The Arthurian Realm: The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle Retold

Unknown -Public Domain

Medieval England

In medieval England tales about the adventures of King Arthur and his knights were popular and were often found in the form of a long poem.  These were often read socially as entertainment at events such as celebrations or banquets.   The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is such a poem and appears as a parody  of the Arthurian world with a hidden mix of ancient motifs and themes such as The Loathly Lady, Sovereignty, the annual cycle of the sun, and a little humor blended into the story-line.  In many ways it turns Arthurian tradition on its head for in this story unusually the heroic King Arthur is found having to beg a vengeful knight  for his life. The knight agrees to put off his execution for one year when he must return to him with the correct answer to a question or die. The question is What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? No wonder Arthur is worried!

With the help of his faithful, but gullible nephew Sir Gawain he searched the world for the answer.  He finally came across Dame Ragnelle in Inglewood Forest who gives him the correct answer but only on the condition that Sir Gawain marries her. Dame Ragnelle is the opposite of the beautiful and well-mannered females who populate the Arthurian world.  She is repulsively ugly, openly lusty, and course of manners, nevertheless, to save his uncle, Gawain agrees to take her for his wife. Although it appears Gawain is too faithful and gullible for his own good things turn out extremely well for him in the end. Presented here is a retelling of the story.

Inglewood Forest

One fine day King  Arthur and a hunting party left his court at Carlisle to go hunting  in the nearby forest of Inglewood. For speed in the chase, comfort and practicality he had left his armor off and was lightly armed with bow, arrow and hunting  knife. While the hounds were seeking out a quarry Arthur noticed a fine stag standing stock still in a thicket.  Ordering the others to stay where they were he carefully stalked the stag.   Nevertheless the stag got a scent of him as he crept forward and ran off. Arthur gave chase and letting fly with his bow and arrow managing to wound the animal as the hounds took up the chase. He  told his huntsmen to remain where they were while he went after it.  He chased for about half a mile and managed to wound it again causing it to stumble and fall.   As he finished it off with his hunting knife a stranger appeared who was well armed and dressed in armour and  looked a most formidable warrior. 

Sir Gromer Somer Joure

The stranger knight stood  proudly over Arthur as he knelt over the stag and said, “Well,  met King Arthur, well met indeed!  All these years you have done me wrong and here I have you unarmed, without armor alone in the wilds.  I will have my revenge. You took my lands and gave them to your nephew Sir Gawain. Now I will unleash my anger and hatred upon you.  What have you to say now I have you alone in the wild unarmed?

Arthur stood  up realizing he was indeed alone, unarmed and vulnerable against this well armed knight dressed for battle who stood threateningly before him and said, “Well, Sir Knight, perhaps you could tell your name before you slay me?”

Replied the knight, “I am Gromer Somer Joure.”

“Then, Sir Gromer Somer Joure, good knight that you are, you will know slaying me unarmed and not attired for battle will bring you nothing but shame.  You will be shunned by knights everywhere you go. Perhaps there is something I can do to amend or alleviate the hurt you accuse me of before I leave?  Speak now!” replied Arthur.

“You will not escape me now that I have you.  If I let you go you will defy me again.” replied the knight.

“Slay me while I am unarmed and with no armor and you will have eternal shame.  Spare my life and perhaps there is something I can do to right the wrong you allege or reward you,” replied Arthur.

“There is nothing that will  help you. I do not desire land or riches just you death, but  if you agree that …”

“I  agree,” interrupted Arthur.

“Listen to my demand!  You must swear that you will return in a year with the answer to this quest I am about to ask you.  If have the right answer you will live. If you do not have the right answer I will take your head. The question is this.  What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? If you agree swear your oath and get gone. If you do not I will take you head now.  What say you, King Arthur?”

“Although it is disagreeable to me I swear and being a true king will return in a year and a day with or without the answer to your question and face my fate.” answered Arthur.

“Then get you on your way King  Arthur, you have no idea of the troubles that await you.  You must keep this secret and don’t even think of betrayal for I could kill you in battle,” said Gromer Somer Joure before mounting his horse and riding off.

Arthur blew his horn and the rest of his party came quickly to him. They found him with the deer but were surprised to see how sad he looked.  Telling them he had no further desire to hunt the party went back to Carlisle. Although no one said anything they all knew something strange and serious had happened by the look on his face.  Back at Carlisle, Arthur sat alone brooding and clearly unhappy.

