Sir Gawain wonders why God had put “dark widows” on his path on the mountain. He wonders if it’s not enough that he saved the old couple and boy. Even though the widows insulted him and threw dirt at Horace, Sir Gawain talked to them “courteously.” Sir Gawain told Horace that they must “bear all such trials well” because they would soon face worse.
The “dark widows” Sir Gawain sees remind him of all the men he has killed in the past. Not only is Sir Gawain responsible for the deaths of many men, but he is also responsible for the ongoing loneliness and despair of those men’s wives. On some level, Sir Gawain knows God sent the widows to him to remind him of the consequences of his past and the wrongs he committed.
Waking up that morning, Sir Gawain “felt the lingering joys” of having had a good dream about a beautiful woman he had seen once years before. Horace woke Sir Gawain up, knowing it was time for them to leave. Despite being unhappy about waking up, Sir Gawain gently rested his head against Horace and thought of how much he’s put Horace through. Sir Gawain wanted to get Horace some breakfast, but a monk ran out and told him Wistan had escaped the monastery. This news made Sir Gawain happy even though it “br[ought] back a heavy task.” Sir Gawain thinks that even King Arthur would be impressed with Wistan’s abilities, but Gawain also thinks he had noticed a weakness in Wistan’s left side when he fought the grey-haired soldier.
Sir Gawain is happy that Wistan escaped because it means that Sir Gawain is, so far, not responsible for another death. Thinking about possible weaknesses in Wistan indicates that Sir Gawain, although glad that Wistan is alive, is already thinking of the inevitability of having to fight him to the death very soon. The highest compliment Sir Gawain can give Wistan is that King Arthur would have been impressed with his skill.
Sir Gawain wonders, “Yet these dark widows, why do they cross our path? Is our day not busy enough?” The widows are gathered in a “barren spot” and Sir Gawain urges Horace to “remember them as ladies” because they had once been young and beautiful. One of them calls Gawain an “impostor knight” and the rest start saying the same. The women say they know him as “the foolish knight too timid to complete the task given him” and they scold him. Sir Gawain asks them why they are distressed and he offers help, to which they reply that he should have slain Querig by now. By way of explanation, one widow says that as she was preparing to go to the island with her beloved, she suddenly lost her memories of their relationship because of Querig. Sir Gawain asks how they know about Querig and they say few things can be hidden from widows.
Although he doesn’t admit it, the reason Sir Gawain is so bothered by the sight of the widows is because it is getting harder for him to justify his past actions. By calling him an “impostor knight,” the widows are reminding Gawain that he did not always act justly or with chivalry because he caused them to lose their husbands. This is because Sir Gawain is not only responsible for killing a lot of innocent people, but also for continuing to force forgetfulness on everyone in the country because he helps protect Querig. Because of that, these women are not allowed to rest on the island with their husbands.
Sir Gawain urges Horace forward, and the widows let them pass, but they chant “coward” at Sir Gawain as he goes. He wonders if they would have called him a coward if they could have seen him face Querig with a band of men the first time. Furthermore, Sir Gawain had fulfilled a promise to Edra, a “young maid” who was determined to get onto the battlefield to get revenge on a Saxon lord for what he did to her mother and sisters. Sir Gawain tried to persuade Edra not to go, but eventually made her promise to wait for him so he could protect her on the battlefield. Sit Gawain kept his promise to come back and lead her through the field. While there, Edra found the Saxon lord and brutally murdered him.
The widows call Sir Gawain a coward not because he is going on to defend Querig, but because he refuses to let someone slay her and restore everyone’s memories. The story of Edra highlights how the hatred that was born out of war extended to everyone; male, female, young, old, Saxon, or Briton—everyone wanted revenge for wrongs done to them, and everyone had been wronged. Through war, the Britons and Saxons had created a vicious cycle that was stripping everyone of their humanity and driving even the most innocent looking people to commit gruesome acts of violence.
As Sir Gawain watched Edra kill the Saxon, Axl appeared on the battlefield. Axl was without a shield and showed no interest in defending himself. Sir Gawain wondered why the Saxons went on fighting so hard, and Axl said that he believed it was out of anger because word had come back to them that all the women, children, and elderly they left unprotected in their village had been slaughtered. Sir Gawain questioned why Axl would dwell on this and Axl reminded him that he had “befriended” them “in Arthur’s name” and was known as the Knight of Peace in some places. Sir Gawain told Axl not to blame himself and praised the “law [Axl] once brokered.” Axl said the Saxons had believed in that law up until this day but now took “no joy in Arthur’s victory.” Still, Sir Gawain argued that breaking the treaty was for the best because by killing the women and children, Arthur would break “this circle of slaughter.” Axl disagreed, saying that they had rather forged this circle in iron.
Axl’s lack of interest in defending himself on the battlefield shows just how deeply he felt the betrayal of the treaty with the Saxons. It is as if Axl wants to punish himself for the betrayal of the treaty by putting himself at risk of being killed just like the innocent women and children in the villages. For Axl, the breaking of this treaty was also a personal betrayal: he had worked hard to develop a good rapport and befriend the Saxons, so this broken treaty means that his hard work was not valued and that now those Saxons might possibly blame him for what happened.
Sir Gawain wonders if they had merely been “slaughterer[s] of babes” that day. He reminds himself that he hadn’t been there, and even if he was, that it wasn’t his place to question Arthur’s decisions. Sir Gawain thinks that when his time comes, he will “greet the boatman contentedly” because he was “a good knight who performed his duty to the end.” For now, however, Sir Gawain and Horace must go to Querig because their “work is unfinished.”
Sir Gawain, although he likes to brag of having fought alongside the great King Arthur, feels enough shame to wish to distance himself from the events of that day. Sir Gawain’s attempts to reassure himself that he is okay with meeting the boatman when it’s his time actually reveals that he worries what will happen when that time actually comes, believing that others will recognize his complicity in the treachery shown by King Arthur.