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Gawain and the Green Knight [Feb. 28th, 2009|10:21 pm]

Gawain and The Green Knight

What is that parade of sable and green cresting the hills of Camelot with their swords shining and their banners unfurled? It is the Green Knight, the Giant, the Jester, the Tester of Champions, followed by his armored knights a'pleanty. He stands in demand of his rightful property, the head of the Hawk-of-May; he comes for the crown of Sir Gawain of Orkney.

Not the crown on his head, but the head itself!

Who matches the Green Man, in azure and crimson and cream? 'Tis Arthur the King High, the crowned King of Avalon! and his bright right hand, Sir Lancelot of the Lovely Lake. Behind him making merriment are his knights and squires and ladies and maids and attendants and attendees and hangers-on, in gold-and-blue, scarlet-and-snow, they huzzah and they cheer and they make a cheerful party, all come in secret to defend Gawain of Orkney.

How is the good Knight-of-May this day in danger of losing his head? I'm so glad you asked! I've been dying to tell you.

'Twas a year ago, aye, 'twas spring of last year that the Hawk-of-May, the good knight Gawain returned from the field, where he and the other noble knights had set about searching for evil to conquer and wrongs to right. At the great feast they boasted of all they had done, when who should come to the great doors, out of the spring snow came ...... can you guess? The Green Knight! A giant of a man with green hair and great green beard and a great booming voice and a cleverly crafted double-crescent ax of shining steel. He bowed not before the high king; he jested, for he was the tester of knights! They called him bachlach; the churl, the rouge, but the young knights feared him, and few cared to meet him, for he was fiery and fearsome of face.

"Who are your ardents, Arthur? And where are the champions of the king of Camelot? Not these well-dressed damosels, these stylish cavilers?" And they called him bresalak, the contentious one, but still they feared him, for he was cruel of countenance. (And did I mention he was a giant? His head stood as tall as the doorway, his great silver ax a shining circle like the sun!)

"From the High Wasteland I have come, King Camelot, King Sword-fetcher, from the High Hermitage I have traveled, King Little-brother! From near and far I have searched your apple-land, and many a tale have I heard, both those written and those yet to be written, but never a worthy champion have I met! Even in your hall I only find the young and the beardless! Who in the feast-hall will meet me now?"

"I will meet thee," said King Arthur the Good, the golden-haired, for the young king is always ready for adventure. "I and thou shall have at, and it shall be the entertainment for the Spring Feast!" "Nay, nay," cried the churl, "for you are the king, but the mightiest king is no king without a true and noble champion"

"Here is my challenge, ye stylish stalwarts, ye chess-board knights, ye gaily-dressed gallants! Strike for strike! My ax against my ax! Who amongst King Wart's knights will match me blow for blow?"

Just then Sir Gawain, the first-born prince of Orkney, the nephew of Arthur, and the young king's heir, returned from a private trip to the privy. Quickly he learned of the challenge, and boldly before that court he spoke: "Your speech is free, bold bert-lak, bright-joker! I am the proud champion of the court of Camelot, and I will meet your blow for blow."

"Very good, good Gawain, step up and take my own ax, and strike me your most fearsome blow! Then, in one year, I shall come again, and with this ax I shall return in kind!" And the Green Knight, that giant of staunch-stance and broad beard and fiery face, he knelt upon the cold stone floor. Then the Hawk-of-May took up the ax, the stunning steel circle made of two half-moons, cleverly crafted in Celtic knots and mounted on a green staff; he raised it high! With one strike, with one mighty swing, Sir Gawain dealt him such a mighty blow that the giant's very head rolled!

What a cheer went up from the knights and ladies and nobles all! But they were each struck silent when the Green Knight arose. Back went on his head, just as if it were a hat, and he saluted the king and company, and took his leave. "Fare thee well, King Little-brother, and you, oldest Prince of Orkney, I shall return in Spring!"

Throughout the year, from Court to Queen, all gave a demand for a plan to stand in defense of young Sir Gawain!

Spake King Lot, the King of Orkney; "He shall not find death in the Court of King Arthur, such loyalty would not be so repaid!"

Spake Queen Genevere the Grey-eyed; "The knight shall not die, his King will not stand idly by!"

Spake young Lancelot the Lovely, loved by all ladies, "I shall offer up my head for his own!"

Spake the Wizard Merlin; "He is a bert-lak, this Green Knight, he plays a bright-game! Perhaps another good game can be used to save the white neck of the good Sir Gawain."

But young Sir Gawain of Orkney said nothing at all. He rode out again throughout the countryside, seeking, again, wrongs to right and evils to vanquish.

