Last Updated on January 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1928
At first the mound seems deserted, and Gawain wonders if he has been led to the desolate place by the Devil himself. Then Gawain hears a whirring noise, an axe being sharpened. He calls out, and the Green Knight answers that he will come immediately to claim what he...
(The entire section contains 1928 words.)
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At first the mound seems deserted, and Gawain wonders if he has been led to the desolate place by the Devil himself. Then Gawain hears a whirring noise, an axe being sharpened. He calls out, and the Green Knight answers that he will come immediately to claim what he has been pledged.
The Green Knight emerges from a cavern in the mound, carrying a huge axe. Gawain tells the Green Knight to take only a single stroke, then bows his head. The Green Knight raises his axe. As the axe descends on his neck, Gawain flinches and looks up. The Green Knight suddenly checks the stroke and says that his adversary is too cowardly to truly be Gawain. The man with the axe reminds Gawain that he, the Green Knight, never flinched when his own head was cut off.
Gawain swears that he will not flinch again. He bows a second time and stands still as a tree. The Green Knight raises his axe once more, but he again brings it down without making contact. Gawain continues waiting until the Green Knight begins to taunt him.
When he realizes what happened, Gawain grows angry at the delay. He accuses the Green Knight of being afraid to deliver the blow. He bows his head for a third time. The Green Knight raises the axe and brings it down, wounding Gawain lightly on the neck but doing no serious damage.
When Gawain sees the blood in the snow, he leaps up, filled with new life. He quickly puts on his helmet, draws his sword, and declares that he has fulfilled the contract and will fight if the Green Knight delivers another blow.
The Green Knight replies in a friendly manner that Gawain has endured his stroke according to the contract and all further obligations are cancelled. The first two strokes, the Green Knight explains, were for the first two times when the mistress of Hautdesert Castle, his wife, came to Gawain’s chamber. He checked the blows, since Gawain had withstood the temptation. The third blow, which nicked Gawain but did not hurt him, was for the third time. Gawain, the Green Knight explains, had withstood the other temptations, but the guest was dishonorable in taking the sash and keeping it from the lord of the castle.
The Green Knight explains that he and his wife were working together to test Gawain, and he had known of everything that happened all along. Gawain, though not perfect, had acquitted himself extremely well. Gawain, however, reproaches himself for cowardice and covetousness. He takes off the sash and tosses it back to the Green Knight.
The Green Knight replies that Gawain has absolved himself of any wrongdoing. He gives Gawain the sash as a gift and a souvenir of the adventure at the Green Chapel. Gawain, the Green Knight says, may think of it as he moves in the society of Camelot after his return. The Green Knight then invites Gawain to return to Hautdesert Castle for the festivities of New Year’s Eve. His wife, the Green Knight continues, will treat him without deception, in spite of the way she tricked him before.
Gawain refuses the invitation politely, wishing well to the Green Knight, his wife, and the old crone. He then compares his experience to that of other men corrupted by women: Adam taken in by Eve, Solomon by Sheba and others, Samson by Delilah, and David by Bathsheba.
As for the sash, Gawain says, he will wear it, not for its beauty but as a check on excessive pride. Whenever he is tempted to bask in glory, the sash will remind of his shortcomings. Then Gawain asks the Green Knight, as a final favor, for his true name.
The Green Knight, giving the name for the first time, says he is Bertilak of Hautdesert Castle. The sorceress Morgan le Fay, the old crone who stays there, had learned her magic from the wizard Merlin. She enchanted him into the form of the Green Knight and sent him to deliver the challenge at Camelot. She wishes to amaze the court and to frighten Guinevere.
Morgan, Bertilak continues, is also the half-sister of Arthur and the aunt of Gawain. Once again, Bertilak invites Gawain to Hautdesert Castle, but the knight declines. They embrace, and Gawain rides home.
After returning to Camelot, Gawain wears the green sash, as promised, as a baldric covering the scar in his neck, in token of his shortcomings. He is warmly received. The men and women at court, however, take it as a sign of honor and renown. The knights all begin to wear bands of bright green to recall Gawain’s great adventure.
The happy ending of the story is emotionally satisfying, though, at least for contemporary readers, it leaves a great many things unresolved. Several ideas emerge clearly, but no interpretation of the poem, especially the last part, has been able to account for all the details. With respect to his descriptive and narrative powers, the Gawain-poet has few peers, but perhaps he was not terribly interested in thematic unity. It may also be that he deliberately left many things unresolved, to inspire his readers to think about them further.
One puzzle is the significance of the green sash that Gawain is given, first by Lady Bertilak and later by the Green Knight. Distinguished past scholars of Arthurian legends believed that this was truly magical and protected Gawain from the axe. They pointed out that many other Arthurian romances have tokens with similar power, sometimes, as in this story, a sash.
