Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Redefinition of Headstrong

Trigger warning: references to sexual harassment

This is the twelfth and final post in the Year of the Quest. As we come to the end of a year that feels at least three years long, it’s time for merriment, feasting and…decapitation? This version of ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ comes from a 1995 collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations called Sir Gawain, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, published by HarperCollins. It begins dramatically and a little unexpectedly with the fall of Troy and the foundation of a nation of warriors by Felix Brutus in Britain. Of all the hero kings of old, Arthur is held up in honour.

The king is holding court at Camelot for Christmas, celebrating with fifteen days of jousting, feasting and dancing. The New Year gifts are handed out, amidst much laughter and playful banter, but Arthur will not eat until he hears of a marvel or interesting adventure, or until a challenger enters seeking an opponent. Arthur is described here as young and boyish, unable to keep still for long, while Guinevere is a bright, grey-eyed beauty presiding over the court. This is a very different royal couple from the weary, sorrowful king and queen from Perceval.

Guinevere is seated between two of her husband’s nephews, Agravain on one side and Gawain on the other. When the food has been laid out to a fanfare of drums and trumpets, an enormous knight rides into the hall. Everything he wears, all of it well-made from expensive fabrics, is green; his hair is green; his skin is green. Even his horse is green. This man has an AESTHETIC. He comes without armour or shield, carrying a bundle of holly in one hand and an axe in the other, razor sharp and made of green steel. He is a fascinating sight to the gathered court, and a rather alarming one. Arthur, however, welcomes the Green Knight to his hall and asks what he wishes by coming here.

The Green Knight announces that he carries holly to show that he comes in peace, for he could have come fully armed if it was a real fight he was after. He regards Arthur’s knights as mere boys, not competition. What he wants is a Yuletide contest, a game really. If any man in the court will trade a blow for a blow, the Green Knight will gift him the axe he carries. To make it even easier, the Green Knight will stand still to take the challenger’s blow and the challenger will then have a year and a day before they must withstand his own.

Nobody wants to do this. I applaud their common sense.

The Green Knight looks around in disdain. He mocks the knights of the court, dismissing their achievements because they will not play his strange little game. Arthur angrily declares that he will take on the Knight himself. Gawain suddenly speaks up, asking to deliver the blow himself. He frames it as an honour that he can only ask because of his familial relationship with the king. Arthur permits it and Gawain comes to take the axe in hand.

The Green Knight is quite pleased with this. He asks for Gawain’s name, and then makes one further stricture: that Gawain is to seek him out at the end of the year and a day. Gawain swings the axe and chops his head off his shoulders.

Hm. Do you think, possibly, he may regret doing that?

The headless Knight does not fall to the ground, as dead bodies usually do. Instead he strides forward, grabs hold of his head and leaps up on his horse, even as the wound on his neck bleeds profusely. The severed head opens its eyes and orders Gawain to find the Green Chapel come the next New Year’s morning, so that he can receive a matching blow.

Arthur treats the whole thing as if it really was a game. He urges Guinevere to see it this way too, which indicates – though her actual reaction is not described – that she is not amused at all. Gawain hangs up the axe on the wall and sits with the king and queen to continue feasting as if nothing worries him at all. But as the new year turns, Gawain’s mood darkens. At All Hallows he reminds his uncle of the agreement he made with the Green Knight and takes leave on his horse Gringolet. The symbol on his shield is the pentangle, also known as the Endless Knot, because all the lines link together; on the inside of the shield is painted Mary, mother of Christ. Both are symbolic of his values as a knight. The court bid goodbye to him with no expectation of his return and grieve his inevitable death.

Gawain rides away from his idea of civilisation, out into wilder lands, asking whoever he happens upon if they know the way to the Green Chapel. Nobody does. Gawain must constantly battle to keep moving, fighting bears and boars and wolves, which you might expect in wild country, but also wood-trolls and ogres. The weather itself is against him, this being a bitter winter. On Christmas Eve he prays to Mary to guide him to lodging and as he rides through a deep forest, he comes to a castle surrounded by a moat. Gawain calls out to the porter, sending a message to the lord of the castle, and his request for lodging is promptly granted. He is welcomed by a throng of servants, attending to his every need. The lord of the castle, a big bearded man, is very courteous, inviting Gawain to treat his home as his own. When Gawain has been changed from his armour to comfortable robes, he is brought water to wash in and served an excellent meal. The lord of the castle and his people seem delighted to be entertaining one of Arthur’s knights.

