Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Welcome to the holiday episode of Camelot, otherwise known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sure, I could have done Dickens’ Christmas Carol, but that would have been ridiculously predictable.  Maybe next year.  Anyway, this anonymous story is written in Middle English and, as one might expect, takes place during the reign of King Arthur.  (For the record, my edition has been translated by J.A. Burrow).

We open with the knights dining, jousting, and dancing to carols in celebration of the holidays.  This goes on for a few weeks until New Year’s Eve, when Arthur himself is giddily feasting at the high table with his wife and an assortment of other friends and family, including Gawain.  Suddenly, the doors fly open and someone rides into the hall on horseback, literally gate-crashing the party.  The rude interloper is certainly dressed for the occasion, though:  He’s wearing all green, his horse is green, his hair and beard are green, and, really, he’s just very committed to the color green.  Naturally, we’re going to call him the Green Knight.  Even though he isn’t wearing any armor, he does have holly in one hand and an ax in the other, and he requests to be taken to their leader.

King Arthur hesitantly welcomes the odd man, who swears he comes in peace and asks the general court if they’d like to play a game.  (Children, the answer to this query should always be “no.”)  The game goes like this: in the spirit of Christmas, the Green Knight offers his nice ax to anyone willing to behead him now and be beheaded by him in return next year.

Everyone thinks this guy is pretty nuts.  What good is his severed head as a decoration?  Sure, it would be a festive green and red color, but they don’t need another tree topper and there just isn’t any more room in the nativity scene.  When no one takes him up on the offer, the Green Knight calls them all cowards.  Arthur’s so ashamed that he volunteers for the task, but when he grabs the ax and prepares to decapitate the man, Gawain suddenly insists on taking in his place.

Gawain claims to be the weakest among the knights, and argues that the loss of his life is the least of any among them.  Gawain makes the contract and the Green Knight tells him to come visit his house after the beheading.  Of course, he doesn’t tell him where the house is, or even what his own name is, but one hopes all will be revealed in time.  (Spoiler: it is.)  The Green Knight presents his neck and Gawain decapitates him with a swift blow.  He holds up the head for everyone to see, making it the year that everyone collectively lost their appetites at a New Year’s Eve banquet.

Unexpectedly, the body gets up, takes the head from Gawain, and puts it back on.  He tells Gawain to go to the Green Chapel and receive his own beheading on the next New Year’s morning, a year and a day from now, and introduces himself as the Knight of the Green Chapel.  Then he rides out of the castle.

Awkward silence ensues until Arthur calls loudly for more dancing and music posthaste.  An Arthur party stops for no man.

Many months pass, and Sir Gawain procrastinates until the day after Halloween before he even starts to think about his bargain.  Then, reluctantly, he puts on his armor, says his goodbyes and heads out in search of the Green Chapel.  He rides all over the place, but doesn’t find it.  Finally, he prays to God, and because even God wants him to get on with it, Gawain immediately stumbles on a castle.  The servants are happy to let him in, and neither party asks where the other came from.  The lord of the castle greets him, and in the manner of all medieval hospitality, promptly gets him drunk.  Now that Gawain is drunk, he spills his life story.  The lord decides it’s the perfect time to introduce his wife, who of course is attractive and charming.

Gawain parties at the castle awhile, and by “awhile” I mean “days and days” until suddenly it is December 27th.  He realizes he probably should find that chapel after all and tries to excuse himself.  When he tells them the reason he’s departing, they inform him that they happen to know exactly where the chapel is, that it isn’t far from here, and really, why not stay a few days more?  Honestly, why didn’t he ask them for directions to the chapel in the first place?  (Ugh, men – am I right, girls?)

The lordly host also has a game to play this festive eve.  He will go hunting the next day and everything he gets he will give to Gawain.  In return, everything Gawain gets that day he will give to the host.  Gawain is more than happy to play, completely forgetting what happened the last time he agreed to a game of reciprocity.

They all get drunk again, and don’t think anything of it until the next morning.  The host goes off on his hunt and Gawain lies around in bed.  The host’s wife sneaks into his room and stares at him while he pretends to be asleep.  This is more than a little creepy, so he feigns the whole just-waking-up bit.  He tries to get out of bed, but the lady isn’t having any of that.  She’s locked the door and doesn’t intend to let him get away.  She offers herself to him, and he uses all the politeness he posses to turn her down by telling her how unworthy he is of her affections.  (Hey, didn’t Gilgamesh try this too?)  Instead, they spend all day in bed chatting.  Before she leaves, the lady insists upon a parting hug and a kiss.

