from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


Anonymous Author: No Biography

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a legend, written by an unknown author, portraying the courage of one of the noble knights of the Round Table. The story is set up in a bob and wheel format. That is there will be one stanza of the story followed by a short four line summation of that stanza. There are four distinct parts to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. What follows is a brief synopsis of each of the four parts.

from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Yes, garbed all in green was the gallant rider,
And the hair of his head was the same hue as his horse,
And floated finely like a fan round his shoulders;
And a great bushy beard on his breast flowing down,
With the heavy hair hanging from his head,
Was shorn below the shoulder, sheared right round,
So that half his arms were under the encircling hair,
Covered as by a king's cape, that closes at the neck.
The mane of that mighty horse, much like the beard,
Well crisped and combed, was copiously plaited
With twists of twining gold, twinkling in the green,
First a green gossamer, a golden one next.
His flowing tail and forelock followed suit,
And both were bound with bands of bright green,
Ornamented to the end with exquisite stones,
While a thong running through them threaded on high
Many bright golden bells, burnished and ringing.
Such a horse, such a horseman, in the whole wide world
Was never seen or observed by those assembled before,
Not one.
Lightning like he seemed
And swift to strike and stun.
His dreadful blows, men deemed,
Once dealt, meant death was done.

"Yet hauberk and helmet had he none,
Nor plastron nor plate-armor proper to combat,
Nor shield for shoving, nor sharp spear for lunging;
But he held a holly cluster in one hand, holly
That is greenest when groves are gaunt and bare,
And an axe in his other hand, huge and monstrous,
A hideous helmet smasher for anyone to tell of;
The head of that axe was an ell-rod long.
Of green hammered gold and steel was the socket,
And the blade was burnished bright, with a broad edge,
Acutely honed for cutting, as keenest razors are.
The grim man gripped it by its great strong handle,
Which was wound with iron all the way to the end,
And graven in green with graceful designs
A cord curved round it, was caught at the head,
Then hitched to the haft at intervals in loops
With costly tassels attached thereto in plenty
On bosses of bnght green embroldered richly.
In he rode, and up the hall, this man,
Driving towards the high dais, dreading no danger.
He gave no one greeting, but glared over all.
His opening utterance was, "Who and where
Is the governor of this gathering? Gladly would I
Behold him with my eyes and have speech with him."

He frowned;
Took note of every knight
As he ramped and rode around;
Then stopped to study who might
Be the noble most renowned.

The assembled folk stared, long scanning the fellow,
For all men marveled what it might mean
That a horseman and his horse should have such a color
As to grow green as grass, and greener yet, it seemed,
More gaudily glowing than green enamel on gold.
Those standing studied him and sidled towards him
With all the world's wonder as to what he would do.
For astonishing sights they had seen, but such a one never;
Therefore a phantom from Fairyland the folk there deemed him.
So even the doughty were daunted and dared not reply,
All sitting stock -still, astounded by his voice.
Throughout the high hall was a hush like death;
Suddenly as if all had slipped into sleep, their voices were

At rest;
Hushed not wholly for fear,
But some at honor's behest;
But let him whom all revere
Greet that gruesome guest.

For Arthur sensed an exploit before the high dais,
And accorded him courteous greeting, no craven he,
Saying to him, "Sir knight, you are certainly welcome.
I am head of this house: Arthur is my name.
Please deign to dismount and dwell with us
Till you impart your purpose, at a proper time."
"May he that sits in heaven help me," said the knight,
"But my intention was not to tarry in this turreted hall.
But as your reputation, royal sir, is raised up so high,
And your castle and cavalier so are accounted the best,
The mightiest of mail, clad men in mounted fighting,
The most warlike, the worthiest the world has bred,
Most valiant to vie with in virile contests,
And as chivalry is shown here, so I am assured,
At this time, I tell you, that has attracted me here.
By this branch that I bear, you may be certain
That I proceed in peace, no peril seeking
For had I fared forth in fighting gear,
My hauberk and helmet, both at home now,
My shield and sharp spear, all shining bright,
And other weapons to wield, I would have brought
However, as I wish for no war here, I wear soft clothes.
But if you are as bold as brave men affirm,
You will gladly grant me the good sport I demand

By right."
Then Arthur answer gave:
"If you, most noble knight,
Unarmored combat crave,
We'll fail you not in fight."

