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The Power of Three in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
A recurrent theme in almost all Old English writings involves the number three. Beowulf fought the dragon in three rounds. In Morte Darthur, King Arthur sent Sir Bedivere to throw Excalibur into the lake three times. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the number three has a triple importance. In this story there were three different events that each happened in three stages: The three hunts of the Lord, the three seductions by the Lady, and the three swings of the ax that the Green Knight took; all three relate to each other.
The hunting and the seductions are both closely related to each other, but there is a little twist involved with the characters of these situations. The role of the game that the Lord is hunting is also the role of the Lady, but in the seduction scenes, it is the hunter being hunted by the prey. In the first hunt, the Lords prey is a deer. The deer was skittish and not much of a challenge; the first time the Lady seduced Sir Gawain she was a little skittish and not much of a challenge. Also, the Lord, "Let the bucks go by, with their broad antlers, for it was counted a crime, in the close season, if a man of that demesne should molest the male deer" (lines 1154-6). Just as it was a crime to hunt bucks at that time, it was also a crime for the Lady to "molest the male deer." But, she was only following the will of her Lord, something that Sir Gawain did not know at the time. The Lady’s seduction intimidated Sir Gawain, and this is where we can relate the first swing of the Green Knight’s ax. The Green Knight stopped his swing the first time because Sir Gawain flinched as the ax was coming. This fear of his death can be related to his fear of the seduction of the Lady. For both situations he had his life to fear (adultery is punishable by death), and at both situations he showed his fear. In the end, Sir Gawain exchanged the one kiss he received from the Lady for the deer that the Lord killed, as in their agreement of whatever was won would be exchanged at the end of the day.
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A fox’s cunning is something he is well known for, and the next role the Lady put on was one of a fox. "Often [the fox] reverses over rough terrain, or loops back to listen in the lee of a hedge" (lines 1717-8). This quote shows the slyness and cunning that a fox is known for, and it is something that the Lady was doing as well. She was trying to discover Sir Gawain’s weakness, and she found it in his fear of death. While she was only able to receive three kisses from Sir Gawain, she was also able to give him her belt, which she said had a charm on it that would keep him alive. Sir Gawain exchanged the kisses for the fox pelt, but mentioned nothing of the belt, and this was where he faltered. When the Green Knight swung his ax the third time, although he did not cut Sir Gawain’s head off, he cut Sir Gawain’s neck so that it bled. After the Green Knight swung his ax for the third time he revealed himself as the Lord to Sir Gawain. He explained the test that had been given to the Knights of the Round Table through Sir Gawain, and explained the three swings to Sir Gawain As follows:
You kissed my comely wife—each kiss you restored.
For both of these there behooved two feigned blows by right.
True men pay what they owe;
No danger then in sight.
You failed me in the third throw,
So take my tap, sir knight (lines 2351-7).
Each blow represented the way Sir Gawain responded to the three seductions by the Lady, and although Sir Gawain did not exchange the belt with the Lord, he also didn’t commit adultery, so he was injured as opposed to killed. Each animal that the Lord hunted represented the Lady and her style of trying to seduce Sir Gawain. But, Sir Gawain stood strong, and survived to tell the tale of his journey to the other Knights of the Round Table, and was a lesson to the other men on how even the strongest man can have a flaw.