Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Synopsis

 

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle English alliterative poem from the 14th century. It is a chivalric romance that uses the folkloric motifs of the beheading game and the exchange of winnings. The poem is from a single surviving manuscript known as Cotton Nero A.x which also hold three other narrative poems called; Pearl, Purity, and Patience. These three poems are of a Christian religious nature as is the Sir Gawain poem while many people see it as also containing pagan allusions. The author of the manuscript is unknown but generally referred to as either the Gawain Poet or the Pearl Poet. There are many different ways to interpret Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but what is provided here is a brief synopsis of the poem.

Brutus of Troy and the Founding of Britain

The poem begins by mentioning the mythical founding of Britain by Brutus of Troy in the Historical Prologue and tells how after the fall of Troy the descendants of the exiles founded new cities and countries.  According to the poem, Rome was founded by Romulus, Tuscany by Tiscius, Langoberde begins the settlement of the country later called Lombardy and Brutus became the founder of Britain.  This information is designed to give Camelot political significance and legitimacy and introduces King Arthur the noblest and greatest king and leader of the country.  This also gives him historical significance and legitimacy while also linking the poet’s own text with such classics as Virgil’s Aeneid, providing a literary link to those ancient times.

The Appearance of the Green Knight

The story begins in Camelot on the feast of New Year’s Day with the members of Arthur’s court giving and receiving presents from one another when Arthur requests to see or hear of a thrilling experience of exploit from someone before the feast commences. Apparently, in answer to this request there rides into the hall upon a massive green horse the huge figure of a knight.  He is not dressed for battle wearing and not wearing armor but his clothing and even his skin and hair are all green. In one hand he holds a most splendid battle axe while in the other he holds a branch of holly.

The Christmas Game

The Green Knight refused to enter into combat with anyone declaring there was no one present who could match him.  Instead he invited any who dared to take part in a special Christmas game. Explaining the rules he tells them that someone must strike him one blow with his axe but within one year and a day they must themselves take a blow from him. Whoever decides to play can keep the axe. On hearing these terms all the knights present at first refused to play but when it appeared that no one had the courage Arthur agreed. However, The youngest knight present, Sir Gawain, offered to step in and play the game for him which Arthur and the Green Knight accepted.

The Green Knight knelt and bows his head to receive a blow which is duly given by Sir Gawain severing the head from the body in one stroke. After the blow is delivered to the shock of all present the Green Knight is not killed but picking up his severed head mounts his horse. Holding the severed head to face Queen Guinevere the lips speak reminding Gawain and all those present that the two players in the game must meet again at the Green Chapel within the agreed space of time. The Green Knight then wheels his horse around and carrying his severed head aloft rides from the hall leaving the bemused Gawain, Arthur and his knights with little else to do other than admiring the battle axe left with Gawain. They made fun of the strange event, laughing while encouraging Guinevere to make light of the matter.  Life at Camelot soon returned to normal but time marched on.

Gawain’s Quest for the Green Chapel

With the approach of the allotted time and with only a few days left for the game to resume Gawain sets off to find the Green Chapel to keep his promise to the Green Knight. On his way, he has many adventures which he overcomes but is severely tested by the cold and bitter weather of winter. On Christmas morning he prays he might find somewhere to hear mass and finds a beautiful castle. The lord of the castle is a knight named Bertilak de Hautdesert who has a beautiful wife and both are highly honored to have Gawain as a guest in their castle. There is also a female guest present at the castle who although being old and ugly was treated with great respect and reverence by the lord and lady.

The Castle of Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert

Gawain explains to them about the game with the Green Knight telling them he is due to meet up with him on New Year’s Day and has only a few days left to find the Green Chapel.  Bertilak reveals that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away and suggests Gawain rests for the remaining time at his castle.  Gawain, after his long hard journey, is only too pleased to accept this proposition.