Sir Gawain

At last his nephew, Sir Gawain approached him and asked what ailed him. He replied sadly, “While I was unarmed and alone in the forest I encountered an unknown knight armed and clad in armor, ready for battle.   He told me certain things that I must not tell unto others and gave my word. Therefore, I must keep my word or betray it.”

Gawain reassured  him that whatever he told him he did so in complete confidence and that he would never pass it on.  Therefore Arthur said,

“Today while hunting alone I slew a stag.  Afterwards, I met a knight named, Sir Gromer Somer Joure who wanted to slay me. I had no sword or armor and I spoke to him politely and courteously reminding  him of the shame and dishonor as a knight that would befall him if slayed and unarmed man. Of course I did not want to die and I swore on oath that I would return to him in one year, clad as I was and unarmed with the answer to this question.  What is it that women most desire? I am bound to return and give him the right answer. Should the answer be wrong he takes my head. If I give the right answer I am set free from the oath. If I don’t turn up, unless by death alone, then I am eternally shamed.  This, then is the cause of my woe.”

Sir Gawain by Howard Pyle [Public domain]

On hearing him Gawain said, “Let me help.  You search for the answer in one direction and I will search in the opposite.  On our way we will ask everyone we meet the question and write down the answers in a book.  At the end of a eleven months we will meet back here in Carlisle and I will give you my book and we will peruse the findings together.”

Arthur could think of no better plan and so agreed and they went off on their separate ways.  Each asked everyone they came across the question, “What is it that women most desire of men?”  and wrote down the answer.  Some said it was money. Some said it was fine clothing. Others said they liked to be courted and wooed, while the other said they liked lusty men who swept them off their feet.  By the time they arrived back at the court of Carlisle the both books were full with many different answers.

Eleven months later they met back in Carlisle and looked over each other books.  Gawain was confident that one of the answers contained in the books would be right but Arthur was not so sure. There were so many answers so he said, “I still have a month left and there is time to find something more definite.  I think I will look around Inglewood Forest for a while in the hope of finding the right answer.”

Gawain was confident that they had the right answer in the books already but said, “As you wish, but I have every confidence the right answer is in the books.”

Dame Ragnelle

Arthur Meets Dame Ragnelle – Public Domain

The next day Arthur rode to Inglewood and spent several hours wandering the many paths in the forest.  Eventually he came across and old woman seated upon a horse at a crossroads. She was the most hideous, ugliest and the most repulsive person he had ever seen.  In contrast to her the horse she sat was most handsome chestnut mare. Its saddle and bridle were decorated with gold, silver and precious gems. The magnificence of the beast was in stark contrast to the vile appearance of her.  She was sat on her horse in the middle of a crossroads seemingly in waiting for him. It was she that spoke first seeming to knew who he was and boldly greeting him thus,

“Well, met King Arthur, well met alone in the woods.  I have advice for you if you will listen that will save your life!”

Arthur was utterly repulsed by the loathly lady but politely asked what she had to say.  She told him she aware of him and his quest and knew the answer he sought,

“I know the right answer to the secret. I know you found many answers but the ones you have gathered to you are wrong. If I do not tell you then you will die.  If you grant me a request I will tell you the answer you seek, Your life is in my hands! Therefore, what say you?”  

Arthur was unpleasantly surprised that she appeared to know so much.  He looked at her in disgust of her appearance and said, “Lady, I dislike your words,  Tell me what you want and if I can I will grant it. Why is my life in your hands?”

The loathly lady cackled at him said, “Whatever else I am, I am not evil.  The bargain I would make with you is this.  To save your life I must marry Sir Gawain. Think, deeply, think wisely.  If you do not agree or if he does not agree the marriage you will die!”

Arthur was aghast at the thought.  The more he considered it the least able he thought himself of delivering it.  Therefore, he said, “In all  truth, fairness and honesty, I cannot promise Sir Gawain will agree to be part of this bargain.  It is for he alone to choose a wife, but I will ask his thoughts on the matter, though only because it may save my own life.  I would not blame him if he refused, but I will ask and see what happens from there.”

This appeared to satisfy the lady who replied, “Go now and speak to Sir Gawain and speak as fair as you can of me.  Yes, I am hideous, but I am as lusty as I am hideous! Go and speak to Gawain and you may yet live.  You will find me here when you have your decision.”

“What will I tell him your name is?” asked Arthur.

“You may tell him my name is Dame Ragnelle,” she replied

So Arthur rode back to Carlisle to talk to Gawain.  He knew his nephew would probably accept simply because of his own sake.  Nevertheless, he really regretted having to ask him with the terrible consequences involved but he had no choice.