* * *

And it happened, as the years-time was ending, that he came to the Castle of Sir Bercilak de Hautdesert, where he met Bridget, Lady Hautdesert, who welcomed that renowned knight famously. There Sir Gawain spent many a merry day, and told the knight's wife of all his adventures, including the adventure of the Green Knight.

"My own husband, and league lord!" cried the Lady Hautdesert, and assured Sir Gawain that the Green Knight was no evil to be defeated, but the bright-joker, the tester of Champions. "Only be Good and True," said the Lady Bridget, "and you will prove a worthy champion of your uncle, King Arthur."

Soon the time came that Sir Gawain should prepare to leave, to return to Camelot for the Spring Feast and his appointment with the Green Knight. It was then that lovely lady begged him to take a token from her; a kiss.

"Nay," said the virtuous knight, "for you are the loyal Lady of the Green Knight, and you and all that lies within this castle are his by right. Should you give me any thing, I would have to return it to him upon greeting him, and I have no wish to kiss the green giant!" "He will not even be a giant when you see him next -- he shall wear his mortal form! But repay me generously, good knight, and give me a kiss." So she pressed him on the first day, but he honorable, and refused.

The second day came and young Gawain tried to take his leave of the lady. Still the lady begged him prettily to stay. "Pray take a kiss from me, and I will show you a wonder!" Nay, said the honorable knight. "You and everything that lies within this castle belong to Sir Bercilak, the Green Knight. Should you give me any thing that belonged to him, it would be dishonorable unless I returned it when I saw him next. Pray, ask me not to kiss the green knight!" "He will not even be green when you see him next -- did I not tell you he will wear his mortal form! But how do you repay my generosity, and deny me only a kiss?" So she pressed upon him the second day, but he was virtuous, and refused.

Now the third day came, and as Sir Gawain set off for home, Lady Bridget met him at the gate. "I promised to show you a great wonder, and I have brought it. Take this token from me, as you will take no other. Take this silken garter. It has the greatest magical power -- I stole it away from Sir Bercilak's secret room. Wear it -- as long as you bare it, no blade can cut you, no staff can bruise you. Wear it and no harm can come to you!" And Sir Gawain, the honorable and virtuous knight, took the silken garter and hid it on his person, and thanked her for it.

* * *

Now over the hill comes young Sir Gawain of Orkney, the Hawk-of-May, the kinsman and heir of King Arthur, bravely striding up to the place where he was appointed to meet the Green Knight. Bravely he would have returned in any case, but now he had hope; for he carried the silken garter beneath his own tunic.

And what should he see when he arrived? But his kinsman and league lord, Good King Arthur, engaging Sir Bercilak in a game of chess! Not just any game of chess, but a game with living pieces on a black-and-white board as broad as a stage, where Sir Lancelot of the Lake and all the knights of the Table Round challenged in combat the knights of Sir Bercilak. On the right stood the parade of green -- armored knights with their swords shining and their shoulders bent in defeat. Even Sir Bercilak bowed his head, for those knights gathered under his banner proved themselves craven and false.

Many swords had crossed, many challengers had fallen, and many had gathered to cheer to the sound of the ringing steel! But many of the knights of Sir Bercilak proved themselves without both honor and skill – and Queen Genevere, with Sir Lancelot by her side: the queen herself did call the checkmate! The court of King Arthur, all raised a cheer, and Bercilak de Hautdesert admitted defeat.

“All is well,” quoth King Arthur when Sir Gawain arrived, “I have taken care of all for you,” and young Gawain looked about him, not knowing what to think.

“But Arthur, I have made a promise,” he said, “and I intend to hold true.” and though his own father forbid it, Sir Gawain stood before Bercilak.

“My word is all that I have,” spoke he, and, kneeling, presented his neck to the Knight.

The Green Knight -- no longer giant, but still the jester and tester of knights, let his ax fall twice, both times missing the head of the Hawk-of-May.

“Stop your foolish games! Let us be done!” cried Gawain, and Sir Bercilak raised his ax high! ---- only to cast it aside with a jolly laugh and loud jest. “A test! I never intended to kill you, lad, but put forth a test of knight and king; a test of courage and honor.”

“Did we pass the test?” asked Gawain, and the Green Knight grinned, for he knew of the silken garter.

“By a hair,” said Sir Bercilak, and he spoke low. “But for one thing, one bit of silk and lace, you have shown both high honor and kingly courage……” and only Gawain knew of what he spoke.

“And let us say,” he spoke boldly, and all around him heard, “Let us say you have proven yourself the better of these vermin!” and with that he left his armored knights and his green banner behind, and was seen no more.

But to gallant Sir Gawain, the Hawk-of-May, the kinsman of the king, he left two things;

First, the great ax, to remind all that gazed upon it the bravery of the bold ones who keep their word.

Second, he left Gawain the silken garter.


Why to keep up his silk stocking, of course!