ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Bertilak: the Antagonist and Major Manipulator in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Updated on May 15, 2019
Ronna Pennington profile image

College history instructor Ronna Pennington has a Master of Liberal Arts in History and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction.

Bertilak Embraces a Culture of Manipulation

Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a sadist that devises a grisly game and a plan that manipulates many people to fulfill his own sexual desires. He builds his scheme around the medieval fealty system, the concept of courtly love, and a long-standing grudge. The reader sees Bertilak’s plan begin to unfold when he appears to King Arthur’s court as the Green Knight. His dramatic appearance at the moment that the king insists upon a pre-meal story seems like a monumental coincidence, but the reader later learns that it was all planned (IV.2456). Morgan, the sorceress, has knowledge of the king and all the members of the court (IV2450). The Green Knight’s entrance, then, is actually very calculated.

Grudges and Magic

Bertilak uses Morgan for more than just her knowledge of King Arthur’s court, however. He employs her grudge against Queen Guenevere to involve her in his scheme. For a reason not explained in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Morgan does not like the queen (IV.2460). Morgan also provides him with the disguise he needs to complete his plan. She hopes the Green Knight that her magic has created will scare the queen to death (IV.2460).

When he enters the king’s court transfigured by Morgan’s magic, Bertilak puts the medieval system of fealty to work in his scheme. He challenges the brave men of King Arthur’s court to a gruesome game. One will take a swing at him with his ax; then will allow him to do the same to them in exactly one year. When no knight responds to the crazy request, the king himself does. Knowing that he will shame his king and his own honor by allowing the king to play this game, Gawain steps up and asks for the opportunity to fulfill the Green Knight’s request (I.343). Gawain’s gesture is consistent with the fealty system in which a vassal pledges allegiance to his lord.

The Medieval Honor Code

Bertilak continues using the honor code to further envelop Gawain into his scheme. When Gawain comes upon Bertilak's castle, the lord offers to play a game with him. The rules of the game are that he will hunt daily and share his prize with Gawain if the knight will remain in the castle and share his daily earnings with him. Initially, a reader might suspect that Bertilak is attempting to catch his wife in adultery, but he does not seem riled by the fact that he returns from the hunt each day to exchange his wild game for kisses from Gawain (I.1645).

Bertilak's Sexual Scheming Explained

When considering the sexual nature of Bertilak’s scheme, it is important to keep the fealty system in mind. If Gawain is truly loyal to the lord, he will give him a kiss exactly like the one he received. The reader knows that Lady Bertilak tries very hard to tempt the knight pushing to go beyond accepted courtly love. It is safe to assume that her kiss to him is a very passionate one. This kiss “in the comeliest style” is given each evening to Bertilak when he returns from his hunt (III.1388-1389). In support of this idea, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains that the medieval definition for comely is glorious, lively, or fine. Each day, Bertilak remarks favorably about the kiss, showing the reader that he enjoys it (III.1392,1645,1937). One might argue that since Gawain never tells Bertilak who gives him the kiss, that his favorable remarks regarding the kiss are justified. Another argument might be that Bertilak’s post-kiss remarks are sarcasm and that he hopes to elicit a response from his cheating wife. Those arguments are negated, however, when Bertilak reveals his whole scheme to Gawain.

The fact that his wife has been involved all along divulges the true prurience of the scheme. Through it, Bertilak experiences both direct and indirect sexual deviance. If the entire scheme has been developed to give him sexual pleasure, the amount he receives depends on Gawain’s faith and loyalty to the fealty system. Gawain only kisses Lady Bertilak, so he gives only kisses to the lord.

Each day, however, Bertilak sends his wife back into Gawain’s chamber to try harder to seduce the knight (IV.2360). His motivation is sexual and presents a win-win situation for Bertilak. If Gawain has sex with Lady Bertilak he must then likewise have sex with him. If Gawain has sex with Lady Bertilak but does not have sex with the lord upon his return from the hunt, Bertilak gets to shame Gawain for his lack of loyalty.

In addition to the direct pleasure he receives in the way of passionate kisses from Gawain each day, Bertilak gets indirect prurient pleasure from the verbal voyeurism his wife provides. Each night she recounts the day’s events to her husband and gives him all the details of her attempts to seduce Gawain (IV.2360). Bertilak seems less interested in his wife, and more interested in what she can get Gawain to do when seduced.


After Bertilak confesses his entire scheme to Gawain, he invites him back to his castle. Gawain, with the opportunity to hide his shame from King Arthur, still opts to return home when returning with Bertilak would be easier though perhaps less noble. His “course is bent” toward home, strongly suggesting that Gawain is determined to leave Bertilak’s twisted schemes and manipulation (IV.2476).

Upon his return to King Arthur’s court, Gawain shares the story of his shame and vows to always wear the green belt as a reminder of his iniquity (IV.2510-2514). The king comforts him while the rest of the court laughs with good intent (IV.2513-2514). The court’s laughter suggests that Gawain is taking his situation much too seriously or wrong all together. The court decides to wear similar bands in support of Gawain, much like the contemporary tradition of wearing pink in support of breast cancer victims or members of professional sports teams wearing special decals or emblems in honor of certain victims. Even the court sees Gawain as a victim of Bertilak’s sadistic scheme, not as a knight who lost his loyalty.


(Based upon the book Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Patience; Pearl. Trans. Marie Borroff. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001.)


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)