Gawain, consumed with shame, comforts himself with the long list of women who led men astray, starting naturally with Eve and ending with Bathsheba [with which I may take some issue – I know little about the customs of ancient Jerusalem but the Bible doesn’t say Bathsheba chose the place of her bath on purpose to be in David’s view. But well, Middle Ages, it is always the woman’s fault etc.] His point is, if Samson and David were led astray by women, it’s no wonder he was as well. He also politely refuses the repeated invitation, saying “I’ve stayed too long already” [and undoubtedly thinking “it would be super awkward to go back there as a dupe”], but says that he’s going to retain the girdle, not because of its material value but as a token of his shame and as a useful reminder that he is not quite the purest knight in all Christendom. He asks also as the last favour the true name of his host [did he give him a false one at the beginning? Because it’s never mentioned earlier and it would be very weird, staying for a week in the house of the guy whose name you don’t know]. “Bertilak de Hautdesert”, the Green Knight answers, “and I have my land thanks to Morgan le Faye, Arthur’s half sister, your aunt, Merlin’s mistress, an enchantress and trouble-maker renowned throughout the whole Arthurian cycle. In fact, you’ve met her – she was the ugly old lady in the castle. And it was all her plot to scare Guinevere to death. So, are you absolutely sure you don’t want to go back and have a party with your aunt, my wife and me, [people who plotted against you, your uncle and your best friends]?” “”Positive”, answers Gawain, says his farewell and leaves. Which is quite understandable, but also makes me a bit sorry that we won’t get to see the Green Knight’s transformation back into his normal self. Would he be losing this green hue gradually or poof! in one moment? We will never know.
Gawain goes straight to Camelot, but the travel takes many days and many adventures happen to him, which are however, too lengthy to describe, as the poet informs us. He is greeted joyously by everyone at Camelot and when he tells his story, again it’s for him a story of shame and failure. King Arthur decides that he and all his court from now on will be wearing the identical green belts on their arms. The poem is bookended with yet another mention of the legendary Brutus, a brief prayer and the maxim Honi Suit Qui Mal Pense, or “shame on the man who has evil in his mind”. This is also the motto of the Order of the Garter, which was founded by King Edward III around the time when Gawain was probably written. Is the poem a conscious allusion to this fact or did it occur to the poet or copyist just as an afterthought to stick this motto at the end of his manuscript? We won’t probably ever know.
So, Gawain is a meditation about the impossibility of perfection, at least in this world after the Fall. Even the most perfect knight had to slip, if only a little bit and for understandable reasons. King Arthur and all Gawain’s friends decide to adopt what for him is a badge of shame, because if Gawain is guilty of such a small thing, they are presumably guilty of many worse. But the motto at the end also indicates that it is a badge of honour, similarly to the original Order of the Garter. The legend has it that a lady lost her garter during a ball, and the King, wanting to spare her shame, took up the offending article from the floor, said the words which are now the Order’s motto and turned the shameful piece of underclothes into one of the highest orders in England. Similarly in this story, Gawain sees the girdle as the sign that he failed, while the rest of his friends see from his story that he was pretty damn brave and acquitted himself rather well in what was an impossible situation – resisting seduction without offending the lady, accepting bravely what seemed to be a certain death.
There’s a wealth of critical studies on Gawain (including queer studies, or wondering why he keeps on kissing the knight), and I don’t aspire to give a review of them. I’ll just mention this reading by Victoria L. Weiss, which argues that the initial game terms did not include chopping off the Green Knight’s head. He said “give me one blow”, and Gawain in his impetuousness, and perhaps also irked by his disparaging words, got carried away. So his original sin was something before he even got to the castle and something more serious – lack of forbearance and forgiveness.
Before I finish, I would like just to point out how in Layamon and Gawain it is ladies who call the shots. And there’s going to be even more of that in The Canterbury Tales. The idea that women are demure, chaste and not really interested in sex is actually a Victorian one. In the Middle Ages it was a truth generally acknowledged that women are by their nature sexually promiscuous. Of course this led to another harmful stereotype – women as evil temptresses, who need to be kept in check and so on. But it’s also quite refreshing to read and may make you rethink some of your ideas about the Middle Ages, as long as the authors don’t start haranguing us with the stories of Eve and Delilah.