The Meaning and Symbolism of the Hunting Scenes in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight
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Sir Gawain is a poem of heroism, chivalry, brave knights and even romance. The story itself is so engaging that all too easily the reader may miss many of the symbols present within. Here we will consider the symbolism and importance of the hunting scenes and how they help develop and enhance the plot.
The hunting scenes in Sir Gawain are numerous and told in detail. Why did the author spend so much space in what seems to be just action scenes? Unquestionably such a talented author would never carelessly spend time on lines that do not add meaning to the story. One critic's overzealous opinion is:
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)
This is an interesting interpretation and could possibly serve as a religious meaning in the poem. Nevertheless the animals themselves are never described as evil nor is there any implication of evil animals in the poem. The animals do hold specific meaning though not malevolent like the above quoted critic believes. Medieval people loved stories of animals that assumed human qualities; for example Chantlicleer, the rooster in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Many animals were thought to have qualities of human emotions, spirituality and even intelligent qualities; the three hunted animals in Sir Gawain included. To begin, "Certain facts about the animals which formed the quarry of the medieval huntsman...and certain popular beliefs about their habits and temper" (Savage 32) will allow the reader to draw parallels between the hunt, happening outside the castle; and the "hunt" happening inside the castle between Gawain and the Lady of the house.
Insight is provided by understanding the attitude the medieval huntsman would have toward the animals. Hunted animals were classified as either "beasts of venery" or "beasts of chase". Beasts of venery included the male and female red deer, wild boar or the wolf. Beasts of chase were the male or female deer and the fox. Animals of the first class were considered noble to hunt. Animals of the second class do not fair as well, especially poor Reynard. At the time Sir Gawain was written "the fox was regarded as vermin to be hunted out and destroyed" (Savage 33).
The reason the fox was considered to be vermin was the anthropomorphic qualities assigned to him. The fox had "the reputation for cunning and duplicity..." (Savage 35). The deer was thought to be honorable but elusive, ready to flee before fighting. The boar was thought also to be elusive but prone to face his attacker and strike back. These three animals, deer, boar and fox, are in that order, the animals that Bercilak hunts while Gawain is pursued by the Lady.
It is here we can see the symbolism between the hunted animals and the temptations of Gawain in the castle. The fox's importance to the plot of the poem is evidenced in its very existence in the poem. Fox "hunts are very rare indeed in the romances--if indeed there are any at all. It must, therefore, have seemed odd that the author, after two conventional noble hunts, should resort to a 'foul fox' for his third and final quarry..." (Burrow 97). On the first day the Lord sets off hunting and returns with a deer; the shy, creature "ready to flee from any attempt at capture" (Savage 46). On this first day inside the castle Gawain is first tempted by the Lady. He hears her enter his room and "embarrassed, Lay flat with fine adroitness and feigned sleep" (Trapp 316). Here the correlation is apparent: Gawain acts just like the deer. He tries to avoid a confrontation with the Lady. He does not want to offend her and he also does not want to be seduced by her. Any promiscuous behavior would be considered an insult to the Lord of the castle of course, and would go against his chivalrous code. Gawain, coy like the deer, thinks it would be better to pretend to sleep than face the Lady.
The action quickly switches to the hunting, here the "relation between temptation and hunt is likely to be formed. We are now in a position to see host and hostess working as a team....The equation between hunting and wooing is...a well-established source of metaphors and conceits in courtly writing..." (Burrow 86) The second day the Lord hunts "A baneful boar of unbelievable size" (Trapp 1439). The boar does not prove as easy to kill as the deer and "tears the dogs which attack / He hurts the hounds / and they Moan in a piteous pack" (Trapp 1450-5). Therefore the boar, more than the deer is likely to turn against the hunter and draw blood. It is on this day that Gawain becomes more forward to the Lady. He does not feign sleep but "at once gave her gracious welcome..." (Trapp 1487). She tries to taunt him by questioning his courtly demeanor. At first he tries to be gentle: "Sweet one, unsay that speech..." (Trapp 1492). But she keeps pushing him and he bites back: "threateners are ill thought of and do not thrive in my country / Nor do gifts thrive when given without good will" (Trapp 1499-1500). So the correlation between the hunted animal and Gawain is ascertained once again. The Lord is hunting "beasts of venery" or nobility and Gawain is noble in his tests with the Lady.
