Readers of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight develop a first impression of Sir Gawain as an almost unhuman like perfection of a Knight. Sir Gawain bravely takes on the challenge of the Beheading Game, in order to protect his King, and announces why he should be the one to accept this challenge and modestly puts that he has the most to prove. Sir Gawain’s modesty and chivalry displays Sir Gawain’s perceived perfection, and at the beginning of the story, it seems that Sir Gawain is a character of a different kind of world.
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Lady Bertilak is a pawn in a game designed to test King Arthur’s court, and as she approaches Sir Gawain, the reader discovers a parallel between Lord Bertilak’s hunt and Lady Bertilak’s quest for discovering Sir Gawain’s humanity through the use of the deer, the boar, and the fox.
Lady Bertilak is an accurate symbol for the daily temptations that Sir Gawain faces and that many face in the real world. Sir Gawain had sworn his loyalty to Lord Bertilak, and Lady Bertilak’s appearance, beautiful and well dressed, provides the perfect temptation to test Sir Gawain’s faithfulness and chivalry (Goldhurst, p. 63). Lady Bertilak has a major role in the story of Sir Gawain, and is in large part, responsible for his breaking of the Chivalric Code. She is the wife to Lord Bertilak and is a key part in the deal that Sir Gawain and Lord Bertilak made to split their winnings.
Lord Bertilak was to hunt and then give whatever he obtained to Sir Gawain, and in return, Sir Gawain was to stay in the castle and give Lord Bertilak whatever he won. This game presented the perfect opportunity to truly test Sir Gawain’s manners. As Lord Bertilak left to go hunt, Lady Bertilak began a hunt for Sir Gawain. Every hunt was written with great detail, and drew a parallel to the approach Lady Bertilak took in tempting Sir Gawain. Lady Bertilak’s first two attempts at temptation failed and seemed to confirm the reader’s predisposition about Sir Gawain’s perfection, but with her third attempt, she presented him with protection of the green girdle, which he could not refuse.
Lady Bertilak’s first attempt to tempt Sir Gawain was paired with the story of the deer hunt. The pairing of the deer hunt and the pursuit of Sir Gawain is valuable to the story in proving to the reader Sir Gawain’s trustworthiness. Sir Gawain was unexpecting and ignorant of the events that were about to happen, much like the deer was when Lord Bertilak killed it. Sir Gawain is most similar to the deer in the manner in the sense that he is noble game (Savage, p. 5).
The stag, or deer, is noble because it is cautious and can distinguish between right and wrong, as it’s only weapons are a distinct hearing, a sharp mind, and quick legs to escape danger (Savage, p. 9). In this moment, Sir Gawain behaves in a way that is both careful and quick minded, developing the first similarity between the deer’s behavior and the knight’s. The dogs drove the deer into awaiting archers, trapping them with the only escape being death. As Lady Bertilak approached Sir Gawain, she was reasonably noisy, and told him, You’re tricked and trapped! (Anonymous, p. 163). This line shows that, like the deer, Sir Gawain’s innocent and timid approach caused him to be trapped. Sir Gawain remained shy and timid during Lady Bertilak’s first attempt to pursue him, much like the deer was timid and attempted to escape the hunter’s approach (Pedrosa, p. 72). Sir Gawain pretends to stay asleep and stays put as long as possible to avoid this confrontation and does not move until he was forced, just like the deer. Lady Bertilak, the metaphorical hunter, was the most aggressive during the first approach because of Sir Gawain’s reserved and scared manner (Pedrosa, p. 73).
Lord Bertilak, the actual hunter in the story, was also aggressive during his first hunt by driving the deer out. The importance of the two hunter’s aggressiveness was to emphasize the innocence and shyness that the deer and Sir Gawain display. Sir Gawain stayed loyal to his word, even though he was being aggressively approached. The comparison between Sir Gawain and the game gives the reader a further idea into Sir Gawain’s value by displaying that, like the deer Sir Gawain, was noble game worthy of the King (Savage, p. 5). Sir Gawain’s innocence and his actions reaffirmed the reader’s predetermined belief that Sir Gawain was, in fact, perfect, as he did not break his honor. As the story progressed, Sir Gawain gained confidence, which makes the boar a perfect embodiment of Sir Gawain’s reconfirmed strength.
