This is the third of four columns on magic in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," everybody's favorite raunchy, sexy, blood-soaked Middle English poem. The previous two columns discussed monsters, pentacles, and what it takes to shake up a Knight of the Round Table. This one gets into castles, hunting, chivalry, gender relations, and seduction—medieval style! And even, at the end, an actual magical item. So read on, friends, read on.
If you've read the first two installments [here and here], you know how the story began; but in case you haven't, here's a quick summary. First, a little background: The poem is from the late fourteenth century, written by an anonymous poet (often called the "Pearl poet," after one of his three other known poems), who was an approximate contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer but wrote in a different dialect. The story itself is set in the quasi-legendary Arthurian England of many centuries before. The poem's Middle English is hard to read without making a special study of it, so I'm using the fun and earthy 2007 translation by Simon Armitage, an poet who himself hails from a northerly region of England close to where the Gawain poet is thought to have lived.
Now, to the story: On New Year's Day, a gigantic green knight rides into King Arthur's banquet-hall at Camelot and challenges the noblemen to a bizarre duel: to cut the knight's head off with his own axe. Gawain, a Knight of the Round Table and a nephew of Arthur, steps up to the plate and takes off the giant's head with one stroke of the axe. But instead of falling down and expiring like a polite corpse would, the knight picks up his own head, laughs at the assembled nobles and rides back out again.
Now Sir Gawain is committed to a nasty bargain: On pain of being branded a coward, he is obliged to go seek out the knight, wherever he may live—for the giant left no name, only an address at "the Green Chapel"—and accept an identical axe-blow to his own neck, one year from the day. A hairy game, indeed!
When we left poor Gawain in the middle of the second canto (or "Fitt"), nearly a year had passed—most of which Gawain had spent procrastinating—and it was almost Christmas Day again. Gawain has been riding around Wales since early November, getting increasingly bedraggled and depressed. He's still no closer to finding the "Green Chapel"—but he has just sighted a castle, out here in the middle of nowhere, that, he hopes, might provide shelter for the night, and maybe even a place to spend Christmas. Let's rejoin him there and see how that works out . . .
Into the Castle: An Instant BFF, and an Unusual Game
To Gawain's great relief, the inhabitants of the lonely castle welcome him in. They stable his horse, offer him fresh, dry clothing, and shower him with luxuries and food—which must feel pretty darn good, after two months of being alone with his horse in the wilderness. (Due to the approaching Christmas holiday, the folk of the castle are eating "Lenten fare," which here apparently means that all their incredibly rich and decadent soups and stews are made of fish.)
The castle folk are hospitable even before they know Gawain's name . . . but as soon as they learn who he actually is, they are so thrilled they almost plotz. Because, in the world of medieval England, Gawain is totally famous: everybody has heard of him, everyone knows who he's related to and the stories told about him. By this, we can see that coming from Camelot and being a knight of the Round Table is the equivalent of being a celebrity or tabloid star from Hollywood or New York. (This may be encouraged by the fact that these people live out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wolves, ettins, and damp Welsh forest.)
Gawain is presented to the lord of the keep, and they get on like a house on fire. This lord—whose name, we will learn eventually, is Bertilak de Hautdesert—deluges Gawain with food and gifts, invites him to evening Mass, and introduces him to his beautiful young wife and to the elderly crone who chaperones her. Before you know it, Bertilak is begging Gawain to honor his house by staying with them not only though Christmas, but a few days more, until the end of the Christmas holidays—that is, until the New Year.
Gawain regretfully explains that he has a Rendezvous with Destiny, and must continue his quest to find the Green Chapel, since he has an appointment with the Green Knight on New Year's Day. This makes Lord Bertilak laughs out loud: It turns out he knows exactly where the Green Chapel is, and it's very close by! The lord assures Gawain that he can stay in the castle right up until New Year's morning, and then ride out with one of the lord's servants to show him the way. It'll work out fine!
