In the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the themes of chivalry and moral behavior are constantly recurring. After a towering Green Knight rides into King Arthur’s court, he offers a challenge which nobody would accept, so he begins to criticize the people in the court. Arthur decides to step up, but one of his knights, Sir Gawain, takes his place because he had to put himself before the King, as with the nature of chivalry. Gawain accepts the challenge, striking a blow to the back of the Green Knight’s neck with an axe, and as part of the challenge, the Green Knight would be able return the favor in a year and a day. Unfortunately for Gawain, the Green Knight doesn’t die immediately but instead picks up his decapitated head and walks right out the door, leaving Gawain anxious about his fate.
After some time, Gawain finally has to prepare for his pilgrimage in search of the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight resides. After a rough start to his journey, he stumbles upon another castle, Lord Bertilak’s court. There, he is treated with great hospitality and offered to stay for a while. During Gawain’s time at the court, Lord Bertilak proposes a game—he goes hunting while his lady keeps Gawain’s company, and at the end of each day, the two will exchange whatever they received. The Gawain poet then continues by describing three hunt scenes with Bertilak each corresponding to a bedroom scene with Gawain and the Lady. Each hunting scenes is a parallel to its respective bedroom scene, demonstrating the various levels of moral integrity displayed from Gawain by comparing it to the difficulty of Bertilak’s hunt. While Bertilak is attempting to catch prey slipping away from him, Bertilak’s Lady is trying to catch Gawain slipping from his moral foundation. The last of the scenes describes Bertilak’s hunt for a sly fox determined to stay alive, which mirrors Gawain’s innovative responses, (in lines 1792 to 1816,) to the Lady in attempting to not be rude and determined to stay on track with his objective and chivalrous code in mind.
Gawain eludes the Lady because he is clever and never straight up rejects her. He tells her that “Lover I have none, nor will have, yet awhile” (1790-1791). This is his nice way of saying he isn’t looking for a relationship right now, yet this still manages to upset the Lady. Calling his words “the worst of all,” the Lady asks for a simple gift of Gawain’s “glove or the like,” so she could “think on” him and “mourn the less” (1792-1800). Seeing as the Lady is clearly upset and desperate,Gawain comes up with the clever response, saying that he truly appreciated what the Lady has done for him and wishing he had the the “most precious possession” to give to her for all she’s done for him (1802). Gawain clearly knows his ways with women, flattering the Lady and trying his best to make her feel better after subtly rejecting her. This shows just how clever Gawain was, just like the wily fox in the hunt.
Just as the fox puts up a good fight but eventually dies, Gawain eventually breaks when he fails to keep his end of the deal with Bertilak. He still, however, shows his finesse in his language and adherence to the codes of chivalry (for the most part). When the Lady asks for a gift, Gawain doesn’t actually have any possessions to spare for the Lady, but he can certainly work his way with words. He explains why he doesn’t want to give up his glove with the rationale that “a love token … were of little avail,” because he is “here on an errand” (1805-1807). This may reveal the discipline and focus of Gawain, keeping his goal in mind and holding on to his necessary provisions. His attitude is summed up concisely when he says, “A man must keep within his compass,” which can be referring to both his venturing and moral compass (1811). No matter how small and seemingly insignificant his bearings were, he made sure to keep them because they could end up saving his life. On the same note, this may make it seem that Gawain is very selfish and afraid to give up any possessions. This is supported by the fact that he later refused to mention or give the girdle he received from the Lady to Bertilak, which broke the rules of their game. Knowing that the girdle could save his life, or so the Lady claimed, Gawain held onto it. This reveals that although Gawain is an acclaimed knight, he would still break the code of chivalry and be selfish if the matter was a question of life or death.
The fox hunt can be seen as a parallel to Gawain and the Lady’s conversation, but also a parallel to Gawain’s fate for the rest of the story. It is interesting to note that during the fox hunt, the fox was called a thief. This may have been simply because the fox stole some livestock, but it could also be a subtle foreshadowing for when Gawain keeps the girdle hidden from Bertilak. The fox meets his demise, and when Gawain is preparing to meet his fate, the story takes a sudden turn. Up until then, however, the story of the fox seems to somewhat foreshadow and mirror Gawain’s fate.
Gawain’s third encounter with the Lady and the fox hunt have many parallels in the story. They’re both are clever in their methods—the fox being swift and sly, and Gawain being a cautious of his words and actions—but both ended up failing. Gawain is able to maintain his chivalrous integrity and the fox is able to keep his life for some time, but they both fell short. Gawain put his life before his integrity, breaking the rules of his game with Bertilak and also the codes of chivalry, while the fox was unable to evade death against a hound and Bertilak. Gawain and the Lady’s third bedroom talk and the fox hunt mirror each other in many ways; both the fox and Gawain used their cleverness and finesse to be the most difficult for their pursuer to conquer.
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