Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
In a test of courage and honour, the Green Knight of the North challenges Sir Gawain of Camelot to a strange and unusual challenge.
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Suddenly, there was a mighty crash and a bang, followed by the thundering of iron hooves on a stone floor. Then the great doors of the banqueting hall at Camelot Castle burst open. A huge man came galloping in on an enormous horse. He drew to a halt in the middle of the room.
Startled, King Arthur and his Knights jumped up from their seats at the Round Table. They stared, speechless, at the strange intruder. He was green from head to foot. His jerkin and cloak were green, his spurs were green, his hair and beard and skin were green. Even his horse was green.
"Which of you is the leader of this gathering?" the intruder boomed.
King Arthur stepped forward. "Who wishes to speak with him?" he demanded proudly.
"I am the mighty Green Knight of the North!" came the reply. "I have come to Camelot to see for myself whether all I have heard of this place is true."
"And what have you heard?" King Arthur wanted to know.
"That this castle is the home of the bravest knights and the mightiest and most gracious King," the Green Knight replied. He looked round rather disdainfully. "But now I am here, it seems that you are nothing but weaklings and beardless youths. I could kill every one of you with one stroke of my axe."
At this, several Knights jumped up and drew their swords, ready to kill this impudent intruder. Arthur put up his hand to restrain them. He turned to the Green Knight. "You have made a great boast, sir," said the King. "You must prove it. You have spoken disdainfully of my Knights. For that, they are honour bound to challenge you."
The Green Knight threw back his great head and laughed loudly. "There is no Knight of yours who would dare take up my challenge," he boasted.
"I will do so, whatever it may be!" said the young, impetuous Sir Gawain. He was one of the most daring of Arthur's Knights. "What is your challenge?" Sir Gawain cried. "Speak!"
The Green Knight leaned over and took from the side of his saddle a huge green axe. Its -blade was at least twice the length of a man's hand and its finely sharpened edge winked and sparkled in the torchlight.
"I challenge you to exchange blow for blow with me with this great axe of mine," said the Green Knight. "I will kneel here on the floor and receive the first blow. Only remember this," the Knight continued menacingly, "you must swear on your honour to meet me next Christmastide and unarmed, receive the second blow from me."
At this, there was a gasp from all round the banqueting hall. The Green Knight must be a madman! That axe of his could slice through the head of an ox. Everyone, including Sir Gawain, was staring at the Green Knight in amazement and disbelief. The Green Knight mistook their moment of silence for fear. He laughed scornfully.
"As I thought," he said. "You are cowards every one " my challenge is too great for you!"
Sir Gawain's face turned red with fury "This fellow's insults are more than I can bear," he cried. "I accept your challenge."
The Green Knight gave a grim smile as he swung his leg over the saddle and dropped down to the floor. He was a giant " half as tall again as Sir Gawain. All the same, Sir Gawain was undeterred.
"Give me the axe," he demanded.
Gawain took the axe and tested it by swinging it to and fro a few times. "I am ready," Sir Gawain said. "Are you prepared for the first blow, Sir Knight?"
The Green Knight knelt down on the floor, drew his long hair aside so that his neck was exposed and bent his head forward "Strike now!" he boomed.
"Gladly," cried Sir Gawain and with one great swing of the axe he brought it swishing around towards the Green Knight's neck. The blade went straight through and the Green Knight's head toppled off and rolled on to the floor.
Sir Gawain turned pale with horror, but the Green Knight chuckled. "I am not harmed!" he said. His body rose up, stepped across to where his head lay and grasped it by the hair. Then the Green Knight leapt back on his horse.
"Remember your oath, Sir Knight," said the Green Knight. "Seek me out at my castle in the North next Christmastide."
With that, the Green Knight wheeled his horse about and with a great clattering and clanging of hooves galloped out as noisily as he had come.
The following December, Sir Gawain set out from Camelot to seek the castle of the Green Knight. The way there was long and hard, and the weather raw and icy cold. Many times when snow blizzards were blowing all around him and the wind seemed to slice into his very bones, he wished he was back in Camelot.