Gawain, when all's said and done, is not averse to spending time around food, fire, and beautiful ladies. (That latter, after all, is what chivalry's all about.) So he's eventually convinced to agree: he will stay with Bertilak, and they'll have a fun few days together. (Three days, to be precise. If you're wondering why the span between Christmas and New Year's adds up to three days . . . well, to be honest, I'm a little confused about it too. But I think that it's because, among these folk, the Christmas feasting lasted for four days: from Christmas Day through "St. John's Day," on the 28th. So "after Christmas" would begin on December 29th. If you're ever hurled back in time and find yourself in a life-or-death situation, though, try not to quote me on this.)
Anyway, Bertilak and Gawain are set for a good time. But just to add spice to the holidays, Bertilak, after getting roaring drunk with his new friend in the hall that night proposes that he and Gawain play a little game together. (I know what you're thinking: "Another game?" Yes. The Gawain Poet, it seems, is very big on games.)
It turns out that Bertilak, like any properly masculine medieval nobleman, absolutely adores hunting. With the exception of the sacred holidays, he gets up early every morning with his hounds and his men and goes off chasing down something to shoot in the forest. Gawain, he proposes, should not come along on tomorrow's hunt. Instead, he should sleep late, resting from his long travels in the comfort of his bed, and then keep Bertilak's pretty wife company during the day. The game is this: when he comes home, Bertilak will give to Gawain everything he has "won" (or killed, or shot) during the day. Gawain, in exchange, will give Bertilak whatever he may have gained while the lord was away.
Naturally, Gawain agrees to this game. Well, it probably seems like a great idea while drunk. And in any case, it would be rude to refuse the lord of the manor when you're a guest.
But, naturally, this curious proposal raises certain . . . questions . . . for the reader, even if they don't occur to the apparently blithely oblivious Gawain. The central one being: What, exactly, does Lord Bertilak expect Gawain to "win" while he's idling the days away in his castle?
Ah, that's a question indeed. And if Gawain were a little bit sharper, and didn't have a snootful, he might have thought to wonder as well. But have no fear: in the next Fitt, we're going to find out!
Horn-Blowing, Hunting, and Sex, Sex, Sex! (and Metaphors)
The hunting part of this section's title is probably obvious from what's already been set up, but the sex may seem less obvious. If so, however . . . you are reckoning without the power of metaphor.
Next morning, bright and early, the Lord of the Castle is up and out to hunt. The Gawain poet describes his retinue and equipment in delightful detail—it's everything you'd want from a medieval hunting scene: howling horns, hounds, a hundred huntsmen (the Poet is into alliteration). The party scares up some deer, and spends the rest of the day shooting at them from horseback, or—if that doesn't work—driving them down to the river so the greyhounds can get them. Lord Bertilak is having a grand old time! "The lord's heart leaps with life. / Now on, now off his horse / all day he hacks and drives," the Poet tells us cheerfully (ll. 1174-76).
And then, at that very moment—With a masterful cut-dissolve, the Poet shifts the scene, and we are back in Gawain's bedroom.
So through a lime-leaf border the lord led the hunt,
while snug in his sheets lay slumbering Gawain,
dozing as the daylight dappled the walls,
under a splendid cover, enclosed by curtains.
And while snoozing he heard a slyly made sound,
the sigh of a door swinging slowly aside . . .
Who could be intruding upon Gawain's quiet? Could it be . . . the beautiful wife of the Lord of the Castle?
And here's where things begin to get a little weird. The atmosphere seems to tilt toward the Hitchcockian. If a soundtrack were playing, it would be spooky as anything. (Well, either that, or sex-farce, Pink Panther-type music. I guess it would depend on the director.)
At this point, Gawain is more or less hiding inside his bed. (Remember this is a medieval bed, and a fancy one, in mid-winter; so think canopy, think tapestry-like curtains to protect the sleeper's warmth and privacy.) He lifts one corner of the curtain to peek out, and spots the Lady herself—Lord Bertilak's wife—slipping noiselessly in through the door. As Gawain lies hastily back down, she comes over to the bed, insinuates herself through the curtains, and perches on the side of his bed.
