Ever since I first read it, I've loved the tale of Gawain's journey to the Green Chapel, to uphold both his own honour, and that of the Round Table.
But the more I read it, the more I see in this story. First of all, the story takes place in the space of just over a year, but this passage of time represents not just the passing of the seasons. Something in Gawain changes in this period. At first, he is the young hero who wishes to bring a speedy and conclusive finish to the adventure that has arrived at Camelot, but by the end, he has learned something about himself.
The description of his shield tells us more about him: the five-pointed star, each of whose points stands for something five-fold. As Leonardo's Vitruvian Man reminds us, five is the number of the Human Being. There is something deeply spiritual at stake here. But the star is the side that Gawain shows the world. The picture of Madonna and Child, on the inside of the shield, is what he keeps turned to his heart. This picture is often thought of as simply a representation, rather sentimental, of an event long ago in Palestine. Perhaps we could also think of it as representing The Divine Sophia holding the Christ; spiritual potential waiting to be born in human beings. This is the aspect of the central image of Christmas that perhaps has been forgotten over the years.
Arthur's court is composed of twelve knights, Arthur himself and Guinevere. The cosmic picture of the twelve knights, each representing a House of the Zodiac, and King and Queen as Sun and Moon is another pointer to the story's esoteric content. Also present is Bishop Baldwin, representing higher powers beyond the Zodiac circle.
Gawain sets off at Michaelmas, the time of new initiatives and beginnings. At each threshold in the world of Nature, he has an enemy to overcome. Here, we are being directed to the inner steps that Gawain is taking, overcoming the obstacles in his own nature. He finds himself in the neighbourhood of Bertilak's castle on Christmas Eve. He is welcomed to the castle in St. Peter's name, which indicates to Gawain that he is, spiritually speaking, in safe hands. There are games, a meal of fish dishes and Midnight Mass. Then comes Bertilak's strange proposal: that he should share with Gawain the best of what he gains in the hunt, and Gawain should share with him the best of what he receives in the castle.
Bertilak's first two hunts are described in great detail. They show Bertilak as almost a force of nature in his strength and determination. First he hunts a stag, then a boar. On the third day, he brings home a fox, which he considers poor game indeed. Discussion of the significance of these creatures is for another time.
Gawain's great struggle in this story, is not with enemies, but with himself. Bertilak's wife tries very hard, three mornings in succession, to seduce him. Gawain has to master his sexuality, in the face of such extreme temptation, but do it in a way that does not insult the lady. This he manages, but only just. He does, however, accept her gift of a green girdle, which, she says, will keep him from harm. This he accepts, on the understanding that he will make no mention of it to Bertilak, thereby breaking the terms of the agreement with his host.
When Gawain finally confronts the Green Knight again, he has to receive the blow that he gave the Green Knight the previous year. At first he flinches from the axe. The Green Knight reproves him, and Gawain has to overcome his instinctive reactions; to master his own will. Then, when the Green Knight raises the axe again, he pauses. Gawain, in fear and anger, shouts at the Green Knight to hurry up and get on with it. Again, the Green Knight gently reminds Gawain that he made no such fuss a year ago. Gawain now has to gain mastery over his feelings. The third time, the axe descends, but only to graze Gawain's neck. Now that a few drops of his blood have been shed, Gawain can legitimately rise and defend himself. But now the Green Knight reveals himself as Bertilak, and the whole adventure as the invention of Morgan le Fay, Arthur's half-sister, and one who often in the tales of the Round Table, challenges its honour and integrity.
So Gawain has had to overcome his youthful zeal in favour of more measured responses; he has had to overcome aspects of his nature that hold him back from realising his true potential; he has had to master his will, his feeling and thinking; he has finally, to recognize the ways in which Nature can reflect to him his own nature. At the end, he gains the respect of Bertilak, Arthur and the Court of the Round Table, but he is left with a picture of himself that humbles him.
After this adventure, Gawain is ready to become the accompanying hero to Parzival in the Grail story.