Sir Gawain and Lord Bertilak agreed to renew their deal, but this time, the hunt was not for an innocent deer, but for a ferocious boar which was well aware of its surroundings. Upon Lady Bertilak’s second approach, Sir Gawain, like the boar, responded aggressively knowing the danger he was in. As Lady Bertilak entered Sir Gawain’s chambers for the second time, Sir Gawain awoke quickly and this time he, Makes her welcome at once (Anonymous, p. 167).
It is clear from this action Sir Gawain has changed his tactics when it comes to Lady Bertilak. While in the original scene he stayed put until driven out, this time he defended himself before he was trapped into danger. He does not act ignorant upon the second approach by Lady Bertilak, and in fact shows her that he is very aware of her presence (Savage, p. 11). Likewise, the boar does not take shelter or hide from the men, but pursues them. Another obvious similarity between Sir Gawain and this ferocious pig is their history. Sir Gawain has refused Lady Bertilak in the past, making him a fearsome and difficult opponent. The author goes into a brief history of the boar, explaining that the boar has wreaked havoc on the men and their hounds (Anonymous, p. 168). The necessity in examining the past of the boar and Sir Gawain is that they both proved to be difficult opponents. While the past encounter with Sir Gawain was not aggressive, Sir Gawain had come out victorious, as did the boar in the previous encounters Lord Bertilak had with him. The boar takes action when his life is threatened and when Lord Bertilak trespasses and gets too close; he does not take kindly.
The boar is willing to defend himself by fighting his way out rather than staying put. The benefit that the boar carries over the stag is its tusks and muscular body. Therefore, the boar is well equipped for trespassers (Savage, p. 13). Similarly, Sir Gawain does not stay grounded when he is encroached upon; he rises and greets the trespasser. The author shows that Sir Gawain is also well equipped with confidence and knowledge of the events that are about to transpire. The necessity in the pairing of Sir Gawain and the boar is simply to highlight Sir Gawain’s newfound confidence. As seen with the pairing of the deer, Sir Gawain was timid originally and attempted to avoid confrontation. When he was paired with the boar, the reader can see that the boar’s aggressive behavior and confidence in its abilities, reflects Sir Gawain’s own.
The fox’s reputation of being a sneaky creature makes it the perfect candidate to symbolize Sir Gawain’s nearly fatal fall into the open arms of temptation. The passage with the fox becomes the moment where the reader finally discovers that Sir Gawain is not perfect, and that his humanity is actually the reason he allowed himself to be tempted. The first thing to note is that Sir Gawain rejected the original temptation, which was lust. In the final scene, Lady Bertilak tempted Sir Gawain with survival, rather than lust, a completely new form of temptation (Waldron, pp. 17). Sir Gawain’s innocent and aggressive approaches to temptation proved successful; however, the moment that he was tempted with survival, he failed. We see his humanity through his urge to survive (Waldron, p. 17). The fox responds to Lord Bertilak’s hunts in the same way that Sir Gawain does to Lady Bertilak’s final temptation approach (Savage, p. 6). Lord Bertilak was close enough to the fox that he was able to swing at it with a sword, He bares his bright sword and swishes at the beast, which shirks from its sharpness (Anonymous, p. 176).
