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Other Characters in Arthurian Legend
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Book I

Book IBook II  |  Book III

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
J. R. R. Tolkien (Translator)
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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

(1)

The siege and assault having ceased at Troy
as its blazing battlements blackened to ash,
the man who had planned and plotted that treason
had trial enough for the truest traitor!
Then Aeneas the prince and his honored line
plundered provinces and held in their power
nearly all the wealth of the western isles.
Thus Romulus swiftly arriving at Rome
sets up that city and in swelling pride
gives it his name, the name it now bears;
and in Tuscany Tirius raises up towns,
and in Lombardy Langoberde settles the land,
and far past the French coast Felix Brutus
founds Britain on broad hills, and so bright hopes
begin,
where wonders, wars, misfortune
and troubled times have been,
where bliss and blind confusion
have come and gone again.

(2)

From the founding of Britain by this brave prince,
bold men have bred there, burning for war,
stirring up turmoil through the turning years.
More wonders in the world have been witnessed here
than anywhere else from that age forward.
But of all who were crowned kings over Britain
the most honor was Arthur's, as old tales tell.
So I mean to make known a marvel on earth,
an astonishing sight, as some men would call it,
an extraordinary exploit among Arthur's wonders.
Listen to this lay for a little while
and as townsmen tell it, so this tale will trip
along,
a story pinned in patterns
steadfast, steady, strong:
aligned in linking letters
as folk have loved so long.



Book I: Christmas in Camelot
(3)

One Christmas in Camelot King Arthur sat
at ease with his lords and loyal liegemen
arranged as brothers round the Round Table.
Their reckless jokes rang about that rich hall
till they turned from the table to the tournament field
and jousted like gentlemen with lances and laughs,
then trooped to court in a carolling crowd.
For the feast lasted a full fifteen days
of meals and merriment (as much as could fit.)
Such gay glee must gladden the ear --
by day what a din, and dancing by night!
The halls and chambers were heaped with happy
lords and ladies as high as you like!
There they were gathered with all the world's goodness:
knights as kind as Christ himself,
ladies as lovely as ever have lived,
and the noblest king our nation has known.
They were yet in the pride, in the prime of their youth,
and filled
as full of heaven's blessing
as the king had strength of will.
And mighty men surpassing
all were gathered on that hill.

(4)

While the year was as young as New Years can be
the dais was prepared for a double feast.
The king and his company came in together
when mass had been chanted; and the chapel emptied
as clergy and commons alike cried out,
"Noel! Noel!" again and again.
And the lords ran around loaded with parcels,
palms extended to pass out presents,
or crowded together comparing gifts.
The ladies laughed when they lost at a game
(that the winner was willing, you may well believe!)
Round they milled in a merry mob till the meal was ready,
washed themselves well, and walked to their places
(the best for the best on seats raised above.)
Then Guinevere moved gaily among them,
took her place on the dais, which was dearly adorned
with sides of fine silk and a canopied ceiling
of sheer stuff: and behind her shimmering tapestries from far Tarsus,
embroidered, bedecked with bright gems
that the jewelers would pay a pretty price for
any day,
but the finest gem in the field of sight
looked back: her eyes were grey.
That a lovelier's lived to delight
the gaze - is a lie, I'd say!

(5)

But Arthur would not eat till all were served.
He bubbled to the brim with boyish spirits:
liked his life light, and loathed the thought
of lazing for long or sitting still longer.
So his young blood boiled and his brain ran wild,
and in many ways moved him still more
as a point of honor never to eat
on a high holiday till he should have heard
a strange story of stirring adventures,
of mighty marvels to make the mind wonder,
of princes, prowess, or perilous deeds.
Or someone might come, seeking a knight
to join him in jousting, enjoying the risk
of laying their lives on the line like men
leaving to fortune the choice of her favor.
This was the king's custom at court,
the practice he followed at pleasant feasts held
in his hall;
therefore with bold face
he stood there straight and tall.
As New Years proceeded apace
he meant to have mirth with them all.