"No, it is not combat I crave, for come to that,
On this bench only beardless boys are sitting.
If I were hasped in armor on a high steed,
No man among you could match me, your might being meagre.
So I crave in this court a Christmas game,
For it is Yuletide and New Year, and young men abound here.
If any in this household is so hardy in spirit,
Of such mettlesome mind and so madly rash
As to strike a strong blow in return for another,
I shall offer to him this fine axe freely;
This axe, which is heavy enough, to handle as he please.
And I shall bide the first blow, as bare as I sit here.
If some intrepid man is tempted to try what I suggest,
Let him leap towards me and lay hold of this weapon,
Acquiring clear possession of it, no claim from me ensuing.
Then shall I stand up to his stroke, quite still on this floor--
So long as I shall have leave to launch a return blow

Yet he shall have a year
And a day's reprieve, I direct.
Now hasten and let me hear
Who answers, to what effect."

"By heaven," then said Arthur, "what you ask is foolish,
But as you firmly seek folly, find it you shall.
No good man here is aghast at your great words.
Hand me your axe now, for heaven's sake,
And I shall bestow the boon you bid us give."
He sprang towards him swiftly, seized it from his hand,
And fiercely the other fellow footed the floor.
Now Arthur had his axe, and holding it by the haft
Swung it about sternly, as if to strike with it.
The strong man stood before him, stretched to his full height,
Higher than any in the hall by a head and more.
Stern of face he stood there, stroking his beard,
Turning down his tunic in a tranquil manner,
Less unmanned and dismayed by the mighty strokes
Than if banqueter at the bench had brought him a drink

Of wine.
Then Gawain at Guinevere's side
Bowed and spoke his design:
"Before all, King, confide
This fight to me. May it be mine."

"If you would, worthy lord," said Gawain to the King,
"Bid me stir from this seat and stand beside you,
Allowing me without lese--majesty to leave the table,
And if my liege lady were not displeased thereby,
I should come there to counsel you before this court of nobles.
For it appears unmeet to me, as manners go,
When your hall hears uttered such a haughty request,
Though you gladly agree, for you to grant it yourself,
When on the benches about you many such bold men sit,
Under heaven, I hold, the highest--mettled,
There being no braver knights when battle is joined.
I am the weakest, the most wanting in wisdom, I know,
And my life, if lost, would be least missed, truly.
Only through your being my uncle, am I to be valued;
No bounty but your blood in my body do I know.
And since this affair is too foolish to fall to you,
And I first asked it of you, make it over to me;
And if I fail to speak fittingly, let this full court judge

Without blame."
Then wisely they whispered of it,
And after, all said the same:
That the crowned King should be quit,
And Gawain given the game.

"By God," said the Green Knight, "Sir Gawain, I rejoice
That I shall have from your hand what I have asked for here.
And you have gladly gone over, in good discourse,
The covenant I requested of the King in full,
Except that you shall assent, swearing in truth,
To seek me yourself, in such place as you think
To find me under the firmament, and fetch your payment
For what you deal me today before this dignified gathering."
"How shall I hunt for you? How find your home?"
Said Gawain, "By God that made me, I go in ignorance;
Nor, knight, do I know your name or your court.
But instruct me truly thereof, and tell me your name,
And I shall wear out my wits to find my way there;
Here is my oath on it, in absolute honor!"
"That is enough this New Year, no more is needed,"
Said the gallant in green to Gawain the courteous,
"To tell you the truth, when I have taken the blow
After you have duly dealt it, I shall directly inform you
About my house and my home and my own name.
Then you may keep your covenant, and call on me,
And if I waft you no words, then well may you prosper,
Stay long in your own land and look for no further

Now grip your weapon grim;
Let us see your fighting style."
"Gladly," said Gawain to him,
Stroking the steel the while.

