The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval one (14th century) written by an anonymous author. The title was interestingly only given centuries later. It has since been translated by many great poets and scholars! This summer, the much awaited film (that was supposed to premiere last year but was moved back due to the pandemic) is finally set to come out! The film is simply titled The Green Knight, and is said to be a much darker take on the original tale. I personally cannot wait to see this film, as it has been far too long since a good Arthurian film has been released!
The story of Gawain has been told many times. He was Arthur’s youngest knight, and nephew. With his youth brought a bit of naiveté, as well as more than a little arrogance. It was this naïveté and arrogance he decided to take on a quest that most knights would not dare to undertake. He went on a mission to defeat the Green Knight.
The tale begins in Camelot, on New Year’s Eve, when Gawain accepts a challenge from the Green Knight to all the Knights of the Round Table. The Green Knight challenged them to strike him down with a single blow from his own axe, if he will take a return blow in a year and a day. A year and a day is a common time frame for agreements in Celtic lore, and this showed a connection between this Arthurian tale and its Celtic roots! Gawain struck him down, beheaded with a single blow, and the Green Knight simply picked up his head and reminded him of the date and place they would meet again.
In the challenge of keeping his promise of a year and a day, he is tested by both his chivalry and loyalty. Along the way he comes to a castle, on his way to keep the date with the Green Knight. Inside the castle are a lord and lady who welcome him, as well as an ugly old woman, who is treated with reverence. He is allowed to stay in the castle, as the Green Chapel (where he is to meet the Knight) is not far from the place. His honor is called into question as he spends time in this castle. This lady is a woman specified as “more beautiful than Guinevere.” Making her unique in medieval literature, where Guinevere is the peak of the medieval beauty ideal, and this lady is the only figure said to surpass her. It quite reminds me of how in the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche is the only woman said to have beauty that rivaled Venus!
The question of his honor is brought up by the lady when she behaved provocatively when her husband was out on his daily hunting trip. Even as she tried to seduce him, she could not get but a single kiss from Gawain, as he does not wish to offend her. This happens again for the next two days, with only one more kiss exchanged each day. On the third day, as well as three kisses, the wife convinced him to take her silken sash as a token of good luck before he fights the Green Knight. Each day after the husband came home, as they had agreed, he gave Gawain his hunting spoils, and Gawain shared what happened to him (by kissing the husband, without revealing the source), Gawain did hide the sash.
He tied the sash around his waist before going to the appointed Green Chapel. The Green Knight is sharpening his axe as Gawain arrived. He swung three times, each time missing, but Gawain got nicked by the axe the third. Gawain’s willingness to take the blow showed his honor, and he defeated the Green Knight’s challenge. The only reason he got nicked on the third blow was the attempt to hide the sash, as the Green Knight was the lord of the castle in disguise! He had magically been transformed by the sorceress Morgan Le Fay, who had disguised herself as the old woman in the castle. Morgan had intended to use the Green Knight to frighten Guinevere to death (the previous New Year’s Eve, as she was present at his beheading by Gawain). Gawain was ashamed to have hidden the sash, but he is told he is the blameless, but he wore the sash back to Camelot as a sign of failure to keep a promise. There he is absolved by his fellow Knights of the Round Table. It was decided they would henceforth wear a green sash in a reminder of honesty!
I hope that you have enjoyed my overview of the tale of Gawain! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is the cover of the Tolkien translation. I found the image on barnesandnoble.com.
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by J.R.R. Tolkien