Bertilak tells Gawain he is going  hunting in the morning and that he should stay and rest himself in bed after his long and arduous journey.  He then proposed they make a pact with each other. Whatever he gains in the hunt he will bring home and give to Gawain. Whatever Gawain gains the next day by staying in the castle he will give to his host on his return. Gawain accepts the pact and goes to bed.

Gawain’s Pact with Bertilak

With Bertilak out hunting Gawain remains in bed in the castle and Lady Bertilak goes to his bedchamber and attempts to seduce him. Gawain though greatly tempted does not wish to betray Bertilak and at the same time does not wish to offend the lady.  Gently and politely he refuses her advances, but in doing so accepts a single kiss from her.  Bertilak has a successful day out hunting catching a deer which when he returns he fulfills his side of the bargain and gives it to Gawain. Gawain to fulfill his part gives Bertilak a kiss but does not reveal where he got it from pointing out that was not part of their pact.

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Sir Gawain and Lady Bertilak – By Anonymous (http://gawain.ucalgary.ca) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The next morning Bertilak again goes hunting leaving Gawain in his castle. Again Lady Bertilak tries to seduce him and although greatly tempted all he will accept is a kiss. Later that day Lady Bertilak tries again but  he will courteously only accept another kiss. When Bertilak returns he gives Gawain the head of a boar he has killed and receives from Gawain two kisses and again the source of these is not revealed.

On the third morning, Bertilak once again goes off hunting leaving Gawain in the castle with Lady Bertilak. She asks him for a small gift or keepsake to remember him by but he tells her he has no such thing worthy of her. Again Lady Bertilak tries to seduce Gawain while offering him a gold ring to remember her by. Gawain courteously refuses the gift but she begs him to accept the green and gold girdle of silk she wears telling him it is magical and wearing it will keep him safe from all physical harm.  Gawain is mindful that the next day he must face the Green Knight in the Green Chapel to complete their game which he does not expect to survive and accepts the gift.

This time when Bertilak returns from hunting he has caught a fox which he gives to Gawain as agreed.  In return, Gawain gives him the three kisses he had received again not revealing where he got them from but withheld Lady Bertilak’s gift of her girdle saying nothing about it at all.

The Green Knight at the Green Chapel

The next morning Gawain wraps the girdle twice around his body and sets off with a guide provided by Bertilak to take him to the Green Chapel to play the final part of the strange and grim game with the Green Knight. When they draw near the guide tells Gawain that if he should decide to give up the game and ride away he would tell no one. Gawain is determined to keep his promise to the Green Knight.  The guide tells him that he is too afraid to go further himself that shows Gawain the way who rides on alone. When he arrives at the Green Chapel he finds the Green Knight already there sharpening a massive battle-axe.

Gawain dismounts and kneels and bows his head to receive a blow from the Green Knight. As the Green Knight prepares to bring down the axe on his neck Gawain flinches slightly as he swings. This cause the Green Knight to stop and berate him for cowardice. This shames Gawain who then waits unflinchingly for the blow but the Green Knight swings again but holds it from the final blow telling Gawain he is testing his nerve. Gawain, now angry berates the Green Knight insisting he gets on with it. This time the Green Knight does bring the axe down on his neck but at the last instant withholds force, causing only minor wound to Gawain’s neck and with this, the game is over.

Gawain then arms himself preparing to fight but the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than Bertilak de Hautdesert who had been magically transformed into the Green Knight. Bertilak then explains that the entire game was a trick caused by the old ugly woman who had been his other guest and that she was the sorceress, Morgan le Fay in an attempt to frighten Queen Guinevere to death and create a test for Arthur and his knights.

Return to Camelot

After this revelation, Gawain is ashamed and tells Bertilak about the gift of the girdle. Birtilak laughs and absolves Gawain of any guilt calling him the most blameless knight in all the land. The two part as friends and Gawain returns to Camelot where he tells Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table of his adventure. Arthur and the knights also absolve him of the blame for not revealing the gift of the girdle and in an act of solidarity with him, all agree to wear a green sash to remind them to keep their integrity.

