Sir Gawain and the Knight’s Honor
The artful creator of the fourteenth- century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” cleverly leads his reader with a trail of words through the mysterious world of “a castle cut of paper…”(Sir Gawain 802). Here, he puts his main character Sir Gawain to the most perilous of tests for an Arthurian knight, the test of honor. The gracious author constructs a most cunning component to his story, which the clever reader will conclude to be a foretelling counterpart. His clues are copious. Of particular importance are the “hunting” scenes of which the poet writes for 802 lines. These scenes, which switch between hunting the animals in the woods and “hunting” Gawain in the bedroom, mirror one another and amplify the somewhat hidden similarities of the respective sports. This comparison thereby elucidates the important facets of knighthood and honor that are so central to this romantic world. The ultimate significance of these three hunting scenes in the larger story is their ability to challenge Gawain on a level that compels the reader to view him as a worthy, true hero.
When the poet has led the reader to the hunting scenes the reader has already seen Gawain honorably agree to play a game with the ominous Green Knight. Now the reader encounters yet another game in which Gawain has agreed to share with his host anything he receives during the day in exchange for anything the host receives while out hunting. The first hunt is in search of deer. The “Deer dashed through the dale, dazed with dread”(1151) while trying to escape “the whistling of arrows”(1160). Following this descriptive passage there is a smooth transition to what is going on indoors with Gawain and the Lady: “So the lord in the linden-wood leads the hunt/ And Gawain the good knight in gay bed lies” (1178-79). This line is important because it directly follows discussion of the outdoors hunting scene- first, alerting the reader that they are somehow related and second, because it nicely contrasts Gawain with the hunters who “Long before the daylight […] left their beds”(1126). This allows us to correlate Gawain with the hunted not the hunter. This notion is further perpetuated when the Lady comes into Gawain’s bedroom and he waits “there warily to see what [befalls]”(1186). This links him with the dazed deer full of dread(1151). Gawain is feigning sleep; however, when he wakes he must do his best to survive the Lady whose “kindling glances dart”(1205), reminiscent of the hunter’s arrow. In this scene, the Lady hunts Gawain much as the men hunt the deer. He is not aggressive nor is he prepared. While the deer are described as “game”(1167), Gawain, as it is growing apparent, has become the subject of a game. In this particular round, his courtesy is at stake. He passes this test rather well as he is in a difficult place. He cannot accept the Lady’s advances, and in the end “he feared he had been at fault in the forms of his speech”(1295). He maintains his courteousness.
The second hunt is that of the boar. Not only do the hunters pursue a boar, but “The best of all boars […]”(1439); he is “unrivaled, a renegade old”(1440). The hunters’ arrows which had easily “torn the tawny hide […]”(1162) of a deer, “had no power to pierce through [the] hide”(1456) of the boar. Furthermore, the boar is repeatedly personified as a he; “he was the biggest by far”(1441), “he grunted […]”(1442). This is a clear comparison to Gawain who is described as the “foremost of men”(655), and is donned in “massy chain- mail of many a steel ring”(580). Additionally, the passive deer are “eagerly snatched”(1171) by the “greyhounds so huge […]”(1171); the boar, however, causes these hounds to “Most dolefully yowl and yell”(1453). This is a much more ferocious beast.
This hunt adequately foreshadows the subsequent scene between the Lady and Gawain. Gawain, no longer the unsuspecting deer, thinks “it good to greet [the Lady] at once”(1477) when she wakes him the second day. The sport, in both cases, now takes place between a honed huntsman and a primed prey. This test becomes one of Gawain’s gallantry as a knight. The Lady baits him with words of praise, which further develop his likeliness to the boar. She uses language such as “acclaimed […]”(1511), “noblest […]”(1512), “valorously […]”(1518), and “fame”(1521). Gawain remains humble, though he does accept two kisses. Still, “so fair was his defense that no fault appeared”(1551); like the boar Gawain is a true warrior.
The third and final hunt is that of the fox. In quest of the fox the hunters must “Cast about with craft for a clearer scent”(1700), as must the Lady in her last attempt to woo Gawain. This last battle is one of wit, which will entice Gawain’s value of faith. A battle of wit must be fought with language. The hounds prefigure this as “A young dog yaps and is yelled at in return”(1701). Gawain does not retreat or wage war, but engages words to win his way and in response is told: ” ‘Those words’ […] ‘are worst of all”(1792). He wittily avoids the Lady’s first advances, but succumbs when “he bore with her words and withstood them no more”(1859). Gawain fails to decline the Lady’s magical girdle that promises to protect him from death.
These scenes serve as clever exposition of the facets of knighthood and honor because they test Gawain’s ability as a true knight. Because these are key elements of chivalry, Gawain’s ability to uphold the values of courtesy, gallantry, and faith under such pressure prove his strength as a knight. This section is particularly cunning in that it is secretive- a bedroom is an inherently guarded place; Gawain is unaware that his test has begun. By foreshadowing each test with hunting in the woods, the poet causes his reader to associate the hunting of the animal with the tempting of Gawain- thereby illuminating the prevailing animalistic nature of each. Gawain graciously gratifies his knightly role by passing the ultimate test and humbling himself in the process. Because he has overcome such a challenge the reader is obliged to see him as a true knight.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature The Middle Ages. Vol. 1A .7th ed. Ed. Alfred David et al. New York: Norton, 2000.
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