Sir gawain and the green knight
Towards the end of the fourteenth century someone wrote down the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Whoever that person was they almost certainly weren't the person who composed the poem. They might have been only the latest in a long line of copyists. But that copy survived and is now in the British Library where anyone can access it online.
There were three other poems bound up with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and all of them are in the same handwriting. Studies of the dialect of the poems have placed the poet as working somewhere in Cheshire. The language of the poem is older in style than that of his contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, and the style of his poetry is that of an older English, harking back to Anglo Saxon.
Continued below, the text summarises the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
In Camelot on New Year's Eve, King Arthur's court is exchanging gifts and waiting for the feasting to start, when the king asks to see or hear of an exciting adventure. A gigantic figure, entirely green in appearance and riding a green horse, rides unexpectedly into the hall. He wears no armour but bears an axe in one hand and a holly bough in the other. Refusing to fight anyone there on the grounds that they are all too weak, he insists he has come for a friendly Christmas game: someone is to strike him once with his axe, on the condition that the Green Knight may return the blow in a year and a day.[a] The axe will belong to whoever accepts this deal.
King Arthur is prepared to accept the challenge when it appears no other knight will dare, but Sir Gawain, youngest of Arthur's knights and his nephew, asks for the honour instead. The giant bends and bares his neck before him and Gawain neatly beheads him in one stroke. However, the Green Knight neither falls nor falters, but instead reaches out, picks up his severed head, and mounts his horse. The Green Knight shows his bleeding head to Queen Guinevere, while it reminds Gawain that the two must meet again at the Green Chapel in a year and a day, before the knight rides away. Gawain and Arthur admire the axe, hang it up as a trophy, and encourage Guinevere to treat the whole matter lightly.
~ ~ ~
As the date approaches, Sir Gawain leaves to find the Green Chapel and keep his part of the bargain. Many adventures and battles are alluded to but not described, until Gawain comes across a splendid castle, where he meets the lord of the castle and his beautiful wife, who are pleased to have such a renowned guest.
Also present is an old and ugly lady, unnamed but treated with great honour by all. Gawain tells them of his New Year's appointment at the Green Chapel, and that he has only a few days remaining. The lord laughs, explaining that there is a path that will take him to the chapel less than two miles away, and proposes that Gawain rest at the castle until then. Relieved and grateful, Gawain agrees.
The lord proposes a bargain to Gawain: he goes hunting every day, and he will give Gawain whatever he catches, on the condition that Gawain give him whatever he may gain during the day; Gawain accepts. After he leaves, his wife visits Gawain's bedroom and behaves seductively, but despite her best efforts he allows her nothing but a single kiss. When the lord returns and gives Gawain the deer he has killed, Gawain gives a kiss to him without divulging its source.
The next day the lady returns to Gawain, who again courteously foils her advances, and later that day there is a similar exchange of a hunted boar for two kisses. She comes once more on the third morning, but once her advances are denied, she offers Gawain a gold ring as a keepsake. He gently but steadfastly refuses, but she pleads that he at least take her sash, a girdle of green and gold silk. The sash, the lady assures him, is charmed, and will keep him from all physical harm. Tempted, as he may otherwise die the next day, Gawain accepts it, and they exchange three kisses. The lady has Gawain swear that he will keep the gift secret from her husband. That evening, the lord returns with a fox, which he exchanges with Gawain for the three kisses; Gawain does not mention the sash.
~ ~ ~
The following morning, Gawain binds the sash around his waist. Outside the Green Chapel – only an earthen mound containing a cavern – he finds the Green Knight sharpening an axe. As promised, Gawain bends his bared neck to receive his blow. At the first swing, Gawain flinches slightly and the Green Knight belittles him for it. Ashamed of himself, Gawain does not flinch with the second swing, but again, the Green Knight withholds the full force of his blow.
The knight explains he was testing Gawain's nerve. Angrily, Gawain tells him to deliver his blow, and so the knight does, causing only a slight wound on Gawain's neck, and ending the game. Gawain seizes his sword, helmet, and shield, but the Green Knight, laughing, reveals himself to be none other than the lord of the castle, Bertilak de Hautdesert, transformed by magic. He explains that the entire adventure was a trick of the unnamed "elderly lady" Gawain saw at the castle, who is the sorceress Morgan le Fay, Arthur's stepsister, who intended to test Arthur's knights and frighten Guinevere to death. The nick Gawain suffered at the third stroke was because of his attempt to conceal the gift of the sash.
Gawain is ashamed to have behaved deceitfully, but the Green Knight laughs and pronounces him the most blameless knight in all the land. The two part on cordial terms. Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the sash as a token of his failure to keep his promise. The Knights of the Round Table absolve him of the blame and decide that henceforth each will wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain's adventure and as a reminder to be honest.