Gawain may not be young or naïve, but seeing a man pick up his own severed head and speak to him with it is certainly a shattering new experience. This event precipitates Gawain’s voyage away from the safe and familiar world of Arthur’s court into a scary wilderness teeming with ogres, giants, and other magical creatures he must battle and far away from the warmth and protection of the hearth fire. Gawain is certainly far from his comfort zone here.
When Gawain reaches a much hoped-for sign of civilization in the middle of the enchanted wilderness, it shimmers in the distance like a mirage. But the palace of Sir Bertilak turns out to be just the place for Gawain to spend the holidays. He’s delighted by the friendliness of the people, the luxury of the accommodations, the endlessness of the food and merriment, and the beauty of lady of the castle. Is this place for real or, like the mirage it first appears to be, is it too good be true?
Lady Bertilak’s seduction attempts put Gawain in a real bind, forcing him to navigate between his codes of courtoisie and knightly honor. The lady’s attempts become more aggressive on each successive day, so that it becomes more and more difficult for us to see how Gawain will manage to walk this tightrope.
Gawain slips up in holding on to that darn girdle: his knightly code of honor dictates that he must disclose it to Bertilak, but his survival instinct wins out. As he rides to meet the Green Knight, then, it’s not only his life that hangs in the balance but also his identity as the most honorable of knights. In fact, we worry that Gawain may already be a lost cause.
As the Green Knight explains, he gives Gawain two feints because of the two days on which he returned his winnings to him like an honorable man. That last stroke, which just breaks the skin, is for Gawain’s failure to return the green girdle. Yet unlike Gawain, the Green Knight doesn’t seem to think that’s such a huge failure after all (whew!). Gawain returns to court having learned an important lesson: that he’s not perfect – in fact, he’s human.