Friday, 12 January 2018

In the time of King Arthur... Gawain and the Green Knight #Arthurian #Legends #Myths

In the time of King Arthur…

Gawain and the Green Knight

Gustave Doré's illustration of Camelot from Idylls of the King 1867 ~ Wikipedia

In the 14th Century, a poet — whose name has been lost over time, but is now referred to as The Pearl Poet — wrote an epic Arthurian poem. This is how The Pearl Poet described Christmas at Camelot.

“…then they brought the first course, with the blast of trumpets and the waving of banners, with the sound of drums and pipes, so that many a heart was uplifted at the melody. Costly and most delicious foods were carried in. Many were the dainties, delicacies and fresh meats, so great was the plenty they might scarce find room on the board and table-cloth to set all the silver dishes. Each helped himself as he liked best, and for each of two guests were twelve dishes served, with a great plenty of beer and bright wine…”

According to The Pearl Poet, Arthur knew how to throw a party! One would expect a feast at the Midwinter/ New Year celebrations, but perhaps not on such a grand scale.

There would have been music and entertainment at such a feast. I should imagine there were jugglers and those with what we would call Circus Skills!

Tom 1068 ~ No attribution required ~ Pixabay

 Bards would tell wonderful stories to entertain the guests — perhaps they told stories of Arthur and his Knights — and as the evening wore on, old men would become philosophical, as they contemplated mortality.

But there is one story about a Christmas feast that every Arthurian enthusiasts will of heard of, and that is...

Gawain and the Green Knight.
by The Pearl Poet

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (from original manuscript, artist unknown) ~ Wikipedia

If you not familiar with the story, then read on for a very abridged version with a little of my own poetic licence thrown into the mix!

New Year's Day, Camelot

The Knights of Camelot were celebrating the New Year in Arthur's Great Hall. Food was a plenty, and the mead was freely flowing. Friends and family gathered around the fire pit to listen as a bard wove the most fantastical tale.

Sir Gawain was content to sit and listen to the bard. There was nothing that needed his attention. This was a time to relax and rejoice. The New Year promised to be a good one. The Kingdom was at peace, for the most part, and everything was as it should be.

But this tranquillity was soon quashed when someone pounded against the great oak door of the Hall. The door rattled on its hinges. The bard fell silent, as did everyone else. All eyes turned towards the door and everyone held their breath.

The door opened and there, on a horse the colour of spring grass, was a giant of a man. The giant's skin, like that of his horse, was an unnatural shade of green. Without a by-or-leave, the giant rode his horse into the Hall and dismounted. In his hand was a monster of an axe. This Green Knight narrowed his eyes and looked around him with a contemptuous sneer.

"Is this Arthur's court?" the giant asked, his voice was so loud that some of the women shrieked. "Are these his Knights?"

"It is," Arthur said, rising to his feet. "They are. What can we do for you?"

The Green Knight smiled, showing a perfect set of green teeth. "Your knights are the bravest in the land, or so I am told, and the most chivalrous. Well, we will see about that. I wonder if there is any knight amongst you that would be brave enough to accept a challenge from me."

All the Knights looked to Arthur… But one.

"I will accept your challenge," Sir Gawain said, rising from his seat.

"Gawain, no,” Arthur ordered under his breath.

"Brave boy," the Green Knight snarled. "Or a foolish one. Take my axe, Sir Knight, and chop off my head."

"Why? Do you not like life?" Gawain asked, taking the axe from the Green Knight. The axe was so heavy that Gawain had a job to lift it.

"I do not fear for my life, but perhaps you should fear for yours."

A block was brought forth, and the Green Knight knelt.

 "Aim true," he stated.

Shaking his head, Gawain lifted the axe and then with a sickening thud, he took the head from the Green Knight’s shoulders.

The silence that followed was deafening. But then something strange happened. The Green Knight’s headless body stood, and his hands reached for his severed head.

"Meet me at the Chapel Green this time next year, so that I can return the favour," the decapitated head said, and then he left.

Gawain watched as the door closed behind the Green Knight. He turned to face his King with a look of horror. What had he done? There was no way he could survive such a strike.

