As the plot progresses in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), the poet reminds the hero of his sacred charge: “Now take care, Gawain, / Lest fear hold you back / From leaving on the quest / You have sworn to undertake” (SGGK 487-490; see our first post for works cited). Unfortunately, a year later Gawain makes this very mistake. He remembers his oath and departs Arthur’s court seeking the Green Chapel and the fate that awaits him there. Outwardly, he shows no fear in his departure; “He did not linger there, / But swiftly went his way” (SGGK 687-688). What fear he has is not in the trials that await him but the eternal echoes of his deeds in life. And as he defends himself against the wiles of the wilderness, he remembers well his faith and fidelity. He then rides “through the realm of England, / Sir Gawain, in God’s name, though he found it no pleasure . . . . And [with] no one but God to talk to on the way” (SGGK 691-692, 696). And though he meets many dark creatures throughout his journey, each time he triumphs not through his own strength, but through faith and hope. “Had he not been valiant and resolute, trusting in God, / He would surely have died or been killed many times” (SGGK 724-725).
Weariness, however, eventually sets in. The knight is worn down, burdened by the cold, lonely quest that is set before him. And through such weariness, the first hint of doubt sets in, doubt in his ability to follow through with his promise. This doubt, though, has not eliminated his faith in God. He rides until Christmas Eve and then, having lost his last bit of strength, he seeks divine aid.
And therefore sighing he prayed, ‘I beg of you, Lord,
His faith therefore provides him strength, and while immediate physical comfort is still distant, his hope stands firm. The prayers he prays were familiar to the readers of the poet’s own age, especially his adjuration of Christ’s blood. This expression is, “A phrase from the Primer, the more-or-less standard elementary school textbook from which children in the later middle ages first learned to read, where it is associated with the Paternoster [Latin Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer, Mat 6:9-13], Ave Maria, and Creed (cf. lines 757-8). Children in school would say the phrase and these three devotions, the first ones to be learned, before reciting the alphabet” (Anderson 309).
It is at this moment that respite comes. “Hardly had he crossed himself, that man, three times, / Before he caught sight through the trees of a moated building” (SGGK 763-764). The arrival at Bertilak’s castle is clearly intended to delight both the knight and the reader. “There is a sense of the miraculous about the sudden appearance of the castle, an indication perhaps that Gawain has indeed received supernatural help in his search for the green chapel, a search which in realistic terms he has little hope of bringing to a successful conclusion unaided” (Anderson 309). Yet the sudden splendor of the building may just as likely represent the first of the subtle deceptions Gawain is to suffer throughout his sojourn. It persuades him to let his guard down, to relax, to grow complacent. “If the glow of life within the gracious castle made temptation the more insidious, this was but a reminder that man must not presume upon divine mercy, that his experience of mercy must not relax his vigilance any more than the apparent severity of justice must occasion despair” (Engelhardt 224). Just as faith strengthens the knight on his journey, fidelity should alert the hero to any assaults upon his integrity. But the potential for temptation does not even occur to our hero, instead, he “graciously takes off his helmet, and devoutly thanks / Jesus and St Julian [the patron saint of hospitality; Winny 145], who kindly are both, / Who had treated him courteously, and listened to his prayer” (SGGK 773-775).
Once inside, Gawain receives a warm welcome, and is granted a great freedom by the lord of the keep. “He said, ‘You are welcome to do as you please / With everything here: all is yours, to have and command / as you wish’ ” (SGGK 835-837). Yet once again, the devil lurks just beneath the surface. To check this freedom requires an even greater reliance on his faith and fidelity, an increased effort that seems unlikely given his long travels and comfortable accommodations. The words of his host may also imply an even darker meaning. “This courteous encouragement to make use of everything at yowre wylle may hint at the freedom later offered to Gawain by the lady” of the house (Winny 145).
Gawain is further disarmed (literally and figuratively) by the behavior of other residents of the castle. “There he was stripped, with joking remarks, / That knight, of his mail-shirt and his fine clothes” (SGGK 860-861). The armor he puts off is heavy and as it is removed, off come the burdens of his quest and the vigilance of his virtue. Each of them longs to be with him and learn from him, knowing well the legends surrounding his name. He is,
the man to whom all excellence and valour belongs,
His reception, then, is that of a hero’s, but not merely or even primarily because of his mighty deeds, but rather because of his skill in speech. “Gawain is excitedly welcomed not as a renowned warrior but as the recognized authority on cultural behaviour, especially luf-talkyng 927, flirtatious chat” (Winny 146). There are two elements of foreshadowing at work here. The first is the downplaying of Gawain’s courage, which ultimately fails him, while the second is the luf-talkyng he shares with Lady Bertilak herself, which provides just such an opportunity for his fall.
Like every other aspect of the castle, the agreement Gawain makes with Bertilak seems innocent enough. As Bertilak suggests:
You shall stay in your bed and lie at your ease
Here, then, Gawain has an opportunity to display the trawthe represented in the pentangle; an exercise in full disclosure and candor to determine what the knight’s life looks like as an open book. “The exchange of winnings contest exemplifies the poem’s insistence on the relationship between inner and outer in its demand that the private be made public: that the events that take place in Gawain’s bedchamber should be reenacted each evening in the public space of the hall” (McCarthy 301).
Up to this point, the fair-minded reader can understand why Gawain expects nothing but good from this place. He is staying in a well-set castle with a gracious host, flattering servants, and a beautiful lady with whom he may freely and innocently converse. What more could the good knight ask for? The poet, however, warns both Gawain and the reader of the coming deceit in his description of the lady’s entry to the knight’s bedchamber the first morning of hunting.
And as he lazily dozed, he heard slily made
Clearly, these are not the winnings Gawain pledged to his host the night before. As if her behavior does not convince us of her intentions, her words this same morning certainly should. When Gawain offers to put on “proper dress” so they might chat, the lady rejects his suggestion and promises “something better” (SGGK 1220, 1223).
I shall tuck you in here on both sides of the bed,
Yet talking seems to be only the beginning of her plans for the trapped knight. The second half of this response is especially telling. It recalls Solomon’s account of a similar lady. One night a young fool walks by the king’s window, turns the corner, and heads toward a neighborhood known for its less than righteous activities.
And there a woman met him,
Yet unlike that young fool (vv. 21-23), Gawain is “not unmindful of his devotion to Mary nor “the hereafter awaiting the man that dies in mortal sin” and therefore he sees through this first direct temptation (Engelhardt 221). So why, then, does the knight not flee the chamber like righteous Joseph, leaving his clothes behind yet preserving his integrity (see Gen 39:7-18)? Quite simply, because that is not the polite thing to do; any temptation, even one such as obvious as this, is to be deflected rather than denied. “His code made him reject as sinful the love of another man’s wife . . . yet he must manage this rejection with humility and forbearance, with tact and a light touch” (Engelhardt 222; original citations omitted). So instead, for three days the knight afflicts his soul with the guile of the seductress. Just as she “Waited there strangely long to see when he would wake” (SGGK 1194), Gawain seeks to endure the temptation passively rather than flee the situation and risk insult or injury. Yet seduced he will be.