Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Term 2, week 1, Friday 5 January 2018
This is one of the many stories from the Arthurian Legends, which are all about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. This story is one of my favourites.
It was New Year’s Eve and King Arthur was having a banquet with his friends and family in his kingdom, which was called Camelot. His closest group of friends were his brave knights, known as the knights of the round table. You might have heard of some of them. There was Sir Lancelot, Sir Perceval and Sir Bedevere, to name just a few. The youngest of all of them was Sir Gawain.
Everyone was having a lovely time at the New Year’s Eve Feast. Musicians played on their flutes, pipes and lyres (small harps), dancers danced merry jigs, clowns and acrobats and fire eaters did funny and amazing things. And the food at the banquet was amazing.
King Arthur sat back and enjoyed looking at the smiles on everyone’s faces. He loved everyone around him and was so glad to feel such happiness in his kingdom. But like all of us, he also enjoyed a little spark of fun, of mischief, of adventure. It was interesting when things got - well - interesting!
So he lifted his goblet - his big golden cup with kingly jewels all around the outside of it - and he called out to his guests, “A toast! A toast! Come drink with me a toast!” which is the kind of thing you say when you want everyone to make a happy wish, like saying “cheers!” or “to your health and happiness!” But instead of saying, “To a happy new year!” or something similar, King Arthur said, “Here’s to a year of adventure and mystery!” and everyone joined in: “A year of adventure and mystery!” and they all drank to that wish.
At that very moment, can you guess what happened?
Into King Arthur’s banqueting hall, on a horse whose mane and tail were threaded with golden threads and bells, rode the strangest man that any of these brave knights had ever seen.
He was very, very tall. His face was very, very fierce. And his arms were very, very muscly. His eyes glowed dark red. His eyebrows were as thick and prickly as a bush of thorns. And on his chin he had a big, bushy beard. Which was green. His coat was green. His leggings were green. His cloak was green.
In one hand, he carried a huge, glintingly sharp axe, with a beautiful gold and green handle. And in the other hand, he carried a branch of shiny green holly. King Arthur and his knights didn’t know what to say at first.
“Welcome, my guest. And a happy new year,” said King Arthur to the silent visitor. “Will you join me at my table?”
“I thank you, King Arthur, but no,” said the stranger. “I have come here to test the strength and bravery of you and your famous Knights of the Round Table.”
The knights readied themselves - no-one wanted a fight, but if they had to defend their king and themselves, then of course, they would. “I don’t want a battle,” continued the Green Knight. “I bring you a test.” King Arthur and his knights learnt forward to listen with interest. “Is any one here brave enough,” asked the knight, “to cut off my head?”
Everyone was stunned. How could that be a challenge? But the Green Knight continued. “So that a year and a day from now,” continued the Green Knight, “he will let me cut off his head?” How could that even work? wondered the King and his knights. If they cut off this green man’s head, how could he come back to cut theirs off a year and a day later? It really was not a very pleasant challenge and certainly not a nice way to start the year. But in the days of King Arthur, brave knights always had to accept a challenge.
The youngest knight of all, Sir Gawain, stepped forward to King Arthur and said, “My Lord, will you let me accept this challenge?” Full of respect for the young knight’s bravery, the King nodded.
Sir Gawain took a brave step towards the Green Knight, who gave him his axe, knelt down, moved his hair and beard to the side to show his neck and said, “Ready when you are.” It really was the strangest new year’s day anyone had ever known. Sir Gawain said a little prayer in his head, lifted the axe and cut off the Green Knight’s head. It rolled to the floor, the Green Knight got back up on his feet, picked up his head, got back on his horse, and with his head under his arm, trotted out of the hall, saying,
“I look forward to seeing you again in a year and a day.”
“You will, Sir,” said brave Sir Gawain.
“You must come and find me at the Green Chapel…” said the Green Knight as he and his horse left the hall.
The banquet continued, and the story got told and retold as the year went on. Spring came, then summer, then autumn. And people’s minds began to turn to New Year and Sir Gawain’s promise to find the Green Knight at the green chapel and offer up his head to be cut off.
At Hallowe’en, King Arthur called Sir Gawain to him. “Do you know where the green chapel is, Gawain?” he asked.
