Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s Beheading Game
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in Middle English as Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt ) is one of the most famous Arthurian legends. As the name of the poem suggests, the story is about Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights, and a mysterious Green Knight. In between the two characters are such elements as knightly deeds, seduction and temptation, and wild landscape, some of the features of chivalric romance.
It is unclear as to how popular the tale was during its time, but we do know that it disappeared for some time, and only re-emerged during the 19 th century. Since then, it has been recognized as a masterpiece of Middle English literature, and grew in popularity. This is evident in the fact that the tale has been told, retold and reinterpreted by many after the poem’s rediscovery.
Mysterious Creation of the Poem
Although the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is well-known, there is not much that we know about the context it was written in. For instance, although the poem is generally accepted to have been composed during the Late Middle Ages , scholars are only able to speculate that it was probably written around the late 14 th century.
A greater mystery, however, is the identity of the poet, dubbed the ‘Gawain Poet’, or ‘Pearl Poet’. Based on the Middle English dialect used by the author in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (along with three other poems found in the same manuscript), it is believed that he/she was from the northwest Midlands. Apart from that, there is little else that can be said about the ‘Gawain author’. Still, that has not stopped scholars from speculating on his/her identity.
The survival of the poem is itself a remarkable tale. At present, the poem is known to be found in one single manuscript, known as Cotton Nero A.x. This manuscript contains the other three works attributed to the Gawain poet – Pearl, Purity, and Patience, all of which are religious narrative poems.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from the original manuscript. ( Public domain )
Whilst the date of the manuscript’s creation is uncertain, it is recorded that during the early 17 th century, it was in the possession of a Yorkshireman by the name of Sir Henry Savile of Bank. Incidentally, Savile was one of the scholars involved with the preparation of the authorized version (known also as the King James version) of the Bible. Subsequently, it was acquired by one of Savile’s contemporary, Sir Robert Cotton.
Cotton and His Library
In addition, to being a Member of Parliament, Cotton was also an antiquarian, and the library he created, known as the Cotton Library, has been described as “the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual.” Cotton’s collection, which is today housed In the British Library , contained “more than 1,400 manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls, and seals,” which “date from the 4th century to the 1600s and have their origin in Western Europe and beyond.”
Apart from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , the Lindisfarne Gospels, five copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle , and the only known manuscript of Beowulf were also part of the Cotton Library. The library was transferred to the British nation after the death of Cotton’s grandson, Sir John Cotton, in 1702. The Cotton Library became one of the foundation collections of the newly-established British Museum in 1753, and later transferred to the British Library when it was founded in 1973.
Masterpiece Rediscovered From Oblivion
As for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , being acquired by Robert Cotton, saved it for posterity. At the same time, however, it was forgotten. It was only in the 19 th century, during the reign of Queen Victoria, that the poem re-emerged from oblivion. In 1837, Sir Frederic Madden, a paleographer working for the British Museum, rediscovered the text, and recognized it as an important masterpiece of literature.
For instance, the technical aspects of the poem have been highlighted by scholars. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight consists of over 2500 verses, which were written using internal rhyming, known also as alliteration. The poem’s complexity is enhanced by the employment of a metrical form known as the ‘bob and wheel’, where “each stanza ends with a short half-line of only two syllables (the bob), followed by a mini-stanza of longer lines which rhyme internally (the wheel).”
First page of the only surviving manuscript. ( Public domain )
In addition, the poem draws its material from various sources, and contains motifs from British folklore, as well as French chivalric romances. The poem also displays a rich vocabulary, including dialect words, many of which are of Scandinavian origin, from northwest England.
The Strangest Tale
A very brief summary of Britain’s history from the Trojan War to the reign of King Arthur forms the introduction of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . This prelude is meant to entice the reader (or listener) to stay for a story that is “strange above all tales that be of Arthur told.”
The poem then brings the reader/listener to Camelot, where King Arthur and his court are engaged in festivities on the occasion of Christmas-tide. On the eve of the New Year, Arthur and his knights, including Gawain, who was the king’s nephew, are enjoying a feast, when they are interrupted by a stranger,
“When through the hall door rushed a champion, fierce and fell,
Highest in stature he, of all on earth who dwell!
