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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Sir Gawain cuts off the head of the Green Knight but does not kill him. Illustration from the original 14th century manuscript of the poem.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th century English narrative poem by an anonymous poet, sometimes referred to as the Gawain Poet and sometimes as the Pearl Poet in reference to another poem attributed to the same writer. The story takes place in the time of King Arthur and the protagonist, Sir Gawain, is one of the knights of Arthur's Round Table.

Although the poem was written at roughly the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales it is written in a different dialect (of English to that used by Chaucer and many modern readers find it even more difficult to understand than Chaucer's poems. However, several modern English translations, in both poetry and prose, are available.

PlotEdit

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight starts with a brief summary of British history before the time of King Arthur, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, claiming that Arthur was a descendant of Aeneas, the hero of The Aeneid.

The story begins on New Year's Day. King Arthur and his court are gathered at Camelot for a feast. The Green Knight, a gigantic man dressed entirely in green with green skin, green hair and beard but red eyes, riding on a green horse and carrying an axe, arrives unexpectedly. He challenges the knights to a "friendly Christmas game". He says that anybody can strike him with his axe provided that person agrees to receive an axe blow from him a year and a day later. Whoever agrees to the challenge gets to keep the axe. Sir Gawain, King Arthur's nephew and the youngest of his knights, accepts the challenge. He cuts off the knights head with one blow and it rolls towards the feet of the horrified Queen Guenivere. However, the knight does not die. He picks up the bleeding head, the head reminds Sir Gawain to meet him in a year and a day and he rides off.

The date of Sir Gawain's appointment with the Green Knight approaches. He sets off to find the Green Chapel where he is to meet his challenger. After a long journey, an extremely tired and hungry Sir Gawain arrives at the castle of Bertiak de Hautdesert and asks for shelter. Bertiak and his beautiful young wife are happy to receive such a famous visitor. An unnamed ugly old woman is also at the castle. Sir Gawain treats Bertiak's beautiful young wife and the ugly old woman equally courteously. He is told that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away and that he can stay at the castle until the day of his appointment.

Green Knight's wife and Gawain - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c.1400-1410), f.129 - BL Cotton MS Nero A X

Bertiak's wife enters Sir Gawain's room. Illustration from the original 14th century manuscript of the poem.

The following day, Bertiak de Hautdesert goes hunting while Sir Gawain stays at the castle. Bertiak tells Gawain that he will give him whatever he catches while hunting if Gawain will give him whatever he receives during the day. After Bertiak leaves, his wife enters Gawain's room and tries to seduce him. Gawain resists but allows her to give him a kiss. When Bertiak returns, he gives Gawain the deer that he has killed and Gawain passes on the kiss but does not say who gave it to him. Bertiak's wife returns the next day. Gawain resists her again but allows her to give him two kisses. When Bertiak returns from hunting, he gives Gawain a boar in exchange for the two kisses. On the third day, Bertiak's wife gives Sir Gawain three kisses and offers him a gold ring. When Gawain refuses the ring she offers him her green and gold silk girdle, telling him that it has magical properties and will protect him from harm. Sir Gawain agrees to take it. When Bertiak returns, Sir Gawain gives him the three kisses in exchange for a fox but he keeps the girdle for himself.

Sir Gawain goes to the Green Chapel, wearing the girdle around his waist, and finds the Green Knight waiting for him and sharpening an axe. Gawain stands ready to receive the axe blow. The Green Knight swings the axe at him twice but does not strike him. The third time, he gives Sir Gawain a flesh wound. Having kept his promise to allow the Green Knight to strike him, Sir Gawain then prepares to fight and defeat him. The Green Knight laughs and says that he is Bertiak de Hautdesert transformed by the magic of King Arthur's wicked sister Morgan le Fay, the ugly old woman that Sir Gawain saw at Bertiak's castle. Everything that has happened has been a plot by Morgan le Fay to test King Arthur's knights and to frighten Queen Guenivere. Sir Gawain is embarassed because he has failed to keep his promise to Bertiak, although Bertiak does not really mind, and returns to Camelot wearing the girdle as a symbol of his shame. At Camelot, the other Knights of the Round Table forgive Sir Gawain for not keeping his word and decide to wear green sashes in remembrance of the adventure that Sir Gawain has had.

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