Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Fytte the Fourth


Now nighs the New Year, and the night passes.
The day drives on to the dark, as God bids;
but outside wild storms wakened in the world;
clouds cast the cold keenly to the earth;
with discomfort enough to the naked,
the snow from the north flew sharply,
and nipped the game.
The blustering wind blew from the heights,
and drove each dale full of great drifts.
The man who lay in his bed heard it right well;
though he locks his lids, full little he sleeps.
By each cock that crew he knew well the hour.
Promptly he leaped up ere the day sprang,
for there was the light of a lamp that gleamed in his chamber.
He called to his chamberlain,
who quickly answered him,
and bade him bring his burnie and saddle his horse.
The chamberlain gets up and fetches him his weeds,
and arrays Sir Gawain in proper fashion.
First he dressed him in his clothes to keep out the cold,
and then he put on the rest of his harness,
that had been well kept,
both mail and plate,
and brightly polished.
The rings of his rich burnie had been rocked from the rust,91
and all was fresh as at first;
and Gawain was fain to give thanks for it.
The attendant had wiped each piece well and often.
Then the noblest man betwixt here and Greece bade his steed be brought.


Meanwhile, he threw upon himself his finest weeds;
his surcoat with its cognisance of excellent work,
virtuous stones set upon velvet,
all wrought about and bound with embroidered seams,
and fairly furred within with rare skins.
Yet left he not the lace, the lady’s gift,
— that forgot not Gawain for his own good.
When he had belted his brand upon his broad haunches,
he dressed his love-token double about him,
the knight swathed sweetly about his waist the girdle of green silk, which became him well,
upon the royal red cloth that was fair to see.
But this hero wore not the girdle for its wealth,
for pride of the pendants,
though they were polished,
and though the glittering gold gleamed on the ends;
but to save himself when it behoved him to suffer,
to await his doom without resistance,
with no brand or knife to defend him.
By this the good man is ready and goes out quickly.
Full often he thanks the distinguished company.


Gringolet the huge and strong was ready,
who had been kept skilfully in the safest manner.
The proud horse in his splendid condition longed for spurring.
The hero approached him,
noticed his coat,
and said soberly,
and by his sooth swore —
“Here, in this castle,
is a company that are mindful of courtesy.
The man who maintains them,
joy may he have;
the dear lady,
love betide her in this life,
since they for charity cherish a guest and uphold honor in their hand.
May the Being reward them who holds the heavens on high —
and also you all.
And if I might live any longer in the world
I should give you some reward if I could.”
Then he stepped into stirrup and strode aloft.
His servant offered him his shield;
he put it on his shoulder.
He spurred Gringolet with his gilt heels,
and the steed jumped on the stone;
no longer he stood still, but pranced.
Gawain’s servant, who bore his lance and helm,
was by then on the horse.
“This castle I entrust to Christ;
may he give it aye good chance!”


The bridge was let down,
and the broad gates unbarred and borne open on both sides.
The hero crossed himself quickly and passed the boards,
praised the porter, who knelt down before him
giving good day and praying God that he save Gawain.
And so he went on his way with his one man that should teach him how to find that dismal place
where he should receive the rueful blow.
They rode by banks where boughs are bare;
they climbed by cliffs where the cold clings;
the sky was upheld, but it was ugly beneath;
mist hung on the moor and melted on the mount;
each hill had a hat, a huge mist-cloak.
Brooks boiled and broke from their banks about,
shattering sheer on their shores where they showered down.
Dreary was the way, where they should travel by the wood,
till soon came the season when the sun rises at that time.
They were on a hill full high, the white snow about them,
when the man that rode beside him bade his master abide.


“I have brought you hither, sir, at this time;
and now ye are not far from that famous spot
that ye have asked and inquired so specially after.
But I shall say to you forsooth, since I know you,
and ye are a man that I love well,
if ye would work by my wit ye should be the better for it.
The place that ye press to is held full perilous.
There dwells in that waste a wight the worst upon earth;
for he is stiff and stern and loves to strike;
and greater he is than any man in the world,
and his body bigger than the four best that are in Arthur’s house,
and bigger than Hector or any other.
He maintains that adventure at the green chapel.
There passes by that place none so proud in arms
but he dins him to death with dint of his hand.
For he is a man without measure and uses no mercy;
for be it churl or chaplain that rides by the chapel,
monk or mass-priest, or any man else,
he likes as well to kill him as to go alive himself.
Therefore I tell ye as truly as ye sit in the saddle,
come ye there ye shall be killed — trust me well —
though ye had twenty lives to spend.
He has dwelt here full long and caused much strife in the land.
Against his sore dints ye cannot defend yourself.