From neck to waist so square, and eke so thickly set,
His loins and limbs alike, so long they were, and great,
Half giant upon earth, I hold him to have been,
In every way of men the tallest he, I ween –”
The strange knight was dressed from head to toe in green, “Green as the growing grass; and greener still, I ween, / E’en than enamel green on gold that gloweth bright;”, and was therefore called the Green Knight. After a long description of the knight, his apparel, and his comportment, the poem reveals the reason of his arrival at Camelot:
“I came not here to bide within thy castle wall,
The praise of this thy folk throughout the world is told,
Therefore within thy court I crave a Christmas jest,
‘T is Yuletide, and New Year, and here be many a guest,
If any in this hall himself so hardy hold,
So valiant of his hand, of blood and brain so bold,
That stroke for counter-stroke with me exchange he dare,
Here I renounce my claim, the axe shall be his own –
And I will stand his stroke, here, on this floor of stone,
That I in turn a blow may deal, that boon alone
Yet respite shall he have,
A twelvemonth, and a day.
Now quickly I thee crave –
Who now hath aught to say?”
Arthur’s knights were stunned, and none accepted the Green Knight’s challenge, causing him to mock them, thereby humiliating the king. Arthur felt obliged to give the Green Knight what he had demanded, but one of the knights, Gawain, volunteered to take Arthur’s place. Taking the axe from Arthur, Gawain decapitated the Green Knight.
Depiction of Sir Gawain, from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights. (Howard Pyle / Public domain )
Much to the amazement of all present, the headless body did not fall to the ground, but got up, lifted up its head, and got back onto its horse. Before leaving the castle, the Green Knight reminded Gawain of his pledge, and that he should seek him out at the Green Chapel (or Chapel Green) at the appointed time.
When the time came for Gawain to fulfil his promise to the Green Knight, he set out in search of the Green Chapel. During his travel, Gawain asked the people he met if they knew of a Green Knight or the Green Chapel, but none had heard of such a figure or place. The knight eventually arrived at a castle, and received a warm welcome from its lord and lady. The lord, whose name is revealed only towards the end of the poem, is Bernlak de Hautdesert (sometimes spelled as Bercilak or Bertilak).
Story of Seductions and a Girdle
During Gawain’s stay at the castle, the knight (inevitably) asked Bernlak about the Green Chapel, and was told that the place was in fact not far from the castle. Bernlak invited Gawain to stay in his castle for a few more days, and promised that on New Year’s Day, he would command some men to guide the knight to his destination. Gawain accepted the invitation.
The next day, Bernlak went off hunting, before which he proposed a bargain with Gawain: he would give Gawain whatever he caught in exchange for whatever Gawain may gain during the day, to which the knight agreed. Whilst Bernlak was away hunting, his wife came to seduce Gawain, but the knight resisted her temptations, and only accepted a kiss, as he was unwilling to offend the lady. When Bernlak returned, he gave Gawain the deer he killed. In return, Bernlak received a kiss from the knight, though he did not reveal its source.
Lady Bertilak seducing Gawain's at his bed (from original manuscript). ( Public domain )
On the following day, Bernlak returned from his hunt with a boar. Whilst he was away, Lady Bernlak attempted to seduce Gawain again, but failed, though the knight accepted two kisses this time, which he gave to Bernlak in exchange for the boar.
On the third day (New Year’s Eve), Lady Bernlak tempts Gawain once more, but the knight successfully denied her advances. Bernlak’s wife gave Gawain a gold ring as keepsake, but the knight refused the offer. The lady then offered her girdle, which she claimed was charmed, and would protect Gawain from harm. The knight, aware that he might die the next day, accepted the gift, in addition to three kisses. When Bernlak returned, he gave Gawain a fox, and received three kisses. Gawain, however, did not mention the girdle to Bernlak, as he had promised the lady to keep the gift a secret.