Nonetheless, the third day the fox, or beast of vermin, is hunted by the Lord. The poet, not willing to rely on medieval knowledge of the nature of the fox, points out within the poem that "the fox is a thief, wily, and a shrew" (Burrow 98). The fox now has been deliberately singled out among the other animals; "This makes him particularly provoking. Why should it have to be a fox, of all animals? (Burrow 98). The fox, true to its cunning nature, becomes difficult to track. His "tracks...wove various ways in their wily fashion" and "Deviously in difficult country...Considering his stratagem had given the slip to the hounds" (Trapp 1699-1712). The fox led the hunters on a chase that lasting through the afternoon and while this was happening the Lady appears to Gawain again. Since her previous attempts to seduce Gawain were unsuccessful she takes drastic steps to seduce him: "Her breast was bare and her back as well" (Trapp 1741). The Lady has now dropped all pretense and in effect is going in for the kill. She is "not merely attempting to enjoy her lord's absence. She is as intent upon her prey as Bercilak upon his. Bercilak's pursuit of his quarry becomes a commentary on the lady's pursuit of Gawain, and "Gawain's skillful replies become meaningful as the desperate fox...in parallel fashion, finally attempting to escape through trickery only to run upon Bercilak's waiting sword" (Benson 160-161).
Gawain successfully rebuffs her sexual advances, but she insists of giving him a gift. The first gift offered is a gold ring, which Gawain refuses twice. Then she says she will give him her girdle, which he should accept since it has magical properties. "For the man that binds his body with this belt of green, As long as he laps it closely about him, No hero under heaven can hack him to pieces..." (Trapp 1851-53). Gawain considers the probability of dying when he faces the Green Knight, and decides to accept it for protection. The Lady tells him to conceal it from her husband and Gawain agrees. He accepted the girdle out of fear of his life and in hiding it fails in his bargain with Bercilak. Gawain unwittingly has already been caught by his hunter. Gawain, "after the lady's long and pressing pursuit, suddenly comes face-to-face with the prospect of the Green Knight's axe, and, as he tries to escape, falls victim at last to the lady" (Burrow 110-111). The deceitful fox is hunted in the woods and there is a deceitful "fox" within the castle. Bercilak is still hunting the fox after Gawain accepts the girdle. The fox in an attempt "to avoid the danger from the lords blade...'shunts', and attempts to reverse direction, but his very shift carries him into the jaws of his enemies" (Savage 137). Therefore the reader can see the foreshadowing of Gawain running into Bercilak's trap. In Gawain's attempt to divert from harm from the Green Knight he will run right into his hands. The foxes trickery "is that bit of trickery...[that] is the cause of his undoing" (Savage 37). Gawain's "trickery" is also what leads him to his fall; the breaking of his promise to the Green Knight, as by using the girdle he is deceitful.
In addition to the symbolism the hunted animals represent, how the poet tells the story of the hunts gives insight into its importance. The first hunt begins before dawn, with Bercilak up early and ready to hunt. The hunt is described in 3 stanzas by the narrator and then switches to Gawain. Gawain's first temptation is detailed in 5 stanzas when the action again reverts to Bercilak's hunt. Bercilak then returns home with his catch and calls everyone to come into the hall; where Gawain and Bercilak exchange what they earned that day. The second hunt again begins before dawn and is detailed in 4 stanzas, when the story switches to Gawain for another 4 stanzas.
The next three stanzas have Bercilak returning home with the boar, and looking for Gawain. Therefore the first two hunts establish a set pattern in the story-telling. Each hunt is given its individual stanza. After they have once again exchanged their days winnings, Bercilak hints at his true reason for this game to Gawain: "For twice I have tested you, and twice found you true / Now 'Third time, throw best' (Trapp 1679-80)! Gawain does not catch what Bercilak outright admitted to him, that he is being tested. In addition things happen in "threes" as in the proverbial "third times the charm", so the reader knows something special will happen today. It is in the third and most important hunt, that the pattern of alternating stanzas for the hunt scenes and temptation scenes, change. Stanza LXIX begins with the description of the hunt, but in the middle the attention turns to Gawain sleeping. The action abruptly ends in the first stanza with the first lines detailing the fox leading "the lord and his liegemen" (Trapp 1729) in a dance, "While harmoniously at home the honoured knight slept" (Trapp 1731). This blatant contrast of the two men forces the reader to pay closer attention to what is happening.
