Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Illustrated By Tristan Liu
This is the famous tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Originally in poem format, our tale of Sir Gawain, the Green Knight and his ax is told in story form. Sir Gawain, king Arthur's nephew, is challenged by the Green Knight.
AT CAMELOT in King Arthur's court, it was New Year's Day and all the brave knights and valiant lords of the Round Table were sitting around with the King, jesting and making merry as brothers, in a celebration that had already lasted fifteen days. Lovely Guinevere took her place on the dais, a splendid throne adorned with silks and covered with a canopy of embroidered tapestries.
With a cracking of trumpets the first course began. Delicious dishes were rushed in, fine delicacies fresh and plentiful, piled so high there was barely a spot on the tablecloth to set them down without tipping a wine glass or cup of beer.
Just as the first platters were laid out, a gigantic horseman suddenly sprang through the doors. The stranger was strong and thickly made, yet despite his enormous size was handsomely featured, and his barrel chest narrowed to a waist worthily small. But what caused the knights to gape in astonishment was not the brawn or sheer size of the hulk that rode the horse, but that the color of his hair, beard and clothes, as well as his very skin and that of his stallion as well, were all the same unearthly shade of green.
Yet never a more regal presence did green present, for the horseman's tunic, tightly tucked to his ribs, was draped over by a fur-lined green cloak, fitted and sewn with ermine trim. While the creature's green hair and beard fanned out freely, enfolding his shoulders, it was clipped all around. The mane of his horse was likewise thick, sharing the same hue of green, and was braided with many a golden knot folded in with gold thread, as was the tail of the mount.
The stranger held a large and menacing ax in one hand but wore no breastplate, neck-guard or helmet or other battlement protections, and in his other hand held a sprig of holly.
"Where is the governor of this group?" boomed the stranger. "Gladly I would speak with him." To each knight sitting around the table he cast his eye, and studied him up and down to see who was the knight of greatest renown. In stunned silence each guest stared at the creature, some silenced by sheer surprise, others edging closer, thinking him a phantom or perhaps a kind of fairy or wizard, while others held their tongues in polite deference to their King.
Arthur stood, beholding this adventure as it stepped into the room, for he was never afraid, and said, "Wanderer, you are welcome here. Sit with us, tell us your story, and share with us what it is that you'd like."
"Nay, by all that is sacred," said he, "I am not here for idle chatter. I have come in search of the bravest knight of the land, for this Round Table, I heard, is where one can find the most valiant of the land. By this branch in my hand you must know that I come in peace. At home I have armor and helmets and shields and spears and other weapons that, I dare say, I wield with considerable skill. But if the knights here are as brave as other men tell, you will grant me the game that I ask by right."
King Arthur replied, "Courteous knight, if you crave battle with bare hands and no weapons of any kind, you will not fail to find a fight here."
"Nay, in faith I have not come to fight bare-fisted with any of the beardless young men on this bench, not a one of them is a match for me," said the Green Knight with a chuckle and a shake of his head. "No, I have come for another kind of game. If any in this house holds himself hardy enough to strike one stroke for another, I shall give him this ax as a gift, to handle as he likes, and I shall sit to bear the first blow. Know only that if I survive the first blow, I may return a stroke in kind one year and a day from now."
If the men were stunned before, now they were utterly speechless. The Green Knight arched his bushy-green eyebrows and waved his beard as he waited for one brave soul to step forward.
"What? Is this King Arthur's house, hailed throughout the world? Where are your conquests and your boastful words? Is all the renown of the Round Table silenced by one speech, when no fight is even involved?"
With this he laughed so loudly that King Arthur grimaced and the blood shot for shame into his face. He turned to the Green Knight and said, "Now see here! There is none at this table that is aghast at your simple words. If it's folly you seek, then by heaven, it's folly you shall have. Hand me that ax, and I'll be the one to strike the first blow."
The knight dismounted, gave the King his ax, and Arthur swung the weapon to familiarize himself with its weight and how it swung. The Knight, a full head taller than any in the hall, stroked his beard, seeming not at all concerned.
