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
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
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
instructions before remounting and clattering out of the dining
This magical opening act of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
sets the tone for an otherworldly tale. The unknown 14th-century
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
Gawain journeys north (in medieval times, the direction of
hell) to meet, three days before Christmas, Sir Bertilak de
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,
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
It is available in northern Middle English dialect, but few
are trained to read that. It can be found in a prose Penguin
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.