“Therefore, good Sir Gawain, let the fellow alone,
and go away some other road, for God’s sake.
Repair to some other country,
where Christ may speed you;
and I shall hie me home again,
and promise you further —
which I will swear by God and all his good saints,
so help me God and the halidom and oaths enough —
that I will loyally conceal you, and never tell tale
that ever ye fled for any man that I know of.”
“Gramercy,” quoth Gawain. And sternly he added,
“Well worth thee, man, who wishes my good;
and I well believe thou wouldst loyally conceal me.
But if thou kept promise never so faithfully,
and I gave up here, sought for fear to fly as you advise,
I were a knight coward; I could not be excused.
But I will go to the chapel whatever chance may fall,
and talk with that same man the tale that I like,
be it good or evil, as it pleases fate to have it.
Though he be a stern champion to cope with,
and armed with a club, full well can God manage
to save his servants.”


“Mary!” quoth that other man,
“now thou sayest as much as that
thou wilt take upon thyself thine own destruction;
if it pleases thee to lose thy life,
I shall not let nor hinder thee.
Have here thy helm on thy head,
thy spear in thy hand;
and ride down this same lane by yon rock-side
till thou be brought to the bottom of the rugged valley;
then look a little up the grassy slope on thy left hand,
and thou shalt see in that ravine the chapel itself,
and the burly man on the field who keeps it.
Now farewell in God’s name, Gawain the noble,
for all the gold in the world I would not go with thee
nor bear thee fellowship through this wood a foot further.”
At that the man turned his bridle in the wood,
hit the horse with his heels as hard as he could;
leaped over the land,
and left the knight there all alone.
“By God’s self,” quoth Gawain,
“I will neither grieve nor groan.
To God’s will I am full obedient,
and to him I have entrusted myself.”


Then he spurs Gringolet and follows the path;
pushes in by a hollow beside a thicket;
rides through the rough slope right to the dale;
and then he looked about him,
and wild it seemed to him.
He saw no sign of dwelling anywhere around,
but on both sides high steep banks,
and rough hunched crags with projecting stones;
the shadows of the cliffs seemed to him terrible.
Then he paused and held back his horse,
and oft changed his cheer while seeking the chapel.
He saw none such on any side,
and strange it seemed to him.
But soon, a little distance off
on a grassy spot he descried a mound as it were,
a smooth hill by the bank of the stream
near a ford of the flood that ran there.
The burn babbled there as if it were boiling.
The knight urges his steed,
and comes to the hill;
lights nimbly down,
and ties the rein and his rich bridle
to a tree by a rough branch;
then he turns to the hill and walks about it,
debating with himself what it might be.
It had a hole at the end and on either side,
and was overgrown with grass in clumps everywhere,
and was all hollow within —
nothing but an old cave or a crevice of an old crag.
He could not understand it at all.
“Alas, Lord,” quoth the gentle knight,
“can this be the green chapel?
Here about midnight the devil might tell his matins.”


“Now,” quoth Gawain, “it certainly is mysterious here;
this oratory is ugly, overgrown with herbs.
Well it beseems the wight clad in green
here to do his devotions in the devil’s wise.
Now I feel in my five wits
it is the fiend that has made this bargain with me,
to destroy me here.
This is a chapel of mischance;
may ill fortune betide it!
It is the cursedest kirk that ever I came in!”
With high helm on his head,
his lance in his hand,
he strides up to the rock of the rude dwelling.
Then he heard from that high hill,
in a rough cave,
on a bank beyond the brook,
a marvellously savage noise.
Lo, the cliff clattered as though it would split,
as if one were grinding a scythe on a grindstone.
It whirred and screeched like water at a mill;
it rushed and rang that it was ruth to hear.
“By God,” quoth Gawain then,
“that gear, I fancy,
is being prepared to give me a good reception.
Yet though I must lose my life,
fear shall never make me change colour.”


