Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 4

At several points in the poem Gawain is referred to as “Mary’s knight,” and it certainly seems that here she has been gracious in answering his prayers. For immediately after he ends his prayer with his threefold self-crossing he discerns a place of refuge: a castle, inhabited by a gracious man named Bertilak and his lovely wife. They are delighted to have the famous Sir Gawain as their guest, and much Christmas festivity (at the table of feasting and at prayer in their chapel) is had by all.

Bertilak is a hunter, and on each of the following theee days he goes out on a hunt, leaving Gawain to rest and recuperate at home before he must proceed to the Green Chapel — which, he learns, is quite nearby. (O joy.) Bertilak and Gawain make a little agreement: each will bring to the other whatever he acquires during the course of the day. It’s, you might say, a Christmas game — though Gawain doesn’t seem to notice that in this it resembles an agreement he made with another stranger a year earlier.

This extremely complex and marvelously artful poem is very concerned, it seems, with tacit and explicit agreements — with, as it were, the social contract of the Age of Chivalry. Some of this arises in every pre-modern society: for instance, an awareness that in an often threatening and only partly civilized world we are often in desperate need of hospitality, and therefore must also be willing to offer such hospitality to others. You can see this theme going all the way back to the Odyssey, in which the Cyclops shows his barbarity by eating those whom he should treat as his guests, while back in Ithaca the suitors of Penelope show their barbarity by abusing her hospitality to them. So guests and hosts owe certain decencies to each other, and failure of those decencies is taken very seriously indeed in the premodern world: look at where the betrayers of guests and hosts are in Dante’s Inferno: in the very deepest circle of Hell.

But the temporary relations of guest and host are no more strictly governed than those permanent ones between lord and liegeman, which the Gawain poet is also interested in, as we saw at the beginning when none of Arthur’s knights came to his aid until Arthur’s offer of himself shamed Gawain into it. And then there are the obligations one owes to the bond of marriage: chaste faithfulness within it, and for those outside, respect for its covenant. Those are about to come into play in this poem, but again, let me stress how concerned this poem is with something that the medieval world in general seems to have cared about very deeply: all the forms of tacit and explicit agreement — all the promises we, either silently or verbally, make to one another. Much that in our world is governed by law was then governed by such personal promises. One’s words and one acts, including the acts of giving and receiving hospitality, must be one’s bond.

So what is Gawain supposed to do when, as Bertilak is out on his jolly hunts, the lady of the house starts hitting on him? At first she is relatively subtle, but soon enough she, as the poet says, makes her meaning quite plain. And now Gawain is in a bind indeed. For to have sex with her would be a double betrayal of Bertilak, would be to offend against the man as host and as husband. And yet knights are also sworn defenders and servants of ladies: they take pride in doing a lady’s bidding. But what if the lady is bidding you to give her a bit of rumpy-bumpy on a cold winter’s afternoon?

What we see here is a moment when an entire moral system — the system of Courtesy — seems to be broken, or rather to be breaking right before Gawain’s eyes. For whatever he does he is to someone uncourteous — he, known not as the most powerful or eloquent or Arthur’s men but rather the most courteous. The place that looked to be a respite before a great challenge has proved to be itself a challenge. What is Mary’s knight to do now?

To be continued…