On the ground the Green Knight graciously stood,
With head slightly slanting to expose the flesh.
His long and lovely locks he laid over his crown,
Baring the naked neck for the business now due.
Gawain gripped his axe and gathered it on high,
Advanced the left foot before him on the ground,
And slashed swiftly down on the exposed part,
So that the sharp blade sheared through, shattering the bones,
Sank deep in the sleek flesh, split it in two,
And the scintillating steel struck the ground.
The fair head fell from the neck, struck the floor,
And people spurned it as it rolled around.
Blood spurted from the body, bright against the green.
Yet the fellow did not fall, nor falter one whit,
But stoutly sprang forward on legs still sturdy,
Roughly reached out among the ranks of nobles,
Seized his splendid head and straightway lifted it.
Then he strode to his steed, snatched the bridle,
Stepped into the stirrup and swung aloft,
Holding his head in his hand by the hair.
He settled himself in the saddle as steadily
As if nothing had happened to him, though he had

No head.
He twisted his trunk about,
That gruesome body that bled;
He caused much dread and doubt
By the time his say was said.

For he held the head in his hand upright,
Pointed the face at the fairest in fame on the dais;
And it lifted its eyelids and looked glaringly,
And menacingly said with its mouth as you may now hear:
"Be prepared to perform what you promised, Gawain;
Seek faithfully till you find me, my fine fellow,
According to your oath in this hall in these knights' hearing.
Go to the Green Chapel without gainsaying to get
Such a stroke as you have struck. Strictly you deserve
That due redemption on the day of New Year.
As the Knight of the Green Chapel I am known to many;
Therefore if you ask for me, I shall be found.
So come, or else be called coward accordingly!"
Then he savagely swerved, sawing at the reins,
Rushed out at the hall door, his head in his hand,
And the flint--struck fire flew up from the hooves.
What place he departed to no person there knew,
Nor could any account be given of the country he had come from.

What then?
At the Green Knight Gawain and King
Grinned and laughed again;
But plainly approved the thing
As a marvel in the world of men.

As the end of the next year approaches, Sir Gawain sets out on his horse Gringolet to seek the Green Knight. After fruitless searching and many adventures, he arrives at a castle whose lord, Bercilak, can direct him to the Green Chapel nearby. Gawain is invited to stay until his appointment. The lord proposes a game: he will give Gawain the winnings of his hunt each day in return for whatever Gawain has won while staying in his castle. For two days, while the lord is hunting, the lady of the castle attempts to seduce Gawain, but Gawain nobly rejects her advances. He accepts only a kiss each day which he exchanges with the lord in return for his hunting spoils. On the third day, Gawain continues to resist the lady, but she presses him to accept one small gift by which to remember her.

She proffered him a rich ring wrought in red gold,
With a sparkling stone set conspicuously in it,
Which beamed as brilliantly as the bright sun;
You may well believe its worth was wonderfully great.
But the courteous man declined it and quickly said,
"Before God, gracious lady, no giving just now!
Not having anything to offer, I shall accept nothing."
She offered it him urgently and he refused again,
Fast affirming his refusal on his faith as a knight.
Put out by this repulse, she presently said,
"If you reject my ring as too rich in value,
Doubtless you would be less deeply indebted to me
If I gave you my girdle, a less gainful gift."
She swiftly slipped off the cincture of her gown
Which went round her waist under the wonderful mantle,
A girdle of green silk with a golden hem,
Embroidered only at the edges, with hand--stitched ornament.
And she pleaded with the prince in a pleasant manner
To take it notwithstanding its trifling worth;
But he told her that he could touch no treasure at all,
Not gold nor any gift, till God gave him grace
To pursue to success the search he was bound on.
"And therefore I beg you not to be displeased:
Press no more your purpose, for I promise it never

Can be.
I owe you a hundredfold
For grace you have granted me;
And ever through hot and cold
I shall stay your devotee."