Then the knight called full high:
“Who dwells in this place to keep covenant with me?
For now the good Gawain is passing right here.
If any wight wishes ought, let him come hither fast,
now or never, to fulfill his need!”
“Abide!” quoth one on the bank over his head.
“Thou shalt have in all haste that which I promised thee once.”
Yet he kept on with that noise sharply for a while,
turning and whetting, ere he would come down.
And then he crossed by a crag and came from a hole,
whirling out of a dark place with a fell weapon —
a Danish axe new dight, to give the blow with.
It had fast to the helve a great head,
sharpened on the stone.
Four feet long was the weapon — no less,
by that lace that gleamed full bright.
And the man in the green was arrayed as before —
both his skin and limbs, locks, and beard;
save that on foot he strides fairly on the earth.
He set the steel shaft to the stone and stalked beside it.
When he came to the water, where he did not wish to wade,
he hopped over on his axe, and fiercely advanced,
with savage ferocity pacing the broad snow-covered glade.
Sir Gawain met the knight and bowed to him,
not at all low. The other said, “Now, sweet, sir,
in a covenant a man can trust thee.”


“Gawain,” quoth the green warrior,
“may God preserve thee.
Indeed thou art welcome,
hero, to my place;
and thou hast timed thy travel as a true man should.
And thou knowest the covenants made between us;
at this time twelve month,
thou tookest what fell to thee, —
and I at this New Year was to repay you handsomely.
And now we are in this valley entirely alone;
here are no men to part us, however we may behave.
Have thy helm off thy head, and have here thy pay.
Make no more debate than I offered thee then,
when thou whipped off my head at one blow.”
“Nay,” quoth Gawain, “by God that lent me life,
I shall grudge thee not a whit whatever misfortune falls.
But arrange thee for thy one stroke,
and I shall stand still and hinder thee not the least
from doing the work as you like.”
He bent the neck and bowed down,
showing the flesh all bare;
and behaved as it he cared not.
For no dread would he flinch.


Then the man in green got ready quickly,
gathered up his grim tool to smite Gawain.
With all the might in his body he bare it aloft,
and aimed a savage blow as though he wished to kill him.
Had it driven down as earnestly as he feinted,
the ever doughty one would have been dead of his dint.
But Gawain glanced to one side on the gisarm
as it came gliding down to slay him there in the glade,
and shrank a little with the shoulders from the sharp iron.
The other warrior with a quick motion withheld the bright weapon,
and then he reproved the prince with many proud words.
“Thou art not Gawain,” said the man, “who is held so good,
who never flinched for any army by hill nor by vale;
and now thou fleest for fear before thou feelest any harm.
Such cowardice I never heard of that knight.
I neither winced nor fled, sir, when thou didst strike,
nor tried any tricks in King Arthur’s house.
My head flew to my foot, and yet I never budged;
and thou, ere any harm taken, art fearful in heart.
Wherefore the better man I ought to be called for it.”
“I flinched once,” quoth Gawain, “and will do so no more.
Yet if my head should fall on the stones,
I cannot restore it.”


“But make ready, sir, by thy faith,
and bring me to the point.
Deal to me my destiny, and do it promptly;
for I shall stand thee a stroke,
and not start again till thine axe has hit me —
have here my troth.”
“Have at thee then!” quoth the other,
and heaves it aloft,
and aims as savagely as if he were mad.
He strikes at him mightily,
but touches the man not;
for he withheld his hand cleverly ere it could hurt.
Gawain awaits it properly and flinches with no member,
but stands as a stone,
or a stump that is twisted
into the rocky ground with a hundred roots.
Then merrily spoke the man in the green:
“So, now thou hast thy heart whole it behoves me to hit.
Now keep back the fine hood that Arthur gave thee,
and see if thou canst keep thy neck whole from this stroke.”
Said Gawain in great anger: “Why, thrash on,
thou wild man! Thou threatenest too long.
I guess that thine own heart is timid!”
“Forsooth,” quoth the other warrior,
“thou speakest so fiercely that
I will not delay thine errand a bit longer.”
Then he takes his stride to strike and knits both brow and lip.
No wonder Gawain mislikes it and gives up all thought of escape.


Lightly he lifts his axe and lets
the edge come down fairly on the bare neck.
Yet though he smote rudely,
it hurt him but little;
only cut him on one side so that it severed the skin.
The sharp bit reached the flesh through the fair fat,
so that the bright blood shot over his shoulders to the earth.
And when the hero saw the blood glint on the snow,
he leaped forth more than a spear’s length,
eagerly seized his helm, cast it on his head,
threw his shoulders under his fair shield,
pulled out a bright sword and fiercely spoke.
Never in this world since he was born of his mother
was he half so blithe. “Cease, sir,
of thy blow! Offer me no more.
I have without strife taken a stroke in this place;
and if thou givest me more,
I shall promptly repay and yield quickly again,
trust thou that! Only one stroke falls to me here.
The covenant which we made in Arthur’s halls provided just that;
and therefore, courteous sir, now hold!”


The warrior turned from him and rested on his axe.
He set the shaft on the ground, leaned on the head,
and beheld how the doughty hero stood his ground grimly,
fully armed and devoid of fear.
In his heart it pleased him. Then with a great voice,
and a huge laugh, he spoke merrily to the hero:
“Bold sir, in this place be not so savage.
Nobody has here unmannerly mishandled thee,
nor done but according to the covenant made at the king’s court.
I promised thee a stroke and thou hast it; hold thee well paid.
I release thee of the remnant, of all other rights.
If I had been skilful peradventure I could have given you a worse buffet.
First I menaced you merrily with a pure feint,
and gave thee no blow; which was but justice,
considering the covenant we made on the first night,
and which thou held with me trustily;
for truly all the gain thou gave me as a good man should.
The second feint this morning, sir, I proffered thee,
because thou didst kiss my fair wife and didst hand the kisses over to me;
for these two occasions I gave thee here but two bare feints without harm.
A true man truly restores; such an one need dread no harm.
At the third time thou didst fail; and so take thee that tap.


“For it is my weed that thou wearest,
that same woven girdle.
Mine own wife gave it thee,
I know well, forsooth.
Now know I well thy kisses,
and thy virtues also.
And as for the wooing of my wife,
I managed it myself.
I sent her to try thee,
and truly it seems to me
thou art the most faultless hero
that ever went on foot.
As a pearl is of greater price than white peas,
so is Gawain, in good faith,
compared with other gay knights.
But in this case, sir,
you lacked a little,
and loyalty failed you.
But that was for no amorous work,
nor wooing either,
but because ye loved your life, —
the less I blame you.”
That other brave man stood a great while in a study;
so stricken was he for grief that he groaned within.
All the blood of his breast rushed to his face;
and he shrank for shame when the warrior talked.
This was the first word that the man spoke —
“Cursed be cowardice and covetousness both!
In you is villainy and vice, that destroy virtue.”
Then he caught at the knot and loosed the fastening;
fiercely reached the belt to the warrior himself.
“Lo! there is the deception, foul may it fall!
For fear of thy knock cowardice taught me
to make a truce with covetousness,
to forsake my nature,
which is generosity and loyalty,
that belong to knights.
Now am I faulty and false,
and a coward have ever been.
From treachery and untruth ever come sorrow and care.
Here I confess to you, knight,
that my conduct is all faulty.
Let me but please you now,
and after I shall beware.”


Then the other laughed and said courteously:
“I hold it quite remedied,
the harm that I had.
Thou hast made a clean confession,
acknowledging all thy misdeeds,
and hast received the penance openly
from the point of my edge.
I hold thee quit of that plight,
and purified as clean as if thou hadst
never forfeited since thou wast first born.
And I give thee, sir,
the girdle that is gold hemmed.
Since it is green, as is my gown,
Sir Gawain, ye may think upon this same adventure
where thou goest forth among great princes;
and this shall be a genuine token among chivalrous knights
of the adventure of the green chapel,
and ye shall come again this New Year to my dwelling,
and we shall revel the remnant of this rich feast full well.”
The lord pressed the invitation and said,
“With my wife, who was your great enemy,
I think we shall reconcile you.”


“Nay, forsooth,” quoth the hero;
and seizing his helm,
he took it off quickly and thanked the warrior.
“I have had a good visit, bliss betide you;
and may He pay you well who directs all mercies.
Commend me to that courteous one,
your comely mate;
both the one and the other, my honoured ladies,
who have thus with their craft quaintly beguiled their knight.
But it is no wonder that a fool should rave,
and through wiles of women be won to sorrow.
For so was Adam beguiled by one,
and Solomon by many, indeed;
and Samson also, Delilah dealt him his weird;
and David thereafter was deceived by Bathsheba,
who suffered much sorrow.
Since these men were plagued by their wiles,
it were a huge gain to love them well and believe them not —
if a person but could;
for these men were of old the best,
and the most fortunate,
excellent above all others under the heavens;
and all they were beguiled by women whom they had to do with.92
If I be now deceived, meseems I might be excused.


“But your girdle,” quoth Gawain,
“God reward you for it!
That will I keep with good will;
not for the precious gold,
nor the samite nor the silk,
nor the wide pendants,
for its wealth nor for its beauty
nor for its fine work;
but in sign of my fault I shall behold it oft;
when I ride in renown I shall lament to myself
the fault and the deceit of the crabbed flesh,
how tender it is to catch stains of filth;
and thus when pride shall prick me for prowess of arms,
a look on this love-lace shall moderate my heart.
But one thing I would pray you —
may it displease you not —
since ye are lord of the land yonder
where I have stayed worshipfully with you —
may the Being who upholds the heaven
and sits on high repay you for it! —
how name ye your right name? and then no more.”
“That shall I tell thee truly,” quoth the other then.
“Bernlak de Hautdesert I am called in this land,
through the might of Morgen la Fay,
who dwells in my house.
She has acquired deep learning, hard-won skill,
many of the masteries of Merlin;
— for she has at times dealt in rare magic with that renowned clerk,
who knows all your knights at home.
Morgan the Goddess is therefore her name;
no person is so haughty but she can tame him.


“She sent me in this wise to your rich hall
to assay its pride and try if it were true
that circulates about the great renown
of the Round Table.
She prepared for me this wonder to take away your wits,
to have grieved Guinevere and caused her to die
through fright of that same man,
that ghostly speaker with his head in his hand
before the high table. That is she,
the ancient lady at home.
She is even thine aunt,
Arthur’s half-sister,
the daughter of that Duchess of Tintagel
upon whom dear Uther afterwards begot Arthur,
that is now king.
Therefore, I beg you, sir,
to come to thine aunt; make merry in my house;
my people love thee, and I like thee as well,
sir, by my faith, as I do any man under God
for thy great truth.”
But he answered him nay, he would in no wise.
They embraced and kissed, each entrusted other
to the Prince of Paradise,
and they parted right there in the cold.
Gawain on horse full fair rides boldly to the king’s court,
and the knight all in green whithersoever he would.


Wild ways in the world Gawain now rides on Gringolet,
he who had got the boon of his life.
Oft he harboured in houses, and oft without;
and many an adventure in vale he had, and won oft;
but that I care not at this time to mention in my tale.
The hurt was whole that he had got in his neck;
and he bare the glistening belt about him,
crossed obliquely like a baldric,
the lace fastened under his left arm with a knot,
in token that he was taken in a fault.
And thus he comes to the court,
the knight all sound.
There wakened joy in that dwelling when the great ones knew
that good Gawain had come;
joyous it seemed to them.
The king kisses the knight,
and the queen also;
and afterwards many a sure knight,
who sought to embrace him and asked him of his journey.
And wondrously he tells it,
confessing all the trials that he had,
the adventure of the chapel,
the behavior of the knight,
the love of the lady —
and, at the last, the lace.
He showed them the nick in his neck that he caught
at the lord’s hands for his unloyalty.
He grieved when he had to tell it;
he groaned for sorrow,
and the blood rushed to his face
for shame when he declared it.


“Lo! lord,” quoth the hero,
as he handled the lace,
“this that I bear in my neck is the badge of this blame.
This is the evil and the loss that I have got
from the cowardice and covetousness that I showed there.
This is the token of untruth that I am taken in,
and I must needs wear it while I may last;
for none may hide his shame without mishap,
for where it once is incurred,
depart it will never.”
The king and all the court comfort the knight.
They laugh loud at his tale,
and lovingly agree that the lords and the ladies
that belong to the Table,
each knight of the brotherhood,
should have a baldric,
an oblique band about him of a bright green,
and wear that for the sake of the hero.
And that emblem was accorded the renown of the Round Table,
and he was ever after honoured that had it.
As it is told in the best book of romance,
thus in Arthur’s day this adventure betid,
which the Brutus books bear witness of.
After Brutus the bold hero first came hither,
when the siege and the assault had ceased at Troy,
many adventures of this sort happened.
Now may He that bore the crown of thorns bring us to his bliss.


91. That is, in a barrel of sand.

92. This passage is none too clear.

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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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