Gawain is lying totally still now, trying to breathe evenly while he figures out what on earth to do. Eventually, he makes up his mind (though if you ask me it takes him a long time) that the best course would be simply to speak directly to the lady.
So Gawain lets himself wake up. Then, when he sees the lady sitting in his bed, he pretends to be not only surprised but actually scared—he makes the sign of the cross over himself, as you would to protect yourself from danger or the Devil. (I love this; it's such a fey and skittish thing to do, and to me it seems to underscore the interesting gender-and power-reversals going on here.)
What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse, as French-farcical as anyone could wish. The dialogue goes something like this:
LADY: Good morning, Sir Gawain! You sleep so soundly it was easy to sneak in! But now I've got you besieged. I think you had better agree to my terms of truce, or I'll keep you a prisoner right here in your bed.
GAWAIN: How delightful it would be to do you any little service in my power. But don't you think it would be more comfortable to talk if you left me in privacy for just a few moments, so I could put on my clothes?
LADY: Why, no, that wouldn't be any fun at all! Here I've got a world-famous knight, known all across England for his chivalry, good looks, and honor! I plan to take advantage of your presence, Sir Gawain, by staying here for quite a while. In fact, I think I'll keep you here in bed and play with you all day.
GAWAIN: . . .
LADY: And, hmm, gee, Sir Gawain—do you know what else? My husband has gone hunting. And all the servants are asleep. And when I came in I locked and bolted the door behind me.
LADY: Dear Sir Gawain, I will be delighted to do your bidding! You are welcome to my services and my body! Do what you will with your servant!
So, at this point, Sir Gawain has a problem. The problem—to be very specific—is this: If he sleeps with his host's wife, it would be a serious violation of his code of honor. He would be violating his host's hospitality, thus doing Bertilak a grave injury. He would also be screwing up his own vow of chastity, which is bad news for a knight who gallops around with the Virgin Mary painted on the inside of his shield.
But at the same time, Gawain must not offend or insult the lady in any way, because that would violate hospitality too, as well as tarnishing Gawain's and Camelot's reputation for gentillesse and being a grave offence against the chivalric rules of courtesy. From all this we see that medieval chivalry was an extremely convoluted social system that at times made things hard for everybody.
So Sir Gawain ducks and covers, verbally. He does this—as we have all done in difficult or awkward social situations—by pretending not to understand what the Lady is getting at.
GAWAIN: Oh, my goodness, I am not nearly that sexy or wonderful. You can't possibly be talking to me. Surely you must have some other knight in mind. Although, of course, if I can ever do you any little service while I am out knighting around, it would be to my great honor.
LADY: Oh, no. You really are all that. You are sexier than a mountain of gold.
GAWAIN: Oh, may the Holy Chaste Very Pure Virgin Mary bless you for saying so! You know, you really remind me of her, what with your chastity and beauty and pure faith and chastity and all.
Round and round they go, for stanza after stanza. ("[U]ntil after mid-day," as the Poet puts it.) But Gawain manages to remain "a gentleman and . . . on guard," so even as the lady chases him around and around the bed, Gawain dodges and defends himself with compliments and charm.
Eventually the lady concedes defeat, and takes her leave. But before she departs, she launches one last attack: "Thank you, dear sir, for the enjoyable conversation," she says. "But, you know, now I know you aren't really Gawain of Camelot."
Gawain is flustered.
"Why," says the Lady, "Gawain of Camelot is famous for his courtliness and courtesy. If you were really him, you would never have spent so long lingering with a lady without at least requesting one kiss, as chivalry demands."
(By which we can see that the Lady is using all the limited tools at her disposal, and also, again, how complicated chivalry can be.)