Knights of Gawain's time were tested in their ability to balance the male-oriented chivalric code with the female-oriented rules of courtly love. (Edmund Leighton / Public domain )
The Green Chapel’s Twist in the Story
On the following day, Gawain left for the Green Chapel, with Lady Bernlak’s girdle round his waist, of course. At the Green Chapel, he met the Green Knight, who was preparing to chop off Gawain’s head. As the Green Knight swung his axe, Gawain flinched a little, causing the weapon to miss its target. Gawain felt ashamed when he was mocked for his cowardice, and did not flinch the second time.
The Green Knight waits for Gawain with an axe. (GR L / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
This time, however, the Green Knight deliberately missed his target, and said that he was merely testing Gawain’s nerve. This angered Gawain, who wanted the whole affair to end as soon as possible. Therefore, the Green Knight swung his axe a third time, which only grazed the skin of Gawain’s neck. Since Gawain had received a blow from the Green Knight’s axe, he had fulfilled his part of the bargain, and armed himself, in case the knight should attack him.
The Green Knight, however, was not at all angry, but greatly pleased, and told Gawain what was actually going on. The knight revealed that he was actually Bernlak, and that he was aware of all that went on during Gawain’s stay at his castle, i.e. the kisses Gawain received from his wife, as well as the girdle. In addition, the whole episode was in fact a trick designed by the sorceress Morgan le Fay (Arthur’s sister) to test Arthur’s knights, and to frighten the queen to death. The Green Knight also told Gawain that the mysterious elderly woman he saw at his castle was Morgan le Fay in disguise.
After the revelation, Gawain felt incredibly ashamed of his deceitful behavior. The Green Knight, however, did not mind the matter at all, declaring that Gawain was true and tried as any man on Earth. Although the Green Knight invited Gawain back to his castle, the knight declined the invitation. The two parted on friendly terms, and Gawain headed back to Camelot.
At the court of King Arthur, Gawain relayed the story of his adventure to the king and his fellow knights. Although Gawain still felt guilty, Arthur and his knights absolved him. Before the poem ends, Arthur’s knights decided that they too would wear a green band round their waists in honor of Gawain, and to remind them to be honest in all their actions.
Gawain represented the perfect knight, as a fighter, a lover, and a religious devotee. The Vigil, 1884. (John Pettie / Public domain )
The Popularity of the Green Knight
Two years after the rediscovery of the manuscript, Madden edited and published a prose translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . As a masterpiece of Middle English literature, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has received much attention from scholars of literature, and various aspects of the poem have been analyzed.
The popularity of the tale, however, is not restricted to academic circles, considering that it has reached a wider audience through a wide range of media, including books, films, theatre, and even opera. The most recent adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , for instance, is David Lowery’s The Green Knight , scheduled to be released in cinemas this summer.
Top image: Representation of the Green Knight from the Gawain poem. Source: Luca Oleastri / Adobe stock
By Wu Mingren
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Thanks for the interesting reminder of a terrific narrative I first met studying Middle English many years ago. You say that this poem was written ‘using internal rhyming, known also as alliteration.’ May I respectfully suggest, however, that alliteration is not the same as rhyme. Alliteration is the recurrence of the same sound at the start of adjacent words, used for effect, and very common is Anglo Saxon and Middle English poetry:
Therefore within thy court I crave a Christmas jest, [alliteration of k sound]
If any in this hall himself so hardy hold, [h]
So valiant of his hand, of blood and brain so bold, [b]
And so on. Whereas rhyme, internal or end-rhyme, is the repetition of the same sound in adjacent whole words:
Here I renounce my claim, the axe shall be his own – [A own]
And I will stand his stroke, here, on this floor of stone, [A stone]
That I in turn a blow may deal, that boon alone [A alone]
I pray, [B pray]
Yet respite shall he have, [C have]
A twelvemonth, and a day. [B day]
Now quickly I thee crave – [C crave]
Who now hath aught to say?” [B say]
Your history of the MS is a fascinating reminder of the importance of libraries, and I enjoyed the illustrations. Thanks!