Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

A Traditional English Tale

It was Winter Solstice at Camelot. King Arthur and Queen Guinevere led the revels. The great hall rang with the laughter of fair, feisty women sporting tall pointed hats and gowns of surpassing décolleté, and lusty knights, all quaffing hot spiced ale and mulled wine. The festive board groaned beneath a sumptuous fare of roast wild boar, whole swans, game pie, sucking pigs, a surfeit of lampreys, whole baked salmon, sweetmeats, gooseberry tarts, flagons of custard …

As was his custom, King Arthur forbad the feasting to commence save first some fine test of skill or wondrous tale of derring-do. As he looked around for such as these, there came a wonder – crashing through the door with a mighty bellow, a warrior of giant size on a massive charger, clutching a gargantuan axe in a mailed fist and bearing a holly branch in his other hand. He galloped into the hall, the horse’s hooves clattering on the paving stones, scattering sparks.

But the greatest wonder was, the knight was green. Green were his crown of curly locks, his face, his hood and cloak, his tunic and hose, his boots and spurs. Likewise, his horse was green from forelock to fetlocks, from mane to tail, saddle, bit and bridle.

Drawing his horse to a standstill, the Green Knight bellowed, “Who is master here? I would speak with him.” The king replied, “Sir knight, welcome, I bid you dismount and share our feast and say your business here.”

The Green Knight spoke again, “I cannot tarry. As this holly bough bears witness, I come in peace, simply for seasonal sport.” Gazing around, he went on, “I wonder which of these puny knights, these beardless boys, is willing to trade me blow for blow, wielding my axe? Let him leap forth and grasp it, and smite me where I stand. And here’s the bargain, this day twelvemonth hence I get to return the blow. Who’ll take my challenge?”

Incensed and red of face, the king leapt up, stretching out his hand for the axe, but Sir Gawain reached it first, “Nay, sire, grant me this chance to prove my valour. I accept the challenge.”

The Green Knight knelt, lifted his green locks over the crown of his head, and stretched out his neck, as Sir Gawain hefted high the mighty axe then whipped it down, severing bone and sinew in a single strike, sparking and splitting the stone. The green head rolled away, leaving a trail of green blood. There was utter shock and silence in the hall.

Then, slowly, the bloody corpse raised itself to its feet and walked stiffly to where its head lay, its green eyes open and bright. He lifted the head by its green locks, its eyes swivelling round to leer at Guinevere. The Green Knight mounted his great charger, holding the head aloft, and the green lips began to move, “I am the Knight of the Green Chapel in the Northern waste. This day twelvemonth, Gawain, be there. I shall return the blow.” Spurring his charger, with a clatter of hooves, the Green Knight was gone.

With the approach of next Winter Solstice, Sir Gawain mounted his horse and left Camelot for the Northern waste to search out the Green Chapel. He was drenched by winter rain and sleet. He stumbled into deep snow-drifts. He slept night after night on the frozen ground. Finally, he came to a moated castle, its painted pinnacles glistening in the early morning light.

The lord of the castle welcomed him like a brother. The lord was red-haired, red-bearded, tall and tough as a tree with trunk to match, with a massive appetite for stories and laughter. He led Sir Gawain to a chamber hung with rich tapestries. There was a bed of soft down with quilted coverlets curtained in silk brocade.

At dinner, Sir Gawain met the lady of the castle. As their eyes met ‘twas like for him a peal of festive bells.

Red was her robe, and cluster of clear pearls [1]
Gleamed in her head-dress; breast and throat were bare,
Whiter than snow which lies on winter hills,
Her eyes a twinkle, her manner debonair,
And never had he seen a face so fair.

By her side was an ancient crone swathed in musty veils and dark raiment, whom Sir Gawain barely noticed in the light of the lady’s face. After dinner they retired to the hall where the lord entertained Sir Gawain with stories and revelry, carolling and carousing, laughter and leaping dance.

Sir Gawain told of his dire quest to meet the Green Knight just three days hence. “Why, the Green Chapel is barely two miles distance. Here you can rest and nourish yourself. For three days whilst you rest I shall go a-hunting. My wife shall keep you company at home. So, let us make a bargain. All I win in the chase is yours. Whatever you win is mine.” They raised their mugs of ale to swear their oath.