Gawain gives in, and agrees (though he warns her, in what I view as a deeply girly way, "Just one kiss! No more!") They do indeed kiss—just once, although the Poet describes the moment in rather drawn-out and carnal language—and then the Lady promptly disappears. At which Gawain jumps out of bed, immediately calls for the servants, gets dressed and goes to Mass, which apparently is what you do if you're pure of heart and have just spent the morning playing hide-and-seek with your host's wife in his bed.
After this, Gawain joins the other noblepeople in the banquet hall, where he sits all day eating, drinking, and generally having a good time, all the while sandwiched between the Lady and her elderly chaperone. Apparently this causes no one any awkwardness, which I personally find amazing. But there, again: cultural difference.
In case you had been wondering what Lord Bertilak has been doing all day, this is where the Poet brings us back with a "Meanwhile . . ." Lord Bertilak, as you might have guessed, has spent the day massacring deer. The Poet spends quite some time going into gory detail about exactly how many deer Lord Bertilak and his men have killed ("so many . . . that it beggared belief!" (ll. 1321-22)), and the precise techniques they use to skin, gut and quarter up the bodies, and what exactly they feed to the dogs.
As evening falls, the lord and his men return to the castle. Bertilak proudly shows off his haul, which Gawain admires like a good guest should. Then Bertilak adds: "And, you know, it's all yours, Gawain, by the terms of our contract."
Gawain agrees. Then, to fulfill his side of the bargain, he takes Lord Bertilak in his arms and gives him what he won that day: he "kissed him in the kindliest way he could" (l. 1389).
Well, Bertilak is pleased—he seems into it—but he's also understandably curious. Where, he wants to know, did Gawain win that?
Gawain refuses to tell—after all, a true knight doesn't! (Also, he points out legalistically, that wasn't in the agreement). So Bertilak gives up, and then everyone laughs and makes merry, dines on venison, guzzles wine, and agrees that Gawain and Lord Bertilak will play the same game again tomorrow and it will be equally awesome. And then everyone goes to bed.
Of course, this returns us—at least, we modern readers—to the questions raised by the exchange-game's original premise, which seem to have just gotten a little more interesting.
Now, if we wish, we may assume that at this time, and in this cultural context, it's common enough for men to kiss in friendship: that it's homosocial, not sexual, when Gawain kisses Bertilak. And yet . . . the lady's made it pretty clear in the bedroom scene that she wants more from Gawain than kisses. If Gawain were to succumb to her seduction, then what, exactly, would he be honor-bound to render up to her lord? Furthermore, since the lady knows about the game—just like everyone else in the castle—what does she think she's doing with Gawain? Did she assume he'd break his agreement with her husband in order to keep her secret? Or does she want to see them kiss? Is she enjoying this?? Is she like a slash fan on the Internet??? What is going on????
Well, the game goes on this way for two more days. The second day, the lord and his men raise a wild boar—"the biggest of wild boars . . . ancient in years . . . savage and strong" (ll. 1439-41) —and struggle with it from morning until sunset. Meanwhile, the lady of the castle has slipped into Gawain's room, crawled into bed beside him, and begged for "lessons in love" while her husband is away. Gawain defends himself as cleverly and valiantly as he did the day before, and this time gets away with two kisses. In the evening, Bertilak presents the boar's head to Gawain, who, sweetly, "feign[s] fear to flatter the master's feelings" (l. 1634). Then, in return, he "seized the man around the neck and kissed him handily, and then did it again." ("By Saint Giles!" says Bertilak, impressed. "If you go on like that, you'll be rich before you know it!")
But the third time's the charm, as they said even back in the fourteenth century. And the third day will, indeed, bring the most difficult test for Gawain—as anyone who reads stories has surely already guessed. Out in the field that day, Lord Bertilak's hunters raise a fox. Foxes were viewed, then as now, as the natural world's symbol of cunning, and as one of the greatest challenges to a hunter and hounds. Back and forth the fox doubles all day, slowly being worn down to exhaustion and despair. And, as they say in the comic books, meanwhile . . .