Gawain and the Green Knight – the tale
At Camelot, the twelve days of Christmas were always celebrated with much feasting, merriment and telling of tales, such as the stories of the Trojan ancestors of the Britons; Brutus, Corineus and the rest. Those homeless warriors gathered on the
, where Brutus prayed to the Goddess Diana to show him where was a land his people could make their own. Diana appeared to Brutus, and told of an island in the North, between island of Malta and Ireland Gaul, where none lived but giants. This place they could make theirs. And so it was: they sailed to the island and overcame the giants they found there, so that the island became the land of the people of Brutus, the British.
Arthur watched his court from the shadows. He had heard these old tales before, but it was his unswerving custom on feast days and holidays not to sit down to eat until he had heard of a new adventure, or that someone brought an adventure to Camelot by way of a petition for justice, a challenge, or news of monstrous attack. So far this Christmas, none had come, and so Arthur forsook his seat at the feast table, and waited.
All at once, a strange, eerie atmosphere descended on the feast hall. Everyone fell silent in fearful expectation.
Then, the great doors of the hall swung slowly open, by no human action, and a giant of a man entered, riding a huge horse.
The company were relieved to see that the mighty stranger carried a branch of holly, for that was the sign of peace, but the great double-headed axe in his other hand was less comforting to see. But these things were the least strange about the visitor: he was green. Clothes, boots and accoutrements were all of different shades of green, but so was his skin, and the hair of his head that hung over his shoulders like a cloak. His beard was a darker green, and hung like a bush over his breast. The horse, too, was of this shade, apart from the gold wire plaited among his mane.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the newcomer was his eyes, which were no shade of green, but a luminous red.
“I bring a challenge to the knights of the Table Round,” boomed the voice of the visitor: “Is there a man here who dare give me a blow with this axe?”
A low muttering and whispering arose and died away among the company.
“But if there is such a man here,” the Green Knight continued, “he must be willing to receive a like blow from me a year and a day hence.”
Now silence fell on the company. None dared to step forward to make this adventure his own. Arthur, watching from the dimness of the corner, felt shame sting him like a thousand tiny insects. No man stood forward, and so he must himself undertake the adventure.
“Here stand I, Arthur of the Britons,” he cried, breaking the spell of silence that held the company in thrall. “I will give the blow. Give me the axe!”
But Gawain now found his voice: “Nay Uncle! This adventure is mine!”
Arthur looked the young man steadily in the eye, and saw that he was resolute.
“We may yet make a short tale of it,” Gawain said with a slight smile.
The Green Knight handed the axe to Gawain, and dismounted from his great steed. He knelt, and bared his neck. Gawain swung the axe, and struck off the giant’s head, which rolled round the room like a green comet. The ladies drew back their skirts in horror as it passed, the men kicked at it.
“This was a short adventure,” said Gawain, but what was this? The headless man arose and strode to where his head lay among the rushes on the floor. He lifted it, and held it at the level of his heart. The head then spoke, and as it spoke, the red eyes were fixed on Queen Guinevere. So piercing was that gaze, that had Lancelot been there, he could not have forborne to spring to her side in protection. But Lancelot was not there, and Arthur was at the far end of the hall.
“Now Gawain, you have promised to be willing to receive the same blow from me a year and a day hence! I hereby bind you to that promise. Look for me at the Green Chapel a year and a day from this!”
So saying, the Green Knight leaped into the saddle, and turned his horse’s head to the doors. As he left, those doors swung slowly shut.
As soon as the doors were closed, the strange, magical atmosphere that had fallen on the assembly lifted. Conversation began. Had these things really happened that they had witnessed? Was it not a strange dream that all had dreamed at once?
For answer, Arthur stooped and picked up the great axe that the Green Knight had left behind him, as though in proof of the truth of the visit.
“This axe shall hang above my seat at the Table Round,” Arthur announced, “until the adventure is all accomplished and told.”