The first person Arthur met was Gawain who greeted him happily and asked how he got on with his quest in Inglewood.  Arthur looked at Gawain sadly and said, “Everything went exceedingly bad.  I may as well kill myself now as I appear to be doomed to die!”

Gawain was shocked and wanted to know why he was so sorely depressed and unhappy.  Arthur said, “In Inglewood I met the most disgusting and hideous lady I have ever seen.  She has promised me that she will save my life if you will marry her. Gawain, I cannot let you do this, therefore I am doomed!”

Gawain replied, “No matter how foul or hideous I will marry her to save you.  You are my uncle, my king and my friend. We have fought side by side in many battles and it is my honour that is at stake if I refuse.  I will not dishonor myself or become a coward afraid of a lady, hideous or otherwise. I will marry her!”

Arthur told him how they had met at the crossroads and how she had told him her name was Dame Ragnelle.  He reiterated that she was the vilest, ugliest woman he had ever seen. He told Gawain that she had told she knew the answer to the question he sought.  She had told him there was only one answer and she was the only one knew. She would only reveal it if you married her.

Gawain was not to be put off and replied, “Have no fear, I will marry her regardless of her vile appearance, for my respect for you is even greater.”

Arthur was pleased by Gawain’s answer and told him, “I cannot thank you enough!  You are the best of my knights and I shall love you as long as I am king of this land!”

At the end of the last month, Arthur, accompanied by Gawain went to seek Dame Ragnelle at the crossroads as he had promised.  When they reached the forest Arthur told Gawain that here they must part. Gawain told him he would prefer to accompany him but as it was his wish they would separate.

When Arthur reached the crossroads he found Dame Ragnelle sitting as if she had not moved since he had left. She greeted him saying, 

“Well met, what is the news.  Are to be saved or are you doomed?”

Arthur looked upon her with a mixture of gloom and disgust and said, “I have spoken to Gawain.  As there is no other way he has agreed to the marriage.  Therefore, Dame, tell me the answer to the question for I  must go.”

Dame Ragnelle laughed long and hideously and then said,

“I will tell you what it is that women most desire.  Some men say it is beauty and youth we desire that we stay attracted to men and are lusted after. It is not that. Some say women wish to be flattered and feted and wooed, but it is not that either.  There are many other wrong things men say about women but now I will tell you what women most desire in all the world of men. It is this. We women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of our self and over men, so that all that is theirs is ours.  We will use all our wiles and skills to master the most manly, the fiercest and the most brutal of men and gain sovereignty over them. Now King Arthur, go and tell this to the adversary who would cut off you head and you will be saved. Just remember our bargain!

Arthur’s Answer

Wasting no time Arthur rode to the place where he had killed the stag and where he had agreed to rendezvous with Sir Gromer Somer Joure.  When he arrived Sir Gromer was already waiting. Arthur showed him the books with the answers he and Gawain had collected, Gromer spent a long time diligently studying them and at last said, “No, the correct answer is not here.  Therefore, prepare to die!”

Arthur held up his hand and cried, “Wait! I have one more answer, will you hear it?”

“I will,” said Gromer.

“It is this.  Women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of herself and over men so that all that is men’s is theirs,” said Arthur.

This infuriated Gromer who replied angrily, “Curse the woman, I hope she burns in Hell.  Clearly you have spoken to the old hag, Dame Ragnelle, who is my sister.  If not for her I would have your head here and now! Yes, you have given the right answer, but only thanks to her.  Go now Arthur, but never let me catch you alone and unarmed in the forest again, for I will not hesitate a second time!

Much relieved Arthur replied, “You can be sure I will never again be found at such a disadvantage.  From now on I will always be armed and armored to defend myself and defend myself I will. Now I go.”

With that Arthur mounted his horse and rode to the crossroads to meet Dame Ragnelle, leaving Sir Gromer Somer Joure angrily cursing his sister.  Although Arthur was glad to be free of the threat of death he now looked forward to his meeting with the loathly lady with disgust and dismay. He was desperately sorrow for what had been lain on Gawain and would have done anything to change it.  At the crossroads she was waiting patiently still sat upon her horse. She cackled hideously at his approach and said, “Ha, King Arthur! See it is just as I told you.  I have kept my part of the bargain and now you must keep yours.  Sir Gawain will be my husband!”