Gawain, who sat by the queen, rushed toward his uncle, King Arthur. "I beseech you, sire," said he, "let this match be mine. For I think it is not seemly for you, our King, to take this mockery to yourself. On these benches sit the finest knights of the land, while I hold a seat here more because you are my uncle and that we share the same bloodline than because I have proved myself in battle. I dare say none among us is more weak and feeble-minded than I, and none would prove less of a loss to the court should blood be spilled, so methinks it is proper that I am the one to put my life on the line for this nonsense rather than you, my liege."
The knights huddled together and all agreed the same - it was best to move the challenge from the crown and give Gawain the game.
So Arthur bid Gawain to come forward. The king handed his nephew the ax and said, "Be certain to cut him once, and if you do this truly and well, you need not concern yourself with whatever cut may have been planned for afterward."
Gawain approached the Green Knight and the two of them repeated the terms of the deal so it was clear to all. The Green Knight added one condition - that when the year and a day approaches, Gawain must seek him himself. "That's fine, but where should I go?" asked Gawain. "Where is your place?"
"If I survive your blow, I will tell you," said the Green Knight. "And if I do not, it does not matter where I live."
And so the Green Knight knelt, tipping his head and holding aside with one hand the riot of green hair to expose his neck for the blow. With one fell stroke, Gawain's ax clove through the stranger's skin, through his very bone, and implanted on the wood floor. The head fell to the floor, to be sure, and the knights fended it off with their feet as it rolled, yet the body of the Green Knight remained firm, as sturdy as if the head were still on it.
Though the green head spurted blood, it mattered not to the body that strode over to claim it; and holding the mess by the hair with one hand, the body grabbed hold of the horse's reins. Stepping in the stirrup, the body strode aloft and the head, still dangling, turned to Gawain, raised one eyebrow and its mouth said, "Gawain, in one year and one day, find me at the Green Chapel. I am known as the Knight of the Green Chapel. If you seek me faithfully you will not fail. Therefore come to realize the second half of our bargain, or be called a faithless coward!" And the horseman galloped out of the hall, head in hand, so quickly that sparks flew behind the horse's hooves.
Arthur's heart was filled with wonder, yet he let no semblance of that be seen. To his lady Guinevere, he comforted her. To Gawain, he said, "Now sir, hang up thy axe, it has hewn enough." And to his men he commenced with the feast, double portions were served, and the merriment resumed.
Soon the full force of winter hit, blanketing the earth with ice and snow. Then before long the snows succumbed to the warm rains of spring, and melted into high rivers. Flower blossoms covered the tree branches and dotted the ground, and the ground and forest tipped green first at the edges, then throughout. Birds busied themselves with building nests to their own brilliant sounds of song.
Before long the solace of soft summer wafted in, when spent blossoms dropped and full-sized dark green leaves unfurled. Next came the cool winds of autumn, wild winds that wrestled day by day with the sun, launching leaves from each limb that spun to the ground, and all that was green turned gray. When droplets of ice once again frosted the ground, Gawain knew that the day of his anxious voyage was drawing near.
King Arthur arranged a great feast at All Saints Eve to send off his knight. While much was on the minds of the brave knights and fair ladies, nothing but mirth passed their lips for the sake of their beloved Gawain. After supper the young man sought a private audience with his uncle. Speaking of his passage he said, "Now, liege lord of my life, I ask your leave. You know the cost of this caper, and I am bound tomorrow morning at dawn to search for the Green Knight."
The knights of Camelot, good and fine men all, crowded around the King to counsel the knight, and to express their grief that one so worthy as Gawain should have to go on such an foolish errand. But the knight said with good cheer, "Verily, I am not worried. Whatever our destinies, great or small, what can a man do but meet his own, come what may?"
Early the next morning, on All Hallows Day, Gawain asked for his armor and it was arrayed before him. From his fine steel shoes, to knee guards burnished bright and tied above his knees with knots of gold, to a mail-mesh shirt of bright metal rings covered by a breast plate, to arm braces and gauntlets of steel, nothing was more breathtaking than the diamond-studded crown upon his helmet. On his shield was engraved a five-pointed pentacle, an "infinite knot," to symbolize truth. Its five points represented his five knightly obligations - friendship, generosity, courtesy, chastity and compassion. Gawain clutched his sword and shield, mounted his steed Gringolet and sprang on his way.
All the knights and ladies of the court who watched him ride off sighed deep in their hearts and said softly to one another, "What a pity! That one so young and valiant and promising should be sacrificed - and for what? Such a waste!"