* * *
Christmas passed, and the greenery that bedecked the hall at Camelot was taken down. Winter now held no more promise of joy. Candlemas came and went, and the days began to lengthen, and the ice and frost to recede. Spring came, and the drab days of Lent gave way to Easter and the promise of new life was fulfilled in the fields and the byres. Summer came, and harvest time, and Lammas came and went, and the trees were growing golden as Michaelmas approached.
Arthur sought out Gawain, who was standing at the ramparts, gazing at the treetops that showed so many colours.
“You will be thinking of your adventure,” said Arthur gently.
“Indeed, my Uncle, I have thought of little else since the day it began,” Gawain answered.
“It lies in your power to refuse it,” Arthur said.
“Not so, Uncle. I gave my promise. And that promise was not made just on my honour alone, but on the honour of the Table Round, and therefore I cannot refuse it!”
Arthur turned his head away to hide the tear that rimmed his eye.
“Of all my knights, Gawain, I would not lose you,” he said, “but it is, as you say, not for your honour alone, but for the honour of the Table Round that you undertake this adventure, and we are not our own masters that take our seats there, but servants of all mankind. Therefore we must honour all our promises.”
Thus, Gawain began to make ready. He had no inkling where the Green Chapel lay, but felt in his bones that the adventure would find him out, and guessed that his way lay due north. He gathered his equipment, and saddled his horse Gringuljet of the Red ears. He took his sword and lifted his shield. This shield had two sides; the side that he showed to the world was painted red, and blazoned with the five-pointed star in gold. Each of the five points of the star stood for a fivefold thing: the five fingers and toes of each hand and foot, the five senses, the five joys of Mary – Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension and Assumption – the five wounds of Christ and the five knightly virtues – to be ever cleanly, to be chivalrous, to be generous, to be comradely, and to be compassionate. These were all symbolized in the five-pointed star, or the endless knot as it was also called. The inside of the shield, the side he had closest to his heart, was painted with a representation of the Mother of God and the Christ-child.
The knights of the Council of the Table Round all came to see Gawain’s departure, and the song numbered these among them: Sir Dodinal, Sir Eric, Sir Urien, Sir Lucan, Sir Ywain, Sir Lionel, Sir Bors, Sir Bedivere, Sir Mador, The Duke of Clarence and Sir Lancelot. The priest and confessor to Camelot, Bishop Baldwin, was also there, and Arthur and Guinevere gave Gawain their blessing.
* * *
The way was hard at the waning of the year. Gawain found that at every riverbank, every forest edge, at the foot of each hill there was an enemy to conquer. Each threshold in the world of Nature was guarded by something that Gawain had to meet and overcome.
Everywhere he asked for directions to the Green Chapel, but none knew of it, and the year was wasting. Gawain was due to meet the Green Knight again on New Year’s morn. By his own reckoning, it was now Christmas Eve, and nowhere in sight was there a place where he could celebrate Christmas, this being most likely his last Christmas on Earth.
He shipped off his shield, and set it up on a rock with the holy image outwards, and knelt to pray. On opening his eyes, he saw, a little way off, a ring of shining oak trees, and in their midst, a castle. Praising his good fortune, he rode to the castle, and called for entry.
“Welcome in the name of St. Peter,” called a porter from the gate. “You are right welcome at this Christmastide!”
The drawbridge slowly lowered itself, and Gawain rode his red-eared horse Gringuljet forward into the castle. The lord of the castle came forth; a big, bluff, hearty man, who welcomed Gawain right cordially.
“Come and be our Christmas guest,” he cried. All are welcome at our table at this tide, and a knight such as yourself more than most. My name is Bertilak. Tell me, sir, who are you?”
“Gawain is my name, of the Table Round,” came the reply. Bertilak’s eyes widened in astonishment and joy.
“Sir Gawain? Nay, we are more honoured by your presence than we can say! A hundred thousand welcomes! Make this humble castle your home for as long as you wish, and join us to celebrate Christmas!”