(6)

So he stood there stock-still, a king standing tall,
talking of courtly trifles before the high table.
By Guinevere sat Gawain the Good,
and Agravaine of the Heavy Hand on the other side:
knights of great worth, and nephews to the king.
Baldwin, the bishop, was above, by the head,
with Ywain, Urien's son, sitting across.
These sat at the dais and were served with due honor;
and many mighty men were seated on either side.
Then the first course came with a clamor of trumpets
whose banners billowed bright to the eye,
while kettledrums rolled and the cry of the pipes
wakened a wild, warbling music
whose touch made the heart tremble and skip.
Delicious dishes were rushed in, fine delicacies
fresh and plentiful, piled so high on so many platters
they had problems finding places to set down
their silver bowls of steaming soup: no spot
was clear.
Each lord dug in with pleasure,
and grabbed at what lay near:
twelve platters piled past measure,
bright wine, and foaming beer.

(7)

I need say no more how they served the food,
for what fool would fancy their feast was a famine?
But a new noise announced itself quickly enough
to grant the high lord leave to have dinner.
The music had finished but a moment before,
the first course just served, and set before the court,
when a horrible horseman hurtled through the doors,
his body as brawny as any can be,
so bull-necked, big-thighed, bulky and square,
so long-legged, large-limbed, looming so tall
I can hardly tell if he were half troll,
or merely as large as living man can be --
a handsome one too; as hearty a hulk as ever rode horse.
His back and chest were broad as a barrel,
but he slimmed at the waist, with a slender stomach,
and his face was well formed, with features sharp
and clean --
Men sat there gaping, gasping
at his strange, unearthly sheen,
as if a ghost were passing,
for every inch was green.

(8)

He was got up in green from head to heel:
a tunic worn tight, tucked to his ribs;
and a rich cloak cast over it, covered inside
with a fine fur lining, fitted and sewn
with ermine trim that stood out in contrast
from his hair where his hood lay folded flat;
and handsome hose of the same green hue
which clung to his calves, with clustered spurs
of bright gold; beneath them striped embroidered silk
above his bare shanks, for he rode shoeless.
His clothes were all kindled with a clear light like emeralds:
His belt buckles sparkled, and bright stones were set
in rich rows arranged up and down
himself and his saddle. Worked in the silk
were too many trifles to tell the half of:
embroidered birds, butterflies, and other things
in a gaudy glory of green and inlaid gold.
And the bit and bridle, the breastplate on the horse,
and all its tackle were trimmed with green enamel,
even the saddlestraps, the stirrups on which he stood,
and the bows of his saddle with its billowing skirts
which glimmered and glinted with green jewels.
The stallion that bore him was the best of its breed
it was plain,
a green horse great and strong,
that sidled, danced and strained,
but the bridle-braid led it along,
turning as it was trained.

(9)

He was a fine fellow fitted in green --
And the hair on his head and his horse's matched.
It fanned out freely enfolding his shoulders,
and his beard hung below as big as a bush,
all mixed with the marvelous mane on his head,
which was cut off in curls cascading to his elbows,
wrapping round the rest of him
like a king's cape clasped to his neck.
And the mane of his mount was much the same,
but curled up and combed in crisp knots,
in braids of bright gold thread and brilliant green
criss-crossed hair by hair.
And the tossing tail was twin to the mane,
for both were bound with bright green ribbons,
strung to the end with long strands of precious stones,
and turned back tight in a twisted knot
bright with tinkling bells of burnished gold.
No such horse on hoof had been seen in that hall,
nor horseman half so strange as their eyes now held
in sight.
He looked a lightning flash,
they say: he seemed so bright;
and who would dare to clash
in melee with such might?