When the meal is over, everyone goes to chapel for evensong, including the lord’s wife. She is very beautiful, and walks hand-in-hand with a very old woman half-hidden under layers of cloth. Gawain greets both ladies politely and sits by the fire with them, waiting on them with great gallantry.

Christmas Day brings feasting and dancing. The elderly lady sits beside the lord of the castle, which leaves his wife beside Gawain, who appreciates this seating arrangement. After three days of celebration, the lord’s other guests depart and he thanks Gawain for staying with him, considering it an honour. Gawain explains that a very important task brought him there and asks if the lord knows the way to the Green Chapel. The lord seems quite amused. He says that he does know but will not direct Gawain there until New Year’s Day, urging him to stay and adding that the place Gawain seeks is very close indeed. Gawain is more than happy to stick around, with such friendly company.

Furthermore, the lord asks if, while he goes hunting, Gawain would keep his wife company. The lord offers an agreement: whatever he wins in the woods will be Gawain’s, if Gawain gives him whatever he wins inside the castle. Gawain agrees to this, perhaps without thinking it all the way through, because it is a strange bargain. Also, his last bargain did not work out so great.

The lord of the castle and his fellow huntsmen are gone early the next morning, off to kill things in the woods. This is described in far too much detail and makes me dislike everyone involved quite a lot. Gawain, meanwhile, has slept in. When he wakes, it is because his door has been eased open. He opens his eyes and sees the lady of the castle slipping into his room. She sits on the edge of his bed to watch him, thinking he is still asleep. After some internal debate, he ‘wakes’ and she immediately jokes about tying him to the bed. “You shall work on me your will, and well I am pleased,” Gawain replies, because of course he does, “for I submit immediately, and for mercy I cry.” The lady decides to hold him to that, refusing to let him out of bed then propositioning him for sex. “I have here wholly in my hand what all desire, by grace,” she says. Gawain delicately tries to remind her that she does in fact have a husband, but it is past mid morning before she gets up to leave. She teases her captive knight that if he really was ‘Sir Gawain the gracious’ he could hardly let her go without a kiss and Gawain agrees, allowing her to take him in her arms and kiss him.

When the lord of the castle returns, he gives Gawain all the venison from the hunt, and Gawain takes him by the neck to kiss him. He does refuse to explain where he got that kiss, but it does not take a genius to figure it out. This radiates bisexual disaster vibes.

The lord of the castle is content with the kiss anyway. That’s lucky, because when he returns from the next day’s hunt, he gets another in trade for a huge boar. The lady of the castle is a very persistent woman. Gawain, in response, is light, laughing and modest, refusing to accept her many compliments, but as she continues to subtly flirt even in front of her husband, he grows increasingly uncomfortable. He is also anxious to leave, for his appointment with the Green Knight is very near now but he still has no idea where to look for him. The lord tells him to stay for one more day and go to the Green Chapel on the first day of the new year.

The pattern holds. The lord of the castle goes out early and kills some poor defenceless fox, and Gawain gets cornered by his wife. She comes into Gawain’s room topless and kisses him awake, bringing him out of bad dreams about the Green Chapel. He realises she is determined to sleep with him and has to decide what to do about it. He doesn’t like telling her no – I gather this is not considered chivalrous – but it would be worse to betray his host, so he turns away from her. She doesn’t take the refusal gracefully. She demands to know if he has a lover, to explain away his disinterest. He answers honestly, saying that he does not. She takes another kiss, and as a goodbye gift, she gives him her girdle. It has a special power: if you wear it, no stroke of any weapon can harm you. Her only condition is that he does not tell her husband. With one last kiss, she leaves.

