Part 3, Verses 46–66, Lines 1126–1647 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1567

Summary

Bertilak leads his followers on a hunt for venison. The stags are spared in accord with the season, but the hinds are driven into valleys, then shot with arrows. Those few that manage to escape are killed by the hounds.

Meanwhile, Gawain lingers in bed. Lady Bertilak enters his...

(The entire section contains 1567 words.)

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Summary

Bertilak leads his followers on a hunt for venison. The stags are spared in accord with the season, but the hinds are driven into valleys, then shot with arrows. Those few that manage to escape are killed by the hounds.

Meanwhile, Gawain lingers in bed. Lady Bertilak enters his room and bolts the door. At first, he pretends to be asleep. She pulls the curtain from the canopy of his bed and watches him. After lying still for a considerable time, Gawain decides it would be best to speak to Lady Bertilak, opens his eyes, and pretends to be amazed. Lady Bertilak speaks to him very seductively, reminding Gawain that Bertilak and the others are away. Then she openly offers her body to Gawain.

Gawain pretends not to understand, managing to reject the advances without offending the hostess. He repudiates the flattery of Lady Bertilak, saying that her husband is better than he. Finally, she says that he could not truly be Gawain, for such a renowned man would not have lingered with a lady without craving a kiss. Gawain replies that, to avoid offending her, he will give her the kiss, in accordance with the rules of courtesy. They exchange a kiss, and Lady Bertilak leaves. Gawain dresses and goes to mass. He spends the afternoon in civilized conversation with Lady Bertilak and the old crone.

Meanwhile, at the hunt, the hinds are piled up. They are systematically butchered, and the parts are ceremoniously divided among the participants in the hunt, from Lord Bertilak to the hounds. They return as it grows dark.

Bertilak brings all of the venison he has obtained to Gawain, who is very impressed. According to their agreement, he gives all of the game to Gawain. The guest, for his part, gives Bertilak the kiss he received, saying that is all he obtained. Bertilak thanks Gawain, then asks how he got the kiss. Gawain cleverly replies that he need not answer, for that was not in the agreement. Both laugh, and they go to supper.

The next day, Bertilak and his retinue hunt an enormous boar. This animal kills several hounds, and arrows fail to pierce its hide. The hunters, however, continue the pursuit.

At the same time, Gawain lingers again in bed. Once more, Lady Bertilak approaches him. This time she is even more sexually aggressive than before. She rebukes Gawain for lack of courtesy, because he refused her advances. This time Gawain is more direct in his refusal and tells her to take back what she has said. She replies that Gawain is so strong that, even if she were so rude as to resist him, he would be able to force his will. Gawain replies that bullying is not admired in his country. Lady Bertilak continues her attempt to seduce Gawain, alternating flattery with taunts. Finally, after giving Gawain two kisses, she gives up and leaves.

Bertilak, meanwhile, is still pursuing the boar, which darts into a hole by a stream. The other hunters, many of whom have been wounded, are afraid to approach it. The master of the castle, however, dismounts and stalks the boar with his sword. They battle in the water until Bertilak kills the beast.

After the boar is disemboweled, Bertilak takes it home and presents it to Gawain. To fulfill his side of the bargain, Gawain gives Bertilak the two kisses he received. The lord of the castle expresses satisfaction.

Analysis


Critics and scholars have especially high praise for part 3 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because of the sophisticated construction of the plot. Scenes of the hunt alternate with scenes of the castle, suggesting many parallels between the two places. This technique also enables the author to communicate many emotional nuances through contrasting the activity indoors and outside.

Hunting was a fundamental part of life among the medieval aristocracy. Not only the men but also ladies frequently took part. Not only did hunting serve a variety of practical purposes beyond the obtaining of food, but it also was overlaid with many social and symbolic meanings.

For one thing, hunting supplied training for knights in the art of war. Additionally, it was a cooperative activity, which united a great many people together in common endeavor. Perhaps most significantly, hunting provided drama and excitement in times of peace. It involved not only vigorous physical activity but also a chance to display colorful costumes and pageantry. Stories of the hunt during the day would be recounted in the evening around the fire.

