Humanity – what distinguishes human thought from that of the beast world? As a question constantly pondered by the great philosophers and thinkers of the world throughout the course of human civilization, various answers have arisen. One might argue the validity of conscious thought, the ability to discern right from wrong, or even the distinguishing of lust from love. In the world accessed by the composer of Gawain and the Green Knight, that of medieval Arthurian romance, chivalrous code and honor are that which establish this distinction. The manner in which a man acts in accordance of this code, being honorable and courtly in all aspects of his life defines him as a man. The poet of this piece accesses this literary legacy, established by poets such as Chrétien, and introduces the above question for the sake of illustrating the superficial constructs of society that are presented by the “romantic hero”. The parallel in the hunting of the deer, boar and fox, and that of Gawain himself is used to deconstruct these social conventions. In equating the carefully crafted pursuit of Gawain by the lady with that of the primal, instinctual pursuit of the beast, the poet is able to lower the glorified chivalric code that medieval society has placed upon a pedestal to that of basic animal instincts, more specifically those of lust and survival.
The events established in Part three of the romance are a very carefully constructed game devised by Bercilak which eventually lead to the climax of the adventure itself. Beginning with the pact made between the two men at the end of Part 2 regarding their winnings for the next day, the hunt sequences presented in Part 3 slowly raise the intensity of Gawain’s personal predicament. The hunting itself is a very important aspect of the medieval world, considered one of the noblest of sports and important to the very survival of the inhabitants. Different animals were regarding differently in the hunt. They fell into certain categories based upon the manner in which they were hunted. Beasts of Venery were considered deserving of respect and the capture and killing of these beasts was regarding as a noble feat. Beasts of Chase on the other hand were considered less than desirable, vermin at best. Of the three hunts that Bercilak engages, the first two are both of beasts of venery, the deer and the boar. The fox is considered a beast of chase, vermin that was regarded as a nuisance more than a choice of hunt.
The first day is the day of the deer hunt. The men leave for the hunt, immediately finding their quarry, quickly separating the males out so as they won’t harm one, and massacring the female deer. The scene is quick in the description of the hunt, abruptly switching scenes to that of the lady intruding upon Gawain. In this scene, he acts much as the deer, trying to steer away from anything that would endanger the chivalrous code he lives by. Thus “the fair knight lay feigning for a long while,/Conning in his conscience what his case might/Mean or amount to” (1195-1197). He doesn’t want to insult the lady by refusing her attentions, but any action on his part would be detrimental to the host, the lady’s husband. He is thus, like the deer, trapped, separated from his code, forced to make decisions that don’t fit into a set category. After the lady leaves him with the one kiss, the scene shifts back to that of the hunt. The violent dismemberment of the deer ensues. The sandwiching of the wooing scene between that of the hunting scenes is important in that it tells its audience that the two are connected. The hunts are parallel. The act of removing the essence of life from the deer is an action that will carry on into the next two days, the act of removing the shields that Gawain has built around himself out of the chivalrous codes and honor that he is bound by.
Day two finds Bercilak facing the great boar, another beast of venery. The boar is a much different quarry than the does from the first day. It runs, it fights back, and it runs further. “Pursuing this wild swine till the sunlight slanted./All day with this deed they drive forth the time” (1467-68). The manner in which this hunt proceeds establishes the mood necessary for the second days events back in the rooms of Gawain. Immediately the game is afoot. The lady draws upon the layers of courtesy that Gawain is wrapped in, stating “Sir if you be Gawain, it seems a great wonder – /A man so well-meaning, and mannerly disposed, And cannot act in company as courtesy bids” (1481-83). This dismays him as any holes in courteous actions are worrisome. She uses the opening to bring up the previous days kiss and the claim that favor must be claimed by the “conduct of courteous knights” (1491). He rebukes this statement, stoutly stating that she must “dismiss that thought” (1492). This exchange continues for a few more stanzas, her assailing his courtesies as a chivalrous knight and him rebuking her, hiding his denials behind grandiose words and flowering speech. The comparison between the boar and Gawain in this exchange is drawn in their defenses and the manner in which Gawain is able to outlast her, “so fair was his defense that no fault appeared” (1551).
The third day is that of the fox. The hunt for the fox is the most interesting in that many of the established patterns from the first three days are changed, instilling a sense of foreboding for Gawain. The hunt of the fox itself, as a beast of chase is a change of pace for Bercilak. The poet even goes as far as describing the fox as a trickster, using “his wiles to have thrown off the hounds” (1711). The hunters cry “Thief!” after him and threaten his life. The fox takes on a variety of human characteristics in this final hunt, even being given a name by the poet, Reynard. The lady has taken to the hunt much as Bercilak to his. It has become less of a noble sport and more of a task, to root out a stubborn trickster. Gawain has eluded her for too long. She takes to using her body to try and convince him, “Her face and her fair throat freely displayed;/her bosom all but bare, and her aback as well” (1740-41). Waking him from a nightmare of the Green Knight, she corners him, and the matter of courtesy is brought into direct dialogue:
“For that high-born beauty so hemmed him about,
Made so plain her meaning, the man must needs
Either take her tendered love or distastefully refuse.
His courtesy concerned him, lest crass he appear,
But more his soul’s mischief should he commit sin
And belie his loyal oath to the lord of that house.” (1770-75)
Through clever words and trickery he is able to get out of this predicament. He refuses the lady’s gift but is ultimately captured in the end because of his own desire to survive as the girdle she offers has magical properties. Much like the fox that runs backward from the blade and ends in the jaws of the hound, Gawain is caught by the lady while trying to escape the fate of the Green Knight. Therefore the deceit that is represented by the fox is presented in Gawain when he hides the girdle from his host.
The pursuits of the beasts in this tale parallel the phases through which the pursuit of Gawain is undertaken. The most important parallel is the way in which the poet is able to equate instinctual reactions in Gawain with the courteous interactions that occur between him and the lady. Hiding beneath the enormity of courteous discourse is the very primal, uncivilized instinct lust. Gawain is able to actually keep from succumbing to it throughout the first two days, as we see the noble hunts of the beasts of venery. At the same time, the difficulty with which the lady is pursuing Gawain is represented in the intensity with which the animals themselves react to the hunting of Bercilak. The third day is the decisive day in that both Gawain and the fox are trapped in the failings of their own trickery, eventually succumbing to the sword of Bercilak. Gawain fails because the instinctual desire to survive rises above all the chivalrous behavior and courtesy that he is bound to and forces him to take the garter and lie to his host.
The poet’s view of the social conventions that medieval society used to mock up their true instinctual behavior is presented in this section in a carefully played manner. He develops the hunt scenarios and places Gawain parallel to a beast, structurally surrounding the scenes with Gawain, almost forcing comparison. By doing this, the beast elements of the hunt scenes infuse the courtly exchange between Gawain and the lady. The careful, diplomatic dialogue between Gawain and the lady is extremely complex. But ultimately, they are only used to mask the real nature of human lust; another example of societal artifice imposing itself falsely upon nature. The courtesy that permeates these scenes is no more than a pretense to the comparison that the poet offers, the animals no more than a foil to that courteous state, allowing Gawain to become more and more animalistic in his predicament.