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Dual Hunts in Sir Gawain and Green Knight
Hunting plays an extremely important role in the medieval epic, Sir Gaiwan and green knoght. In this poem, almost everything is symbolized and conveyed with the help of hunts, which makes the poem truly medieval in nature. It also says a lot about the author of this great piece of poetry. While we do not know much about the author and the poem is largely considered anonymously written, it is believed that he must have been a contemporary of Chaucer because of the language used in the epic. The story itself is also unique. It presents a colorful and rich image of courtly life and knightly adventures.
PETER J. LEITHART (2003) Professor of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College Idaho describes the general nature of the poem in these words:
The anonymous alliterative Middle English poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is one of the gems of Western medieval literature. It gives a colorful portrait of court life, of heaped tables fringed with silk, knights and ladies in stately order, "velvet carpets, embroidered rugs, studded with jewels as rich as an emperor's ransom." Its attention to detail is remarkable. It is a rare poet who sees poetic possibilities in butchering a deer, but the Gawain poet lingers over the slaughter for thirty fascinating lines. Above all, as several of my students have emphasized to me recently, what marks the poem is its tone of utter and undiluted jollity. Everything in the poem is turned into sport, and friendly sport at that."
Hunting serves two important purposes in the story. On the one hand, it helps the poet provide fun element in the epic and keep the one lighter. On the other, it serves the moral purpose of the story by highlighting the real virtues of a true knight. Hunts therefore play a crucial role and without them, there wouldn't be a poem to begin with. Let us first see how hunting emerges in the story and then we shall focus on the parallelism between two hunts in the third part of the poem. The story mainly revolves around three central characters, Sir Gawain, Green knight and Lady of the castle who remains unnamed. The story basically starts with Gawain's visit to Bertilak's palace. Bertilak appears to be an honest and hospitable person who insists that Gawain stay with them in the castle till New Year morning. Gaiwan is reluctant to accept this offer but finally agrees and thus begins series of adventures, which are the main highlights of the poem.
Since hunting was an important sport in medieval times, Bertilak decides to play a game with Gawain based on hunting. Bertilak and Gawain both agree to the terms and conditions of the game which state that the two would exchange whatever they would win over the course of the day. In other words, Bertilak proposes that he would hunt animals and thus would mostly stray out of the house, while Gawain would stay inside the house and indulge in a different kind of hunting. At the end of the day, however the two would exchange their rewards. This results in a parallel hunting series in which Bertilak hunts animals while the lady of the house persistently chases Gawain. This is an important relation, which must be understood clearly in order to understand the significance of hunts in the third part.
Each day Bertilak hunts a different animal, which actually represents the type of animal that Gawain had become on that particular day. Critics believe that "all the hunted animals convey connotations of evil, and this is doubtless the reason why the author of the poem seems so involved in the outcome of the hunts and never tires of triumphantly describing the final slaying of the pursued animals." (Howard 85). There is an interesting and intricate link between the animals that Bertilak kills and the behavior of Gawain on that given day.
Discussing this connection, Anne Rooney (1997) writes:
An early, indeed pioneering proponent of a symbolic link between the hunts and bedroom scenes was H.L. Savage, who found characteristics of the animals hunted paralleled in Gawain's behavior. Thus on the first day he is timid like the deer, on the second day bold like the boar and on the final day wily like the fox (Savage 1956). Peter McClure (1973) finds the animals demonstrating traits that Gawain must quell in himself if he is to succeed in avoiding the danger of the seductions. Other critics have found sins symbolized by the different animals, and sins, which Gawain is tempted to commit in the parallel bedroom scenes (Ingham and Barkley 1979; Morgan 1987; Gallant 1970; Longo 1967; Levy 1965). Interpretations of this type may attribute to Bertilak the role of either God or the devil."
Thus critics unanimously agree that there exists a very deep link between the hunts outside and the ones that were going on within the four walls of the castle. This link must be borne in mind in order to understand the significance of dual hunts in the third part. On the third day of the game, Bertilak hunts a fox, which happens to be sly animal whose is known for his cunning and deceit. On the same day, Gawain behaves like a fox too when he chooses not to exchange all rewards of the day with Bertilak and hides the sash that Bertilak's wife had given him on the pretext of self-preservation.
In the third part of the poem, there are two important hunts taking place. One takes place in the jungle where Bertilak tries to outsmart the cunning fox and finally overpowers him. The other takes place within the castle where Bertilak's wife tries to overpower Gawain one more time and succeed. However her success is slightly different this time around. She fails to seduce Gawain even on this occasion but manages to take advantage of his vulnerability regarding his own safety. She makes him believe that a magic belt would keep him out of danger and since Gawain was worried about possible future attacks, he decides not to turn this belt in with other rewards and keeps it.
Patrick Mooney (1998) explains:
On the third day, Gawain's host hunts a fox, symbol of the mind. Gawain's host's wife also manages to overcome Gawain, not by seducing him, but through appealing to his desire for self-preservation. Gawain's failure came not in accepting her girdle, but in failing to turn over the girdle, as something won over the course of the day, to his host in exchange for the pelt of the fox. The host, before Gawain goes to bed on the third night of the game, reminds Gawain "Every promise on my part shall be fully performed." (line 1970) Gawain, because he believes that the girdle has the power to help him withstand the blow of the Green Knight, fails to fulfill his obligation to turn it over to his host. This is made apparent when the Green Knight has revealed himself as Gawain's host after Gawain's trial.
True men pay what they owe;
No danger then in sight.
You failed at the third throw,
So take my tap, Sir knight. (lines 2354-2357)"
Here we can see a very subtle but pronounced link between the two types of hunts. The poet intelligently creates a parallel between dual hunts, which sheds light on the various facets of Gawain's character. From the first hunt, the poet was unveiling some part of Gawain's character and this unveiling reaches its last and most crucial stage in the third part when out of fear for his own life, Gawain fails to keep his part of the covenant. When we reach the third part, we learn that the poet has…[continue]
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