When the lord of the castle returns from the hunt, Gawain greets him with three kisses ‘as long and deliciously as he could lay them upon him’. OKAY. They feast together with music and laughter and Gawain bids a fond farewell to his host and the ladies of the house, with thanks to all their people. The morning dawns very cold and misty, and the road Gawain must take is a wild one. The guide sent with him actively urges him to turn around and take another road, maybe to another country, because the monstrous knight who waits for him delights in violence and Gawain will surely die there. Gawain, of course, thinks more of honour than of survival, and continues on his way when his guide disappears. He rides into a very unprepossessing valley and sees no chapel there, only a mound green with grass amidst all the snow. It is hollow inside, an old cavern. Gawain thinks it looks demonic.

As he considers the mound, he hears a grinding of rock and the Green Knight appears above Gawain’s head, sharpening a new axe. The latest in weapon fashion from Denmark, no less! Obviously, it is green. The Green Knight greets Gawain and Gawain responds with chilly courtesy. He takes off his helm and bares his neck, and the Green Knight swings his axe. Gawain flinches, very slightly, and is mocked for it. The Green Knight is very quick to point out that he let Gawain chop his head off and didn’t make a fuss about that. I mean, he obviously reattached it, which SOME PEOPLE might consider cheating, but clearly he has never heard the phrase ‘play stupid games, win stupid prizes’ and feels he has the high ground.

Gawain holds himself stone still. The Green Knight swings again but the blade stops, no more than nicking Gawain’s skin. Blood drips onto the ground. Gawain hastily snatches up his helm and leaps some distance from the other knight. He makes it clear that if the Green Knight goes after him again, Gawain will answer every blow with one of his own.

The Green Knight is pleased with him. Gawain honoured his word and came to meet him; he also passed three more trials without knowing it, returning the lady’s kisses to her husband – who is, in fact, the Green Knight. It was the Knight who sent the lady to Gawain in the first place, to test his moral fibre. The only reason he cut Gawain at all was because Gawain failed to give the girdle along with the kisses. Gawain, thoroughly ashamed, flings the girdle from him.

When the Green Knight, in great good humour, urges Gawain to return to his house and make friends with his wife, Gawain passionately lists Biblical women who made fools of men, bitterly reflecting on his own foolishness. He does agree to keep the girdle, not so much as a gesture of friendship as a token to remind him of his mistake so that he does not fail such tests again. Then he asks the Green Knight who he really is.

His name is Bertilak de Hautdesert. He was enchanted by Morgan le Fay, who learned such magic from her lover Merlin. I am utterly delighted to know that she’s now calling herself Morgan the Goddess. It was at her command that the Green Knight went to Camelot, to test Arthur’s knights and frighten Guinevere, with a hope of maybe even killing the queen with the shock of seeing a severed head talk. The ancient lady at the Green Knight’s house was Morgan herself, in disguise. The Green Knight asks Gawain to come back again, to see his aunt.

Gawain nopes out. He kisses the Green Knight one last time, which is a gesture of friendship, and rides for Arthur’s court. King and queen welcome him home joyfully and ask about his strange quest. Gawain tells them everything, revealing the scar at the back of his neck and the girdle that is symbolic of his perceived moral failure. He plans to wear it forever. Arthur soothes him and the rest of the knights decide to wear baldrics of green out of love of Gawain. Morgan might be Gawain’s aunt, but he has the love of family in King Arthur’s court.

This is a fascinatingly twisty, enigmatic story. If anyone knows any good picture book versions, please send me your recommendations, because I would love to see what visuals illustrators have created for this one! Gawain tends to be characterised as a womaniser, but his behaviour varies a lot depending on the versions you read and in this one, he seems to be more worried about hurting the lady’s feelings than really resisting desire for her. He is fine with kissing both lady and knight, and also seems fine with a little dirty talk about bondage, but he does not like being deceived and he definitely does not like to feel he has failed to hold up his own standards. No wonder he didn’t want to spend more time with Morgan. I believe that Gawain and Arthur may have won the award for weirdest family Christmas.

I hope you are very happy, healthy and safe through the holiday season, and that 2021 brings much, much nicer surprises for all of us.

2 thoughts on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Redefinition of Headstrong

    • This is such a wild family Christmas story, from Morgan deifying herself and sending a knight with an axe as a festive game, to Arthur refusing to eat until something exciting happens, to Gawain taking a quest break to explore both his bisexuality and polyamory. Where is the Christmas movie?!

      Happy holidays!

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