"Do you say 'no' to this silk?" then said the beauty,
"Because it is simple in itself? And so it seems.
Lo! It is little indeed, and so less worth your esteem.
But one who was aware of the worth twined in it
Would appraise its properties as more precious perhaps,
For the man that binds his body with this belt of green,
As long as he laps it closely about him,
No hero under heaven can hack him to pieces,
For he cannot be killed by any cunning on earth."
Then the prince pondered, and it appeared to him
A precious gem to protect him in the peril appointed him
When he gained the Green Chapel to be given checkmate:
It would be a splendid stratagem to escape being slain.
Then he allowed her to solicit him and let her speak.
She pressed the belt upon him with potent words
And having got his agreement, she gave it him gladly,
Beseeching him for her sake to conceal it always,
And hide it from her husband with all diligence.
That never should another know of it, the noble swore

Then often his thanks gave he
With all his heart and might,
And thrice by then had she
Kissed the constant knight.

The time comes for Gawain to keep his appointment with the Green Knight. He dresses carefully, wrapping the green sash round his waist, and sets off with a guide, who leaves him as they near the Green Chapel.

Then he gave the spur to Gringolet and galloped down the path,
Thrust through a thicket there by a bank,
And rode down the rough slope right into the ravine.
Then he searched about, but it seemed savage and wild,
And no sign did he see of any sort of building;
But on both sides banks, beetling and steep,
And great crooked crags, cruelly jagged;
The bristling barbs of rock seemed to brush the sky.
Then he held in his horse, halted there,
Scanned on every side in search of the chapel.
He saw no such thing anywhere, which seemed remarkable,
Save, hard by in the open, a hillock of sorts,
A smooth--surfaced barrow on a slope beside a stream
Which flowed forth fast there in its course,
Foaming and frothing as if feverishly boiling.
The knight, urging his horse, pressed onwards to the mound,
Dismounted manfully and made fast to a lime tree,
The reins, hooking them round a rough branch;
Then he went to the barrow, which he walked round, inspecting,
Wondering what in the world it might be.
It had a hole in each end and on either side,
And was overgrown with grass in great patches.
All hollow it was within, only an old cavern
Or the crevice of an ancient crag: he could not explain it

"O God, is the Chapel Green ,
This mound?" said the noble knight.
"At such might Satan be seen "
Saying matin at midnight."

"Now certainly the place is deserted," said Gawain, ,
"It is a hideous oratory, all overgrown,
And well graced for the gallant garbed in green
To deal out his devotions in the Devil's fashion.
Now I feel in my five wits, it is the Fiend himself
That has tricked me into this tryst, to destroy me here.
This is a chapel of mischance--checkmate to it!
It is the most evil holy place I ever entered."
With his high helmet on his head, and holding his lance,
He roamed up to the roof of that rough dwelling.
Then from that height he heard, from a hard rock
On the bank beyond the brook, a barbarous noise.
What! It clattered amid the cliffs fit to cleave them apart,
As if a great scythe were being ground on a grindstone there.
What! It whirred and it whetted like water in a mill.
What! It made a rushing, ringing din, rueful to hear.
"By God!" then said Gawain, "that is going on,
I suppose, as a salute to myself, to greet me

Hard by.
God's will be warranted:
'Alas!' is a craven cry.
No din shall make me dread
Although today I die."

Then the courteous knight called out clamorously,
"Who holds sway here and has an assignation with me?
For the good knight Gawain is on the ground here.
If anyone there wants anything, wend your way hither fast,
And further your needs either now, or not at all."
"Bide there!" said one on the bank above his head,
"And you shall swiftly receive what I once swore to give you."
Yet for a time he continued his tumult of scraping,
Turning away as he whetted, before he would descend.
Then he thrust himself round a thick crag through a hole,
Whirling round a wedge of rock with a frightful weapon,
A Danish axe duly honed for dealing the blow,
With a broad biting edge, bow, bent along the handle,
Ground on a grindstone, a great four, foot blade-
No less, by that love, lace gleaming so brightly!
And the gallant in green was garbed as at first,
His looks and limbs the same, his locks and beard;
Save that steadily on his feet he strode on the ground,
Setting the handle to the stony earth and stalking beside it.
He would not wade through the water when he came to it,
But vaulted over on his axe, then with huge strides
Advanced violently and fiercely along the field's width

On the snow.
Sir Gawain went to greet
The knight, not bowing low.
The man said, "Sir so sweet,
You honor the trysts you owe."

