Long ago, in a place called Camelot, the great King Arthur was celebrating Christmastide, a twelve day period of feasting and jubilation. Christmas Day had passed but there was still much feasting to come. Sharing the King’s celebrations were the Knights of the Round Table, the most honourable men in all the lands. They were renowned far and wide for their bravery and gallantry. The youngest of these knights was Arthur’s own nephew, Sir Gawain.
All were in good spirits and looking forward to a mighty feast. The king raised his cup and, thinking of the entertainment to come, wished aloud that they might have some wonderful mystery or adventure to spice up the feast.
Before he had time to put his cup back on the table, the knights all gasped in astonishment as there rode into the hall the strangest man they had ever seen.
The visitor was extremely tall and his face was as fierce as his arms were strong. His red eyes glowered from beneath great bristly eyebrows and over his broad chest hung a green beard, as big as a bush. His coat, hood and hose were green as was his horse. The horse’s mane and tail were knotted with golden threads and bells. In one hand he held a green holly bough and in the other, a huge razor sharp axe. The axe handle was richly decorated in gold and green.
The knights were dumbfounded. The king invited the stranger to join them at the table but he replied that he had not come to feast but to prove, once and for all, the courage of the famous fellowship before him.
“If it is battle you seek,” replied the king, “I will gladly accept your invitation.”
“No Sire,” said the Green Knight, “I come not to fight but to challenge.
I want to know if any man here is bold enough to fetch one blow at me with this axe, on condition that, in a year and a day, he shall stand a blow from my hand.”
With that, he raised the giant axe above his head.
All the knights were silent; no one cared to offer him such an exchange of blows. The Green Knight looked scornfully around those assembled.
“Is this,” he sneered, “the court of which such mighty boasts are made?”
Stung by shame, the King cried out that he would take up the challenge.
“You will see,” said the King, “that we fear not your big words or the sharp steel of your axe.”
The Green Knight sprang from his horse and put the axe in Arthur’s hand but the Knights pulled him away saying it was no adventure for a king.
“Grant me the chance,” begged Sir Gawain. The rash young man was keen to help his king. “This is a game for a young man to play.”
The others backed him and, reluctantly, Arthur withdrew his challenge.
“Nephew,” said the king, “take care that you put all your heart and strength in the stroke, so he can never repay you.”
The Green Knight smiled grimly. “It suits me well,” he said, “to take a blow from thee, but first you must swear that you will seek me out in twelve months and a day, so I can give back what I received from you.”
Sir Gawain gave his word and the giant pulled loose his hood and pushed aside his hair to expose his neck. Stroking his great beard he awaited, unconcerned, what was to come.
The young man grasped the heavy axe, heaved it high and delivered it with all the strength of his arm. Down came the razor sharp axe on the brawny neck, sheering through skin and bone so the heavy head fell to the floor. But the giant stood firm and, without flinching, picked up his head and sprang on his horse.
The king gasped in amazement, the queen screamed and the knights fell into a stunned silence. As he rode from the hall, head in his hands, his eyes fixed themselves on Sir Gawain.
“I have thy word,” he said. “Do not fail to seek me out; you will find me at the Green Chapel.”
The challenge became the talk of Camelot but, as the weeks went on, other concerns crowded in and the incident was put from most people’s minds. Sir Gawain, however, did not forget; for him the months rushed past.
Soon it was Lent, with its showers and buds, then the warm sun brought forth the flowers, next came the golden harvest and, all too soon, the grass died back, the mists returned and it was winter again.
The king knew his nephew must keep his promise and, on All Hallows, he prepared a great feast in his honour. The following day, as Sir Gawain rode from Camelot on his horse Gringalet, many of the women could not hold back their tears. No one expected to see the brave knight again.
In his search for the Green Chapel, Sir Gawain climbed many a hill and crossed many a marsh and river; he battled bears, wolves and serpents but kept travelling. It was a harsh winter and the brave knight often had to sleep in the open, pelted by sleet and rain. He stopped regularly to ask after the Green Knight but none had heard of such a man. Finally, on Christmas Eve, he found himself lost in a great mossy forest.
He prayed that he may be guided to a place to rest. As he opened his eyes he saw, in the glow of the setting sun, a noble castle on a distant hill. Spurring on his weary horse, he galloped towards the fortress.