All the comforts that the castle could afford were lavished on Gawain. He had a hot bath and clean, rich robes were sent for him. He was shown to a deep chair by a fire burning bright, and Bertilak asked him many a question about Camelot and the Table Round.
A bell was heard summoning the company to the chapel. Gawain gladly joined the worshippers, but a surprise awaited him there. Among the ladies was one so passing fair that she made Guinevere look plain and ordinary by comparison. Next to this lady of such surpassing beauty was an old woman who was as ugly as the younger was comely. It was as much as Gawain could do to keep his mind on things of the spirit, when things of the body were so bravely shown nearby.
After Midnight Mass came a meal of fish; the best the nearby rivers and lakes could yield: salmon and trout of the finest. And after the meal there were games in the hall, where Gawain showed himself a worthy competitor. All was merriment and jollity in keeping with the season, and Gawain, for a moment, was able to forget the grim destiny that awaited him at the hands of the Green Knight.
* * *
On the Feast of
St. Stephen, Bertilak came to Gawain and made an offer that Gawain found strange.
“Tomorrow, I shall go hunting. I shall give you the best of what I win at the hunt, and you, in return, will give me the best of what you win here in the castle. Is it agreed?”
“Shall I give you what is already yours?” Gawain asked, “for this is your house. What is there in this house that is not yours by right?”
“Come, it is Christmas, a time of giving. Let us keep to this plan of mine,” insisted Bertilak, and Gawain, though puzzled, agreed, for after all, what harm could come of it?
The next day, Bertilak set out to hunt with his company. They soon put up a stag, and Bertilak gave chase, crashing through the forest in pursuit, and always at the head of the hunt, setting a punishing pace for his men. Up hill and down into the dingles with their wintry thorns he rode, the stag leading them fleetly, over streams, splashing through ponds and mire, heading for where the trees were too thick to penetrate, but Bertilak was too nimble in pursuit, and headed the magnificent beast into a glade where it turned and faced them with lowered antlers.
Bertilak slew the stag, and they gralloched it where it lay, as was the custom in those times. Each man received what was his rightful cut of the meat, and the dogs took their share, too, of the guts and offal. Even the ravens, when the place was clear, flew down for their share, the hause-bone.
While the hunt was at its height, Gawain lay in bed. Suddenly, he heard the latch of his chamber lift, and footsteps moving almost soundlessly towards his bed. The bed-curtain was pulled aside, and there was the beautiful lady, who sat on the edge of the bed.
“What an honour for our castle to have Gawain for a guest,” said the lady, and Gawain smelled the sweetness of her breath as she spoke, and marvelled at the clear, pale skin and the deep, dark eyes.
“How great an honour it would be for a lady to have you as her champion,” she whispered; “what lady would not grant the sweetest favours to such a knight!”
How beautiful she was! How Gawain longed to take her in his arms and grant her wish! And yet, soon, he was to stand before the Judgment Seat of God. Could he stand there with such a thing on his conscience? But would not God forgive him the few hours spent in bliss with this lovely lady?
Of course, Gawain knew that he must refuse the lady, but he had to do so without giving her any insult. He must be courteous to the end, and overcome the strongest enemy; his own nature.
At last, after Gawain had struggled to turn the lady’s entreaties with the gift of his wit, she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
“I see you are too strong for me, Gawain,” she said, and tiptoed from the room, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
Bertilak returned, and Gawain greeted him with a brotherly kiss.
“A haunch of venison for our guest,” announced Bertilak, and servants brought in Bertilak’s gift to Gawain.
“Tomorrow, let us try the same game again,” Bertilak said, and Gawain, still mystified by the poor part of the bargain that Bertilak would receive from this arrangement, nevertheless agreed.
The following day, Bertilak set out to hunt, and the party startled a great boar, that crashed off through the undergrowth with Bertilak in close pursuit. The boar was a seasoned denizen of the forest, and knew how to plunge and turn from the path to shake off its hunters. Bertilak was an old hunter himself, and knew the tricks of boar-hunting. He expected every twist of the path of his quarry, and was close behind the creature, his spear ready to stick the beast.
