[Part 3: Lines 1372-1534]
By: Kelly Bray
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a fourteenth-century tale written by an anonymous poet, chronicles how Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s Round Table finds his virtue compromised. A noble and truthful knight, Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge at Arthur’s New Years feast. On his way to the Green Chapel, Gawain takes shelter from the cold winter at Lord Bercilak’s castle. The lord makes an agreement with Gawain to exchange what they have one at the end of the day. During the three days that the lord is out hunting, his wife attempts to seduce Gawain. At the end of the story, it is revealed that Morgan le Faye has orchestrated the entire situation to disgrace the Knights of the Round Table by revealing that one of their best, Sir Gawain, is not perfect.
The passage begins with Lord Bercilak returning from his first hunting trip. As has been agreed, he hands over the wild boar he has killed to Gawain. In turn, Gawain gives the lord a kiss. The lord gives Gawain a chance to admit that he has been intimate with Lady Bercilak when he says, “it might be [the kiss] all the better, would you but say where you won this same award” (Norton 187. Gawain is a gentleman, who would never kiss and tell, so the two reaffirm their pact for the next day. The lord’s determination in “pursuing the wild swine till the sunlight slanted” is paralleled by his wife’s determination in seducing Gawain as “she was at him with all her art to turn his mind her way” (188).
Lady Bercilak attempts to exploit Gawain’s reputation as she tries to seduce him. She greets him in the bedroom and coyly asks how “a man so well-meaning, and mannerly disposed…cannot act in company as courtesy bids” (189). Lady Bercilak is not subtle (she points out that the door is locked and the two are alone in the castle) as she offers herself to Gawain, saying, “I am yours to command, to kiss when you please” (189). She tries to make Gawain feel guilty by implying that he is insulting her by not succumbing to her seductions and proclaiming his love to her. She flatters him by saying that he is the “noblest knight known in [his] time” and then questions the truth of his reputation as a lover and speaker of love language, saying, “Instruct me a little, do, while my husband is not nearby” (190).
This passage illustrates Gawain’s reaction to one of three tests. He does not know that Lord and Lady Bercilak are testing his nobility and truthfulness under the guidance of Morgan le Faye. Consequently, during the third test, Gawain fails to hand over the green girdle that Lady Bercilak has given to him because he believes it will keep him safe from the Green Knight. This marks Gawain’s fall from grace because Lord Bercilak is actually the Green Knight, and he confronts Gawain on his failure to uphold their pact. Gawain must then admit his wrong-doing and pledges to keep the girdle to remind him that “one may keep a dark deed, but undo it no whit, for where a fault is made fast, it is fixed evermore” (209). I think that Gawain was harshly judged because it is human nature to want to preserve your life. I realize that honesty is an extremely important component of knighthood, but it is unreasonable to expect anybody to be honest all the time (and at the expense of their life).
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustrates the extreme importance that the court of King Arthur places on the values of nobility and truthfulness. It also reveals the ridiculousness inherent in expecting humans to be completely immune to compromising their virtue and making mistakes. Though he is set up to take the fall by Morgan le Faye, Sir Gawain manages to come out of the situation with newfound maturity and a renewed appreciation for his own moral fallibility.