Who is Sir Gawain?
Gawain, usually spelt Gawaine, is a figure from Arthurian legend. Gawain is King Arthur’s nephew and a Knight of the Round Table. He is a romantic and Arthurian legend hero. Gawain first emerged in Arthurian literature as a standard of knightly perfection against whom all other knights were evaluated. Gawain, or Sir Gawain, is popularly known for being in one of the best-known Arthurian stories, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with its plot combining two types of folk motifs: the beheading game, and the exchange of winnings.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
It is New Year’s Eve, and the knights of King Arthur’s court enjoy the Christmas festivities with a grand feast. They exchange gifts with one another and at the request of Arthur, they share stories of adventure.
The Green Knight Appears—The Challenge
All of sudden the doors are forced upon and a mysterious figure rides down the hall. Before them is an enormous man on a green horse, with green skin, green hair, and a green axe. He dismounts holding his axe in one hand a branch of holly in the other—naturally, this intrusion is not taken lightly, and knights of Author draw their weapons.
The Green Knight laughs this off, claiming he has not come looking for a fight. Even if that was the case, no man in this room would even come close to presenting a challenge for him. Instead, he wishes to share the festive spirit with a game.
The rules of this game are fairly simple. Anyone brave enough may strike him as hard they desire. Whoever accepts this challenge will get to keep the Knight’s splendid axe. The only condition the green knight set is that he will return in one year and day, to return his blow.
A game like this would cause some hesitation, why would someone want to play a game that would surely result in their death? What’s the catch here?
The knights remained wary of the situation, but King Arthur was not one to shy away from a challenge and so, he was ready to accept.
However, Arthur’s Nephew and youngest of all the knights stepped forward. Sir Gawain accepted this challenge on behalf of Arthur, eager to prove himself worthy. The Green Knight took no expectation to this, he leant over and presented his neck, almost instructing Gawain where to strike.
Gawain took his blade and in swift strike beheaded the Green Knight. The young knight was given the prestige and recognition he desired, and our story ends here.
Well, at least that’s what may have happened if this knight was an ordinary man.
The Green Knight Didn’t Die?
The Green Knight neither flinched nor fell despite being decapitated. Instead, he dropped his axe, walked over to his severed head, picked it up and faced the king and queen, “In one year and one day, we shall meet again at the Green Chapel, and I shall return the blow, Sir Gawain.” He reminded the young knight before riding off, his sinister laugh echoing through the hall.
Arthur assured his terrified wife that this was merely a light-hearted game to ease her concerns, but Gawain didn’t seem as convinced. He took the axe as a trophy but also as a reminder of his promise to the Green Knight.
Gawain’s Journey to meet the Green Knight
As the year went by, Gawain continued his duties and took part in several adventures, paying little notice to what appeared to be his impending death. Eventually, the day drew close, and Gawain set off to meet the Green Knight in the Green Chapel.
On his way he came across a magnificent castle and in the need of rest he decided to enter. The lord of the castle and his beautiful wife were overjoyed to have such an esteemed guest.
Gawain only planned on short rest, but the lord insisted he enjoyed their hospitality until he was fully rested and ready to continue his journey as the green chapel was less than a few miles away.
Given what was waiting for him at the green chapel, it seemed like a good idea to accept the lord’s offer. The only other person of note in the castle was an old hag that Gawain assumed must have been of some importance by the respect she was given from the servants and the Lord himself.
The lord was a rather big fan of hunting and he made Gawain a proposal.
Every day the lord went out hunting, he would give Gawain what he caught. On the condition that Gawain would give him whatever he gained while he was gone.
He accepted the lord’s challenge and when he set off for his daily hunt, Gawain was left to explore the castle grounds and rest. However, his day would present its challenges.
Another Challenge from Gawain’s Hosts!
The lord’s wife began with some subtle flirtation and so to avoid an uncomfortable situation Gawain retreated to his chambers. Unfortunately, she followed and continued her seduction; trying his best not to offend his hostess but also respect his host, he allowed the lord’s wife a single kiss.
When the Lord returned, he presented Gawain with a deer he had killed and in return, he received a kiss, but Gawain didn’t mention where this kiss came from.
The next day the Lord set out for his hunt, once again Gawain rejected the advances from the lord’s wife. However, this time, he was given two kisses. The lord returned with a boar for Gawain, in exchange he is given two kisses and again he doesn’t tell the lord where they came from.
The third day begins with the Lord setting off for his hunt; however, when Gawain rejects the advances of his hostess this time, she gives him a golden ring to remember her by.
Even this is rejected by Gawain, but the lord’s wife insisted he accepts her sash—A wonderful green and gold sash that was enchanted to protect the wearer from any physical harm. This item Gawain accepted, after all, there is a giant Green Knight eager to decapitate him.
Gawain is then given three kisses and made to promise he will keep this gift secret from her husband. When the Lord returns, he presents Gawain a fox this time, and in exchange, he was given three kisses, but Gawain doesn’t mention the sash given to him.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — The BLOW!
The next morning is the day Gawain must travel to the Green Chapel, he ties the sash around his belt and at least now there is a chance that may survive the encounter. When he arrives at the chapel the Green Knight is already there sharpening his axe.
Gawain hesitantly walks over and as a part of their deal presents his neck and prepares to receive his blow. The Knight pulls back his axe and swings but stops just short as Gawain flinches. The Knight laughs telling Gawain he thought the knights of Arthur feared nothing.
The second time the Green Knight pulls back his axe Gawain bites down and doesn’t flinch. The blow he receives most definitely doesn’t match the one given, strangely Gawain is angry at the Knight for holding back and berates him until he does strike him at full force.
Luckily for Gawain, the sash given him appeared to have worked as the strike only left behind a small wound.
The Green Knight is Lord Bertilak
Gawain prepared to leave believing the Knight’s game was over, but he towered over Gawain laughing and when challenged, he revealed himself as Lord Bertilak, the same Lord of the castle Gawain had been a guest of. He was transformed into the Green Knight with the use of magic.
The old woman he noticed earlier was in fact the sorceress Morgan Le Fey in disguise. She planned this entire game as a way of testing the honour of King Arthur’s Knights.
The axe would have never caused Gawain any harm, but because he failed to present Bertilak with the sash his wife had given him, the wound from the third strike would be ever-present, a scar that marked his dishonesty.
Gawain kneels in shame for his deceit, but the Green Knight laughs it off and tells him to stand. Reminding him not to hold himself to such unrealistic standards. The fact he honoured his end of the bargain was enough for the Green Knight to call him the most blameless Knight in all the land.
Gawain returned to Camelot wearing the sash, a symbol of his failure to keep his promise.
In honour of Gawain’s adventure, the knights agree to all wear a green sash as a reminder to always be honest.
The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is classed as a Chivalric Romance, it was written towards the end of the 14th century, and we don’t know who the author was. The story also had no title until several centuries later.
Surprisingly at the time, it was written, the poem was received very poorly; whereas today, it’s a highly revered story that has been studied and adapted in numerous forms. One of the most famous examples is a translation of the poem by none other than Tolkien himself.
What inspired me to go back over this story and make this article was the modern film adaptation that was released in August 2021, which is titled The Green Knight. Watching the trailer, I like the design of the Green Knight himself but given Hollywood’s track record when it comes to adapting classic stories, I’m about as optimistic as a man about to be beheaded by a giant Green Knight but I’d love to be surprised.
Art Credits: Josep Perez, fiovske.