Perhaps the finest piece of the entire mass of Hunt literature is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Written by an anonymous English poet ca.1350 (contemporary of Chaucer), most often referred to as "The Gawain Poet," the work was originally included with three other poems, Patience, Purity (or Cleanness), and the Pearl.
Gawain, excerpted here, is a masterpiece of hunting lore and of one man's search for, or rather stumble across, identity despite failure. A thirteenth century hunting manual, La chace du cerf declared that: "The sport is so noble, that there is neither king nor count, nor even Gawain himself, who, if he were alive and loved it well, would not be the more honored for it." Here it is no less true, though Gawain proves to be the prey in this particular hunt, he is indeed honored for his participation in it. Gawain is the model warrior, and he knows it. He is both sensible and brutish, unmoved by such frivolities as introspection and "love," courtly or otherwise. Shielded by courtly virtue and manners, arms and the skill to use them effectively, he should be the perfect huntsman. Perhaps he is, and yet, ironically, by being perfect he fails at being a human. This is the story of the Hunt for the man behind the mask.
The story is drawn into a web of Hunter-becomes-Hunted when The Green Knight arrives at King Arthur's Court to offer the challenge of a Yuletide "game." The Green Knight agrees to suffer a "thrust" from his opponent on the condition that if he survives, there will be a return blow within a year's time. Sir Gawain accepts, and lobs off the knight's head, whereupon the decapitated Green Knight proceeds to laugh, place his detached head back on his shoulders, and demand that Gawain "Come to the Green Chapel... to suffer a dent like the one you've dealt me--". It is in the following year that Gawain almost literally stumbles across a merry lord and his all-too congenial wife, who offer their hospitality while he searches for the Green Chapel in fulfillment of his pledge. His host, who proves to be a huntsman of prodigious talent, is also not all he appears to be. The name "Sir Bercilak" lies behind the "merry host," and behind him, The Green Knight, while even further beyond we see the workings of a mischievous and even merrier Morgan la Fay.
While his host arises early to course the hills on the hunt, Gawain lingers in bed as the sun lengthens on the walls, enduring patiently and steadfastly refusing (all but for a kiss) the delicious attentions of the host's beautiful wife. She too, is not all she appears to be. Husband and wife, the Hunter and the Huntress encourage Gawain to do that which is the demise of all hunters and prey: remain idle. It is perhaps significant that in Arthurian literature, Gawain, oft the quintessential warrior, possesses the peculiar aspect that his strength "waxes" for three hours until high noon, and then "wanes" for three hours. In The Green Knight Gawain is found lying in bed during the hours when, if in battle, he would be the strongest. The quintessential warrior, Gawain, gave in to those only-human flaws and Sir Bercilak, the Green Knight, pounced. He had mastered and triumphed in all challenges of the hunt: in the chase of the stag, in the confrontation with the boar, in outwitting the cunning of Reynard (the fox), and in the luring and harrying of Gawain, the man. "When Gawain sees his stains of blood on the snow," the painful realization of human frailty and human strength, the truth that sets free, is already irreversibly underway. All that is left is for the Green Knight to identify himself and his prey and claim his victory. This he does, with all the grace a bemused and sympathetic fellow human can muster, "Don't frown so fiercely, my fellow, here on this field..."
From The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (ca.1450), Arthur, while hunting in Inglewood, happens upon the Sommerday Man and a challenge that will involve Sir Gawain. The story of Gawain and the Green Knight has also been retold, with must less emphasis on the hunt, but with an interesting and thought-provoking twist, in Thomas Berger's Book IX of Arthur Rex.
An illustration from the Gawain MS Cotton Nero A.x at the British Museum: the Green Knight (decapitated) at King Arthur's Court. From Constance Hieatt's retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Walter Lorraine's illustration of Sir Bercilak's confrontation with the Boar.
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