Great Portland Street
Medieval Arthurian Legend
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
14th century, Middle English, British Museum, London.
The lord appeared as a normal man in his role as Sir Gawain’s host. But he is also the knight whom Sir Gawain beheaded a year earlier.
Sir Gawain grasps the mysterious green axe and, agreeing to the strange knight’s terms, sends his head rolling across the floor at King Arthur's New Year's Day banquet.
The dismembered body picks up its amputated head and through its green and bloody mouth summons Sir Gawain to appear at the Green Chapel in a year’s time to receive a return stroke of the axe. Grasping his own head by the hair, the Knight of the Green Chapel mounts his horse, declares that there are many who will be able to guide Sir Gawain to this chapel, and rides off.
Spring arrives, summer passes, autumn descends into winter and Sir Gawain, having desperately searched for this Green Chapel for two long months, approaches a place on New Year’s Day that is possibly a long barrow or a passage tomb – an ancient Neolithic tumulus. A hollow burial mound. This is the Green Chapel.
From nearby, following sounds of axe-sharpening, the Green Knight appears, crosses the water of a bubbling stream,
gederes up his grymme tole Gawayn to smyte and, following two feigned strokes, he gives to Sir Gawain... a superficial neck wound. Gawain rushes to put his helmet back on, content that he has now fulfilled his obligation.
It turns out that the Knight of the Green Chapel is none other than Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert, who has been giving Sir Gawain hospitality in his castle for the past week. The lord appeared as a normal man in his role as Sir Gawain’s host, giving not the slightest hint that he might be the knight whom Sir Gawain beheaded a year earlier. But there is no doubting that he is. Following the strokes given to Sir Gawain at the Green Chapel, this Otherworldly knight explains that the two harmless feints were for the kisses that Sir Gawain had received from his wife.
Thou kyssedes my clere wyf.... You kissed my fair wife. Sir Gawain had, indeed, kissed Sir Bertilak's wife.