Yet Gawain thought only of his mission. Soon he approached North Wales where he crossed the river to the Wilderness of Wirral. He stopped everyone he met along the way to ask if he or she knew of a Green Knight who lived in a Green Chapel, but none had heard of any him and if they had, they said assuredly, they would no doubt remember such a green-skinned creature.
Day after day, with little food to forage to quiet the pangs of hunger and no company to keep but his own, Gawain climbed cliffs, forded streams, and made his way through hills and mountains, marsh and mire. Any rustle of a leaf, or a snort or howl in the dark could mean sudden and fatal trouble for him. Wolves, dragons, bulls, bears, trolls or boars stalked the woods and could attack at any time. All this danger he could bear but for the piercing coldness in the air which grew damper and icier every day.
Sometimes, exhausted, he lay on the frozen ground in his armor and wondered if he would ever get back up. And yet he carried on, day after day, until the morn of Christmas Eve, when after feeling specially low, he lifted his eyes and to his astonishment beheld a beautiful castle, surrounded by a moat, deep in the frozen, snow-covered forest.
Gawain goaded Gringolet to the edge of the drawbridge. There he stopped and admired the castle behind the moat. Its walls seemed to rise from waters of enormous depth to a wondrous height and were topped with so many towers and pinnacles, each one marvelously shaped and constructed, that it looked like the stuff of dreams. Soon out of a high window a porter's pleasant face appeared.
"Good sir," Gawain called to the porter, "may I ask leave of your lord to dwell here for the night?"
"Why, surely any fine knight such as yourself will be welcome to stay for as long as you like," said the porter. His face disappeared and a few minutes later a number of servants spilled out the front door, dropped the drawbridge and rushed to the edge of the moat so they could greet Gawain as he crossed. The servants ushered his horse to the stables, while courtiers and squires escorted him inside. There the knight was greeted by the lord of the castle, a handsome, sturdy, bearded fellow who bid him welcome, and they all feasted well into the night.
For three days Gawain enjoyed himself at the castle, spending delightful hours with his host, the lady of the castle, an elderly woman who often accompanied the lord's wife, and their courtiers, until his mission so weighed on him that he took aside his host. After thanking him heartily, Gawain asked if he knew of a green-skinned knight who lived in a Green Chapel, for his quest compelled him to find it by New Year's Day. The lord laughed, surprised, and said, "Is that all you seek? Then surely you can stay a few days more, since the Green Chapel is not even two miles from here."
The lord then proposed a game: he would go hunting the next day and Gawain would stay at the castle, hosted by his wife. At the end of the day the two of them would exchange whatever they had won during the day. Both agreed to the game and feasted well into the night.
The next morning Gawain, sleeping comfortably beneath the costly canopy, stirred at the sound of footsteps coming into his bedchambers. Peeking through the canopy, he spied the lord's wife coming into his bedroom and sitting beside him. Confused, he pretended to sleep. Then he pretended to awaken, surprised to see her there.
"Good morning, Sir Gawain," said the gay lady, "My goodness, it is all too easy for one to slip into your bedchamber with you unawares." She laughingly cajoled him, telling him it is indeed her good fortune to have such as esteemed knight as he completely to herself that morning, with her husband gone for the day and all the servants still asleep. He assured her that he is her servant and beholden to her in every way - and would she mind allowing him to rise and dress himself so as to present himself more suitably to her? This she would not allow, she said charmingly; she far preferred to keep him as her prisoner and to take the opportunity to get to know him better.
Why, if she had to choose a husband from among all men, there would be no valiant and brave knight on earth to be chosen before him. He reminded her that she has already chosen a better, but declared he is proud he should be so prized by a lady as noble as she. And so their banter continued until mid-morning. Suddenly, the lady accused him of not being the famed knight Gawain after all. Why would she doubt it, he asked? The courteous Gawain, said she, would assuredly not allow a lady to leave his bedchamber without a kiss. And so he allowed her one kiss, and she left the room.
That evening the lord of the castle returned with a great number of deer. By the terms of their agreement he gave all the venison he had hunted that day to Gawain and asked him what he had won. Gawain drew the lord to him and kissed him once. Surprised, the lord asked where he had won such a kiss, and Gawain reminded him they had agreed to exchange gifts and not necessarily to reveal how the gift had been won.