The lord arose at cock crow and took the field. Meanwhile, Sir Gawain lazed in his bed of down, beneath the coverlets, with silk curtains drawn. There was a soft click as the door quietly opened. Soft footfalls crossed the floor. The lady slid the curtain aside, laughter quivering on her lips, “Why, sire, I find the sentry sleeping at his post. Perchance, I shall bind him to his bed.” So saying, she sat on the bed and leant towards him.

“Madam, I am your prisoner. I pray you, release me. Let me rise and dress.” She shook her head, “Perhaps I shall let you rise. But dress? By no means, not whilst I have the bravest knight in the land at my behest, with my liege lord far away in the field. I offer you my lips, my love, my treasure. Why, I see the sentry has risen and stands at his post.”

“Madam, madam, for honour’s sake, alas, I must refuse. You have chosen a better lord. Yet, I will pledge to serve you as your liegeman.”

And so, with wooing glances, subtle taunts and amorous advances, she toyed with him. Whilst he parried each foray with courtly grace and deftly turned her gibes to harmless jest, until the morning passed most pleasantly away. “Surely,” she said at last, “after so long a sojourn, the gentle knight might crave at least a kiss before we part.” “Madam, ‘tis my courtly duty to obey.” She clasped him in her arms, kissed him, and withdrew.

That evening in the hall, the lord heaped up his winnings for the day, wild boar, their blood running over the flagstones, “All for you, sire, this was our bargain.” Sir Gawain clasped him by the shoulder, “My winnings, lord, a fair exchange, one kiss.” “Why,” said the lord, “what delight. How came you by this?” “Ah!” replied Sir Gawain, “That was no part of our bargain. I will not say.” So, jesting, they went in to dine.

Next day the lord arose at cock crow and took the field. Meanwhile, Sir Gawain lazed in his bed of down, beneath the coverlets, with silk curtains drawn. And there the lady tiptoed to him, withdrew the curtains, breathed his name.

So, they entered into courtly dalliance as before, the amorous word, the wooing glance, parrying fond forays with courtly grace. Until, “My liege lord is far away in the chase. This moment he scents a deer, its soft nose warm and moist, hidden in a bush. Why should those who lie abed be denied such thrilling sport.”

“Madam, madam, I would fain cast away my honour and virtue to enter such a chase. Yet, I will not, I will not for all that.” “Why, sire, have you forgot even what I taught you but yester-morn of courtliness and kissing?” And with that, she stole two kisses and was gone.

That evening, the lord displayed his winnings, a soft-nosed deer, a red gash in its side. “For you, sire, as we agreed.” Sir Gawain clasped him by the neck, “My winnings, lord, two kisses.” “Why,” said the lord, “two kisses. Such increase in your trade. How came you by such fortune?” “Ah!” replied Sir Gawain, “I will not say.” So, laughing, they went in to dine.

Next day the lord arose at cock crow and took the field. Meanwhile, Sir Gawain lazed in his bed of down, beneath the coverlets, with silk curtains drawn. The lady came with purpose fell, threw back the blinds and curtains, let the winter sun stream in.

She stood before him, her finest red wrap trailing to the ground, her arms akimbo, diamonds at her throat and clustered in her hair, her back and bosom bare. “For shame, for shame, that here you lie and snore when the morning beams so bright, and with our time so short for courtly love? Arise, arise!”

She bounced onto the bed, her wrap slipping from her shoulders, and stooping low one kiss she gave him. One kiss, and all the bliss of blossom time was his. Hard the lady pressed her loving charms. “My liege lord is far away in the field. This moment he is facing a she-wolf, whose lascivious, slavering jaws yearn to embrace his living flesh. Why should those who lie abed be denied such perilous sport.”

Sir Gawain cried in anguish, “Heaven forefend I should deceive my noble host, and yet, I love thee with all my heart and soul.” The lady kissed him deeply, thrice, then drawing back unfurled from round her narrow waist a silken girdle, green, enriched with stones of jade and emerald and green pearls. “T’is a talisman of magic worth, so potent it will shield you from any blade. Wear it beneath your mantle when you meet the Green Knight. But promise, lest I be chastised, breath no word to my lord.”

That evening in the hall, Sir Gawain spoke, “This night let me be first to pay.” Grasping the lord by the neck he delivered three kisses. “Three kisses!” laughed the lord, “Rich merchandise, a bounty I shall treasure. And the price you paid?” “That’s no part of our bargain. My payment’s made.”