Meanwhile, the lady of the castle has come to Gawain's room one last time. But this time she's wearing practically nothing—especially for a medieval noblewoman. Her shoulders are "bare to both back and breast," and not only is her hair uncovered, but it's flowing loose—long and lovely, with jewels twined into it.
When Gawain sees her, "so lovely and alluringly dressed, / every feature so faultless, her complexion so fine, / a passionate heat takes hold in his heart" (ll. 1760-62). Oh, my! As the Poet murmurs, "They talk with tenderness / and pride, and yet their plight / is perilous unless / sweet Mary minds her knight" (ll. 1766-69)!
This is Gawain's last day in the castle before he must ride out to seek the Green Knight, and the lady is pressing him hard. (We can read her assault as mostly verbal, though her physical closeness, and near-nudity, doubtless has an effect.) But Gawain summons all his willpower and his chivalric skills, and manages to continue to evade her: neither outright rejecting her offered love (thus offending the lady), nor letting her get close enough for things to cross the line into adultery (and thus betray the lord of the castle).
Eventually, with expressions of great sorrow, the lady concedes her defeat. She begs for a single token from Gawain before she goes—a glove, or something like it—but Gawain once more evades, like the skilful knight he is: "'I would not wish on you a worthless token, / and it strikes me as unseemly that you should receive / nothing greater than a glove . . . ! / [B]ut I [came] here . . . without . . . beautiful gifts'" (ll. 1805-09)).
All right, then, says the lady, and urges Gawain to accept a gift from her: a beautiful gold ring, set with a stone "as bright as the sun." Naturally, he refuses, so the lady tries again. "'You refuse my ring because you find it too fine," she says, "so I give you . . . a lesser thing" (ll. 1827-29). And with that, she removes the girdle from around her waist, and offers it to him.
Now, a girdle of this period is not the same as a contemporary girdle—such innovations as elastic and women's hose not yet being even a gleam in the medieval eye. What the Lady takes off is a kind of belt, here specified as something that has been wrapped around the waist of her "kirtle," or gown, under her "mantle," or cloak. It is still a very intimate sort of gift, and in this case clearly very feminine: it is made of green silk and "trimmed with gold, / exquisitely edged and hemmed by hand" (ll. 1832-33).
This, too, Gawain refuses, of course . . . until the Lady plays her ace:
But the knight who knew of the power knitted in it
would pay a high price to possess it . . .
For the body which is bound within this green belt . . .
will be safe against those who seek to strike him,
and all the slyness on earth wouldn't see him slain.
"Holy shit!" thinks Gawain. "This could save my life!"
For—had the reader, caught up in the toils of sex and intrigue, forgotten that very very soon now Gawain has a date with a big green axe? Gawain has not forgotten about it; in fact, he's been having nightmares (this being an excellent bit of technique on the part of the Poet to keep the main plot in the reader's mind, from which we modern writers could take a lesson).
So Gawain, in his cautious, chivalric way, accepts the girdle, along with the lady's request that he not speak a word about it to her husband. And that evening when Lord Bertilak returns, with the pelt of the fox it's taken him all day to hunt down, all that he receives from Gawain, in full sight of court and lady, are the three kisses that Gawain's hostess bestowed on him that morning before she left him. About the girdle (which, the Poet makes a point of noting, Gawain has packed carefully away from all eyes), our knightly hero says not a word.
And that's where the Third Fytt ends. Next time: climaxes, unmaskings, and—will Gawain's neck get introduced to an axe??
(I realize some readers may be wondering where, in this Fytt, "the fantastic" has figured. It's true that this part of the story doesn't sport much explicit magic. But I do find this section fascinating for the look it gives us at the medieval European world we conventionally find exploited in fantasy literature: a fourteenth-century view of the Arthurian world of castles, chivalry, material culture, and gender relations. Although, to tell the truth, it's mostly just because I love the stuff with sex and hunting.
(Do note, however, that at the very end we do in fact have an element of magic creeping back in. Just as Gawain gets set to return to the main thread of the story—the story rife with danger, head-choppin,' and strange supernatural warriors!)
Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.