The vast majority of scholars, however, reject this interpretation. If it is correct, it is very hard to make either psychological or thematic sense of many details. If the sash was magical, how, for example, could we explain either Bertilak’s rebuke to Gawain for violating their bargain or his subsequent gift of the sash to Gawain as a souvenir? Furthermore, Gawain himself never seemed to have much confidence in the protective power of the sash. Finally, when Gawain takes the sash as a gift from Bertilak, he does not even mention the idea of using it to protect himself in battle. On the contrary, Gawain appears to assume that the sash has no magic, and he is only concerned about what it will symbolize.
Very probably, the alleged magical power of the sash is a ruse, a final test of Gawain. This false claim of magic is certainly unusual in Arthurian romances. Most of them, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight included, are full of fantastic events. They assume complete credulity, or at least suspension of disbelief, on the part of the reader.
Yet the Gawain-poet was certainly satirizing Arthur and his court, and perhaps he wished to gently make fun of Arthurian romances as well. For all his love of magical lore, he was a clearly shrewd and skeptical observer. An author with his powers of observation would be entirely capable of seeing through the foibles of his time. In the late fourteenth century when he wrote, the culture of chivalry was in decline, and the forms were being reduced to merely an elaborate system of etiquette.
The nick given to Gawain by the Green Knight has additional significance, since it occurs on the first of January, the Feast of Circumcision of the liturgical calendar. Circumcision is a wound that does not maim or kill, and it was thought of as an early form of baptism. Accordingly, Gawain rises from the blow filled with new life, as though reborn.
The motives of Bertilak and Morgan le Fay are harder to explain. Bertilak tells Gawain that Morgan le Fay had him appear at Camelot in the form of the Green Knight and issue his strange challenge to frighten Guinevere. This raises far more questions than it answers.
We do not know, for example, just why Morgan le Fay wishes to frighten Guinevere, and feminine rivalry is not a sufficient explanation. There may well be references to stories here which were well-known in the late fourteenth century but have since been lost. The stated purpose of Morgan le Fay suggests, however, that she expected Guinevere’s husband, King Arthur, rather than Gawain to take up the challenge of the Green Knight. Perhaps the original intent of the challenge was to bring Arthur, the half-sister of Morgan le Fay, to Hautdesert Castle. There is probably no way to tell.
Still more significantly, the stated motive of the sorceress does not explain why Bertilak, Lady Bertilak, and Morgan le Fay herself went to such lengths to test Gawain. We may view these tests in many ways, for example, as a rite of passage into full manhood. However, if the figures that tested Gawain are more than, say, indifferent powers of nature, we must look for their motivations.
The only hint of an explanation is the renewed invitation by the Green Knight to come to Hautdesert Castle for renewed festivities, which Gawain refuses. Perhaps Morgan le Fay and Bertilak wished to win Gawain for some scheme which would be directed against Guinevere and Camelot? Perhaps they simply took a familial interest in him, since Gawain had a blood tie with Morgan le Fay. The invitation could have been a simple expression of goodwill or else a last temptation. Gawain, understandably, elects not to take any more chances.
As Gawain refuses, he launches into a misogynistic diatribe, of a sort that seems uncharacteristic for him but which was very common during the late Middle Ages. He speaks of famous men who have been brought down by women: Adam, Solomon, Samson, and David. The speech, like many in the poem, is probably somewhat satirical and may represent simply an outburst of temper. Gawain, after all, may be wiser than at the beginning of the poem, but he is still a very human figure.
The entire poem is largely about personal responsibility, and Gawain himself, everywhere else, has declined to unload responsibility for his acts on to others. Furthermore, some of what he says is very obviously unfair, and the audience of the poem must have been aware of this. To blame Eve for the deeds of Adam may have at least some plausibility, but poor Bathsheba certainly did nothing that merits blame for the murder committed by David. Perhaps the poet wished to show that, though he does not realize it, Gawain has actually been far more honorable than the patriarchs of the Old Testament. As soon as his anger has been vented, Gawain changes his tone and expresses his affection for Morgan le Fay and Lady Bertilak of Hautdesert Castle.
Gawain agrees to wear the sash to commemorate his failure, as a check on excessive pride. Ironically, his companions at the Round Table assign it the opposite meaning and decide to imitate him. Some scholars believe this poem commemorates the origin of a brotherhood whose members wore a green baldric. This closing incident may also be a satire on fashion. The late fourteenth century was a period of transition from feudal to early capitalist society, when expansion of trade and greater efficiency of manufacturing caused styles to change more rapidly.
The adoption of the green baldric as a fashion, like much in the poem, suggests the superficiality of the society of the Round Table. Arthur and his knights and ladies are unable to comprehend the lesson of humility. But perhaps the initial judgment of Gawain on himself was too severe, and the truth lies somewhere in between.