"Gawain," said the green knight, "may God guard you!
You are welcome to my dwelling, I warrant you,
And you have timed your travel here as a true man ought.
You know plainly the pact we pledged between us:
This time a twelvemonth ago you took your portion,
And now at this New Year I should nimbly requite you.
And we are on our own here in this valley
With no seconds to sunder us, spar as we will.
Take your helmet off your head, and have your payment here.
And offer no more argument or action than I did
When you whipped off my head with one stroke."
"No," said Gawain, "by God who gave me a soul,
The grievous gash to come I grudge you not at all; a
Strike but the one stroke and I shall stand still--
And offer you no hindrance; you may act freely,

I swear."
Head bent, Sir Gawain bowed,
And showed the bright flesh bare.
He behaved as if uncowed,
Being loth to display his care.

Then the gallant in green quickly got ready,
Heaved his horrid weapon on high to hit Gawain,
With all the brute force in his body bearing it aloft,
Swinging savagely enough to strike him dead.
Had it driven down as direly as he aimed,
The daring dauntless man would have died from the blow.
But Gawain glanced up at the grim axe beside him
As it came shooting through the shivering air to shatter him,
And his shoulders shrank slightly from the sharp edge.
The other suddenly stayed the descending axe,
And then reproved the prince with many proud words:
"You are not Gawain," said the gallant, "whose greatness is such
That by hill or hollow no army ever frightened him;
For now you flinch for fear before you feel harm.
I never did know that knight to be a coward.
I neither flinched nor fled when you let fly your blow,
Nor offered any quibble in the house of King Arthur.
My head flew to my feet, but flee I did not.
Yet you quail cravenly though unscathed so far.
So I am bound to be called the better man

Said Gawain, "Not again
Shall I flinch as I did before;
But if my head pitch to the plain,
It's off for evermore.

"But be brisk, man, by your faith, and bring me to the point;
Deal me my destiny and do it out of hand,
For I shall stand your stroke, not starting at all
Till your axe has hit me. Here is my oath on it."
"Have at you then!" said the other, heaving up his axe,
Behaving as angrily as if he were mad.
He menaced him mightily, but made no contact,
Smartly withholding his hand without hurting him.
Gawain waited unswerving, with not a wavering limb,
But stood still as a stone or the stump of a tree
Gripping the rocky ground with a hundred grappling roots.
Then again the green knight began to gird:
"So now you have a whole heart I must hit you.
May the high knighthood which Arthur conferred
Preserve you and save your neck, if so it avail you!"
Then said Gawain, storming with sudden rage,
"Thrash on, you thrustful fellow, you threaten too much.
It seems your spirit is struck with self dread."
"Forsooth,"O the other said, "You speak so fiercely
I will no longer lengthen matters by delaying you! business,

I vow."
He stood astride to smite,
Lips pouting, puckered brow.
No wonder he lacked delight
Who expected no help now.

Up went the axe at once and hurtled down straight
At the naked neck with its knife. like edge.
Though it swung down savagely, slight was the wound,
A mere snick on the side, so that the skin was broken.
Through the fair fat to the flesh fell the blade,
And over his shoulders the shimmering blood shot to the ground.
When Sir Gawain saw his gore glinting on the snow,
He leapt feet close together a spear's length away,
Hurriedly heaved his helmet on to his head,
And shrugging his shoulders, shot his shield to the front,
Swung out his bright sword and said fiercely,
(For never had the knight since being nursed by his mother
Been so buoyantly happy, so blithe in this world)
"Cease your blows, sir, strike me no more.
I have sustained a stroke here unresistingly,
And if you offer any more I shall earnestly reply.
Resisting, rest assured, with the most rancorous

The single stroke is wrought
To which we pledged our plight
In high King Arthur's court:
Enough now, therefore, knight!"