Finally, Gawain is able to get out of bed and get dressed.  That evening, the host offers Gawain the deer he has killed.  In return, Gawain gives him a hug and a kiss.  The host is a little concerned about where Gawain got these things, but Gawain sidesteps the matter and they move on to other topics.

The next day is a repeat of the first.  The lord hunts a vicious boar, while Gawain fends off the advances of a different kind of animal all together.  The lady gets two kisses out of him this time.  At dinner, the host gives Gawain the boar and Gawain kisses him some more.  (One wonders how awkward dinner would be if he actually gave in to the lady’s advances.  Unless the three of them are into that sort of thing.  No judgment here.)  They go back to dancing and Christmas carols.  Gawain feels like he really should get going since his task is only two days away, but they convince him to stay at least one more day.  I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?  A ménage a trois?

The next day, the host hunts a vicious fox, while Gawain fends off a vixen of his own.  (I would almost feel sorry for this guy, but he knows perfectly well that his door has a lock and he’s not using it.)  He spurns her advances yet again, and she tries to get some token from him, but he won’t even give her his hoodie.  She tries to give him one of her rings instead, which is totally Not A Trap.  Wising up, he rejects that too.  Finally, she offers him her green girdle.  He rejects it at first, until she tells him that whoever possesses it will be immortal.  Gawain, for his part, likes the idea of wearing a magic belt to his own beheading, and concedes to her wishes.  Along with the belt, she gives him three farewell kisses.

Gawain visits a priest for confession, and then goes to dinner.  He starts the swap before the host can and kisses the man three times.  The host then gives him the fox he has caught, lamenting that it is not worthy of the exchange.  (Those must have been really good kisses.)  More drunken revelry ensues, Gawain requests a servant to show him the way to the chapel tomorrow, and after sharing some more kisses with that very open-minded couple, he heads off to bed.  Nothing is ever said of the magic belt.

The next day, he puts on his nicest clothes, his fanciest armor, and the lady’s green girdle.  (No judgment here.)  The host blesses him and bids him farewell, and off he goes to the Green Chapel.  Once they reach the area, the servant warns him to leave, but he sends the man away instead.  Sir Gawain finds it at last – a hill that is hollow inside with a hole at either end.  (Perhaps the Green Chapel was actually built for hobbits?)  He hears a grindstone whirring and calls out to the Green Knight, who has been sharpening his ax in the backyard.

The Green Knight is happy to see him and cheerfully recollects their pact.  Gawain tries to mimic his cheer and offers his neck on the chopping block.  The Green Knight swings his ax, and Gawain flinches.  The Green Knight is disappointed, because apparently real knights never show fear or weakness or survival instinct.  Gawain urges him to try again and this time, doesn’t budge an inch when the ax comes down.  However, the Green Knight stops just before impact and taunts him a little more.  When the knight brings down the ax the third time, he only nicks a little off the neck.

Gawain’s had quite enough of playing around.  He jumps up, puts on his helmet again, and berates the Green Knight for hacking at him.  The Green Knight has had three tries, and from now on, Gawain is going to start retaliating every blow.  The Green Knight declares that he is done – he has had his hit and doesn’t wish any more.  Instead, he explains that each feint was for each morning Gawain kissed his wife, and the nick in his neck was for the failure to give him the girdle.

Oh yeah.

It turns out the Green Knight was our lordly host all along, and he knows all about Gawain and his wife because he was the one who set them up.  Also, the green girdle that Gawain is wearing actually belongs to him.  (No judgment here.)  I guess this really shouldn’t have been a surprise, as green is his favorite color.

Gawain, of course, is more than a little embarrassed about failing the tests of courage and truthfulness, and begs for another chance to prove himself.  The Green Knight laughs and tells him keep the girdle as a present.  (Weirdest. Santa. Ever.)  He isn’t too worried about the makeout sessions, and figured that Gawain only kept the girdle because he was scared for his own life, and not because he had any interest in the lady.  For his part, Gawain accepts the forgiveness and counts himself as being one of those mighty men who fall prey to seductive temptresses. (Ugh, women – am I right, boys?)

Before he goes home, Gawain insists on knowing what’s actually up with this guy, and the Green Knight informs him that his real name is Bercilak de Hautdesert (which is seriously one of the best names in anything ever) and he was able to manage his magical feats because Morgan le Fay is hanging out at his house in the guise of a wrinkly old woman.  As one does.

With the explanations done, the two exchange a farewell kiss (come on, boys, get a room) and part ways.  Gawain returns home and tells Arthur and friends the whole story about his very happy holidays.  Presumably, Gawain also becomes known as that guy who gets himself into the *weirdest* situations.

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