Arthur shuddered, deeply sorry for what he had got his faithful nephew into but said, “I have spoke to Gawain and he has agreed,  The marriage will go ahead though I wish for all the world it would not!   Therefore if you will have your wish follow my advice. We will go secretly …”

Dame Ragnelle cut him short saying, “We will do nothing in secrecy.  I will be married openly in public for all to see.  You will not leave me until I am the wife of Sir Gawain, or it will bring shame and dishonor upon you.   You will escort me royally to your court and all will see how I have saved your life and the gratitude you owe me! ”

Deeply embarrassed Arthur escorted Dame Ragnelle to court.  When they reached Carlisle she waved and smiled gruesomely at all she met lapping up the attention she received.  Everyone stared in shock and wonder at the hideous woman King Arthur escorted to his court. On arrival Arthur led her into his hall where she said joyfully, “Now bring to me Sir Gawain and summon your knights, noble and ladies.  Send out to all nobles and lords to attend that they may witness our marriage which will take place as soon as all is assembled as witnesses.  Fulfill your bargain King Arthur!”

The Marriage

Leon Bakst [Public domain]

Groaning inwardly, Arthur summoned Gawain and his knights, noble and ladies to meet Dame Ragnelle.   When Gawain arrived, Dame Ragnelle declared she was so taking by his handsome appearance she wished she was beautiful for him.   To his bemusement and embarrassment she reassured him she was as lusty as she was hideous, digging him in the elbow and winking, while Gawain stared blankly before him.

King Arthur held his head in his hands in despair while all of his knights and noble looked on in shock and bewilderment,  The ladies of the court wept at the sight of the handsome, heroic Sir Gawain sitting next to his grotesque fiance. Although Arthur and his queen begged her to have a small private ceremony Dame Ragnelle refused.  She declared it was her special day and she would share it openly with everyone. With resignation, Arthur summoned the lords and ladies of his realm to Carlisle to witness the marriage of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.

After a few days everyone had arrived and all was in place and a magnificent wedding banquet prepared for after the ceremony.  Although she wore a most beautiful wedding gown the contrast between her and her gown made it all the more surreal. The ceremony took place and Arthur and his lords and ladies looked on in shock and horror as the jubilant Dame Ragnelle wedded Sir Gawain.  Although the horror could be seen in his eyes his courage was without fault that day. After the ceremony the banquet began and Sir Gawain led his bride to her chair at the banquet table.

The Marriage Banquet

It was a magnificent banquet but no one was prepared for what happened next.  Taking her seat next to her husband at the head of the table. After all the appropriate speeches were rendered and proper protocols observed, Dame Ragnelle wasted no time in tucking in to the banquet.  

To the sheer amazement of her new husband and the guests she began eating with amazing speed.  She stuffed her mouth full of various kinds of food while swallowing great gulps of beer and wine.  Everyone one stared in amazement and horror as plates of meat, pies, bread, sweetmeat and delicacies of all kinds disappeared into her voluminous mouth.  As she ate she belched and coughed sending saliva flying across the hall and causing the guests to cover their plates. Greedily she ate whole capons, whole ducks, even whole swans,  She ate a boar’s head and body to herself. She ate and she ate and ate and she drank and she drank and she drank.

Everyone looked on in embarrassed astonishment. All the time she chatted away gaily with her mouthful to her new bewildered husband and their equally bewildered guests.  Every now and then she would elbow Gawain urging him to up to build up his strength, while giggling coyly. Gawain sat blank faced staring in space before him while Arthur sat holding his head in his hands silently begging Gawain for forgiveness. 

At last she was satiated of food and drink and with  more than a wink and a nod to her guests carried her new husband off to their bedchamber.   Gawain stared forlornly out of the window while his wife prepared herself for her husband. At last she said, “Ah now, since we are now married you must not deny me in bed.  I cannot deny that if I were beautiful you would feel and act differently, certainly with more enthusiasm.  Nevertheless, do me the honor of turning to face me and kissing me. Show that you honor me!”

Gawain stood staring out of the window and sighing said, “Have no fear, I will kiss you and more.”

The Spell is Broken

Turning to face her he stood dumbfounded in astonishment at what he saw.  Stood before him was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

“What are you?” he asked.

“Husband, I am your wife,  Why do act so strange?”

Gawain stood in amazement at the transformation and said, “Forgive me, I am at a loss.  I am bemused and well and truly confused.  Earlier today at our wedding you were the most hideous and ugliest creature I have ever seen.  Now you are transformed into a vision of loveliness. The day began strange and has grown even stranger and I am at a loss to know what to say or do!”

