Gawain and The Green Knight
The story of Gawain and the Green Knight, follows a theme that is to be found in other Celtic myths, and is typical of the supernatural testing of warriors. The beheading challenge is a common folklore motif, and can be found in the tales of Cuchulian the hound of Ulster.
One cold, snow scattered night, on the eve of Midwinter’s day, Arthur and his Warriors were engaged in a Midwinter’s feast, in one of the many fire warmed feasting halls within the confines of his great fort. Arthur shouted for quiet, and declared that there would be no more feasting until he had been told a tale of great marvels, or someone had challenged one of his knights to combat, as was the custom.
Before the words had time to echo around the great hall there was a crash, as the great oaken doors were flung aside. An icy blast swept the hall, and in rode a gigantic figure of a man on a huge black stallion. A robe of the brightest emerald green clung to his heavy frame, in one hand he carried a holly branch and in the other he carried a weighty axe, its sharp edge glistening in the firelight.
There was silence in the hall for any mortal could see the giant was from the otherworld. Green is the colour of the fairies, and a holly branch is a symbol of rebirth. At last the giant stepped from his horse and his booming voice broke the silence. “Which one of you goodly knights will take my challenge? I offer my axe to any one of you. You must strike off my head with one blow, and in one years time, to the day, you must come to me and I shall return the blow”.
For a moment there was silence, for there was obviously old magic at work here. The king moved to take the challenge but Gawain, one of the bravest of Arthur’s company stood in his staid. “Your challenge is foolish but I will partake of it” with those words Gawain jumped forward and took the axe from the giant’s hands. With one mighty swing, which whistled through the air, Gawain struck at the giant’s thick neck. The axe tore through flesh, bone and sinew, and the giants head flew through the air and bounced across the hall, spreading crimson rivulets on the stony floor. The giant’s body crumpled to a heap. Gawain threw down the axe, and was returning to his seat when there was a movement in the body.
The headless figure staggered to its feet and walked over to the head, which was lying in another part of the room. The giant’s hands grasped the head by the hair and stood in front of Gawain. The mouth of the head began to move. “Remember your word good knight, in one years time you must seek out the Green Chapel in the Northlands, and there you will receive my blow in return”. With that the giant thrust the axe in his belt, mounted his horse and rode out into the cold night. There was little talk of what happened during the feasting, as in those days the veil between the worlds was much thinner than it is today.
The year passed quickly, and as autumn gave way to winter, and the festival of midwinter drew closer, Gawain set out in search of the Green Chapel. He went far from the confines of Camelot, and into the Northern reaches of Arthur’s realm, where the great forests thinned and gave way to rolling mountains capped with snow. Everywhere he asked for the whereabouts of the Green Knights abode, but the peasants on his path did not seem to know or care where he could find his quarry.
One afternoon he was riding into a deserted valley when a heavy mist rose from out of nowhere and rolled down the hills on either side. He wandered for a short time in this mist completely disorientated, until he spied a light from a window set in the tower of a great castle, visible for a short time until it was swallowed up in the mist. Gawain spurred his horse in the direction of the castle in the hope of finding shelter for the night. In time his horse found a path that widened until it reached the forecourt of a dark stoned castle, which seemed to have been built from the living rock. He passed through its great arched doorway and was received by a heavyset, well-muscled knight, who introduced himself as Bercilak. Gawain explained the nature of his quest and Bercilak replied that he knew of the green chapel, he would arrange for him to be taken there when the time came. “Until that time you are guest at my home, and shall be made welcome”.
During the feasting that night Bercilak explained that he would be away all the following day hunting, “As we are both knights I will offer you an exchange. I will go hunting and what I find I shall give to you. You shall stay and be guest here, and what you find or recieve during the day, you shall give to me on my return”. Gawain agreed to this strange request with some apprehension.
That night he was taken by one of Bercilak’s squires to his bed chamber, and he passed an easy sleep, his first in comfort since he had left Camelot.
The next day Bercilak left early, and reminded Gawain of his bargain. During the day Gawain was lazing in the bedchamber, thinking of his coming quest, when Bercilaks wife entered the room. She was as stunning to behold in the daylight as she had been during the night’s feasting, in the red glow of the firelight. She made it obvious to Gawain that she desired his love. Gawain did everything to dissuade her without offending her, not wishing to affront his host’s hospitality, or commit adultery. Finally she left, but proffered him a kiss on her leaving.
At feasting that night, Bercilak offered Gawain the fruits of his hunting, a deer, which he received kindly and sent to the kitchens to be cooked. Gawain kissed Bercilak on the cheek, his return of what he had received during the day. Bercilaks face was stone for a moment, then he shrugged his shoulders and laughed and the night passed without incident.
The following day Bercilak once more went hunting and his wife once more came to Gawian and left with only a kiss. During feasting Gawain received the fruits of his hunting, and once more gave what he had received to Bercilak. On the third day Bercilaks wife came to Gawain. “If you will not have my love, then allow me to give you a token of my love for you”. At this she undid a green silk girdle that was tied around her waist. “This girdle is impregnated with magical powers, to wear it is to be safe from any form of blade, and no harm will come to you” Gawain thanked her for this gift, and the lady took her leave. That night Bercilak offered Gawain a fine deer that he had brought down during the day. Gawain did not impart his gift of the girdle, his mind was on the axe of the green knight and his head, which he felt was better upon his shoulders than detached by a weighty swing.
At last the Midwinter’s eve arrived, and Gawian was greeted in the morning by one of Bercilak’s squires, who had been told to lead him to the chapel. Gawain gathered his arms and mounted his horse, which was waiting in the courtyard.
Along winding paths and through twisting ancient forests the squire led Gawain, finally they reached a cleft between two steep cliff faces from which the trees were growing deep green even in Midwinter. In this wide cleft the trees locked high above them, forming a green dome which gave the place a strange green light, Gawian could feel the presence of the otherworld all around him. In the centre of this natural chapel, stood the Green Knight, leaning upon his gigantic axe. “I am glad you could make it. I had feared that your bravery had left you” said the Green Knight. “Just be swift in your swing, giant” replied Gawain, and at that he laid his neck on the oak log that was to serve as the block.
The first swing of the axe whistled through the air and cleaved into the block, missing Gawain’s neck by a fraction. On the second swing the giant swerved aside his axe. There was a pause, and then the third swing came down in a great arc and nicked Gawains neck, so that the blood flowed freely but was not life threatening.
At this Gawain jumped to his feet and brandished his sword ready to do battle, but the giant put up his hand and told him to be at peace. In the voice of Bercilak the giant explained that Gawain was brave, and how he had assumed the form of Bercilak to test him. The first stroke had been for the first day, when he had resisted temptation. The second stroke was for the second day when he had also resisted temptation. The third cutting stroke was for the gift that he had kept concealed from him. “You value your life well, and I blame you not for keeping the token, you have proved your worth” and at that the Green Knight disappeared. Gawain kept the token from the giant’s wife for the rest of his life to remember his failing.