I believe the unknown author of this medieval Arthurian story may have been a monk, considering the many religious overtones of this story. There was a great emphasis on fairness and justice in this story, which came out of the exchanges that were made. The story of Sir Gawain perhaps was meant to represent our eternal “test”, in a religious sense, despite the fact that the Green Knight’s test was very unfair. How could a mortal compete against an immortal adversary? Then again, death certainly isn’t very fair.
The Green Knight shows up at Arthur’s castle while the knights are feasting, and demands a test of honor. He submits himself to a blow that decapitates him. The Knight unfortunately lives, and requires Gawain, the knight who has struck the blow, to submit himself to an equal blow, from which he will undoubtedly die, and to do it on New Year’s Day, exactly one year from that time. Would he fulfill the promise he made, even if it means his death? Honor demands it, and there is no honorable escape. The covenant that Gawain and his host made also seems to be a test of fairness and justice. Would Gawain be fair in his exchanges? Ultimately he isn’t, and the reason he isn’t is because, despite all of his many virtues, he doesn’t want to die. He “loved [his] own life”. (line 2368)
It made me think about the inevitability of our mortality, and how uncomfortable that can be to live with and face. Still, face it we must, sooner or later. In a religious context, it could also indicate that we, too, must face a just reckoning with a Being who knows everything about us, and from which we cannot hide anything, just as Sir Gawain could not hide his small transgression from the Green Knight.
At the end of the year agreed on, Sir Gawain goes to find the Green Chapel. He gets lost, and after praying for help, he finds a castle. The lord and lady are generous and take care of Gawain in grand style. They tell him they know where the Green Chapel is, and they will help him find it when the time comes. In the meantime, the lord goes out on a series of hunts, while the lady of the castle, smitten with Sir Gawain, tries to seduce him. The hunt and the seduction happening simultaneously provide a contrast. We are watching this hunt going on, while Gawain is safe and comfortable at the castle, but also being “hunted” in his own right, by the wife of his host. He manages to duck and dodge her, and does not compromise himself until she tempts him with the green girdle, or sash, which might save his life. He takes it from her, and keeps it for himself, instead of giving it to his host, as he has promised to do with anything he gains in the castle. There was a great deal of detail given to the fabrication of the animals killed in the hunt, which led me to think again about the almost inevitable death that Gawain was facing. The reactions of the animals made me wonder how Gawain would face death. Would he turn and fight like the boar? Would he run until he couldn’t run anymore like the deer? Would he hide and be driven out like the fox? How will we die when the end comes?
Gawain is full of fear for his life, although he tries to put on a good face. It’s evident in the year before the match occurs, with little references to the word “green” casting a shade of fear over each season, leading up to the day when he has to face the inevitable. After the servant leads him to the Green Chapel and tells him that the Green Knight will kill him, Gawain says to himself, “I shall not give way to weeping…” (line 2157) I’d be doing a lot worse than telling myself not to cry at this point; I might have taken the servant’s advice and run for the hills! That moment was actually a little funny even though the circumstances were serious. Maybe it was the thought of a big brave knight about to cry. It was also kind of funny, when Gawain is getting ready to get the stroke that will take his head off from the Green Knight, he says, “Strike once more: I shall neither flinch nor flee; but if my head falls to the floor, there is no mending me!” In essence he is saying, “I promised I would do this, but it’s not exactly fair, you know. I can’t get up and walk away like you did!” It’s a little kind of whiny thing to say under the circumstances, and it struck me as very funny.
However, this Green Knight does not kill him, but only nicks his neck instead. He turns out to be the host, who is, instead of an enemy, a dear friend. He is under an enchantment from Morgan LeFay, who wanted to test the honor of Arthur’s knights. After a chastisement for his “sin” of hiding the girdle and being dishonest to his host, he is granted his life and allowed to go free. It emphasized the sense of how we, as mortals, try so hard to measure up to the demands of eternal justice, and yet we are forever unable to do so. However, we also get the sense from the author that God is also merciful and understanding towards the weaknesses of humans. Sir Gawain wears the sash to remind him of his human frailty, but in a beautiful gesture of great respect and affection, the other Knights of the Round Table also put on green sashes as well. They weren’t going to condemn Sir Gawain for his very human tendencies, since they were human too and just as fallible as he was. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could look on each other’s human tendencies with the same level of camaraderie and generosity?