Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Burton Raffel
In the Koran, the term jihad originally referred to the “Holy War” that a person fights within his/her own soul, struggling with his/her own baser instincts. In this sense, those European Christians of the late Middle Ages who practiced the concept of chivalry might have had a bit more in common with their “Saracen” foes than they might have wanted to acknowledge. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is at once an adventure story and on many levels, an allegory for the moral struggle within.
In fact, while many chivalric romances of this period, such as Chanson du Roland and Cantar de Gesta Cantar de Mio Cid are packed with epic battles against foes both natural and mythic, the story of Sir Gawain is rather more subdued. The story, rife with symbolism derived from both Christianity and Celtic Paganism, is about Sir Gawain’s journey to keep an appointment that will most certainly result in his death – yet the central episode centers around attempted seduction and his resistance of a woman’s charms.
It is interesting that the episode between Sir Gawain and the Lady Bertilac is similar in structure to latter-day off-color jokes about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter (an entire genre in and of itself). On his way to have his head struck off by the Green Knight (in exchange for a similar blow Gawain had delivered to him t he year before, Sir Gawain stops at the castle of Lord Bertilac de Hautdesert, who takes him in as an honored guest. Three days running whileLord Bertilac is off hunting, his wife enters Sir Gawain’s bed chamber with the intention of seducing him.
Each night, he resists her advances, limiting his natural physical responses to one kiss the first night, two the second night and three the third night. In the end, she presents him with a magic girdle that (similar to many other myths) will make him physically invulnerable. The other part of the deal was that while Lord Bertilac would give Gawain whatever he was able to catch that day, Gawain would in return give his host whatever he had received. Gawain indeed returns the lady’s kisses to his host – but significantly, withholds the protective girdle.
When Gawain presents himself to the Green Knight to receive his blow, the latter reveals Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Burton Raffel – 2 himself as Lord Bertilac, informing him that the whole affair was set up by Arthur’s half-sister and nemesis, Morgana le Fey. In analyzing the story, it is helpful to understand the “chivalric ideal,” many of the values of are at odds not only with natural human impulses and desires, but can even conflict with each other.
For example, the chivalric code demanded that women be placed on a marble pedestal – as Mitch Leigh put it in his lyric from the Broadway musical Man of LaMancha, “… to love pure and chaste (without sexual feeling or contact) from afar. ” This code also demands that the true knight deny his lady nothing. In this case, he was obligated to accept the girdle. However, he reneged on his deal with Lord Bertilac, choosing to keep the girdle in order to preserve his life when he faces the Green Knight.
Gawain is tempted and expected to resist two of the most powerful human motivators – the desire for sex and the desire for survival. He succeeds on the first point, but fails on the second. More significantly, Gawain is able to resist sexual temptation through his own strength – but when it comes to saving his own life, he must resort to trickery and subterfuge, both of which are unworthy of a true and honorable knight. Sir Gawain’s tactic in achieving his desire – survival – is metaphorically reflected in the actions of the other two characters, Lord and Lady Bertilac.
On his first hunting trip, Lord Bertilac goes after deer; deer-hunting during the Middle Ages was a ritualized affair, and had to be done in accordance with specific guidelines. On the second hunt, he goes after boar, which is known to be a very dangerous animal, particularly when wounded; boar-hunting was often a test of courage in medieval times. And in fact, Bertilac winds up facing the boar in violent, mortal combat. The third hunt however is for fox, which has a reputation as a wily creature that is difficult to capture; able to use a wide range of tricks in order to escape.
As Lord Bertilac is hunting game, his Lady is going after her own quarry – in this case, Sir Gawain. Her first attempt at seduction is rather sedate and even playful. In the second seduction Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Burton Raffel – 3 attempt, Lady Bertilac becomes more aggressive – like the boar. In the end, she employs her “feminine wiles,” pulling out all the stops to get into Gawain’s trousers. Yet Gawain, like his host, is ultimately triumphant.
Why would Gawain, a Knight of the Table Round and therefore bound by a strict code of honor, successfully resist sexual temptation, yet deceive his host by withholding the girdle – and furthermore, attempt to cheat the Green Knight out of his rightful due? Herein lies another contradiction. While it is true that the survival instinct is perhaps the strongest motivator for any normal life form, the fact is that Christianity also considers suicide to be a sin. It is one thing to risk one’s life in defense of one’s honor, comrades, etc. it is quite another to simply and willingly walk into a situation in which death is certain.
By keeping his appointment with the Green Knight, Gawain was in fact committing ritual suicide, which according to the theology of the time, would surely have condemned him to eternal punishment in Hell. While Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has pagan overtones (as we would expect, given the origins of the Arthurian cycle), it is the product of a Christian culture.
Might we, looking at the story from as a Christian allegory, consider the girdle as a metaphor for God’s protection in the face of mortal danger? This interpretation begs the question of Lady Bertilac’s role, however. It would seem sacrilegious to think of the Lady as a personification of Mary, unless we consider the possibility that the attempted seductions were in fact tests of character – and that by resisting such temptation, Gawain had become worthy of Salvation through her Son Jesus as represented by the girdle.
The chivalric code in its time was both an ideal and in itself a metaphor of what might be construed as a Christian ideal, and in fact the influence was mutual. In light of this story and hundreds of similar tales, it is not surprising that Christian mystics of the time such as Marguerite of Henegouwen and Johann Eckhart should use the same language of courtly love and chivalric codes in describing the relationship between Man and God.