The lord of the castle met Sir Gawain with a hearty welcome. He was a very tall and sturdy knight. Sir Gawain was shown to a beautiful chamber full of rich tapestries. After he had dressed in his best attire, he joined the Christmas gathering.
At the table was the lord, his beautiful lady, many knights and dames and, at the far end of the table, sat a wrinkled old crone.
For three days he enjoyed the festivities. Then he went to his host to say his farewells. He explained he must be on his way for he needed to find a place known as the Green Chapel. His host, however, assured him it was near at hand. Gawain was pleased to hear his journey was nearly at an end and readily agreed to stay for a further three days.
His host then offered to enliven proceedings with a pledge. He planned to go hunting the next day and offered to exchange what he got in the woods for whatever Sir Gawain received in the Castle. A puzzled Gawain said he expected to receive nothing but the pledge was sealed with a friendly toast.
The next day the Lord went out early. Sometime later, whilst he was resting in his chamber, Sir Gawain received a visit from the Lady of the castle.
She did not hide her attraction to the young knight but he refused her advances. She would not go, however, without giving him a kiss. When the Lord of the castle returned with a venison, he gave it to Gawain according to their agreement. In return, a very embarrassed Gawain embraced his host and gave him a kiss (the only thing he had got that day).
“Ha! Who gave you that?” said his host but Gawain laughed off the question and they sat down to supper.
The next day, at cock crow, his host again went hunting in the woods and once more his wife visited Sir Gawain in his chambers. Again he refused her advances but, before she left, she gave him two kisses. This time the Lord of the castle brought home a bear and a goose. An extremely embarrassed Gawain embraced his host again and this time gave him two kisses.
The next day dawned cold and clear, off went the Lord on his hunt and once more the wife came wooing her guest.
This time she insisted on giving him three kisses and offered him her green silk girdle. When he refused, she said, “My knight, you must face many foes. This is a magic girdle; it has the power to protect whoever wears it against any weapon.” Gawain’s love of life saw his resolve weaken, he knew he couldn’t live without his head, so he accepted the gift.
He spent the rest of the day in the company of the old crone. But he felt uneasy, it was as if her eyes could see right through him.
That evening the Lord brought home only a foul fox skin, which, he laughingly said, was a poor reward for the three kisses that Gawain give him.
Gawain’s heart was heavy, for the time was drawing near when he must leave the castle. He slept ill that night. As the cock’s crow heralded the new day, he dressed carefully, taking care to wrap around him the green girdle. He bade goodbye to his host and set out in into the dark stormy morning.
A bitter wind took his breath away. A servant had been provided to guide his way. Together they went by rugged cliffs and dark moor.
As the sun rose, the guide stopped short of a dale winding between two snow covered hills. The guide pointed to a road. “My Lord,” he said, “that is the road you seek but the one who dwells there lets no one pass alive. I beg you go another way, I will tell no-one, I promise. I, for all the gold in the world, would not venture that way”.
With a heavy heart Sir Gawain refused the offer and set out down the road which soon became bordered with sharp banks.
Eventually he came to a crag and saw in front of him the overgrown mouth of a dark cave. He tethered his horse to a tree and went inside. Immediately, there was a fearful clattering of rock and standing in front of the young man was the huge figure of the Green Knight bearing an axe – his hairy head firmly back on his shoulders.
“Welcome to my abode, you have timed your travels well,” said the Green Knight. “Now prepare to make good our bargain.”
Sir Gawain bravely removed his helmet and bent forward but, as the axe was raised, he could not help but flinch.
“Ha,” said the Green Knight, “he flinches before he is hurt.”
“When my head comes off I cannot put it back,” said Gawain. “But I gave my word and will not flinch again.”
Once more the giant brandished the axe.
“Strike and be done,” said Gawain.
“Have patience,” jeered the Giant and, for a third time, heaved the heavy axe up into the air. This time the knight did not flinch or cry out as the sharp axe whistled through the air and onto his neck splitting the skin.
It was a few moments before a stunned Gawain realised that, apart from a few drops blood, he was unharmed. He turned to see, leaning on his axe, not the Green Knight but the Lord of the Castle.