Hunting also reaffirmed the social order. As readers of the Robin Hood stories are aware, hunting large animals such as deer was strictly forbidden to common people, and poaching could be punished by death or mutilation. Everything from the assignment of tasks to the division of game was done very ceremoniously, in accord with the rank of people at the court. Furthermore, hunting was used, just as it sometimes is today, as a metaphor for amorous pursuit.

Most frequently, medieval people thought of the man as the hunter and the woman as game, but this time roles are reversed. Just as Bertilak is chasing animals, Lady Bertilak is after Gawain. The frequent changes of scene illuminate the analogies between the two pursuits.

The reversal of gender roles between Gawain and Lady Bertilak is especially stressed on the first day. In accord with the season, the hunters leave the stags and pursue only the hinds. This is subtly suggestive of adultery or, perhaps, even rape. Meanwhile, Gawain behaves less like a strong man than like a frightened hind, cowering in bed and pretending to be asleep.

Lady Bertilak, however, certainly does not seem to be fooled, and she repeatedly taunts the guest by saying he cannot truly be Gawain. These bedroom scenes test not only Gawain’s sense of honor but also his wit and his social skills. He must reject the advances of his hostess without offending her, and he manages this with great virtuosity.

When Bertilak comes back with great piles of carcasses and gives them to Gawain, this is more than a display of generosity. The master of the castle is showing off his ability to kill, particularly to slaughter “hinds” such as Gawain. Rich as the spoils of the hunt may be, they are obviously of no possible use to Gawain. He certainly cannot eat it all, nor will he be able to take so much with him when he travels to the Green Chapel. Finally, all this wealth of food can only serve as a reminder that Gawain faces death in a few days.

Just as Gawain could not acknowledge the advances of the lady, he is unable to respond to the implicit threats of Bertilak. Once more, both his honor and his social graces are being tested. This time Gawain comes up with a very ingenious solution to a seemingly hopeless dilemma.

The kiss which Lady Bertilak gives to Gawain expresses at least as much aggression as affection. The kiss which Gawain gives Bertilak, after receiving it from the lady, is also ambiguous, especially since Gawain will not openly say how he received it. Both gifts, in their respective ways, are an expression of power. Gawain manages to stand up to Bertilak, just as he did to the lady, without being offensive.

The kiss, of course, is just as useless to Bertilak as the pile of game was to Gawain. Nevertheless, Bertilak professes to be pleased. We never know what he is really thinking, but he probably is sincere in admiration of Gawain’s honesty and cleverness.

We are also unsure what the hero of the story is thinking. He seems naive and innocent, particularly since he appears not to notice anything strange about Hautdesert Castle. In spite of this, his handling of extremely difficult social situations suggests that he is actually becoming very shrewd. Perhaps he may even have begun to suspect that Bertilak is really the Green Knight?

The wild boar was an animal famed for its fighting spirit. Many medieval families painted boars on their crests to symbolize their fierceness. The hunters, led by Bertilak, are initially unable to overpower the boar. They finally kill the beast by provoking it to rage and wearing it down. This is the same tactic that Lady Bertilak uses on Gawain during his second day at Hautdesert Castle.

This time, Gawain is tested even more severely. Lady Bertilak is more aggressive than before, and Gawain is unable to play at being innocent of her designs. This time he challenges her openly, saying she should take back her remarks. She attempts to use his anger toward her purposes, provoking Gawain to greater aggressiveness and saying that she could not resist him even if she wished to. Gawain, however, proves not only brave as the boar but subtle as well. Unlike the beast, he refuses to be drawn into open combat, and he extricates himself from the situation through a combination of firmness and verbal skill.

When Bertilak gives Gawain the carcass of the enormous boar, the present is just as useless but even more threatening than the previous one. This time Gawain gives Bertilak not one kiss but two. The exchange illustrates the combination of fellowship and rivalry that is often found among those in activities which are traditionally considered very masculine, such as, for example, rough athletic competitions.

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Part 3, Verses 67–79, Lines 1648–1997 Summary and Analysis