the usual medieval adjective for especially fine gold, and the poet comments that it must be worth a fortune. However, the ring also seems to have a red stone: the poet says it shines like the sun, with "blusschande" (blushing) beams. The poet's choice of colors is interesting given that red is always Gawain's color in the poem. Gawain flatly refuses the ring, making no more polite excuses. The lady changes her offer, saying that if the ring is too costly for him to accept, she will give him something of less value: her belt, made of green silk embroidered with gold, a clue that it is closely associated with the Green Knight himself. Gawain once more refuses any and all gifts from the lady, but she will not give up. Having first offered the belt as an item of little value, she then says the belt is far more valuable than it looks, because it has the power to protect the life of any knight who wears it. At last, Gawain's resolve weakens, and he accepts the gift.
The lady's three offers present an increasing scale of temptations. Gawain's refusal of the glove demonstrates his commitment to sexual purity and to true courtesy, avoiding even the appearance of impropriety against his host and hostess. His refusal of the ring demonstrates that he is not swayed by greed or concern for material things. Gawain initially refuses the belt out of an apparent concern for courtesy, but the lady cleverly changes the nature of the offer: not love or money, but Gawain's life. Self-preservation finally motivates Gawain to accept the lady's gift, despite its impropriety. Neither Gawain nor the poet offers any comment on the acceptance of the gift at this point; its consequences become apparent only later. However, the poet puts a marvelous ambiguity into the lady's description of the belt. In Middle English, she says at lines 1,849–1,850, "who-so knew the costes that knit ar therinne,/ He wolde hit prayse at more prys." In one sense, she simply means that if anyone knew the qualities of the belt, they would value it more highly. But if Gawain understood the costs that are bound up in the belt, he would realize that it will come at a high price for him, at least in a spiritual sense.
The nature of Gawain's failure in accepting the belt is open to interpretation, but several factors are involved. Gawain is offending against courtesy by taking a love-token from his host's wife. Furthermore, by swearing to keep it secret, he is breaking his agreement with his host to exchange their winnings each day. The poet calls the belt a "luf-lace" or love-lace, line 1,874. In one sense, the gift is an offer of the lady's love, but it is also a representation of Gawain's self-love. Gawain is displaying a lack of courage in relying on a supposedly magical talisman to save him from death, as well as a lack of faith in not relying on God to protect him. He is also breaking faith, in a way, with the Green Knight. The bargain was that he take the blow he gave, but Gawain is looking for a way to stack the deck in his favor. The lace that must be knotted around him for protection calls to mind the endless knot of the pentangle, but the knot of the belt clearly has ends — the poet even comments that the ends of the belt have gold pendants. Where the pentangle symbolized perfect virtue, the knotted love-lace represents the failure of that virtue: When one part is undone, the knot of perfection unravels.
After hiding the belt, Gawain goes to the chapel as he did on the previous two days, but this time, he goes to make his confession. On one level, Gawain is simply acting as a pious Christian knight: He wants to receive absolution for his sins before facing death. Many critics have questioned, however, whether Gawain's confession is actually valid. To be considered genuine by the church, an act of confession has to involve three factors: confession (acknowledgement of one's sin), contrition (sincere regret over the sin), and satisfaction (an attempt to make amends for the sin, particularly if others were injured by it). The poet does not say what sins Gawain confesses, but he evidently does not regret taking the belt nor does he intend to give it up. Perhaps Gawain simply does not consider taking the belt a sin. If piety is one of the five virtues the poet ascribes to him, Gawain has complied with the outward form of piety here, but he has none of the spirit that should go with it, because he has failed even to recognize that he has committed a wrong. The confession also points to a peculiar lapse: If Gawain still expects to die the next day, perhaps he is not entirely convinced of the belt's power. Nonetheless, the poet's description does not indicate anything odd or invalid about Gawain's confession, because the poet states he confessed completely and was absolved by the priest.
The prey for the day's hunt is a fox, an animal considered to be vermin and traditionally hunted strictly for the chase, not for any value of its meat or fur. Then as now, foxes symbolized cunning and cleverness, but they also represented deceit and dishonesty. The poet has the dogs crying, "Thief!" as they chase the fox, and its twisting, dodging path is symbolic of treachery. The symbolism of the fox can be applied to both the lady and Gawain. The lady shows her cleverness in finally producing a temptation to which Gawain will succumb, and Gawain shows his treachery in accepting the belt. In a sense, he, too, is a thief, in taking what he should not.
The trio of animals hunted (deer, boar, and fox) can be seen as representative of qualities a perfect Christian knight must overcome: fear, aggression, and deceit. The three animals also recall the medieval notion of the three souls or appetites of man (a formula ultimately derived from Plato). The first soul is the concupiscent or desiring faculty, which includes passions such a love, fear, and desire. The second is the irascible soul, which gives energy and courage, but can also be the source of negative impulses such as anger and violence. The third is the rational soul, which includes the mind and intellect. The rational appetite may be in harmony with God's will or may sinfully choose its own devices.
Gawain's departure from the castle has obvious parallels to his departure from Camelot. The court makes merry and feasts, but a current of sadness runs beneath the festivities. Nonetheless, both Gawain and his host are in high spirits, and they bid each other farewell with apparent good will on both sides.
reynard Traditional medieval name for a fox.
rood The cross of Christ. "By the rood" was a common mild oath.