The bold man stood back and bent over his axe,
Putting the haft to earth, and leaning on the head.
He gazed at Sir Gawain on the ground before him,
Considering the spirited and stout way he stood,
Audacious in arms; his heart warmed to him.
Then he gave utterance gladly in his great voice,
With resounding speech saying to the knight,
"Bold man, do not be so bloodily resolute.
No one here has offered you evil discourteously,
Contrary to the covenant made at the King's court.
I promised a stroke, which you received: consider yourself paid.
I cancel all other obligations of whatever kind.
If I had been more active, perhaps I could
Have made you suffer by striking a savager stroke.
First in foolery I made a feint at striking,
Not rending you with a riving cut--and right I was,
On account of the first night's covenant we accorded;
For you truthfully kept your trust in troth with me,
Giving me your gains, as a good man should.
The further feinted blow was for the following day,
When you kissed my comely wife, and the kisses came to me:
For those two things, harmlessly I thrust twice at you

Feinted blows.
Truth for truth's the word;
No need for dread, God knows.
From your failure at the third
The tap you took arose.

"For that braided belt you wear belongs to me.
I am well aware that my own wife gave it you.
Your conduct and your kissings are completely known to me,
And the wooing by my wife--my work set it on.
I instructed her to try you, and you truly seem
To be the most perfect paladino ever to pace the earth.
As the pearl to the white pea in precious worth,
So in good faith is Gawain to other gay knights.
But here your faith failed you, you flagged somewhat, sir,
Yet it was not for a well--wrought thing, nor for wooing either,
But for love of your life, which is less blameworthy."
The other strong man stood considering this a while,
So filled with fury that his flesh trembled,
And the blood from his breast burst forth in his face
As he shrank for shame at what the chevalier spoke of.
The first words the fair knight could frame were:
"Curses on both cowardice and covetousness!
Their vice and villainy are virtue's undoing."
Then he took the knot, with a twist twitched it loose,
And fiercely flung the fair girdle to the knight.
"Lo! There is the false thing, foul fortune befall it!
I was craven about our encounter, and cowardice taught me
To accord with covetousness and corrupt my nature
And the liberality and loyalty belonging to chivalry.
Now I am faulty and false and found fearful always.
In the train of treachery and untruth go woe

And shame.
I acknowledge, knight, how ill
I behaved, and take the blame.
Award what penance you will:
Henceforth I'll shun ill--fame."

Then the other lord laughed and politely said,
"In my view you have made amends for your misdemeanor;
You have confessed your faults fully with fair acknowledgment,
And plainly done penance at the point of my axe.
You are absolved of your sin and as stainless now
As if you had never fallen in fault since first you were born.
As for the gold, hemmed girdle, I give it you, sir,
Seeing it is as green as my gown. Sir Gawain, you may
Think about this trial when you throng in company
With paragons of princes, for it is a perfect token,
At knightly gatherings, of the great adventure at the Green Chapel.
You shall come back to my castle this cold New Year,
And we shall revel away the rest of this rich feast;

Let us go."
Thus urging him, the lord
Said, "You and my wife, I know
' We shall bring to clear accord,
Though she was your fierce foe."

Discussion Questions

1. In your own words, state the challenge that the Green Knight offers to the members of the Round Table.
2. Why does Sir Gawain feel he is the one best qualified toaccept the Green Knight's challenge?
3. Why does Sir Gawain refuse the lady's gift of a gold ring? Why does he accept her green silk girdle?
4. During the incident at the Green Chapel, what reasons does the Green Knight give for the three blows of the axe?
5. Why does the Green Knight forgive Gawain?

6. Do you think the Green Knight is meant to be seen as evil? Use evidence from the text to support your opinion.
7. Why, do you think, does King Arthur allow Gawain to take up the challenge?
8. In the final line of the selection, the Green Knight claims that his wife was Sir Gawain's "fierce foe." In what ways might the lady be considered Gawain's foe?
9. What was Gawain's real test? Did he pass?
10. Cite passages from the text to show how Sir Gawain
demonstrates courage, humility, courtesy, and loyalty.

Evaluate and Connect
11. Compare the two translations of the opening section of the poem. How are they similar? How are they different? Which do you prefer and why?
12. Theme Connections In your opinion, is Gawain a hero? (See page R7.) Why or why not?
13. You may have heard the expression "chivalry is dead." Do you agree? What do you find admirable about chivalry as illustrated by the poem?
14. Evaluate the author's characterization of Gawain. Does he seem like a real person? Give reasons for your answer.
15. Look back to the Reading Focus on page 170. In what ways were your tests of honor similar to Gawain's? Does Gawain display honor?