Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 6

As I noted in my previous post, Gawain’s deal with Bertilak is simple: What each takes during the course of the day he must exchange with the other. So Bertilak gives to Gawain the beasts he has killed, and Gawain gives to Bertilak … kisses, because those he exchanged with the lady. But what would Gawain have done if he had succumbed to temptation and bedded Bertilak’s wife? (“Who whom?” as Lenin asked.) I can’t help believing that the comedy here is intentional.

But we can only speculate about what might have happened, because Gawain does not bed the lady, despite her eagerness and persistence. Strangely, on that third day she gives up her pursuit of Mary’s knight. She merely asks him to wear, in her honor, a garter — a garter which, she explains, oh by the way, protects its wearer from any harm.

I’m reminded here of a story. A young accountant for a big company has been quietly embezzling for some time, and a co-worker has just tipped him off that he’s been found out, and will be called into the boss’s office the next morning to be (a) fired and (b) arrested. In despair, the accountant wanders for hours through the streets of the city, but clearly there is no way out for him — except one. He finds the highest point on the bridge over the river that rushes through the city, and prepares to leap to his death.

But at that very moment a wizened, wrinkled old woman wearing some peculiar kind of robe or cape steps forward and calls on him to stop. “I know what’s wrong with you,” she says. “I know what you’ve done. I know that all will be revealed in the morning, and your life will be ruined. But I can prevent it from happening.”

The accountant knows this is ridiculous, but he can’t stop himself from asking: “How?” And she explains to him that she knows what has happened because she is a witch — and her witchcraft gives her the power to replace all that stolen money in the company’s coffers, to make his crime as though it had never been, to cleanse him from all guilt. All he has to do, she adds, is one little thing: have sex with her that night.

He looks her over and reflects that the only things worse than having sex with her are suicide and prison. So he agrees. Later that night, at her apartment, he shudders a bit at what he’s just done but starts pulling his clothes back on and preparing for a new and better day. The old lady lifts herself a bit from the bed, pats him on the back, and says, “Thanks, dearie. But one more thing: Aren’t you a little old to believe in witches?”

Which brings us back to Sir Gawain, who certainly believes that the lady’s garter has magical power and that his return engagement with the Green Knight is going to be No Problem Atall. That evening he makes confession of his sins and “The priest declares him so clean and so pure / that the Day of Doom could dawn in the morning” and he’d be scot-free. All the people of Bertilak’s castle note how happy Gawain has become. Everything is looking up.

There’s just one problem: When he saw Bertilak earlier that evening and they exchanged gifts — Bertilak gave him a fox that had, unfortunately, been torn to pieces by dogs — all Gawain gave his host in return was another kiss. He kept the garter.

To be continued…