The boar made a giant leap into the midst of a river, turning to face his foes. Bertilak dismounted, and, drawing his sword, plunged in after it, and slew the creature there in the river, with the icy water foaming all around him, and then, by main force, dragged the carcase to the bank.
As Bertilak was galloping after his prey, Gawain lay in his bed, and again heard the lifting of the latch, and the quiet footsteps across the floor, and the twitching aside of the bed-curtain. There, once again, was the lady, looking, if anything, even more beautiful than before. Once again, she made Gawain the rich offer of her sweet charms, and once again, Gawain had the great struggle to refuse the lady with charm and courtesy, and to work against the grain of his manly nature to do so.
At last, she leaned forward and kissed Gawain twice.
“You fight too cleverly for me,” she said, and left the room.
Bertilak’s return was marked by much laughter and noise, and he strode into the hall bearing a flitch of bacon from the carcase of the boar. Gawain greeted Bertilak with a brotherly kiss on each cheek, and once again accepted the gift with gratitude.
“Let us try our luck again tomorrow,” said Bertilak, and, though he still could not understand how this could be of any profit other than to himself, Gawain agreed.
The next morning, as Bertilak was at the hunt, the lady again entered Gawain’s chamber, this time in a gown cut low at the back, so that the smooth skin of her body was revealed. Her entreaties were now of such a yearning that it was as much as Gawain could do to prevent himself drawing her into his arms and assuaging the desire that rilled through his veins like a river in spate. However, at last, she rose, kissing him three times.
“You are indeed a worthy opponent, Gawain,” she said, “but let me at least give you a gift!”
“Your hospitality in this castle is gift enough for me, lady,” Gawain said, but she pressed her finger to his lips.
“This green girdle,” she said, untying it from about her waist, “has magical properties. It will keep the wearer safe from harm. I beg you to accept it!”
Gawain, mindful of the fate that grew ever closer day by day, took the girdle, and thanked her.
“But please,” she warned, “not a word to my husband!”
Gawain agreed to be silent about this gift, and tied it on under his robes.
When Bertilak returned, Gawain greeted him with three brotherly kisses, but Bertilak told him that all he had won in the hunt was a fox.
“Vermin that it is, it is his that wants it,” Bertilak said, and flung the fox into a corner of the hall.
“Well, Sir Gawain, shall we keep to our bargain again tomorrow?” Bertilak asked as he sat, pouring himself a glass of wine.
“Alas, my time here must come to an end,” said Gawain: “I have a most important tryst at a place that I have yet to find, and I must be there by New Year’s morn.”
“What place is this?”
“The Green Chapel.”
“Why,” said Bertilak, laughing, “that lies no more than half a day’s ride from here. One of my servants can take you in the morning!”
* * *
The day dawned cold, with icy winds playing around the castle battlements. Gawain made ready to meet the Green Knight, tying on the green girdle that the lady had given him. At least, he thought, he could make his peace with God in the Green Chapel. It was not great comfort, but it was all that he had.
A young squire led him, shivering as much with fear as with cold as he did so.
“My advice to you, Sir Knight, is to flee. Turn and go home now! This is an evil place, and nothing but danger awaits you. Turn and go. Go now while you still can!”
Gawain curtly told the squire to keep his advice to himself, but in vain. The squire prattled to himself of his fear, and the unwisdom of continuing. Gawain was fearful enough for himself, without the squire adding to his anxieties.
Their path took them along the bank of a river. A cold and desolate place it was, and ice gathered at the river’s edge.
“Your path lies just a little further that way,” the squire said through his chattering teeth, and turned his horse’s head and galloped away.
