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Coming of Age in Camelot: The saga of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Siv Palm, staff writer

 

It was Christmastide at King Arthur’s Camelot when the mysterious green-clad knight appeared. He was a giant of a man, and, all the women thought, including the young and impressionable queen Guinevere, as beautiful as he was brave. He came to challenge Arthur, and his famous knights, but, as his entrance suggested—he clattered into the banquet hall in full armor riding a fully armored warhorse—not to any ordinary contest.

 

The knight’s “Christmas Game,” as he called it, challenged Arthur, or his champion, to strike a fatal blow at him. He would not resist, but, should he survive it, he would, at the end of a year’s time, be allowed, without resistance, to repay the blow.

The picture of Arthur and his young knights and their ladies, all clamouring immaturely for a spectacle, a Christmas entertainment, and refusing to eat or drink until they got one, is one of literature’s gems. The Green Knight seemed an answer to their cries and a relief to their appetites. Sir Gawain, the youngest and least experienced, accepted the challenge for, as he said, he was the one who would be least missed.

Gawain cut the Green Knight’s head off with one clean stroke.That should have been the end of it. Instead, he and the court watched in amazement as the headless Knight chased down the rolling head, picked it up, tucked it under his arm, and calmly gave his final instructions before remounting and clattering out of the dining hall.

This magical opening act of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight sets the tone for an otherworldly tale. The unknown 14th-century author, a contemporary of Chaucer but writing in a Northumbrian dialect and an archaic Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition, painted his story in the rich setting and tones of a heroic epic interwoven with threads of Christian faith and French romance.

Gawain’s compliance with the agreement proves him the most honorable of Arthur’s knights. That honor will define the whole court of Camelot as Gawain arms himself with weapons physical and spiritual and ventures forth to find the Green Knight and take his stroke. A stroke that, Gawain knows, will be fatal against one such as he without the Green Knight’s obvious magical protection.

Gawain journeys north (in medieval times, the direction of hell) to meet, three days before Christmas, Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert, lord of the northern lands, and his lady. Laws of hospitality are observed: Gawain is welcomed, fed, and given shelter. Bertilak reveals that the Green Chapel, home of the Green Knight, is but a few hours ride from his castle.

For three days Gawain is entertained by the lady of the castle who tries with some success to seduce him. Her husband is away hunting each day, and the poet interweaves the two hunts of forest and boudoir in subtle and symbolic ways. Each night, the two men exchange gifts: Gawain receives deer, boar, and a fox pelt, and gives in exchange, each night, a kiss, much to the ribald delight of Bertilak and his court.

On Christmas day, Gawain is guided by Bertilak to the Green Chapel and undergoes his stroke. If you want to know what happened, and how, and who survived, and why, you’ll have to read the book.

It is available in northern Middle English dialect, but few are trained to read that. It can be found in a prose Penguin classic version, first published in 1959, that is easily read but lacks the texture and rhythms of the origianl.

Many prefer J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation from the 1920s, an excellent poetic translation that preserves the stress patterns and internal rhymes of the poem’s original Anglo Saxon verse. Tolkien, it has been suggested, was inspired by his translation of the Gawain poem to create his now famous Lord of the Rings.

 
 

 

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