“I don’t,” said Gawain.
“Then you must leave soon, and go on a quest, so you can find the Green Knight in good time and keep your promise, no matter how horrible it is,” said the king. Gawain nodded. A promise is a promise, no matter how awful.
So, loving King Arthur held a feast in honour of Gawain and the morning after, the young knight went on his quest to find the green chapel and offer his head to the Green Knight.
All though November, Gawain travelled the country in search of the green chapel. He rode over hills, through forests, and rivers. He hunted and fished, he met wise women and playing children, old farmers and young poets. But no-one could tell him where to find the green chapel or the Green Knight.
Finally, with a week left before New Year, at his very wits’ end that he would fail in his challenge and bring dishonour on King Arthur’s court, he realised he was lost. Lost in the dark, in an endless green forest.
Then something caught his eye. The wind blew at the branches of the trees and through them he caught a glimpse of the red, setting sun. And illuminated in its light, he saw - yes! There was a castle on a distant hill! If he rode fast enough, perhaps he could reach it in time to rest here for the night! His horse galloped as fast as she could, speeding the tired, but brave Sir Gawain to the distant castle just before darkness.
When they reached the castle, they were greeted by a big strong knight. He gave them a hearty welcome: “How tired you look, young knight! Come in, let me feed you and your horse, have water, have bread, sit down, have a rest!” He welcomed Gawain to his party, with his family, knights, entertainment and feast.
The next day, the knight went hunting. The knight’s wife went to Gawain and gave him a kiss! Gawain was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say! When the knight came back from hunting, he gave Gawain a fox he had caught. “What will you give me in return?” asked the knight. And to his surprise, Gawain gave him a kiss!
The next day, the knight went hunting again, and again the lady came to Gawain and gave him another kiss. When the knight came back with a goose he had caught, again, Gawain gave him a kiss in return.
On the third day, the same thing happened all over again, but this time the lady gave Gawain a green belt as well as a kiss, saying, “When you meet the Green Knight, wear this belt and it will keep you safe from his axe!” And when the knight gave Gawain a fish from his hunt, he kissed the knight a third time - but he kept the belt for himself.
The next morning, Gawain woke. It was New Year’s Day - a year and a day since he first met the Green Knight. Today he had to leave these kind people - and the increasingly awkward kissing - and go to face the Green Knight’s axe. He put on the green belt, said his thanks and set off to find the green chapel.
After several hours, he came across a cave, overgrown with moss and gnarly old trees. He just knew in his heart of hearts that this was the right place. He tied up his horse and went inside and sure enough, standing there was the Green Knight. “Right on time,” said the strong Green Knight. “Are you ready?”
“I always keep my promise,” said brave Gawain, and he got to his knees and offered the knight his neck. The Green Knight lifted his axe - and missed. A second time, he lifted his axe, and missed. Gawain was sweating but held his nerve. And for a third time, the Green Knight lifted his axe - and this time, he very, very lightly scratched the back of Sir Gawain’s neck, leaving just one tiny drop of blood.
“Get up,” said the Knight. “You are free to go.” Young Sir Gawain was astonished and the Green Knight explained.
“My wife kissed you twice and you gave me back the kisses,” said the Knight.
“You are the kind knight who gave me shelter and friendship?!”
“I am,” said the man, with a smile his face. “So because you gave me back her kisses, I missed your neck with the first two strikes of my axe,” he said.
“BUT-” he continued, “On the third day, she gave you a belt and you did not give it back to me. And that is why I scratched your neck,” he said. “You were honourable, but not completely honest. You are a good knight, but not a perfect one.”
Sir Gawain hung his head in shame.
“Don’t feel too bad,” said the Green Knight with a smile, and he gave Gawain a great green hug. “Wear that belt for the rest of your life to remind you that - like all of us - you can always be even better than you are already.”
And you know what? That’s exactly what Gawain did. He wore that green belt for the rest of his life and every time he saw it, he remembered that no matter how good he was, he was not perfect.
Did the adventure make Gawain a better person or a worse one?
What did Gawain do that was good?
Why was he not perfect? Is anyone ever perfect?
How did the Green Knight test Sir Gawain? (beheading + honesty / wife)
Would you have kept your promise to go and get your head cut off?