In that third days' temptation the viewpoint shifts from the hunter to the hunted, just as it does in the hunt itself. The scene begins with a view of the lady while Gawain still sleeps. We see her careful preparations for the encounter, as she rises early, determined.... (Benson 195-96)
The poet could not be clearer unless he explicitly wrote it out: there are two important hunts happening on this third day. More clues connecting the hunt and the temptation are the added detailed descriptions not previously mentioned. Such as the weather on the day of the hunt was "Wonderfully fair was the forest-land, for the frost remained / And the rising sun shone ruddily on the ragged clouds" (Trapp 1694-95). In previous hunt-scenes the weather had not been mentioned. The parallel to the temptation scene is in the six lines devoted to description of the lady's attire, again this is the first time mentioned at the beginning of the scene.
The viewpoints also are indicative of the association between hunt and temptation. "The method used to establish the varying viewpoints in the temptation episode is the same as the poet uses in narrating the hunting scenes" (Benson 194). The hunt begins from Bercilak's viewpoint, switching in the stanza to the fox's "Considering his strategem..." (Trapp 1712). As so the lady's point of view is taken as she looks upon the sleeping Gawain. The point of view switches to the prey, Gawain, and his thoughts "About destiny, which the day after would deal him his fate" (1753). So the reader can see the switch in both areas from the hunter to the hunted. The frame of mind of these two underdogs (Gawain and the fox) are then known to the reader. The fox is "Savagely snarled at by the intercepting hounds...called a thief...with the tracking dogs on his tail, no tarrying was possible" (Trapp 1724-26). Gawain plight of having to choose between two evils is shown also. "He was concerned for his courtesy, lest he be called caitiff / But more especially for his evil plight if he should plunge into Sincerely / And dishonour the owner of the house treacherously" (Trapp 1773-75). The point of view of both Gawain in the fox helps the reader sympathize with both their predicaments.
The poet though does not want the reader to linger in sympathy for either Gawain or Reynard. The point of view shifts from the fox's thoughts on escape immediately to the waiting Bercilak. The same technique is used when Gawain "like the fox, shunts to avoid the blow, then submits...the sudden shift to the Green Knight's point of view...provides a new perspective on the whole action" (Benson 196). So ends the hunt for both but not the problem that Sir Gawain must still grapple with.
It is interesting to see how the patterns established by the poet are used further beyond the "official" hunt scenes. The pattern set at the end of the day was for Bercilak to return from hunting and summon Gawain and the house-hold, in order to exchange their winnings. For the first two hunts Bercilak needs to call for Gawain but after the third hunt this is not necessary. Gawain is already waiting for him. It is interesting to note that Gawain is introduced with a description of his clothes. "He wore a turquoise tunic extending to the ground" (Trapp 1928). This small description, like that of the weather in the hunt scene and the lady's dress are easily overlooked but have a purpose. "For his one act of duplicity Gawain wears blue--the traditional colour of faithfulness, occurring here and nowhere else in the poem (Burrow 111-112). Also for the previous two times, Bercilak was the first to offer the exchange. This time Gawain practically jumps when Bercilak enters with "Forewith, I shall be the first to fulfill the contract" (Trapp 1934). The reader can surmise that Gawain has a guilty conscience and would like the exchange over as quickly as possible. As demonstrated the poets use of pattern is important; if only to amplify the break from the pattern. When the poet breaks from a set pattern, the reader is given clues to the importance of that scene.
These considerations of the symbols and patterns in the hunt scene are just a small part of what the poem contains. The writer was exceptionally talented and the interpretations and reading numerous. The consideration here is that the hunt scenes are especially important to the plot of the poem. The writer had direct meaning in them to enhance and explain the plight of Sir Gawain. Without the parallel hunt and temptation scenes the poem would be lacking in depth and the challenge of Sir Gawain would not be as dramatically important.
Benson, Larry D. Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 1965 New Jersey: Rutgers University Press
Burrow, J.A. A Reading of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight . 1965 London:Broadway House
Howard, Donald R. and Christian Zacher, eds. Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 1968 London:University of Notre Dame Press
Savage, Henry Lyttleton. The Gawain Poet Studies in his Personality and Background. 1956 Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press
Trapp, J.B., ed., Medieval English Literature. 1973 New York: Oxford University Press