Jan 28: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Question

Animals play an important role in Middle English symbolism and culture. When Sir Gawain arrives at the castle, Bercilak and Gawain agree that Bercilak will go hunting while Gawain stays at the castle. At the end of each day, they will share what they received. Over the course of three days Bercilak hunts deer, boar, and finally fox. Discuss the significance of each of these animals. How do they contribute to the larger narrative?

10 thoughts on “Jan 28: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Question

  1. Each day that Bercilak goes hunting, Sir Gawain has a parallel experience remaining at the castle. The animals Bercilak slays are symbolic of the experience Sir Gawain has at the castle. The first day Bercilak slays deer; not bucks but does. The symbolism here is that does are innocent animals, not a great challenge for the hunter, and this can be related to Sir Gawain’s experience as on the first day with the lady, he was able to dodge her temptations quite easily. The next day Bercilak hunts a much a bigger animal in a boar, and Gawain has a similar struggle in fighting off the increasing advances of the lady. The third day is a hunt for a fox. Known for being cunning and sly, the fox leads the hunters on a great chase through the woods. Similarly at the castle, Gawain is tricked by the guile of the lady as he loosens his morals and takes the belt from the lady.

  2. The animals play various roles of significance in the larger narrative of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Like Wilson has previously mentioned, the animals parallel the encounters Gawain has with the lady in the bedroom. The parallel of the lady to the fox more broadly emphasizes women as deceivers who “so cleverly delude their knight with their game.” (222) This comparison is furthered by Gawain’s mention of the women in the bible who bring about the “fall” of their man, such as Adam, Solomon, and Samson. When Gawain avoids the attempted trickery of the lady he is really defeating the Green Knight, by abiding to the codes of chivalry. The narrative intertwines different “games” that Gawain ultimately wins- the game of hunting, the lady’s game, and the Green Knight’s game.

  3. I agree that Bercilak’s hunting trips mirror Gawain’s interactions with the lady in the castle. Clearly there are parallels between the hunts and the romantic advances happening in Gawain’s room. These parallels are even more interesting when the Green Knight reveals himself to be the lord of the castle who orchestrated the seduction. The inclusion of the hunting scenes, however, may have another, simpler function within the narrative. “Gawain and the Green Knight” comes directly after the transitional period between the poetic oral tradition and modern writing and thus contains many similarities to traditional oral poetry. Someone telling the story of Gawain orally would have to ensure that the audience was still engaged. While the hunting is going on, Gawain is flirting with the lady of the castle. While exciting, this may not be the kind of excitement that an audience wanted in a story about a knight fighting a giant green beast. The descriptions of the slaughter of the animals are very graphic. For instance, when killing the deer, the text reads, “They took hold of the throat, and quickly separated / The gullet from the windpipe, and threw out the guts” (p.194, lines 1335-1336). This graphic depiction of hunting could serve as a break from the “slower” part of the story while functioning as an analogy for the interactions between Gawain and the lady.

    • We must take note of HOW the story is told as well as its content; a medieval audience might intuitively understand the symbolism of the doe, boar, and fox, but may not be all that interested in how that contributes to the overall morality of the story. I would disagree that the killing and hunting serves only as a purpose for spectacle – feudalism was more used to violent depictions in literature, than say, 1900s England. The three animals parallel the three seductions, but also reference common Christian imagery of Satan’s three temptations of Christ. While Sir Gawain does not fare as well as Jesus, a medieval audience would understand that the knight is only human and learns humility in the promise.

  4. I agree that the animals represent Sir Gawain’s challenging resistance to the fair lady’s seduction. However, I believe that the animals represent Gawain at different stages of the seduction. The first slaughtered animal is a doe, a symbol of innocence and purity. This reflects Gawain’s initial purity as he easily resists the lady’s temptation. The second animal, a wild boar, is fierce and defensive. This represents Gawain’s need to be more openly and aggressively resistant to the lady and her advances. Finally, the fox is a symbol of cunning trickery. This reflects Gawain’s clever resistance of the lady’s temptation, but also of the cunning manner in which the lady finally captures Gawain’s attention.