The year that passed was uneventful, but each day Gawain knew he was a step closer to his death. As the leaves turned from green to brown and the first snow began to fall. Gawain tacked up his horse and, with a heavy heart, he set out for the Chapel Green.

God's Speed by Edmund Blair Leighton 1900 ~ Wikipeida

After many weeks of traveling he happened upon a castle, and there he was greeted by Bertilak de Hautdesert and his beautiful wife. Berilak asked Gawain why he was here and Gawain told him only that he had promised to meet someone at the Chapel Green on New Year's Day. Bertilak assured him that the Chapel was just two miles away. Bertilak then, very kindly, invited him to stay with them. Gawain thanked Bertilak and took him up on his generous offer.

The next day Bertilak went hunting. But before he departed he told Gawain that he was more than welcome to stay as long as whatever he might gain during the day, he gave back.

Gawain frowned at such a riddle, but later in the day, all became clear.  Bertilak's beautiful wife began to tease him. Gawain had never met anyone like her. She was intoxicating. So very beautiful. Gawain found himself clenching his fists to stop himself from reaching for her. One kiss, he finally allowed, when he could not take it anymore. Just one kiss. I will take nothing more, for Bertilak is my host.

Lady Bertilak at Gawain's bed ~ from original manuscript, artist unknown ~ Wikipedia

When Bertilak came back cold and muddy from his hunt, he asked Gawain if he had gained anything this day and if so, he must remember to give it back. So Gawain kissed his host. Sir Bertilak looked confused by the kiss, but he did not comment upon it.

The next day, Bertilak went hunting again. And once again Bertilak's wife began to tease. This time, Gawain allowed two kisses and just like the night before, when Bertilak returns he gave back what he had gained.

On the third day, like the previous days, Bertilak went hunting. This time Bertilak's wife gave Gawain a girdle of green and gold silk. She told him that if he wears it, he would stay safe from harm. They then shared three kisses. That evening he gives Bertilak the three kisses, but keeps the girdle for himself.

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse,1880 ~ note the girdle around her waist ~ Wikipedia

The following day Gawain, with a pounding heart and the girdle wrapped around his waist, set out to meet the Green Knight. He found the giant sharpening his blade outside of the Chapel.

"So you have come?" The Green Knight stated with a look of surprise.

"I accepted the challenge," Gawain stated with a bravery he was not feeling.

"The kneel and place your neck upon the blog, young Knight of Camelot."

Gawain closed his eyes briefly and prayed to God for courage. He knelt and bared his neck. The Green Knight raised his axe. And despite himself, Gawain flinched in fear.

"I should have known," The Green Knight jeered. "You are a coward, and you bring shame to your King."

"Swing again," Gawain growled, "And I will not flinch."

The Green Knight raised his axe and feigned a strike.

"Be done with it," Gawain ordered. "Do not tease."

"I was merely testing your resolve," the Green Knight stated.

The Green Knights raised his axe again, and Gawain closed his eyes. The blade cut through the air, but instead of taking his head it only scratched his skin, although it drew blood.

"That was for the lie you told me, for you are wearing my wife's girdle. Rise, Sir Knight," the Giant stated. "The challenge is over."

With unsteady legs, Gawain rose to his feet and turned to look at the Giant, but the Giant was not there. In his place was his kind host, Bertilak.

"What is this?" Gawain asked, thoroughly confused.

"A test, young knight, from Arthur's sister. She thought you would fail. I am pleased to say you passed, for you are indeed chivalrous, brave, and for the most part... Honest."

Sir Gawain and Sir Bertilak parted on good terms. When Gawain finally made it home from Camelot, he was greeted with a hero's welcome. And from that day on the Knights of Camelot wore a green sash around their waist in recognition of Gawain's quest and a reminded to always be honest.

Copyright © 2017 Mary Anne Yarde

The Vigil by John Pettie, 1888 ~ Gawain represented the perfect knight, as a fighter, a lover, and a religious devotee ~ Wikipedia

It beats a game of Cluedo and Guess Who? I suppose. Although, I think I will celebrate Christmas and see in the New Year with a couple of board games and a verse of Auld Lang Syne.

War is coming to Saxon Briton…

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  1. I can remember sitting through an English class and reading Gawain and the Green Knight. Thanks for the reminder.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx