Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Fytte the First

1.

After the siege and the assault had ceased at Troy,
the city been destroyed and burned to brands and ashes,
the warrior who wrought there the trains of treason
was tried for his treachery, the truest on earth.1
This was Aeneas the noble;
he and his high kindred afterwards conquered provinces,
and became patrons of well nigh all the wealth in the West Isles.
As soon as rich Romulus turns him to Rome,
with great pride he at once builds that city,
and names it with his own name, which it now has;
Ticius turns to Tuscany and founds dwellings;
Longobard raises homes in Lombardy;
and, far over the French flood, Felix Brutus
establishes Britain joyfully on many broad banks,
where war and waste and wonders by turns have since dwelt,
and many a swift interchange of bliss and woe.

2.

And when this Britain was founded by this great hero,
bold men loving strife bred therein,
and many a time they wrought destruction.
More strange things have happened in this land since these days
than in any other that I know,
but of all the British kings that built here,
Arthur was ever the most courteous,
as I have heard tell.
Therefore, I mean to tell of an adventure in the world,
which some count strange and extraordinary
even among the wonders of Arthur.
If ye will listen to this lay but a little while,
I will tell it forthright as I heard it told in town,
as it is set down in story that cannot be changed,
long written in the land in true words.

3.

This King lay royally at Camelot at Christmas tide
with many fine lords, the best of men,
all the rich brethren of the Round Table,
with right rich revel and careless mirth.
There full many heroes tourneyed betimes,
jousted full gaily;
then returned these gentle knights to the court to make carols.2
For there the feast was held full fifteen days alike
with all the meat and the mirth that men could devise.
Such a merry tumult, glorious to hear;
joyful din by day, dancing at night.
All was high joy in halls and chambers
with lords and ladies as pleased them best.
With all the weal in the world they dwelt there together,
the most famous knights save only Christ,
the loveliest ladies that ever had life,
and he, the comeliest of kings, who holds the court.
For all this fair company were in their prime in the hall,
the happiest troop under heaven with the proudest of kings.
Truly it would be hard to name anywhere so brave a band.

4.

When New Year was fresh and but newly come,
the court was served double on the dais.
As soon as the king with his knights was come into the hall,
the chanting in the chapel came to an end;
loud was the cry there of clerks and others.
Noel was celebrated anew, shouted full often;
and afterwards the great ones ran about to take handsel;3
called aloud for New Year’s gifts;
ladies laughed full loud, though they had lost;
and he that won was not wroth,
that may ye well trow.
All this mirth they made till the meat time.
When they had washed,
worthily they went to their seats,
the best man ever above,
as it best behoved.
Queen Guinevere full beauteous was set in the midst,
placed on the rich dais adorned all about.
Fine silk at the sides,
a canopy over her of precious cloth of Toulouse
and tapestries of Tars,4 that were embroidered
and set with the best gems that money could buy.
Truly no man could say that he ever beheld
a comelier lady than she,
with her dancing gray eyes.

5.

But Arthur would not eat till all were served.
He was so merry in his mirth,
and somewhat childlike in his manner;
his life pleased him well;
he loved little either to lie long or to sit long,
so busied him his young blood and his wild brain.
And another custom moved him also,
that he through chivalry had taken up;
he would never eat upon such a dear day before he was told
an uncouth tale of some adventurous thing,
of some great marvel that he could believe,
of ancient heroes, of arms, or of other adventures;
or unless some person demanded of him
a sure knight to join with him in jousting,
to incur peril, to risk life against life,
trusting each in the other,
leaving the victory to fortune.
This was the king’s custom whenever he held court
at each goodly feast among his free company in the hall.
And so with undaunted face he strides
stoutly to his seat on that New Year,
making great mirth with everybody.

6.

Thus the great king stands waiting before the high table,
talking of trifles full courteously.
The good Gawain was placed there beside Guinevere,
and Agravain of the Hard Hand sat on the other side,
both of them the king’s sister’s sons and full sure knights.
Bishop Baldwin at the top begins the table,
and Ywain, Urien’s son, ate by himself.
These were placed on the dais and honorably served,
and after them many a good man at the side tables.
Then the first course came in with blare of trumpets,
which were hung with many a bright banner.
A new noise of kettle-drums with the noble pipes,
wild and stirring melodies wakened the echoes;
that many a heart heaved full high at their tones.
Dainties of precious meats followed,
foison of fresh viands, and on so many dishes
that it was difficult to find place before the people
to set on the cloth the silver that held the several courses.
Each man as he himself preferred partook without hesitation.
Every two5 had twelve dishes between them,
good beer and bright wine both.

7.

Now will I tell you no more of their service,
for everybody must well understand that there was no
lack of opportunity for the people to take their food.6
Another noise full new suddenly drew nigh,
for scarcely had the music ceased a moment,
and the first course been properly served in the court,
than there burst in at the hall door an awesome being,
in height one of the tallest men in the world;
from the neck to the waist so square and so thick was he,
and his loins and his limbs so long and so great,
that half giant I believed him to have been,
or, at any rate, the largest of men,
and withal the handsomest in spite of his bulk, that ever rode;
for though his back and breast were so vast,
yet his belly and waist were properly slim;
and all his form according, full fairly shaped.
At the hue of his noble face men wondered;
he carried himself in hostile fashion
and was entirely green.

8.

All green was this man and his clothing;
a straight coat sat tight to his sides;
a fair mantle above, adorned within;
the lining showed, with costly trimming of shining white fur;
and such his hood also, that was caught back
from his locks and lay on his shoulders,
the hem well stretched;7
hose of the same green, that clung to his calf;
and clean spurs under, of bright gold
upon silk bands richly barred,
and shoes8 on his shanks as the hero rides.
And all his vesture verily was clean verdure,
both the bars of his belt, and the other beauteous stones
that were set in fine array about himself
and his saddle, worked on silk.
It would be too difficult to tell the half
of the trifles that were embroidered there,
with birds and flies, with gay gauds of green,
— the good over in the middle; the pendants of the poitrel,
the proud crupper, the bits,
— and all the metal was enamelled;
the stirrups that he stood on were coloured the same,
and his saddle bow likewise, and his fine reins9
that glimmered and glinted all of green stones.
The horse that he rode on was of the same colour too,
a green horse, great and thick,
a steed full stiff to guide,
in gay embroidered bridle,
and one right dear to his master.

9.

This hero was splendidly dressed in green;
and the hair of his head matched that of his horse;10
fair flowing locks enfolded his shoulders;
a beard as big as a bush hung over his breast;
and it, together with his splendid hair that reached from his head,
was trimmed evenly all round above his elbows,
so that half his arms were caught thereunder
in the manner of a king’s hood,11
that covers his neck.
The mane of that great horse was much like it,
very curly and combed,
with knots full many folded in with gold wire about the fair green,
— always one knot of the hair, another of gold.
The tail and the forelock were twined in the same way,
and both bound with a band of bright green,
set with full precious stones the whole length of the dock,
and then tied up with a thong in a tight knot;
where rang many bells full bright of burnished gold.
Such a steed in the world,
such a hero as rides him,
was never beheld in that hall before that time.
His glances were like bright lightning,
so said all that saw him.
It seemed as if no man could endure under his blows.

10.

He had neither helm nor hauberk,
nor gorget, armour nor breastplate,
nor shaft nor shield to guard or to smite;
but in his one hand he had a holly twig,
that is greenest when groves are bare,
and an axe in his other,
a huge and prodigious one,
a weapon merciless almost beyond description;
the head had the vast length of an ellyard,
the blade all of green steel and of beaten gold;
the bit12 brightly burnished, with a broad edge,
as well shaped for cutting as sharp razors.
The stern warrior gripped it by13 the steel of its stout staff,
which was wound with iron to the end of the wood
and all engraven with green in beauteous work.
A lace was lapped about it, that was fastened at the head,
and tied up often along the helve,
with many precious tassels attached
on rich embroidered buttons of the bright green.
This hero turns him in and enters the hall,
riding straight to the high dais,
fearless of mischief.
He greeted never a one, but looked loftily about,
and the first word that he uttered was:
“Where is the governor of this company?
Gladly I would see that hero and speak with him.”
He cast his eye on the knights and rode fiercely up and down,
stopped and gan ponder who was there
the most renowned.

11.

All gazed fixedly on the man,
for everybody marvelled what it might mean,
that a knight and a horse could have such a colour:
as green grown as the grass, and greener, it seemed;
shining brighter than green enamel on gold.
All were amazed who stood there,
and stalked nearer to him,
with all the wonder in the world what he would do;
for many marvels had they seen, but such never before.
Therefore for phantom and faery the folk there deemed it;
and for that reason many a noble warrior was slow to answer,
and all were astonished at his voice and sat stone still
in a deep silence through the rich hall.
Their voices14 sank as though they had suddenly fallen asleep.
I deem, however, that it was not all for fear,
but somewhat for courtesy.
But now let him to whom all defer
undertake the wight.

12.

Then Arthur before the high dais beheld that adventure,
and saluted the stranger properly,
for never was he afraid, and said,
“Sir, welcome indeed to this place.
I am called Arthur, the head of this hostel.
Light courteously down and tarry, I pray thee;
and whatso thy will is we shall wit after.”
“Nay, so help me he that sits on high,” quoth the hero.
“To dwell any time in this house was not my errand;
but because the fame of this people is lifted up so high,
and thy town and thy men are held the best,
the stoutest in steel gear on steeds to ride,
the wightest and the worthiest of the world’s kind,
and proved opponents in other proper sports;
and here courtesy is known, as I have heard tell,
— it is this that has enticed me hither certainly at this time.
You may be sure by this branch that I bear here
that I pass in peace and seek no quarrel;
for if I had set out with a company in fighting fashion,
I have a hauberk at home and a helm both,
a shield and a sharp spear shining bright,
and other weapons to wield, I ween well also;
but since I wished no war, my weeds are softer.
Now if thou be as bold as all men tell,
thou wilt grant me graciously the game that I ask.”
Arthur knew how to answer,
and said: “Sir courteous knight,
if it is battle that thou cravest,
thou shalt not fail of a fight here.”

13.

“Nay, I demand no fight; in faith I tell thee
there are but beardless children about on this bench.
If I were hasped in arms on a high steed
there is no man here to match me,
their might is so weak.
Therefore I crave in this court a Christmas game,
for it is Yule and New Year,
and here are many gallants.
If there be a man in this house who holds himself so hardy,
is so bold in his blood, so rash in his head,
that he dares stiffly strike one stroke for another,
I shall give him as my gift this rich gisarm,
this axe, that is heavy enough, to handle as he likes;
and I shall abide the first blow as bare as I sit.
If any warrior be wight enough to try what I propose,
let him leap lightly to me and take this weapon —
I quit-claim it forever, let him keep it as his own —
and I shall stand him a stroke firmly on this floor.
At another time, by our Lady,
thou wilt grant me the boon of dealing him another blow;
I will give him respite of a twelvemonth and a day.
Now hie, and let us see quickly
if any herein dare say aught.”

14.

If he had astonished them at first,
stiller were then all the retainers in hall,
the high and the low.
The warrior on his steed settled himself in his saddle,
and fiercely his red eyes he reeled about;
bent his thick brows, shining green;
and waved his beard, awaiting whoso would rise.
When none would answer him he coughed aloud,
stretched himself haughtily and began to speak;
“What! Is this Arthur’s house,” said the hero then,
“that is famous through so many realms?
Where is now your pride and your conquests,
your fierceness, and your wrath and your great words?
Now is the revel and the renown of the Round Table
overcome by the word of a single man;
for all tremble for dread without a blow shown.”
With this he laughed so loud that the lord grieved;
the blood shot for shame into his fair face.
He waxed as wroth as the wind;
and so did all that were there.
The king so keen of mood
then stood near that proud man.

15.

“Sir,” said he, “by heaven thy asking is foolish;
and as thou hast demanded folly,
it behooves thee to find it.
I know no man that is aghast of thy great words.
Give me now this gisarm, for God’s sake,
and I will grant thy boon that thou has bidden.”
Quickly he leaped to him and caught at his hand;
and the other alights fiercely on foot.
Now Arthur has his axe, and grips the helve;
he whirls it sternly about as if he meant to strife with it.
The bold stranger stood upright before him,
higher than any in the house by a head and more;
with stern cheer he stood there, stroked his beard,
and with cool countenance drew down his coat,
no more afraid or dismayed for Arthur’s great strokes
than if some one had brought him a drink of wine upon the bench.
Gawain, that sat by the queen, turned to the king:
“I beseech now with all courtesy
that this affair might be mine.”

16.

“Would ye, worthy lord,” quoth Gawain to the king,
“bid me step from this bench and stand by you there,
— that I without rudeness might leave this table
and that my liege lady liked it not ill —
I would come to your help before your rich court;
for methinks it is obviously unseemly that such an asking
is made so much of in your hall,
even though ye yourself be willing to take it upon you,
while so many bold ones sit about you on the bench;
than whom, I ween,
none under heaven are higher of spirit,
nor more mighty on the field where strike is reared.
I am the weakest, I know, and feeblest of wit;
and to tell the truth there would be the least loss in my life.
I am only to praise forasmuch as ye are my uncle;
no other nobility than your blood know I in my body.
And since this adventure is so foolish,
it belongs not to you;
I have asked it of you first; give it to me.
Let this great court decide15 if I have not spoken well.”
The heroes took counsel together
and they all gave the same advice, —
to free the crowned king
and give the game to Gawain.

17.

Then the king commanded Gawain to rise from the table;
and he right quickly stood up and made himself ready,
kneeled down before the king and took the weapon;
and Arthur lovingly left it to him,
lifted up his hand and gave him God’s blessing,
and gladly bade him be hardy both of heart and of hand.
“Take care, cousin,” quoth the king,
“that thou give him a cut;
and if thou handle him properly,
I readily believe that thou shalt endure
the blow which he shall give after.”
Gawain goes to the man with gisarm in hand;
and he boldly awaits him,
shrinking never a whit.
Then speaks to Sir Gawain the knight in the green;
“Rehearse we our agreement before we go farther.
First, I conjure thee,
hero, how thou art called,
that thou tell me it truly,
so that I may believe it.”
“In good faith,” quoth the knight, “Gawain am I called,
who give you this buffet, whatever befalls after;
and at this time twelvemonth I am to take from thee another
with whatever weapon thou wilt, and from no wight else alive.”
The other answers again, “Sir Gawain,
so thrive I as I am heartily glad
that thou shalt give this blow.”

18.

“By Gog,” quoth the green knight, “Sir Gawain,
it delights me that I am to get at thy fist
what I have requested here;
and thou hast readily and truly rehearsed
the whole of the covenant that I asked of the king,
save that thou shalt assure me, sir, by thy troth,
that thou wilt seek me thyself wheresoever thou thinkest
I may be found upon the earth,
and fetch for thyself such wages as thou dealest me today
before this rich company.”
“Where should I seek thee?” quoth Gawain. “Where is thy place?
I know never where thou livest,
by him that wrought me;
nor do I know thee, knight, thy court, nor thy name.
But tell me truly the way and how thou art called,
and I will use all my wit to win my way thither, —
and that I swear thee, for a sooth, and by my sure troth.”
“New Year will suffice for that; no more is needed now,”
quoth the man in green to Gawain the courteous.
“To tell the truth, after I have received thy tap,
and thou hast smitten me well, I shall promptly inform thee
of my house and my home and mine own name.
Then thou mayest inquire about my journey and hold promise;
and if I speak no speech, then thou speedest the better,
for thou mayest linger at ease in thy land and seek no further.
Take now thy grim tool to thee and let us see how thou knockest.”
“Gladly, sir, for sooth,” quoth Gawain
as he strokes his axe.

19.

The green knight on the ground prepared himself properly.
With the head a little bowed he disclosed the flesh.
His long, lovely locks he laid over his crown,
and let the naked nape of his neck show for the blow.
Gawain gripped his axe and gathered it on high;
the left foot he set before on the ground,
and let the axe light smartly down on the naked flesh,16
so that the sharp edge severed the giant’s bones,
and shrank through the clear flesh17 and sheared it in twain,
till the edge of the brown steel bit into the ground.
The fair head fell from the neck to the earth,
and many pushed it with their feet where it rolled forth.
The blood burst from the body and glistened on the green.
Yet never faltered nor fell the hero for all that;
but stoutly he started up with firm steps,
and fiercely he rushed forth where the heroes stood,
caught his lovely head, and lifted it up straightaway.
Then he turned to his steed, seized the bridle,
stepped into the steel bow and strode aloft,
holding the head in his hand by the hair;
and as soberly the man sat in his saddle
as if no mishap had ailed him,
though he was headless on the spot.
He turned his trunk about —
that ugly body that bled.
Many a one of them thought
that he had lost his reason.

20.

For he held the head straight up in his hand;
turned the face toward the highest on the dais;
and it lifted up the eyelids and looked straight out,
and spoke thus much with his mouth,
as ye may now hear: “Look Gawain,
that thou be ready to go as thou has promised,
and seek loyally, hero, till thou find me;
as thou has promised in this hall in the hearing of these knights.
To the green chapel go thou, I charge thee,
to receive such a blow as thou has dealt.
Thou deservest to be promptly paid on New Year’s morn.18
As the knight of the green chapel many men know me;
therefore, if thou strivest to find me, thou shalt never fail.
And so come, or it behooves thee to be called recreant.”
With a wild rush he turned the reins,
and flew out at the hall door — his head in his hand —
so that the fire of the flint flew from the foal’s hoofs.
To what country he vanished knew none there;
no more than they wist whence he was come.
The king and Gawain roared with laughter at that green man;
but this adventure was reckoned
a marvel among men.

21.

Though the courteous king wondered in his heart,
he let no semblance be seen,
but said aloud to the comely queen with courteous speech,
“Dear dame, today be never dismayed;
well becoming are such tricks at Christmas,
in lack of entertainment, to laugh and sing about
among these pleasant carols of knights and ladies.
Nevertheless I may well go to my meat,
for I can not deny that I have seen a marvel.”
He glanced at Sir Gawain and said cheerfully,
“Now, sir, hang up thine axe;
it has hewn enough.” And it was put above the dais
to hang on the tapestry where all men might marvel at it,
and by it avouch the wonderful happening.
Then they turned to the board, these heroes together —
the king and the good knight —
and the keen men served them double of all dainties,
as was most fitting;
with all manner of meat, and minstrelsy both.
They spent that day in joy until it came to an end.
Now take care, Sir Gawain, that thou blench not
for the pain to prosecute this adventure
that thou has taken on hand.

1. Construction clear, though sense odd. Antenor and Aeneas were the traitors who in the mediaeval story of Troy handed over the city to the Greeks. Antenor remained unpopular, but Aeneas suffered no loss of reputation. See Lydgate’s Troy Book in the publications of the Early English Text Soc., Bk. IV, l. 4539f.

2. Dancing and singing in a ring.

3. New Year’s gifts of good omen.

4. Oriental figured stuff.

5. It was extremely sumptuous having only two at a mess; i.e. only two sharing the same cup and platter.

6. It seems to make somewhat better sense if we transpose, as has here been done, lines 132 and 133; otherwise this passage means that a second course came in heralded by new music.

7. Translation doubtful.

8. Translation doubtful.

9. Our “reins” is a mere stop-gap. The MS. has the puzzling sturtes.

10. Translating hors swete of the MS. as “horse’s suite.”

11. The word capados here translated as “hood” is rare. It might conceivably mean “camail,” a protection of mail for the neck and part of the head, that hung down from or under the helm.

12. ”Bit” is still used for the cutting edge of an axe.

13. Not in the MS.

14. Possibly “faces” or “looks.”

15. This word is supplied. Perhaps “speak” would be more conservative.

16. Some such word has to be supplied after naked.

17. ”Grease” in the original.

18. Morris’s punctuation of this passage has been altered.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/literature/epic/sir_gawain_and_the_green_knight/chapter1.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:31