His bride stood before him very much a vision of loveliness and she said, “You must make a choice.  My beauty as you see me now will not last.  I can only be fair at night or in the day time.  That means if you chose me to be fair at night I will be foul during the day.  If chose me to be fair in the day then I will be foul at night. Whatever you choose, I will remain, but you must choose one or the other.  What will it be?”

Gawain thought for awhile then said, “It is a hard choice to make.  To have you beautiful only for myself at night would be a sorrowful thing and I would do you dishonor.  To have you beautiful in the daytime would mean I have little reward at night. Truly, I would like to choose the best but I have no idea of what that may be.  Therefore, I give you the choice. Please make the choice that you prefer. I promise whatever that may be, my body, all of by possessions, my heart and soul will remain yours to do with as you please, this I promise before God.”

Thus transformed Lady Ragnelle said, “Sir Gawain you have proved to be an honorable and courteous knight and I bless you for the honor you have shown me.  Do not be grieved or confused by my sudden transformation. My wicked stepmother cast a spell upon me changing me into the hideous being you first saw.  I was to remain in that vile shape until the best and most worthy knight in England married me and gave himself, his body, his soul, all his worldly goods to me to rule and to do as I wished.  You have given me sovereignty over myself and also over you. Be sure that I will use that power most wisely and with all love.” 

Their wedding night was still young and they made the best of it.   When dawn came they laughed and kissed and remained in bed happy in each other’s company.   The morning passed and midday arrived and Arthur said to his knights with trepidation, “I think we better go and make sure Gawain has survived the night.  I fear the hideous thing may have killed him. Let us go and make sure he is alright.”

Lady Ragnelle

He led a party of knights to the newly weds bedchamber and began banging upon the door crying, “Gawain, it is midday. Why are you so long in bed, are you ill?”

Gawain got up and opened the door ajar and said, “My Lord, I would be most grateful if you would leave me be for all is well here and in good health as is my beautiful wife, see …”

And he purposely opened the door fully to reveal Dame Ragnelle standing in a stunning gown with her red hair hanging around her waist looking a vision of beautiful and loveliness.

“Now you can see for yourselves why I am in no rush to rise and meet the day. Meet my wife,  Dame Ragnelle who gave you the answer that saved your life.”

He told Arthur of the enchantment she has been under and how now it had been broken.  All of Arthur’s knights were greatly relieved at his safety and pleased at the way things had turned out for him.  The queen and her ladies were also delighted fearing that the hideous woman had murdered him, but even more pleased that his exemplary behaviour had won a  wife of outstanding beauty. There was much relief all around and Arthur told the queen of how he had been forced to swear an oath in the forest of Inglewood to save his life and how Dame Ragnelle had saved him.

Gawain explained how his wife had placed under an enchantment by her stepmother and how his marriage to her and the choice he made to grant her sovereignty over herself and him on his wedding night had broken the spell. 

Dame Ragnelle said, “I give my thanks to Gawain for without him I would still be the hideous, vile and misshapen thing.  Therefore, although Gawain has recognized my own sovereignty over myself and granted me sovereignty over him I swear I shall never abuse or misuse it.  I will be his wife and he my husband as it should be. There will never be discord between us.”

In return Gawain pledged his love and faithfulness, acknowledging the mercy she granted him.

The queen declared to her ladies that Lady Ragnelle was the most beautiful of the all and said, “I give my thanks to you for saving the king for I love him with my life!”

Gawain and Dame Ragnelle settled down and soon she bore him a fine strong son whom they named Gyngolyn, who grew up to be a good knight of  the Round Table. It soon became apparent that Gawain loved his wife more than anything in the world.  He gave up jousting and competing in tournaments and spent all his time by her side and she was reckoned the fairest lady in England.

Lady Ragnelle, begged Arthur to forgive her brother Sir Gromer Somer Joure for the wrong he had done to him and he reluctantly agreed.  If everything appeared happy for a time it was bound to change. Sadly, after five happy years together Lady Ragnelle passed away. Although Gawain remarried he was said to have never loved anyone else like he loved Lady Ragnelle.

