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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: the Fox Hunt and the Romance
As Arthurian legends go, Sir Gawain was nephew to King Arthur himself, and one of the strongest knights of the Round Table, and his tales are nearly as affecting as the tales of the great king. Within the story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, there are elements of romance, seduction, and tremendous hunts. It may help at this point, as a comparison is drawn between the parallel force of the hunts and the sexual acts that follow, to understand that in many Arthurian texts, the hunt is often known as the Great Hunt, that which makes a boy into a man, as what follows is often the ritual act of sex with the Goddess figure. Once the boy has conquered a great beast, he can therefore become a man beneath the sheets of a woman.
Sir Gawain travels to a castle, that of Bertilak where he decides to stay until the moment of destiny is upon him to battle the Green Knight. Bertilak strikes a deal with Sir Gawain, that each will give the other what they gain during the day. Bertilak goes on the fox hunt while Sir Gawain sleeps, only to be awakened by a seductress calling for him. He awakens with a heavy heart, knowing that he has a destiny with the Green Knight, but, finding her “breast was bare” (86) was hardly in a position to resist her charms “and welcomed her worthily with noble cheer” (87). Instantly in love, knowing her to be far beyond the caliber of woman he has met in his past, he is enamored with her—until Sir Gawain remembers his Christian upbringing, and that this act would be sin, especially on the eve of his grand destiny. Plus, she is the lady of the castle and his host would be dishonored by this act. Three nights pass where the lady attempts to seduce Gawain, and three nights pass where he denies her passions. She is rebuffed by his dismissal, but Gawain rewards her with a kiss.
To remember each other by, she asks him for a gift—but he has nothing worthy of her. Then she begins offering items. He refuses anything until she offers him a girdle that will protect him from wounds in battle. Of course, he wants this object and takes it with the plan that he will tell no one of his fortune, and certainly will not give it to Bertilak, despite their agreement.
In this instance, Sir Gawain faces seduction, yet does not find himself overcome by it. And, it is the king who actually does all the hunting. However, despite the parallel to the Great Hunt that can be found here, another parallel also comes to the forefront. While Gawain doesn’t physically have sexual relations with the lady of the house, he does enter into a clandestine relationship with her that nets himself a wondrous prize, which, despite his bound agreement to the king, he does not give over the girdle. Thus, even though Gawain attempts to be honorable, he goes against his bargain with Bertilak and thus sends his destiny into dishonor and shame.
As the Arthurian legends go, a parallel could even be drawn to the adultery committed by Guinevere and Lancelot while Arthur is away at the hunt, to that of Sir Gawain and the king’s wife while the king is away hunting. Sir Gawain has greater things on his mind, though, than to give in to such passions, especially when he feels the religious sting that dishonor would bring moments before his destiny is to play out. When his time for destiny has arrived, he asks for a guide to take him to the Green Chapel to challenge the Green Knight, knowing that he is protected with his new prize, though it turns out later that the woman who so enamored Sir Gawain just happens to be the seductress of the Green Knight as well. The challenge of course, had been set about by his own aunt, Morgan la Fay and was orchestrated from inception.
The act of the hunt and the act of the seduction have a distinct parallel that can be seen in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While Sir Gawain does his best to be the gallant hero and not give in to the seductive lady, he still enters into a relationship with her, one with enough weight to gain him the prize of all prizes. Yet, in this, Gawain does not act will all the honor that he believes he maintains as he goes against his bargain with Bertilak and does not hand over the girdle. And, as the story ends, and Sir Gawain realizes that his whole destiny has been orchestrated, despite his attempts to be honorable.
Stone, Brian (Trns). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 5th Edition. New York: Penguin Classics, 1959.