© 20/09/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 20th, 2017 zteve t evans

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Sir Galahad the Perfect Knight

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Sir Galahad first appeared in medieval Arthurian romance in the Lancelot-Grail cycle of works and then later in Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.  He was the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic and became one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.  When he came of age he was considered the best knight in the world and the perfect knight and was renowned for his gallantry and purity becoming one of only three Knights of the Round Table to achieve the Holy Grail.  The other two were Sir Bors and Sir Percival.  Pieced together here is a brief look at his early life and how through his immaculate behavior he rose to such an exalted status  achieving the Holy Grail and a spiritual dimension which remained frustratingly out of reach of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and most of the the other Knights of the Round Table and concludes by comparing his achievements with those of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot.

King Pelles

King Pelles the lord of Corbenic the Grail Castle, in the land of Listeneise  and was Galahad’s maternal grandfather.  He was also one of the line of the guardians of the Holy Grail. In some Arthurian romances  Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Britain and gave it to Bron, his brother-in-law, to keep safe and Pelles was descended from Bron. In some versions of Arthurian romance Pelles is also known as the Fisher King or Maimed King.

Pelles had been wounded in the legs or groin resulting in a loss of fertility and his impotence was reflected in the well-being his of kingdom making it infertile and a Wasteland. This is why he was sometimes called the Maimed King.  The only activity he appeared able to do was go fishing.  His servants had to carry him to to the water’s edge and there he would spend his time fishing which is why  he is sometimes called the Fisher King.   Galahad was important to King Pelles as he was the only one who could heal his wound.

Elaine and Lancelot

King Pelles had a daughter named Elaine and he had been forewarned by magical means that Lancelot would become the father of his daughter’s child.  This child would grow to become the world’s best and most perfect knight and be chosen by God to achieve the Holy Grail.  He was the chosen one who would be the only one pure enough to be able to heal his wound.  There was a problem though. Lancelot was dedicated solely to Guinevere, his true love and would never knowingly sleep with another woman.   Nevertheless Pelles was desperate for the liaison to take place and decided to seek magical help from Dame Brusen.  She was one of Elaine’s servants who was skilled in the art of sorcery to help his cause.  She gives Pelles a magic ring for Elaine to wear which gives her the likeness of Guinevere.

Elaine wears the magic ring and transforms into the a double of Guinevere.  Lancelot is fooled by the masquerade and they sleep together.  When he discovers the deception he is angry and ashamed and threatens to kill her.  She tells hims she is with his child and he relents but leaves Corbenic.

Elaine in due course gives birth to his son who she names Galahad.  This is the name Lancelot was baptized with when he was born.   It was the Lady of the Lake who fostered and raised Lancelot in her magical realm and it was she who named him Lancelot du Lac, or Lancelot of the Lake.

The madness of Lancelot

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Soon afterwards Elaine goes to a feast at Arthur’s court.  Although Lancelot is also there he refuses to acknowledge her, making her sorrowful and lovelorn.   She calls her servant Dame Brusen to her and tells her how she is feeling and asks for her help.  Dame Brusen tells Elaine that she will fix it so Lancelot lies with her that night.  Pretending to Lancelot that Guinevere has summoned him she leads him to her chamber, but it is Elaine waiting there for him in bed in the dark and again he sleeps with her.

While he is with Elaine, Guinevere summons him and is furious to discover he is not in his bed chamber and even more so when she discovers him lying with Elaine in hers.  She tells him that she never wants to see or talk to him again and will have nothing more to do with him.  Lancelot is so upset and disturbed at what has happened and with Guinevere’s admonishments that madness takes him and he leaps out of the window running off into the wilderness.

