Framed for Failure
The nephew of King Arthur, Sir Gawain, was the most inexperienced of all the knights of Camelot. In order to prevent his king from accepting the axe game of the Green Knight, Gawain volunteers himself for the exchanging of blows. Sir Gawain happens upon the manor home of Lord Bertilak on his way to the Green Chapel to receive his New Year’s axing. It is here that we see a true test of honor and chivalry, unfortunately Sir Gawain is already doomed to fail. Lord Bertilak (also known as the Green Knight) took advantage of Gawain’s naivety and ignorance. He manipulated Gawain into a foolhardy agreement, bid his wife to tempt him, and exploited the fallibility of human nature. Gawain was not the only victim of ill will, though.
Read the fine print. If there is no fine print, do not agree to anything! In part two of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain enters into an open-ended agreement with Lord Bertilak. “We’ll make an agreement: whatever I win in the wood at once shall be yours, and whatever gain you may get you shall give in exchange”(825; 1106-1108). At this point in the story, Gawain had already had copious amounts of wine and was weary from his travels. Gawain was not in a wholly sensible state of mind. An honorable person would have been respectful of his current situation and stayed the conversation until the morning. Also, it’s questionable that Lord Bertilak would desire to have whatever Gawain may gain in the lord’s own castle. Their agreement also entailed that Gawain would sleep late and spend the day with Bertilak’s wife. “Upstairs you shall stay, sir, and stop there in comfort tomorrow till mass-time, and to a meal then go when you wish with my wife, who with you shall sit and comfort you with her company, till to court I return” (825; 1097-100). He asked Gawain to spend time with his beautiful wife whom he had instructed to entice the young knight.
Lord Bertilak’s hunt would last all day “…till dark of night” (827; 1178). He knowingly told his wife to tempt Gawain during these time periods when he was away on the hunt; “…Thy wooing by my wife: I worked that myself” (852; 2362). On the first morning, the Lady wakes Gawain and offers herself to him. She advises him that everyone else is still asleep and the door is locked tight, telling him “to my body will you welcome be of delight to take your fill; for need constraineth me to serve, and I will” (828; 1238-1241). Gawain honorably refuses her advances on this day, however, on the second day he allows her to kiss him. “I am at your call and command to kiss when you please. You may receive as you desire, and cease as you think in place” (828; 1502-1504). On the third day the Lady went to his room and pressed herself against him to tempt him the third time. He refused her but still allowed her to kiss him. After all of her advances are refused the Lady brings the axe down upon Gawain by offering him the silk girdle. He accepts it because she tells him that “he could not be killed by any cunning of hand” (841; 1855).Although he did not sleep with the Lady, Gawain has already betrayed Lord Bertilak by accepting kisses from his wife. By accepting this gift without giving his gain to the Lord, breaks the agreement between the two men.
Human nature tells us to preserve ourselves before others. Sir Gawain knew that going to the Green Chapel and allowing the Green Knight his returning blow would surely kill him. When he was presented with a mystical garment that would prevent his death, Gawain saw the chance to live (despite his agreement with Lord Bertilak). However, this is not the only area where his human nature failed him. Human nature also inclines us to distrust whatever we cannot see. He had never seen the girdle keep someone from dying; therefore he was afraid that it may not work. Part of the Green Knight’s agreement was that he would take his blow like the Green Knight…