The second day at dawn the lord left again with his hunting party. The lord's wife entered Gawain's bedchamber as before. After he woke and greeted her, gazing at her thoughtfully, she chided him why he looked so stern. Surely a knight well trained in the arts of courtliness and honor would seem eager for another kiss from a lady. He replied that it would not behoove him to take a kiss from any lady not given of her own free will. She assured him she would freely grant many such kisses, and she kissed him once again.
Then she scolded him again - here she has sat with him for two mornings and he has spoken nothing of love. Is she so unworthy, she glances at him, that he will not teach her of its art? It is a great joy to him, says the knight, that such a fair lady would seek such a conversation with one as uncouth and inexperienced as he, but surely she knows far more of love herself. And so they jested and talked together until she kissed him one more time and took her leave.
That night the lord returned with a wild boar that he had wrestled to the ground. Gawain took his host around the neck and kissed him courteously twice, saying, "Truly, I have now given you all that I have gained."
That night when they feasted together, Gawain reminded his host that he must leave the next morning if he is to arrive at the Green Knight's Chapel by New Year's Day. The lord assured him he would still have plenty of time if he left the day after the morrow, and entreated him to stay one more day.
The next morning, after her husband left with his hunting party, the fair lady of the castle clad herself in a mantle that reached to the ground, exposed her neck and fair throat, and was lined with costly furs. Gawain was having nightmares of the impending fate that awaited him when she woke him by entering the room. Again, she sat by his bed. She declared she must know whether he has another lady love to whom he holds dear. He does not, he said, "No such love have I."
Then she asked for some token of his, even if it is merely a glove, so she can remember him after he departs. He wished he could give her a worthy gift for she deserved far more than he can give, he said in earnest, but it is not to her honor that he can give her any such token, even a glove. Then, she said, slightly miffed, that she will give him a token instead, and offered him a ring of red gold with a sparkling jewel. This, unfortunately, he cannot accept, he said.
Then she suggested, yet more vexed, that if a ring is too costly and would make him too beholden to her, then he must accept her girdle as a lesser gift. She untied a lace fastened by her side and handed him her own green silk girdle, woven in a beautiful fashion with gold thread, but this, too, he said he could not accept. He begged her to ask for no more favors that he could not grant.
The lady continued to hold the girdle forth. This girdle may seem an ordinary garment, said she, but if he knew its true worth he would value it more highly. For the green lace is a talisman with magical properties, and when worn by a knight its wearer cannot be harmed or slain by any man or by any magic on earth.
Gawain paused. Given his grim mission scheduled for the next day, this indeed may be a craft worth trying. And so he accepted the girdle and she gave it to him with good will, though as she did, she entreated him to not tell her husband about the gift, and this pledge he promised to keep. Gawain thanked the lady heartily. She gave him three quick kissed and took her leave.
That night Gawain gave the lord three kisses, but made no mention of the girdle. Per their agreement, his host presented him, though with regrets, a sole fox pelt which was his only haul from the day's hunt. At that night's feasting, Gawain reminded his host he must leave the following morning without delay, and the lord agreed, insisting on providing him a squire to guarantee safe passage.
That night, it may have been the blizzard's winds that kept Gawain sleeping fitfully all night, or it may have been dread of what was to come that day, but at sunrise our hero sleepily awoke and bid his chamberlain to bring him his armor. Deliberately he clad himself, not forgetting to wrap the green silk girdle about his waist, and summoned for his horse Gringolet to be brought to him. The horse glistened with the fine care that had been lavished upon him. The drawbridge of the castle was let down, the knight mounted his steed, and, accompanied by the squire the lord had provided for his safe passage, Gawain ventured into the wilderness.
After traveling through the woods and up to the heights of the neighboring snowy hills, the squire drew reins and said, "Master, now we are near the place you seek. Before I go, I feel it is my solemn duty to tell you that none is known to pass these lands that has ever returned. Here dwells perhaps the most ruthless and bloodthirsty of all creatures, man or beast. Though you are without doubt as brave and renowned a knight as ever walked the earth, surely even you must consider whether it is wise to proceed. None would blame you if you did not, and I assure you, I would never tell another soul alive that you chose to not continue this quest, which is no doubt doomed for you."
