Gawaine’s most wonderful adventures is the story about his differences with the Green Knight.
One New Year’s Eve when King Arthur were seated with his court by the Round Table the door flew up, and in from the snow storm a knight flew in whose body were green, the clothes and even the horse were green. In his hand he held an axe and gave the king a challenge: who ever wanted could chop his head off with the axe if he himself could give the same strike back the following New Year’s Eve. At first no one wanted to accept the challenge, but in the end Gawaine stepped forward and seperated the head from the Green Knight’s body with one single strike.
The Green Knight picked up his head by the hair and walked out calmly, but at the door the head told Gawaine to look up the knight the next New Year’s Eve at the Green Chapel. Ten months later Gawaine rode north to find the chapel and he arrived at Christmas to a castle where the lord of the castle offered him to stay till New Year’s; the Green Chapel were nearby. He now asked Gawaine if he could entertain his wife while he himself were out hunting for three days.
In the evening they should tell the other what they had done during the day. While the lord were hunting in the forest the wife made three visits to Gawaine’s bedroom trying to seduce him, but the only thing she got was a kiss. The knight told the lord about it in the evening and got his game as a trade. At the third visit the lady convinced Gawaine to accept a green girdle which would protect him in battle. He didn’t tell his host about this.
On the foresaid day he rode to the chapel where he was met by the Green Knight who held the axe ready, but the only wound he got was a slight scratch on the knight by the third blow. The Green Knight now explained that he and the lord of the castle were the same person; he had, by order of Morgan le Fay, wanted to try the courage of king Arthur’s knight, and when he had arrived to the castle he and his wife wanted to test his virtue. The scratch he had got he got because he had not told about the girdle, but he had passed the test with a bit honor left and he could return to King Arthur with the green girdle. At the court Arthur then decided that every knight and ladies whould wear a green baldric over their shoulder.
There is a medieval vers, “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight”, that tells this tale; it’s been published by J.R.R. Tolkien in a text edition. After its last verse the words that are aquainted with the Order of the Garter’s device:
Meaning: Shame on thee on thinks bad of this.
Hony soyt qui mal y pense
Sir Gawayne and the Greene Knight
The title character of the classic Middle English poem Sir Gawayne and the Greene Knight (fourteenth century).
The Green Knight showed up at King Arthur’s court during the New Year’s feast and presented a Beheading Game challenge to the knights present: any knight would be allowed to take a swing at the Green Knight with an axe while the Green Knight stood perfectly still and offered no defense. In return, that warrior would have to stand still before the Green Knight one year later while the Green Knight took a swing at him.
None of Arthur’s warriors rose to the challenge. Arthur was about to do it himself when Gawain stepped forward and took the axe. Confident that the Green Knight would not survive the blow – and would thus be unavailable for the second part of the challenge – Gawain swung the axe and chopped off the Green Knight’s head. The Green Knight, however, calmly picked up his head, mounted his horse, and told Gawain to meet him in a year and a day in the Green Chapel.
As the next New Year’s approached, Gawain set off to find the Green Chapel, much to the distress of his comrades who expected never to see him again. He lodged for Christmas with a lord who had a castle called Hutton near the Green Chapel. When the lord offered him lodging, the two knights agreed that for the three days that Gawain was there, each knight would give to the other whatever he had obtained that day. On the first day, the lord went out hunting while Gawain hung around the castle. While the lord was gone, his wife tried to bed Gawain, but succeeded in only getting a kiss. When the lord returned, he presented Gawain with a freshly killed deer; true to his word, Gawain gave to the lord the kiss he had received from the lord’s wife. The second day went much the same, Gawain received a brace of kisses which were also passed on. On the third day, the lord’s wife gave up on trying to seduce Gawain, and presented him with her girdle, which she said would protect him. When the lord came home, Gawain gave him the kiss but kept the girdle.
The next day, Gawain left the lord’s residence for the Green Chapel. He met the Green Knight there and prepared to receive his blows, kneeling. The Green knight gave him two feinted blows and lightly nicked his neck on the third one. The Green Knight then revealed himself to be Gawain’s host: the lord of the castle Hutton, named Bertilak of the High Desert. He explained that the two feinted blows were for the days that Gawain faithfully turned over the kisses, and the nick was for not turning over the girdle. The Green Knight then told Gawain that he had been sent to Arthur’s court by Morgan le Fay – whose enchantments had spared Bertilak’s life after the decapitation – as a ploy to distress Guinevere. Gawain returned to Camelot, where he was honored for his adventure.
The tale bears a striking resemblance to an Irish narrative in which Cú Roí takes the part of the Green Knight and Cú Chulainn that of Gawaine. The Green Knight may have been the Green Man, a wild man featured on inn signboards whose effigy was carried in civic processions.
A later poem known as The Grene Knight offers a similar story, but changes the Green Knight’s true name to Bredbeddle.
Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert | The Legend of King Arthur
Image: The Green Knight | Artist: William O’Connor, 1996