It was only a passing thought, though. Sir Gawain fully intended to keep his strange bargain with the Green Knight. It was, however, curious that Sir Gawain should meet so many people on the road who tried to divert him from his purpose.
First, there was the nobleman who stopped him along the road and offered to entertain him at his castle nearby.
"There are great fires there to warm you," the nobleman promised. "And a great feast, with as much wine as you can drink. After the feast, you may rest in a bed covered in soft feathers."
Sir Gawain thanked the nobleman, but refused his offer. "No, kind sir," he told him. "I am bound by my oath to meet the Green Knight at his castle."
Sir Gawain rode on, freezing cold and very hungry. He met a huntsman next. The huntsman hailed him and, like the nobleman seemed very hospitable and generous.
"The castle of the Green Knight is far away, Sir Gawain," the huntsman told him. "Surely you would rather come hunting with me and my friends? It is warm, exciting sport and there are plenty of deer and wild pigs hereabouts. Afterwards, we can have a great feast. What say you, Sir?"
Again, Sir Gawain refused. "I thank you, Sir. Your offer is kind," he replied, "But I am bound by my oath to meet the Green Knight."
Next, a knight appeared on the road, clad in full armour and obviously on his way to a tournament. The knight offered to take Sir Gawain with him so that they could test their fighting skills against each other and afterwards feast and talk round a roaring fire. Once again, Gawain refused and journeyed on towards the castle of the Green Knight.
At long last, the castle came in sight. It was, of course, all green. Its high towers and great battlements made beautiful patterns against the winter sky. Sir Gawain rode into the courtyard as the sky was beginning to grow dark. It was Christmas Eve.
The Green Knight was there, waiting for him. His head was back on his shoulders again, with no sign of the axe-stroke which had severed his neck a year ago.
"Welcome," cried the Green Knight, grinning gleefully at Sir Gawain. "Let us to our business straight away. I have been impatient this last year, waiting for this moment."
The Green Knight was just as terrible as Sir Gawain remembered him, and his great green axe looked as mighty and as sharp as before. Silently, Sir Gawain murmured his prayers as he followed the Green Knight into the castle.
They reached the hall and the Green Knight pointed to a spot on the stone floor. "Kneel there, Sir Gawain," he instructed. "Here is where I answer the blow you gave me last Christmastide."
With one last prayer, Sir Gawain knelt down, pushed his hair aside and bent his head forward.
"Make ready to strike," Sir Gawain told the Green Knight in a firm, clear voice.
"I am a Knight of the Round Table and I shall keep my vow to you, even if it cost me my life. Unlike you, I cannot replace my head when it falls to your axe. Come, Sir, strike!"
The Green Knight lifted up the axe and swung it swiftly towards Sir Gawain's neck.
Sir Gawain felt the rush of air it made. But the blade did not touch him.
The Knight stopped it a finger's breadth away from Sir Gawain's neck. Sir Gawain looked up, curious and startled.
"You are playing games with me!" he accused the Green Knight. "It is not chivalrous to act so!"
Then he noticed that the Green Knight was smiling at him, not disdainfully as he had seen him smile before, but with a friendly look on his face. The Knight placed his great hand under Sir Gawain's elbow and raised him to his feet.
"No, I am playing no game " only testing your courage and honour," said the Green Knight quietly. "You did not flinch from my axe-blade just now. That took great courage. When I set all manner of temptations on the road between here and Camelot to divert you from your purpose, you refused all of them, even though you were cold and tired and hungry. That takes a truly honourable spirit."
Sir Gawain gasped. "So it was you! " he cried. "Why, Sir, you tempted me with the sweetest comforts any knight could ask for!"
"Then you shall enjoy them all now," the Green Knight smiled. "I have achieved my task, set me by Merlin, to make sure that King Arthur and his Knights remain the bravest and most honourable Knights in Britain. You have certainly proved that they are. Now, Sir Gawain, we shall feast, we shall hunt and tomorrow there is a tournament, here at my castle. And tonight, you may sleep in comfort. You have well deserved it."
Last updated on: Sunday 20th August 2017
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