“Then here is mine,” said the lord. He displayed his winnings for the day, “A ferocious she-wolf, cut down like a dog, a poor return for a gift of priceless worth, three precious kisses.” Of the green girdle, Sir Gawain spoke no word. “It is enough,” he said, and, embarrassed, turned away.

A reluctant dawn broke on a Winter Solstice joyless, bitter and bleak. Sir Gawain bid farewell to his host and rode slowly towards the Green Chapel, in a narrow sheer-sided valley, sunless and dank, with rank grasses and scrubby trees, where no birds sang. The green bejewelled girdle was bound about his waist in hope it might shield him from hurt.

As he approached the Green Chapel and dismounted, he heard the whirring of the grindstone and the whining of the Green Knight’s axe being sharpened to a fine edge. Then the Green Knight appeared, hefting his axe, his great bulk blotting out what little light there was in the sunless valley. “Twelvemonth past you lopped off my head. Now, I shall return the kindness,” said the Green Knight. “I am not afraid,” replied Sir Gawain. “Then ready yourself to receive the blow.”

Sir Gawain knelt and stretched out his neck. As he heard the whistle of the falling axe, he flinched. At the last moment, the giant stopped the axe in mid-air, hovering over Gawain’s neck. “You are not Gawain, the courageous knight who fears no foe, if you flinch at the whistle of the blade. At Camelot, I never shied away.” “Alas,” replied Sir Gawain, “my head when it falls will never be restored to my shoulders. I shall not flinch again. Strike!”

The Green Knight whirled the axe around his head for speed then with a roar he brought it down, side-slipping at the last moment and plunging the blade into the earth. “Now you have found your nerve, I shall strike all the harder,” he said.  “I’m weary of your bullying,” replied Sir Gawain, “Let’s have no more delay.” “Then take your pay.”

The giant spat on his hands and again hefted the great axe, raised it high and brought it down with all his power and strength. No power on earth could save Sir Gawain now. The axe hurtled towards his bared neck, so guided by the Green Knight it gave Sir Gawain’s neck the smallest graze, three drops of his bright blood staining the snow.

Unbelieving, Sir Gawain leapt to his feet, snatched up his sword and stood at guard, “You’ve had your blow. You shall have no other. I have kept the covenant we made at Camelot. Now, I’m ready to pit my strength and skill at arms against yours. ”

The Green Knight leant on his axe, “I’ll strike no more. You have been true to the covenant we made. I shall explain. The first and second strikes were deliberate feints, for you honoured your pledges given to the lord, one kiss, two kisses, from the lady of the castle.

In return for the she-wolf you gave three kisses more, yet you paid the lord falsely, for you held back the green girdle, and for this I grazed your skin. Yet, I forgive you, for you are a true knight; you failed the final test not out of desire for riches or pleasures of the flesh but simply for loving your life. Moreover, I too have held something back – the lady is my wife.”

“Your wife!” cried Sir Gawain, mortified with shame and disgrace, “Alas, I have betrayed the laws of chivalry and my honour as a knight.” “Not so,” laughed the Green Knight, “my wife was keen to learn the lore and language of courtly love through practice with one well versed in those arts. Moreover, I have been under an enchantment by the old hag to whom you paid so little heed, none other than Morgan le Faye, who sought to bring dishonour upon Camelot’s finest and most honourable knight. So, now your honour is intact and the spell is broke.”

Returning to Camelot, Sir Gawain truthfully told his tale, showing the scar the axe had made, and displaying the green girdle. Yet, he was racked with grief, chagrin and shame for the tarnish on his name, though others made fun of him, parading their own green girdles.

But, Sir Gawain’s heart still dwelt with the lady,

Red was her robe, and cluster of clear pearls
Gleamed in her head-dress; breast and throat were bare,
Whiter than snow which lies on winter hills,
Her eyes a twinkle, her manner debonair,
And never had he seen a face so fair.

In bitter shame and loss and grief Sir Gawain hung his head, and would ne’er be comforted. [2]

 ©  David England, 2009

[1] I acknowledge the author of that beautiful poetic version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from which I have quoted, but whose name I have failed to discover.

[2] I acknowledge Annette Armstrong, whose free translation ‘Gawain & The Green Knight’ (October 2003) provided invaluable source material and some phraseology.

© David England, 2010