Yes, garbed all in green was the gallant rider, And the hair on his head was the same hue as his horse, And floated finely like a fan round his shoulders. . . . Such a horse, such a horseman, in the whole wild world Was never seen or observed by those assembled before, Not one. Lightning-like he seemed And swift to strike and stun. His dreadful blows, men deemed, Once dealt, meant death was done.
The narrator describes the Green Knight—both his appearance and his effect on others—as he first arrives in Camelot. He appears green all over, a strange fact that causes the court to believe he is dead—or rather, undead—or, alternatively, of the wilderness. In addition to those purely physical features, he also seems swift and dangerous. This impression may result from the way he rides his horse, since he has not yet spoken.
No, it is not combat I crave, for come to that, On this bench only beardless boys are sitting. If I were hasped in armor on a high steed, No man among you could match me, your might being meagre. So I crave in this court a Christmas game, For it is Yuletide and New Year, and young men abound here.
The Green Knight notes that he has come unarmored. After King Arthur offers him unarmored combat, he replies he’s not looking for combat. Instead, he wants to exchange single blows with a willing knight. In the process of asking for an opponent, he mocks the court, saying boys, not men, fill the court. Readers might wonder if the Green Knight speaks impolitely out of habit, or if he deliberately insults others to goad a knight into fighting.
Said the gallant in green to Gawain the courteous, ‘To tell you the truth, when I have taken the blow After you have duly dealt it, I shall directly inform you About my house and my home and my own name. Then you may keep your covenant, and call on me, And if I waft you no words, then well may you prosper, Stay long in your own land and look for no further Trial.’
The Green Knight promises to tell Gawain how to find him after Gawain deals his one blow—and he makes clear that if he does not give this information, then Gawain should not feel obliged to try to find him. Gawain probably expects that if he delivers a death blow, the “game” will be over anyway. The Green Knight’s plan to give the information after the blow strongly suggests that he has different expectations than Gawain.
‘As the Knight of the Green Chapel I am known to many; Therefore if you ask for me, I shall be found. So come, or else be called coward accordingly!’ Then he savagely swerved, sawing at the reins, Rushed out at the hall door, his head in his hand, And the flint-struck fire flew up from the hooves.
After Gawain beheads the Green Knight, instead of lying dead on the floor, the Knight’s body remains upright and picks up his severed head. Terrifyingly, the head delivers this speech, then the body, carrying the head, rides off tumultuously on the green horse. Readers can only imagine the fear this event causes in Camelot. Everyone recognizes the events as magical. They also realize that Gawain will have to take the return axe blow after all.
Take my governance as guide, and it shall go better for you, For the place is perilous that you are pressing towards. In that wilderness dwells the worst man in the world, For he is valiant and fierce and fond of fighting, And mightier than any man that may be on earth. . . . At the Green Chapel he gains his great adventures. No man pauses at that place, however proud in arms, Without being dealt a death-blow by his dreadful hand. For he is an immoderate man, to mercy a stranger[.]
The guide lent to Gawain by Sir Bertilak warns Gawain about the Green Knight. Gawain already fears the confrontation he approaches, and these words serve only to drive home the peril. The guide even offers to lie for Gawain’s sake if Gawain chooses to run away. He seems eager to prevent Gawain from fulfilling his promise to meet the Green Knight. Some believe that the guide and the Green Knight are one and the same.
Then the gallant in green quickly got ready, Heaved his horrid weapon on high to hit Gawain, With all the brute force in his body bearing it aloft, Swinging savagely enough to strike him dead. . . . Gawain glanced up at the grim axe beside him As it came shooting through the shivering air to shatter him, And his shoulders shrank slightly from the sharp edge. The other suddenly stayed the descending axe, And then reproved the prince with many proud words[.]
The narrator describes the moment the Green Knight swings his axe toward Gawain. After Gawain flinches slightly, the Green Knight stops his swing and calls Gawain a coward. Gawain seems to agree, promising not to flinch next time. But as Gawain points out, “if my head pitch to the plain, it’s off forevermore”—unlike the Green Knight’s. In reality, the Green Knight used the flinching as a pretext to stop.
He gazed at Sir Gawain on the ground before him, Considering the spirited and stout way he stood, Audacious in arms; his heart warmed to him. Then he gave utterance gladly in his great voice, With resounding speech saying to the knight, ‘Bold man, do not be so bloodily resolute. No one here has offered you evil discourteously, Contrary to the covenant made at the king’s court. I promised a stroke, which you received: consider yourself paid.’
After Gawain prepares to fight for his life after the Green Knight gave him a slight nick, the Green Knight reminds him that he only promised one stroke, which he just delivered. The Green Knight considers going against the promise he originally made at Camelot, which he calls an evil and discourteous “covenant.” Nonetheless, the Green Knight feels impressed by Gawain’s courage and fulfills the terms of the contract while sparing Gawain’s life.
First in foolery I made a feint at striking, Not rending you with a riving cut—and right I was, On account of the first night’s covenant we accorded; For you truthfully kept your trust in troth with me, Giving me your gains, as a good man should. The further feinted blow was for the following day, When you kissed my comely wife, and the kisses came to me.
As the Green Knight explains why he gave Gawain two false strikes, Gawain realizes that the Green Knight also hosted him at the nearby castle. As Gawain realizes this truth, so does the reader, because only a few features connected the two men. Gawain now knows that the gift game that he and Sir Bertilak played was not about hunting and kissing. Rather, the game, like the original trade of blows, consisted of keeping a promise.
Then the other lord laughed and politely said, ‘In my view you have made amends for your misdemeanor; You have confessed your fault fully with fair acknowledgment, And plainly done penance at the point of my axe. You are absolved of your sin and as stainless now As if you have never fallen in fault since first you were born.’
After the Green Knight/Sir Bertilak admonishes Gawain for keeping the protective girdle, a gift from Lady Bertilak, a secret, Gawain admits his sin, expressing shame and remorse. However, the Green Knight understands that he took the girdle to protect his life, not as a love-token. Here he explains that he views the deception as understandable and, having been confessed, forgivable. In the end, the Green Knight forgives Gawain more easily than Gawain forgives himself.
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