"Nay," said Gawain, "I appreciate all you say but there is no question that I must continue." And so the squire turned his bridle into the woods and quickly galloped home.
Gawain proceeded in the direction described, but to his surprise could see no spires or towers above the trees to signal a stronghold nearby. Then he made out a mound located beside a stream where the water bubbled as if boiling. Gawain alighted his horse, tied the reins to a branch, and examined the strange promontory. It had two entrances, a hole on one end and a smaller one on the other side, both overgrown with green weeds and emitting a dank and foul smell from within. This can only be a place of dark wizardry, thought Gawain, and if it is the Green Chapel, it must be a place of evil magic.
Quat! A sharp sound, as if a scythe were struck against a grindstone, clattered on the cliff and roused him from his thoughts. "Who goes there?" said Gawain aloud. "I, Sir Gawain, have come to meet my fate. If this be the Green Knight, show yourself now or it will be too late."
Then out stepped the Green Knight, as large and massive and green as ever, from head to foot, bearing a newly sharpened Danish ax with a blade no less than four feet wide.
"Gawain," said the Green Knight, "you arrived exactly on time, congratulations. Now let's get to business. You know the agreement between us - that one year and a day ago, on New Year's Day, I took a blow and that today I shall return that blow to you. We are in this valley all alone with none to serve or witness. Now remove your helmet and prepare for the blow; let's talk no more than we did last year before you served me your blow."
"Do what you must to prepare for the stroke," said Gawain, "I will say nothing and will await it." Gawain bent his head and pulled aside his hair to expose his head. The Green Knight grasped his sword, drew the grim ax upward, but as the blade fell Gawain shrank a bit with his shoulders and the weapon stilled in the air.
"Thou art not Gawain!" cried the Green Knight, "who is held so brave amongst men. You pulled away as if you were a coward! In Arthur's chambers, I held my head steady when your blow fell to me. My head fell to the floor but I did not flinch. Gawain, I am the better and braver knight than you!"
Said Gawain hotly, "I flinched once and won't again. Unlike you, when you faced your blow, I know that when my head falls, it won't talk later in my hands. I'm ready for you to deal me my destiny, I will flinch no more."
"Have at thee, then!" The Green Knight mightily swung the weapon and struck downward, but at the final moment, held back. "Hold aside your hood that Arthur gave you," said the Green Knight, "so it doesn't fall forward when you bend your head."
"What?" cried Gawain. "This is nonsense. You're taking too long. Be done with it, once and for all!"
"Forsooth!" said the Green Knight, "I will no longer let this errand wait."
Once more Gawain bent his head and the ax fell, nicking the skin of his neck but not striking through his neck. Gawain felt the sting and saw the blood stain the snow. Yet realizing he was still alive he leaped away, quickly put on his helmet, drew his sword and cried, "Halt! You, sir, have had your blow; you shall have no more. Our agreement in Arthur's halls was one blow for another. Should you strike again I shall be free to return the same. So halt!"
Then the Green Knight set down his ax and leaned against its handle. "Bold sir," said he, "there's no need to frown like that. No man will do you wrong or step outside the agreement we made in King Arthur's court. You have withstood my blow, fair enough, the terms are met.
If I had so chosen, you would have suffered a far worse blow. My first stroke was utterly feigned and did you no harm, as you did none to me that first night. All you gained that first day you gave to me, as we had agreed and as a true man should have done. The second blow was also held back so you were not harmed, as on the second day when you did no harm to me, but returned all you had gained that day. But the third day you did fail me, and so the third blow drew blood, for the girdle my own wife wrought is what you now wear around your waist.
Oh, I knew all about your conversations and your kisses, and the wooing of my wife. For it was I who sent her to try to tempt you, to see if you could be persuaded to set your honor aside. Now I know you're as faultless a knight as they have said throughout the land, and I fully commend you! But you did slip a little, and for that omission the third day some blood was shed, as well it ought to have been. Yet what prompted you for that misdeed was not evil or covetousness, but love of your own life, therefore, I blame you less for that."