“My brave knight,” said the Lord, “I raised my axe three times for my wife’s three kisses. At my request, she came to see if you were a man of true honour. The cut on your neck is for the girdle that you took but did not exchange, as was our bargain. For that I let you feel how much sorer I could have struck.”
Sir Gawain stood confounded by his own weakness and the generosity of his host. Unfastening the girdle, he offered it to his host.
“Keep the girdle,” said the Knight, “as a token of this adventure. The debt is cleared.”
The knight introduced himself as Sir Berblake. “Morgan le Fay, your own aunt, endowed me with the magic charms to challenge Arthur’s court,” he said. “She was disguised as the old crone you saw.” He bid Gawain return to the castle to get better acquainted with his aunt but Gawain politely refused, he had experienced enough magic for the moment.
He made his way home and was greeted with great joy. The scar on his neck remained as the only evidence of his adventure.
As for the lady’s green girdle, he wore it as a reminder, should he ever get too proud, of his faint heartedness. And all the knights agreed, for Gawain’s sake, to wear also a green belt as, even the bravest man alive, they felt, would have shrunk from such a fate.
Who was Sir Gawain?
Gawain (or Gwalchmei in early Welsh versions) was one of King Arthur’s most loyal and trusted knights. He is also Arthur’s nephew, being the son of his sister Morgause and King Lot of the Orkneys. His brothers, Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth are also Knights of the Round Table. There are legends featuring all the brothers, including Mordred the youngest, but Gawain stands out as the steadiest and most honourable.
He is a formidable warrior, fiercely loyal to both his king and his family, but also courteous and compassionate. He tends to befriend young men wanting to become knights and wants to uphold his honour in his dealings with everyone he meets, especially womenfolk. When he falls short of his own high standards, succumbing to the tempation to cheat death, as in this story, he is man enough to recognise his weakness and try to make amends.
Who was the Green Knight?
This mysterious and frightening figure turns out to be Sir Bercilake (or Berblake), the man who hosts Gawain on his way to the Green Chapel. What his motive was for the challenge and subsequent ‘testing’ of Gawain, is never made clear. But it appears that the sorceress, Morgan le Fay, an enemy to Arthur, has a hand in it.
He appears, as if by magic, just when Arthur is wanting a quest to liven up the occasion. He is huge figure, mocking the court and its values, throwing out the most bizarre of challenges. And of course, in this story magic must be protecting him as he does not die, even when Gawain beheads him.
Then, in his persona of the generous host, he also sets Gawain challenges and temptations – as though his sole purpose is to undermine Gawain’s honour, which he finally does.
Interestingly, he appears later in other Arthurian legends, becoming a staunch defender of the King.
What and where is Camelot?
Camelot is the name of the place where Arthur holds his court . None of the stories tell us where it is, only that it is in Britain and various sites have laid claim, including Caerleon in Wales, Cadbury Castle in Somerset, Winchester in Hampshire, and Camulodunum (Colchester) in Essex.
Camelot Castle is described as standing beside a river, and surrounded by meadows and forests. In the meadows the jousting takes place and the forests provide the hunting. Within the castle walls, Arthur presides over the Knights of the Round Table and feasts with Queen Guinevere and his friends. Camelot seems to be an abstract idea symbolising the Golden Age of Chivalry.
What is the Round Table?
The Round Table is the huge table at which Arthur holds council with his knights in Camelot. In order to take their seat at it, the knights had to take a vow of chivalrous conduct. Once at the table, there was no head or foot, so each knight was equal to the next. The legend has it that it was Merlin’s creation for counteracting the natural tendencies of the knights to vie for the ‘best position’ – causing quarrels and arguments in a group that Arthur wanted to work together, putting protection of the realm as their ambition.
In the Middle Ages, Round Table festivals were held throughout Europe. They were emulating the Arthurian legends with feasting, dancing and jousting. It is thought that the Winchester Round Table, which hangs in Winchester Castle, was probably created for a Round Table festival. It may well have been built in the late 13th century in the time of King Edward I. He was an Arthurian enthusiast and attended several Round Tables events, even hosting a couple himself – it is possible that the Winchester Round Table was created for one of his events.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" https://englishhistory.net/folklore/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight/, February 14, 2022