Canto V, Arthur: Gawain and the Green Knight


Gawain and the Green Knight
The fame of Arthur’s court now spread abroad,
And like a garden of flourishing blooms
That rise from the mess of early spring’s mud,
So did Camelot make real people’s dreams
Of a kingdom ruled by merciful law.
And so the Realm of Logres came to be
Where virtue and honor belonged to all,
And each house was blessed with felicity.
Twice a year, Arthur and his knights would meet
And some quest would appear ere they feasted.
None of that mighty company would eat
‘till their skill and honor had been tested.
Yule and Pentecost, they waited at board
Until some strange adventure could be heard.

So it came to pass: Arthur and his knights
Circled the table at the feast of Yule
With platters of meat and honeyed delights
And freshly baked bread. But they kept their rule,
Abstaining from food and drink all the day
‘til the doors shook, and opened silently.
In rode a man who seemed one of the Fae,
For though he was dressed most elegantly
He was garbed all in green, as was his horse,
And both of them were green: eyes, skin and hair.
Arthur offered them food and drink, of course,
But the Green Knight refused. Instead, a dare
He proposed to Arthur’s court: “Strike a blow,
And win my fine axe if it brings me low.

But if I live, then meet me in a year,
And I’ll match your blow with one of my own.”
At this challenge, the knights murmured in fear.
The Green Knight was huge, and his axe-edge shone.
But Gawain had lately been in disgrace
Having failed to keep a woman from harm.
He rose and met the Green Knight, chest-to-face,
Saying, “I accept your challenge and term.”
The Green Knight knelt, and Gawain took the axe,
And hewed the Knight’s head right off his shoulders.
It rolled, and bounced, leaving green bloody tracks
On the floor, like grass among boulders.
As some blood seeped from the torso and head,
It seemed certain that the Green Knight lay dead.
“Well-struck,” said the head. “That was a good blow.”
Then the headless body got to its feet
Hesitantly, quite deliberate and slow.
It gave a bow to Arthur on his seat,
And then its massive hands picked up its head.
“On New Year’s Eve I shall give the same strike,
if Gawain’s as brave as rumor has said.
We’ll meet at the Green Chapel, if you like,
When a year has passed, and a few days more.
Fail not to keep this appointment, Gawain,
Or you shall never travel as before.
Your honor shall be marked with my green stain.”
So saying, the Green Knight leapt to his steed,
And rode from the hall at an urgent speed.

There was silence in the hall after this,
And Gawain walked about like a man stunned
By dreadful blow. He could find no bliss
In hunting or hawking, and not one friend
Could rouse him from his increasing distress.
Yet he knew his duty, and so he left,
Searching for the Green Knight’s appointed place,
The Green Chapel. Yet his heart could not lift,
For if he met the Green Knight and his blow,
He would be a corpse; and he would be shamed
If they did not meet. Yet none seemed to know
Where or how the Green Chapel could be found.
Gawain did many deeds over that year,
But he had not found it when Yule drew near.

The eve of Yule, he came to a fine hall,
A stately house with gardens all around.
Yet no one answered his challenge or call,
Except from the house came a sudden sound
Of laughter, great merriment and feasting.
The Lord and his Lady were courteous,
And the Lord said, “give over your questing!
Be our guest for a Yule most riotous:
The Green Chapel stands not a league from here.
Stay with us, and rest, and we’ll play a game.
I’ll go out hunting, while you remain here,
And we can trade exploits at eventide.
Then to the Green Chapel I’ll be your guide.”

The Lord went out hunting the next day at dawn,
While Gawain took his ease in his host’s hall,
And walked a goodly stroll on the broad lawn.
The Lady served his every beck and call;
She offered him sweet kisses after lunch
And an hour in her boudoir so fair,
But Gawain had honor, and a strong hunch
His host didn’t really intend to share
Everything. His host returned with a ram,
A wild goat, which he gave to Gawain.
“Here is my bounty, I’ve done what I can,”
said the Lord. “What do I get in return?”
“Only this,” said Gawain, kissing his cheek,
The one he’d been given, but did not seek.

The Lord went hunting again the next day,
And his Lady again enticed Gawain.
“My husband,” she said, “often goes away,
and here in loneliness I must remain.
Come lie with me, brave knight, in my bed.
I’ll give you the pleasure he refuses.”
But Gawain kept his virtue and his head.
“I can’t control what your husband chooses,
but neither can I give you what you seek.
All through the day she made these bold offers,
And at last gave him a kiss on his cheek.
When the Lord came home with two fine otters
Gawain gave the kiss right back to his host,
Who said he’d done well for a day of rest.

The Lord went off in the morning again
And his Lady tempted Gawain once more.
“Noble knight, you are not like other men,
and you simply must let me be your whore.
Come be my Ares, my stallion, my stud.”
She kissed him again, but Gawain resisted.
She said, “It seems shameful that one so good
Should lose his life.” And so she insisted
He take a green lace with magic potence.
“No blade can kill you with this in your belt.
Though the Green Knight is of fabled puissance,
His blows with raise no more than a small welt.”
At sunset, Gawain gave the Lord his kiss,
But he kept hidden the magic green lace.

