Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Then joy awakened in that dwelling when the king knew that the good Sir Gawain was come, for he deemed it gain. King Arthur kissed the knight, and the queen also, and many valiant knights sought to embrace him. They asked him how he had fared, and he told them all that had chanced to him–the adventure of the chapel, the fashion of the knight, the love of the lady–at last of the lace. He showed them the wound in the neck which he won for his disloyalty at the hand of the knight, the blood flew to his face for shame as he told the tale.
“Lo, lady,” he quoth, and handled the lace, “this is the bond of the blame that I bear in my neck, this is the harm and the loss I have suffered, the cowardice and covetousness in which I was caught, the token of my covenant in which I was taken. And I must needs wear it so long as I live, for none may hide his harm, but undone it may not be, for if it hath clung to thee once, it may never be severed.”
Then the king comforted the knight, and the court laughed loudly at the tale, and all made accord that the lords and the ladies who belonged to the Round Table, each hero among them, should wear bound about him a baldric of bright green for the sake of Sir Gawain.13 And to this was agreed all the honour of the Round Table, and he who ware it was honoured the more thereafter, as it is testified in the best book of romance. That in Arthur’s days this adventure befell, the book of Brutus bears witness. For since that bold knight came hither first, and the siege and the assault were ceased at Troy, I wis
Many a venture herebefore
Hath fallen such as this:
May He that bare the crown of thorn
Bring us unto His bliss.
1. “The Legend of Sir Gawain,” Grimm Library, Vol. VII. (Chapter IX. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).
2. Dance accompanied by song. Often mentioned in old romances.
3. Agravain, “Ã la dure main.” This characterisation of Gawain’s brother seems to indicate that there was a French source at the root of this story. The author distinctly tells us more than once that the tale, as he tells it, was written in a book, M. Gaston Paris thinks that the direct source was an Anglo-Norman poem, now lost.
4. If any in this hall holds himself so hardy. This, the main incident of the tale, is apparently of very early date. The oldest version we possess is that found in the Irish tale of the Fled Bricrend (Bricriu’s feast) [edited and translated by the Rev. G. Henderson, M.A., Irish Texts Society, vol. ii.], where the hero of the tale is the Irish champion, Cuchulinn. Two mediÃ¦val romances, the Mule sans Frein (French) and Diu KrÃ´ne (German), again attribute it to Gawain; while the continuator of ChrÃ©tien de Troye’s Conte del Graal gives as hero a certain Carados, whom he represents as Arthur’s nephew; and the prose Perceval has Lancelot. So far as the mediÃ¦val versions are concerned, the original hero is undoubtedly Gawain; and our poem gives the fullest and most complete form of the story we possess. In the Irish version the magician is a giant, and the abnormal size and stature of the Green Knight is, in all probability, the survival of a primitive feature. His curious colour is a trait found nowhere else. In Diu KrÃ´ne we are told that the challenger changes shapes in a terrifying manner, but no details are given.
5. For Yule was over-past. This passage, descriptive of the flight of the year, should be especially noticed. Combined with the other passages–the description of Gawain’s journey, the early morning hunts, the dawning of New Year’s Day, and the ride to the Green Chapel–they indicate a knowledge of Nature, and an observant eye for her moods, uncommon among mediÃ¦val poets. It is usual enough to find graceful and charming descriptions of spring and early summer–an appreciation of May in especial, when the summer courts were held, is part of the stock-in-trade of mediÃ¦val romancers–but a sympathy with the year in all its changes is far rarer, and certainly deserves to be specially reckoned to the credit of this nameless writer.
6. First a rich carpet was stretched on the floor. The description of the arming of Gawain is rather more detailed in the original, but some of the minor points are not easy to understand, the identification of sundry of the pieces of armour being doubtful.
7. The pentangle painted thereupon in gleaming gold. I do not remember that the pentangle is elsewhere attributed to Gawain. He often bears a red shield; but the blazon varies. Indeed, the heraldic devices borne by Arthur’s knights are distractingly chaotic–their legends are older than the science of heraldry, and no one has done for them the good office that the compiler of the Thidrek Saga has rendered to his Teutonic heroes.
8. The Wilderness of Wirral. This is in Cheshire. Sir F. Madden suggests that the forest which forms the final stage of Gawain’s journey is that of Inglewood, in Cumberland. The geography here is far clearer than is often the case in such descriptions.
9. ‘Twas the fairest castle that ever a knight owned. Here, again, I have omitted some of the details of the original, the architectural terms lacking identification.
10. With blast of the bugle fared forth to the field. The account of each day’s hunting contains a number of obsolete terms and details of woodcraft, not given in full. The meaning of some has been lost, and the minute descriptions of skinning and dismembering the game would be distinctly repulsive to the general reader. They are valuable for a student of the history of the English sport, but interfere with the progress of the story. The fact that the author devotes so much space to them seems to indicate that he lived in the country and was keenly interested in field sports. (Gottfried von Strassbourg’s Tristan contains a similar and almost more detailed description.)
11. I will give [you] my girdle. This magic girdle, which confers invulnerability on its owner, is a noticeable feature of our story. It is found nowhere else in this connection, yet in other romances we find that Gawain possesses a girdle with similar powers (cf., my Legend of Sir Gawain, Chap. IX.). Such a talisman was also owned by Cuchulinn, the Irish hero, who has many points of contact with Gawain. It seems not improbable that this was also an old feature of the story. I have commented, in the Introduction, on the lady’s persistent wooing of Gawain, and need not repeat the remarks here. The Celtic Lay of the Great Fool (Amadan Mor) presents some curious points of contact with our story, which may, however, well be noted here. In the Lay the hero is mysteriously deprived of his legs, through the draught from a cup proffered by a Gruagach or magician. He comes to a castle, the lord of which goes out hunting, leaving his wife in the care of the Great Fool, who is to allow no man to enter. He falls asleep, and a young knight arrives and kisses the host’s wife. The Great Fool, awaking, refuses to allow the intruder to depart; and, in spite of threats and blandishments, insists on detaining him till the husband returns. Finally, the stranger reveals himself as the host in another shape; he is also the Gruagach, who deprived the hero of his limbs, and the Great Fool’s brother. He has only intended to test the Amadon Mor’s fidelity. A curious point in connection with this story is that it possesses a prose opening which shows a marked affinity with the “Perceval” enfances. That the Perceval and Gawain stories early became connected is certain, but what is the precise connection between them and the Celtic Lay is not clear. In its present form the latter is certainly posterior to the Grail romances, but it is quite possible that the matter with which it deals represents a tradition older than the Arthurian story.
12. Morgain le Fay, who dwelleth in my house. The enmity between Morgain le Fay and Guinevere, which is here stated to have been the motif of the enchantment, is no invention of the author, but is found in the Merlin, probably the earliest of the Arthurian prose romances. In a later version of our story, a poem, written in ballad form, and contained in the “Percy” MS., Morgain does not appear; her place is taken by an old witch, mother to the lady, but the enchantment is still due to her spells. In this later form the knight bears the curious name of Sir Bredbeddle. That given in our romance, Bernlak de Hautdesert,, seems to point to the original French source of the story. (It is curious that Morgain should here be represented as extremely old, while Arthur is still in his first youth. There is evidently a discrepancy or misunderstanding of the source here.)
13. A baldric of bright green, for sake of Sir Gawain. The later version connects this lace with that worn by the knights of the Bath; but this latter was white, not green. The knights wore it on the left shoulder till they had done some gallant deed, or till some noble lady took it off for them.