Gawain was left alone in the grey dawn and the cold. From the far bank of the river he heard a sound like s shrill keening in sorrow for the dead. It was the noise of an axe being sharpened. Gawain rode a little further, and came to where the Green Chapel stood. To Gawain’s horror, it was no Christian chapel, but an old domelike construction from the time before the Gospel had reached the shores of
A movement caught his attention, and there, on the far bank, was the Green Knight as on the day Gawain had first seen him, but riding no horse and bearing no holly garland. He was running, carrying a long-handled Danish axe, which he used to vault over the river, his long green hair flying behind as he leaped. He landed and stood opposite Gawain.
“I see you have kept your bargain,” said the Green Knight.
“As you see.”
“Are you ready to receive the blow that you gave me a year and a day since?”
“I am here for that purpose.”
“Very well. Then you must kneel before me.”
Gawain knelt. The Green Knight raised the axe, and, just as it was about to fall, Gawain flinched aside to avoid the blow.
“Ah, now, you must not flinch,” the Green Knight warned; “I did not flinch; neither must you.”
Gawain knelt again, and drove his fingers deep through the hoar frost to the roots of the grass beneath, to hold himself steady. Once again the Green Knight raised the axe. He paused.
“Come then, strike if you must!” Gawain shouted angrily.
“Nay, not so, Sir Knight! I showed no anger! You must bear your neck patiently.”
Again, Gawain took a firm grip of the grass roots, determined not to let his feelings show, but to receive the blow in calm.
Once again the Green Knight raised the axe, and brought it down –
The blade did no more than to graze Gawain’s neck. Some drops of his blood fell into the frosty ground, and with the shedding of his blood, Gawain was no longer obliged to anything the Green Knight demanded. He sprang to his feet, drawing his sword, ready to sell his life dearly.
But a change was coming over the Green Knight. His green colour was fading; he was shrinking, shrinking to a size of human proportions, though still a big man for all that. Gawain could hardly believe his eyes. There before him stood Bertilak.
“You have done well, Gawain of the Table Round,” he was saying through his laughter.
“What is the reading of this riddle,” demanded Gawain.
“First, you must know that this adventure was the notion of the old lady that you saw in the chapel at my castle. She is Morgan le Fay, and it was she who wished to test the honour and integrity of the Table Round. If Arthur’s knights are to work for the good of the
, they must be worthy of that task. You have shown that the knights of the Round Table are worthy men indeed. land of Britain
“We made a bargain. You were to give me the best of what you won in the castle, while I was to give you the best of what I won in the hunt. On the first day, you greeted me with a kiss, which was the best of what you gained in the castle, and I gave you a haunch of venison. Just so. The second day, you greeted me with kisses twain, which was what you gained that day, and I gave you the flitch of bacon. But on the third day, ah. You greeted me with three kisses, but you said nothing of the green girdle. For that I gave you the punishment that you feel on your neck now.”
Gawain felt shame pricking his brow and the backs of his hands. It was true. He had not remained true to the bargain as it was agreed! He had kept silent about the girdle at the lady’s request!
“Do not reproach yourself, Gawain,” Bertilak said, “I doubt there is a man in Christendom who could do what you have done in this adventure. You are indeed a worthy knight!”
“Ah, but reproach myself I do!” said Gawain; “I did not keep to the bargain, and I am all unworthy.”
“Not so, neither, but a man worthiest to sit at the Table Round. Go back to Camelot, Gawain, and tell how the adventure played itself out.”
Gawain turned his horse’s head, and sadly made his way southwards to Camelot.
When he arrived, he told the whole tale of the adventure, leaving nothing out, especially what he perceived to be his greatest failing, keeping dumb about the green girdle.
“Nay,” said Arthur, “Bertilak was right. No man could have done what you did, Gawain, and no man here dare reproach you for remaining silent about the green girdle. The adventure is yours, and the honour of the Round Table is upheld, though my sister Morgan will give us other tests in the future, which we must meet with the courage and steadfastness that you have shown. From henceforth, all knights of the Table Round shall wear a green baldrick to their shields in honour of the adventure, and in honour of you. Honi soit qui mal y pense! Evil to him who evil thinks.”
And thus the adventure was ended.