Lost in madness and consumed by grief and sorrow he wanders alone through the wild places before he eventually reaches Corbenic where Elaine finds him insane her garden. She takes him to a chamber in Corbenic Castle where he is allowed to view the Holy Grail, but only through a veil.  Nevertheless this veiled sight of the holy relic is enough to cure him of his insanity.  Although he sees it through the veil, having committed adultery he is not pure enough so he can never be the perfect knight that achieves the Grail.

When his son is born he finally forgives Elaine but will not marry her and instead returns to the court of King Arthur.  The child is named Galahad, after his father’s former name and given to his great aunt to bring up in a nunnery.  Merlin foretells that Galahad will be even more valiant than his father and will achieve the Holy Grail.

Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail

It was not until Galahad became a young man that he was reunited with Sir Lancelot, his father, who makes him a knight.   Lancelot then takes Galahad to Camelot at Pentecost where he joins the court.  A veteran knight who accompanied him leads him to the Round Table and unveils an empty chair which is called the Siege Perilous or the Perilous Seat.  At the advice of Merlin this seat was kept vacant for the knight who was to achieve the Quest for the Holy Grail.

This was his first test or worthiness as this chair in the past had proved deadly for any who had previously sat there who had hoped to find the Grail.  Galahad sits in the seat and survives.  King Arthur sees this and is impressed seeing that there is something special about him and leads him down to a river  where there is a floating stone with a sword embedded in it which bears an inscription  which says,

“Never shall man take me hence but only he by whose side I ought to hang; and he shall be the best knight of the world.”

Galahad tries and takes the sword from the stone and Arthur immediately declares that he is the greatest knight ever.  Arthur invites Galahad to become a member of the Round Table which he accepts.  Not long after the mystical presence of the Holy Grail is briefly experienced by those at King Arthur’s Court and the quest to find the grail is immediately begun. All the Knights of the Round Table embark on the quest leaving Camelot virtually empty.  Arthur is sad because he knows many will die or not return and fears it is the beginning of the end of his kingdom.

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Galahad mainly traveled alone and became involved in many adventures. In one he saves Sir Percival when he was attacked by twenty knights and rescued many maidens in distress.  Eventually he meets up again with Sir Percival who is accompanied by Sir Bors and together they find the sister of Sir Percival who takes them to a ship that will take them over the sea to a distant shore.  Sadly when they reach the shore Percival’s sister has to die that another may live.  To ensure she gets a fit and proper burial Sir Bors takes her body back to her homeland.

Sir Galahad and Sir Percival continue the quest and after many adventures arrive at the court of King Pelles and his son Eliazar.  Pelles and Eliazar are holy men and take Sir Galahad into a room to show him the Holy Grail and they request that he take it to a holy city called Sarras. After being shown the Grail, Sir Galahad asks that he may he may choose the time of his own death which is granted.

While he is on the journey back to Arthur’s court Joseph of Arimathea comes to him and he experiences such feeling of ecstasy that he asks to die there and then.  He says his goodbyes to Sir Percival and Sir Bors and angels appear and he is carried off to heaven as his two friends watch.  Although there is nothing to say that the Holy Grail will not once again be seen on earth it was said that since the ascension to heaven of Galahad there has not been another knight with the necessary qualities of achieving the Holy Grail.

Galahad’s achievement of the Holy Grail

Sir Galahad and the quest for the Holy Grail is one of the later stories that appeared as Arthurian romances grew in popularity.   The thought is that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were not pure enough to achieve such an important religious task. Galahad was introduced into the fold as one of the few who had the purity and personal qualities to qualify him as worthy enough to achieve the Holy Grail.  Just as when Arthur drew the sword from the stone and became the chosen one, Galahad did the same and also became the chosen one. He chose the kingdom of God whereas Arthur built a kingdom on earth.  In taking up the quest for the Holy Grail the priority is to the spiritual rather than the earthly life and Galahad fulfills the spiritual dimension of Arthurian romance and becomes the example for his contemporaries and those coming after him to aspire to.

© 03/05/2016  zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright May 3rd, 2016 zteve t evans