    • I too saw a parallel between the actual animals slaughtered in the hunt each day and the happenings in Gawain’s bedroom. I agree the Doe and the deer represent innocence; however I also saw a parallel in the difficulty of actually catching a deer. They are fast and evasive creatures to hunt, but their meat and pelts are very desirable. I relate this to Gawain’s attempts to stay chivalrous on the first day. While the meat of the boar is still desirable, it is a less revered creature in nature. Finally the fox is likely the least desirable creature to hunt as the meat is scarce and the pelts are common.
      I think each of these creatures represents the gradual decline of Gawain’s chivalry, as he chooses to remain at the castle for more and more days. The deer is the most polite of the creatures, never affronting, but alway evading, and accepting a noble death. The Boar is less noble in its attempts to survive, first attempting to escape, then attacking viciously. The fox would be the animal embodiment of the opposite of a chivalrous knight, as the fox is relentlessly represented as a trickster in literature, ignoble in its survival. As we can see by the end of the story, as well as Gawain’s stay in the castle, our knight’s chivalry has declined, as he accept’s the token of the Host’s wife. Like the Boar with its head removed, Gawain almost has his head taken for his dishonorable behavior.

      • I agree with the ideass that the animals represent Gawain at various stages in the hunt, both with their symbolic meaning and with their literal manifestations in the hunt. While hunting imagery and symbolism were commonly used in texts from this time, there is a major difference in Gawain’s story; he, the gallant knight, is not the hunter. It is a complete role reversal from the traditional roles of knight as hunter and lady as prey. Here, Gawain is the lady’s prey, and he is using the tactics of the different paralleled animals to evade her capture. The fox does represent both Gawain and the lady’s cleverness in capturing him, but that is the only time when the lady is not directly the hunter in the scenario. The symbolic meaning of the animals, their characteristics, and the way in which they are killed are all related to Gawain and his loss of chivarly during his time in the castle.

  5. All three animals have strong representations in the piece as a whole and in each particular part of the narrative that they’re featured. Each animal is increasingly beguiling. Does are innocent as several people have mentioned before. They are easy prey, and they’re feminine, delicate, and peaceful. The doe was a catch to exchange for the kiss- in a way, it’s almost “fair”. A feminine gift exchanged for another feminine gift. The doe is also naive, just like Gawain was when the lady first entered his chambers (line 1319-1323).

    The boar is slightly more of a challenge to catch. He risked his life to catch the boar, the host needing to be strong to capture the beast but also clever as to avoid the horns (lines 1590-1595). The host was able to win out and stab the beast in its throat. This boar represented the masculine side of the hunt, where strength was most needed. Cunning was needed to be able to live through the fight, but being a warrior was what saved the host’s life. The boar also represented the host, the man who owned the land through his strength.

    The last and most cunning of all the animals is the fox. In many stories, it easily evades those that hunt it and act as a “goal” in hunting games that many times, the hunters lose (fox hole is a synonym for a very good hiding place for a reason). The fox here not only represents the culmination of the “game” (Gawain gaining a kiss from the host’s wife, then giving the kiss to his host without telling who gave the kiss first), but the fox also represents the level of scheming going on from all angles. Unbeknownst to Gawain, he’s being tested by all those in court, and they’re waiting for him to falter. They’re playing him while he’s playing the host. He’s even forced to clever and follow chivalric code with the host’s wife so he doesn’t dishonor his host or offend the lady while ALSO keeping his own honor intact. It’s all VERY complex! Thus, the fox comes into play. Its demise is a long chase with twists and turns, and then a kill (lines 1895-1921).

    The fox’ chase scene is very much like Gawain’s story: he plays many games, chases the Green Knight everywhere, and then it ended. All was well- maybe not for the fox.

  6. I looked at the hunting scenes from more of a traditional folktale type narrative. Each animal embodies certain traits that are needed of Gawain to complete his journey. Deer (perhaps more-so female deer) represent grace and agility, the boar represents strength and bravery, and the fox represents tact and cunning. Perhaps as a hint of foreboding, each one of these animals was slain (with some difficulty), showing that these attributes alone will not be enough to save Gawain from his fate. However, through the consumption of their flesh or through the use of their bodies, they represent a metaphorical strengthening of Gawain, a hopeful notion that he will be able to embody all of their characteristics.

  7. As many have pointed out, there is a definite parallelism between the hunting scenes and the scenes in Gawain’s bedchamber. During the fox-hunting episode, which portrays the most challenging situation in both settings, the lady comes to Gawain as a vixen of sorts. Now, this is evident when it plays into the fox imagery, with her “well-trimmed furs” (line 1736). However, she is also dressed provocatively, with her “breast… exposed, and her shoulders bare,” which is in line with the second meaning of “vixen” (line 1741). Finally, this is the day when she is finally able to entrap him, using the cleverness of a fox, as she forces him to accept her decorated belt as a token, but he is unable to return it, give it to the king, or ignore it. This parallel makes clear the link between the king’s hunting party in the forest and Gawain’s court-intrigue situation back in the castle.

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