© 28/08/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 28th, 2019 zteve t evans

The Arthurian Realm: The Quest for the Sangreal

The Sangreal

In Arthurian romance the mystical, magical quest of the Sangreal is a popular story that has its roots in medieval times, though its seeds may be from much earlier.  It uses allegories to blend together pagan motifs, Christian tradition and political and social concerns of the day into a story of spiritual evolution for the main protagonists who must remain true to the quest.  The Sangreal is another name for the Holy Grail which eventually became conflated with the Holy Chalice.  There are several other versions of its name and in different stories it has appeared in different forms such as stone or wood, or as a cup or dish. The earliest of these romances was Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes who died before it was finished but was added to later by other poets.  Other authors also created versions of the story such as Le Roman du Graal, Joseph d’Arimathe, Merlin, and Perceval by Robert de Boron, the Vulgate Cycle, whose authorship is disputed and Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach.  Later, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte D’Arthur, blending together Arthurian and grail tradition, and it is from this that the greatly summarised version of the tale below draws the most.

Origin of the Sangreal

In this allegorical story set in the time of King Arthur, the Sangreal was the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the last supper, and the Sacred Spear was the one Longinus, the Roman soldier, used to pierce his side during his crucifixion.  Joseph of Arimathea brought them to Britain and his descendants, the Grail Kings of Castle Corbenic were granted guardianship on condition that each guardian lived a life of purity in deed and thought, dedicated to Jesus Christ.  For many ages, the Sangreal remained a visible, tangible object — alongside the Sacred Spear — that pilgrims came from far and wide to pray before.

Over time, one of its guardians allowed the moral standards that behoved his role to slip, and sought forbidden love. The Sacred Spear punished his weakness, inflicting a wound to his groin that could not be healed, leaving the king maimed and kept alive only by the power of the Sangreal; after this, the Sangreal and Sacred Spear were hidden from the people’s eyes.  In those days the fertility of the land was linked to that of the king, and his realm became a barren wasteland until the time came when he would be healed by the purest knight in the world.

Merlin’s Message

At Camelot, Merlin had not been seen for some time and, worried at his absence, King Arthur sent out knights to find him.  Sir Gawain went out searching, and while travelling through the forest of Brocéliande he heard the sound of someone groaning. Following the sound, he found a column of dense mist that he could not penetrate.  From the mist came the voice of Merlin who revealed that his mistress, Viviane — the Lady of the Lake — had imprisoned him there for all time.  He instructed Gawain to return to King Arthur and tell him of his plight. Yet, emphasizing that nothing could be done to save him, he gave an important message to relay:

“Tell Arthur a great event is now unfolding. The knight is born and ready to begin and accomplish this task for the good of the land and its people.  Now is the time of the quest of the Sangreal.”

Gawain quickly returned and delivered the message to King Arthur, who grieved for his old friend as he turned over the message in his mind.

Pentecost at Camelot

It was the custom of King Arthur to celebrate the feast of Pentecost with all his knights around the Round Table.  Each of the knights had their own seat at the Round Table with their name inscribed upon it, and there was one vacant seat known as the Siege Perilous. As the feast was about to begin a squire brought news that in a nearby river there was a red slab of marble that floated on the water.  King Arthur led his knights to the river to investigate. Fixed firmly within this slab, as if it had been driven in, was a sword upon which was inscribed the following words,

“Never shall I be drawn forth except by he who is the perfect knight and at his side, I will hang.”

Sir Gawain tried to draw the sword but failed, as did Sir Percival and many others, but none could free it.

The Quest of the Sangreal

Having investigated, they returned to the Round Table to eat. While they were eating the windows and doors all suddenly slammed shut.  The candles flickered, went out and then came back on again, and stood before them appeared a very old holy man accompanied by Galahad, the son of Sir Lancelot.  The holy man led Galahad to the Siege Perilous and seated him there.  They watched in awe as the lettering on the seat changed magically to read, Galahad.   King Arthur led Sir Galahad to the floating slab of marble and he easily withdrew the sword to the wonder of all.

Arthur and his knights returned to their feasting and again, the candles suddenly dimmed and there was a peal of thunder.  A ray of light shone down and in the middle of the Round Table there appeared the glowing Sangreal veiled in white silk. Inspired by this miraculous event, Sir Gawain declared he would not rest, day or night, for one year and a day, until he saw the Sangreal fully unveiled.  Arthur remembered the message of Merlin and was full of disquiet.  He knew the others would follow his example and realized there was every chance some would die on that quest, or not return.  In the early days of summer, as one hundred and fifty knights rode from Camelot on the quest of the Sangreal, King Arthur wept, knowing the world had changed forever.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Synopsis

 

gawain_and_the_green_knight

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.

lady_tempt_gawain

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