The young man stood a great while, so grieved was he by all he had heard. The blood in his chest rushed to his head, and he shrank for shame. Then suddenly he ripped the girdle off his waist and threw it at the Green Knight's feet. "Lo!" he cried "I am faulty and false! Treachery and untruth have brought me this sorrow! I will never forget my weakness, however long I live!"
But the Green Knight only chuckled and said, "I assure you I am completely whole of whatever ill you wrought to me, your free confession only heals it all the more quickly. You are as blameless and pure as you were the day you were born. The garment you wore is woven with gold and green, as my own raiment, and I bid you to keep it as a token of your adventure of the Green Chapel, as it chanced between chivalrous knights, and of our friendship, which I hope and trust will endure. Now come with me back to my castle where you can make amends with my virtuous wife."
"Nay," said Gawain, "I will move on, though I thank you. Commend me to your wife and to all the lovely ladies of your court." He paused a moment. "I will keep the girdle, if it pleases you, as a remembrance of my failings and as a reminder of my weakness. Now if I may ask you one last question, who are you exactly?"
"I will tell you. I am Bertilauk de Hautdesert, servant of Morgan le Fay, who dwells in my castle. You know who she is - she's a sorceress, the mistress of Merlin the magician, and to you in particular, since she is Arthur's half-sister, Morgan le Fay is your own aunt. She's the older lady you often saw accompanying my own dear wife. It was her command that sent me in disguise on the errand to Arthur's court in Camelot, in hopes of scaring Guinevere to death by the man who spoke with his head in his hand. And now you know everything. I bid you once more, good knight, to come to my castle and celebrate the New Year with your aunt and the rest of our household. All my people are fond of you."
Still Gawain declined. And so the two men kissed and embraced and said their goodbyes. The Green Knight rode back to his castle and Gawain headed to King Arthur's court. On the way, the wound in his neck healed though the wound in his heart remained heavy.
What a surprise in Arthur's hall when in strode Gawain, unharmed. All rushed around to hear his tale, and when Gawain lamented his disloyalty in accepting the girdle and declared that he would forever wear the garment as a bond of blame, the blood rushed to his face in shame.
The King comforted his nephew and claimed that henceforth all knights and ladies of the Round Table would wear silk girdles of green for the sake of Sir Gawain. So it was declared by Arthur, and so it was done forevermore.
Question 1: Both the Green Knight and King Arthur forgave Gawain for keeping the girdle and not telling his host about it, but Gawain did not forgive himself. Do you forgive Gawain for taking the girdle and not telling his host? Answer YES or NO and say why.
Question 2: Gawain put his life at risk two times - once at the beginning of the story when he took Arthur's challenge as his own, and again at the end of the story when he met the Green Knight in the woods. Do you think Gawain did the right thing when he risked his life (1) at the beginning of the story, (2) at the end of the story, (3) both times, or (4) neither time? Choose one of the four and say why.
Retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2006. All rights reserved.
The poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" was written in the late fourteenth century by an unknown poet. It is considered a classic of English literature and, by many, the literary masterpiece of the Middle Ages. It's often compared to writings by Geoffrey Chaucer, an esteemed peer of the day. The poem was one of four works contained in a single manuscript (the other three were "Pearl," "Patience," and "Purity"). Written in a dialect from the northwest Midlands of England, it uses alliteration, a literary device that correlates (usually a pair of) consonants at the beginning of a line with those at the end. Scholars believe the accents in alliteration lent themselves well to accompaniment by an instrument, particularly stringed instruments. Alliteration is associated with older English masterpieces such as Beowolf and is a style that went underground for centuries after the French conquered England in 1066 in favor of French language and French poetic style. However by about 1350, the alliterative style had regained enough favor to emerge in a movement called Alliterative Revival that swept England, and the poem of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" appeared at the height of this trend. The original manuscript can be viewed today at the British Museum.
The story line of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is composed of one plot (the beheading at Arthur's court and the return blow a year and a day later) that holds within it an altogether different yet complementary plot (the attempted seduction of Gawain by the lord's wife). Story elements are traced to ancient tales, including the severed head theme which appears in Celtic mythology. The poem is heralded for portraying in vivid detail the chivalrous code of the day, and yet, by taking it to a ridiculous height, shows us its foibles.
Viewers should note that stories on Whootie Owl's web site are nonsectarian and are presented without religious references.