The importance of this line is the visual imagery and symbolism that this line bears. This line describes Lord Bertilak’s swift motion toward the fox, and the fox’s quick reflexes to escape the blade. The symbolism develops when the fox’s maneuver forced him into the teeth of the hounds (Savage, p. 6). The temptation of the ring did not persuade Sir Gawain, however, the protective girdle changed the noble Knight into a sinner. The irony and comparison truly develops when the reason behind Sir Gawain’s sin is analyzed: He wanted to save his life. Sir Gawain took the green girdle to dodge the blade of the Green Knight’s axe. Similarly, the fox dodged Lord Bertilak’s sword in an attempt to save his life, however, both Sir Gawain and the fox ended up causing themselves more harm after their attempt to swerve danger (Savage, p. 6). Both of these movements developed out of pure adrenaline and the natural instinct to take any opportunity to avoid harm (Savage, p. 6). Lady Bertilak was able to provide enough temptation to appeal to Sir Gawain’s natural instinct. These animals are creations of nature. Therefore by pairing every story and action that Sir Gawain takes with an animal which represent that action, the author reveals a new point about nature.
The author also displays the reactions to the animals that Lord Bertilak had slain, in order to better show the value of the animals. After the deer hunt and boar hunt there was a large celebration, while after the fox hunt there was no celebration, just the exchanging of the pelt (Pedrosa, p. 72). The reactions to the killings correlate perfectly with the reaction to Sir Gawain. The deer and the boar were praised for their contents and were celebrated for what they were giving to the members of the castle. However, the fox was greeted with disappointment for it was not worth much, which can run parallel to the disappointing reaction that the reader’s have to Sir Gawain’s actions (Pedrosa, p. 72). Following the deer hunt, Lord Bertilak called all the servants and the women into the dining hall so, The venison be revealed in full view (Anonymous, p. 166). Lord Bertilak praised the size of the kill and was so proud of what it was worth that he called his entire staff to view it. This shows how large-scale their celebration truly was and emphasizes how valuable the deer really was to them. This correlates with the reader’s reaction to Sir Gawain’s faithfulness.
Likewise, when he kills the boar, he announces it in front of everyone, and tells his story about defeating the beast. The reader, once again, shares this joyful reaction to Sir Gawain’s loyalty. Finally, the reaction to the fox was not joyful at all. In fact, it was a reaction of disappointment. When referencing his return gift of the fox pelt for Sir Gawain’s passionate kisses, Lord Bertilak announces, Mine’s a miserable match (Anonymous, p. 177). This announcement displays just how much disappointment Lord Bertilak had in the fox pelt. When Sir Gawain took the green girdle, the readers felt the same sense of emotion in his actions. The inclusion of the detailed reactions of the characters in the story to the animals, truly displays the natural reactions that viewers of this story have.
Lord Bertilak’s detailed hunts in the story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, are matched with the detailed approaches of Lady Bertilak upon Sir Gawain. These stories help to develop the realization that Sir Gawain is in fact, human. The author does this through placing Lord Bertilak’s hunts and Lady Bertilak’s hunts parallel to each other. The author also uses the character’s reactions to the killings to express similar reactions that readers have to Sir Gawain’s actions. The author portrays these specific elements by using the hunting scenes of the deer, boar, and fox, and the reactions to them.
Anonymous.Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Norton Anthology: English Literature: The Major Authors, Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Norton, 2013, pp. 135-188, 2 vols.
Goldhurst, William. The Green and the Gold: The Major Theme of Gawain and The Green Knight. College English, vol.20, No. 2, Nov. 1958, pp.61-65. JSTOR www.jstor.org/stable/372161 Accessed, Nov. 12th, 2018.
Pedrosa, Antonio Vicente Casas. Symbolic Numbers and Their Functions In Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. Universidad De Las Palmas De Gran Canaria, 2006, acceda.ulpgc.es:8443/xmlui/bitstream/10553/6418/1/0234349_00012_0004.pdf. Accessed Nov. 12th, 2018.
Savage, Henry L. The Significance of the Hunting Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 27, no. 1, 1928, pp. 115. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27703094.
Waldron, R. A. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Google Books, Northwestern University Press, 1970,
https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=99-SAHCAMmoC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=sir+gawain+and+the+green+knight&ots=prp2sWNSM9&sig=loGGJj50zm3ZMaqLt1Mpi8AWD8Q#v=onepage&q=sir%20gawain%20and%20the%20green%20knight&f=false. Accessed, Oct. 8th, 2018
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