The following day, Gawain and his host
Rode to find the Green Chapel together.
The Lord said, “This knight is almost a ghost,
Hard to track down, and tougher than leather;
He murders everyone that comes this way.
It’s a mistake, I think, to stick around.”
Gawain said, “my honor calls me to stay,
Though the Green Knight deals me a fatal wound.”
They reached the Chapel, a mass of green stone
Covered in ivy, by a mossy pool.
The Lord said, “You’ll keep your vigil alone.
I have knightly honor, but I’m no fool.”
So Gawain sat by himself on that lawn,
And watched alone ‘til day was almost done.

At sunset, the Green Knight came to that place,
His broad, sharp axe resting on one shoulder,
And a terrible smile on his face.
Gawain thought his eyes looked even colder
Than they had at Yule the previous year.
The Green Knight said, “now it’s my turn to strike,
So prove your bravery and kneel right here –
Or feel free to run away if you like:
I’ll just chase you down.” So Sir Gawain knelt
And the Green Knight raised his axe for the blow.
But Gawain flinched violently when he felt
The blade whistling down to bring him low.
“No fair,” said the Green Knight, “I never moved.
Hold still, please, or a coward you’ll be proved.”

“Your pardon,” said Gawain, “I’ll try again,
although I’m not really eager to die.
You have strange powers unlike other men,
But this time I’ll stay steady for your try.”
Yet again Gawain felt his courage wane
And the Green Knight laughed when he flinched once more.
“I promise,” said the Knight, “you’ll feel no pain
and no one I’ve hit has complained before.
Twice now you’ve flinched from the fall of my blade
Though I stayed still when you cut off my head.
Can Knights of the Round Table make the grade,
Or are they less brave than the tales have said?”
“Try again,” said Gawain to the knight,
“I took your wager, now I’ll pay it right.”

The Green Knight did not delay any more,
But spat green spit into each of his palms.
“Cutting off heads can produce lots of gore,”
said he, “but I’ll strike true, so have no qualms.”
“Do your business,” said Gawain, “and make haste,
and I’ll be brave for as long as I can.”
Said the Green Knight, “It’s a shame and a waste
That Arthur should lose such a valiant man.”
Then he raised his axe, and brought it down fast,
And the blade sang its triumph through the air.
Sir Gawain’s thoughts reviewed all his past,
But he stayed still and met the Green Knight’s dare
As the axe came down hard on his neck
To leave a thin cut – no more than a nick.

The Green Knight helped Sir Gawain to his feet
With solemn face – but laughter in his eyes.
“These last three days, you shared my hall and meat,
while my wife, every way she could devise,
tried to tempt you to knavish behavior.
Yet every kiss she gave you, you returned.
So you proved your worthiness and valor.
But you love live – so one gift was not spurned.
You kept her magic lace to save your head,
And so I gave you that one little scar,
When I might have left you unharmed instead.
Among knights, my friend, you shine like a star.
Take my axe, and her lace, as your reward:
May you serve long and well at Arthur’s board.”

Then the Green Knight vanished from Gawain’s sight,
And the giant’s axe clattered on the floor.
Through the windows came the New Year’s first light,
And with caution, Gawain went out the door
To search for a time for the noble hall
Where he had spent Yule in such ease and cheer.
But the mansion and its gardens and all
Had vanished with the turning of the year.
Sir Gawain rode back to king Arthur’s court
To show his prizes, and to tell his tale.
From the Green Knight’s axe Gawain would not part,
And the magic lace’s virtue did not fail
‘til Galahad’s quest for the Grail was won,
and Arthur’s reign was accomplished and done.


As before, if you read Gawain and the Green Knight, which is going to be Canto V of The Acts of King Arthur, comments are cheerfully and totally desired. This is the first draft, finished this morning, and it needs work. I know it does.

13 comments

  1. Re: bravo

    bite thine tongue! *nothing* could ever replace kilts in my esteem or lustiness…….I was giving you kudos on the shorts, cuz a) you needed them and b) I’m sure the shorts were cute anyway 🙂

  2. Re: bravo

    did you also like Tristan and Iseult and Percival of Wales two entries ago?

    thanks for the kudos… I’m currently at my parents, and the more kudos I get, the better. nothing’s happened wrong yet, but I’m waiting. And I’m in shorts for the first time this summer. I want my kilt!

  3. bravo

    I think this is exceptionally well done. I am in awe of your linguistic prowess, writing so fluidly in such a tough form. Now I wanna hear you read it.

  4. bravo

    I think this is exceptionally well done. I am in awe of your linguistic prowess, writing so fluidly in such a tough form. Now I wanna hear you read it.

    • Re: bravo

      did you also like Tristan and Iseult and Percival of Wales two entries ago?

      thanks for the kudos… I’m currently at my parents, and the more kudos I get, the better. nothing’s happened wrong yet, but I’m waiting. And I’m in shorts for the first time this summer. I want my kilt!

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