Great Portland Street
Medieval Arthurian Legend
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
14th century, Middle English, British Museum, London.
It is part of the agreement that Sir Gawain should suffer himself, a year later, the single decapitating blow that he has given to the Knight of the Green Chapel at King Arthur’s Christmas feast.
In the Middle English poems about Sir Gawain, courtesy is the hallmark of King Arthur's nephew. He behaves correctly, and his motto is 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' His greatest fear is dishonour. His word is his bond. Perhaps the most chilling and powerful image in Medieval English poetry is of Gawain's journey through the rain and sleet of a northern English winter searching with increasing desperation for a Green Chapel, a place whose whereabouts he does not know but in which he has an obligation to suffer the return stroke of an axe which he used to behead, more than eleven months previously, a green knight who had mysteriously entered King Arthur's court. It was part of the agreement that Sir Gawain should suffer himself, a year later, the single blow that he had given to this Knight of the Green Chapel at King Arthur's Christmas feast. Most of us would feel increasing joy at not being able to find this chapel. We would grab the failure willingly and turn back for home. Most, indeed, would almost certainly never have set out in the first place! But Gawain's growing desperation is palpable. He would far rather suffer death than dishonour.
Spring arrives, summer passes, autumn comes and on the morning after Halloween, Sir Gawain sets out to fulfil his obligation, riding for weeks on end through North Wales and Cheshire and onwards, probably northwards, trying to find someone who can guide him to the Green Chapel; riding with increasing desperation. And skipping through one or two important events to which we will return in a second, he arrives on New Year's Day at a hollow mound, probably a Neolithic tumulus, in a forest clearing. This is the Green Chapel.
From nearby, following sounds of axe-sharpening, the Knight of the Green Chapel gives to Sir Gawain two feigned strokes, then a blow that results in a superficial neck wound. Gawain rushes to put his helmet back on, content that he has now fulfilled his obligation.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have exchanged roles, and both of them are still alive. But there is more to this exchange of identity, because it turns out that the Green Knight is none other than the lord, Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert, who has been giving Sir Gawain hospitality in his castle for the past week.
At the castle at which Sir Gawain has been a guest, the following game was played: the lord, Sir Bertilak would go hunting and Gawain would spend the day with the ladies, in particular the lord's own lady, and in the evening, everything that the lord had acquired during the hunt would belong to Sir Gawain and everything that Gawain had achieved in the company of the ladies had to be given to the lord. All the kisses that Sir Gawain received from the lady of the house he gave in exchange for the spoils of the hunt. He would be drawn no further, however, along the path that the lady of the castle obviously wished to lead him.
On the final morning the lady offered to Sir Gawain a ring as a token of her love, which he refused. Then she offered him a silken girdle with the property that 'whoever wears this green lace about his waist cannot be slain, for there is no man on Earth who can kill him.' This he accepted gratefully, given the circumstances.
As a result of wearing this girdle at the Green Chapel Sir Gawain is saved from death, although for not giving it to the lord of the castle on the third evening, as he should have done as part of their agreement, he receives the neck wound.
There is no mention of Sir Gawain ever having relinquished this magic girdle, although we know the circumstances of his final hour; he waded ashore to face Mordred's army in the Alliterative Morte Arthure like a true Iron Age Celtic warrior, intent only upon a display of personal valour and unafraid of death. And in fact, the Gawain-poet relates that on his return to King Arthur's court from this adventure at the Green Chapel, Sir Gawain's green girdle was adopted by all of the Knights of the Round Table – worn, in emulation of Sir Gawain, as a sash around their bodies.