(10)

Yet he had on no hauberk, nor a helmet for his head,
neither neck-guard nor breastplate to break heavy blows,
neither shaft nor shield for the shock of combat.
But he held in one hand a sprig of holly
that bursts out greenest when branches are bare;
and his other hand hefted a huge and awful ax,
a broad battleax with a bit to tell (take it who can)
with a large head four feet long:
the green steel down the grain etched with gold,
its broad edge burnished and bright,
shaped razor-sharp to sheer through steel,
and held high on a heavy staff
which was bound at the base with iron bands
gracefully engraved in bright green patterns.
A strap was strung through the steel head, running
loop after loop down the length of the handle,
which was tied with tassels in abundance, attaching
by rich braids onto bright green buttons.
This rider reined in as he rode through the doors
direct to the high dais without a word,
giving no greeting, gazing down on them all.
His first word came when he stopped. "Where," he said,
"is the master of these men? I've a mind to see
his face and would fancy a chat with the fellow who wears
the crown."
To each lord he turned
and glancing up and down
he fixed each face to learn
which knight held most renown.

(11)

They stared at the stranger, stunned, a very long time.
For each man wondered what it might mean
that man and mount both shone a shade
as green as the grass, and greener even
than green enamel glows when gold makes it brighter.
All eyes were on him, and some edged closer,
wondering what in the world he would do.
They had seen enough strange sights to know how seldom they are real;
therefore they feared him for a phantom, a sending from the Unseen Realm.
So of all those noble knights, none dared answer
but sat there stupefied by the strength of his voice.
A silence fell filling that rich hall as if they'd all fainted
or suddenly slept: their voices just vanished
at their height.
Some, I suppose, were not floored,
but chose to be polite,
letting their leader and lord
be first to speak to that knight.

(12)

Arthur stood watching adventure advance
and answered quickly as honor bid, neither awed nor afraid,
saying, "Wanderer, know you are welcome here.
dismount, if you may; make merry as you wish,
and we may learn in a little while what you would like."
"So help me God who sits on high," he said, "No."
"It is not my purpose to pass any time in this place.
But I have been told that your reputation towers to heaven:
that your court and castle are accounted the finest,
your knights and their steeds as the sturdiest in steel,
the best, the boldest, the bravest on earth,
and as fitting foes in any fine sport.
True knighthood is known here, or so the tale runs,
which is why I have come calling today.
You may be sure by this branch that I bear
that I come in peace, with no plans for battle.
I have a hauberk at home, and a helmet too,
and other weapons I know well how to wield.
Yet as war is not my wish I am wearing soft silk,
but, if you are as bold as men believe you to be,
you will be glad to grant me the game that is mine
by right."
Then Arthur said, "I swear,"
"most courteous, noble knight,
if you'd like to battle bare,
you'll not fail to find a fight."

(13)

"Never fear," he said, "I'm not fishing for a fight
with the beardless children on the benches all about.
If I were strapped on steel on a sturdy horse
no man here has might to match me.
No, I have come to this court for a bit of Christmas fun
fitting for Yuletide and New Years with such a fine crowd.
Who here in this house thinks he has what it takes,
has bold blood and a brash head,
and dares to stand his ground, giving stroke for stroke?
Here! I shall give him this gilded blade as my gift;
this heavy ax shall be his, to handle as he likes.
and I shall stand here bare of armor, and brave the first blow.
If anyone's tough enough to try out my game,
let him come here quickly and claim his weapon!
I give up all rights; he will get it for keeps.
I'll stand like a tree trunk -- he can strike at me once,
if you'll grant me the right to give as good as I get
in play.
But later is soon enough,
a full year and a day.
Get up, if you think you're rough,
let's see what you dare to say!"

(14)

If at first he had stunned them, now they sat stone-still:
the whole hall, both high and low.
The mounted man moved in his saddle,
glared a red glance grimly about,
arched his bushy brows, all brilliant and green,
his beard waving as he waited for one man to rise,
to call or came forward. He coughed loudly,
stretched slowly, and straightened to speak.
"Hah! They call this King Arthur's house,
a living legend in land after land?
Where have your pride and your power gone,
your bragging boasts, your big words?
The glories and triumphs of the Round Table
have toppled at the touch of one man's words!
What? Fainting with fear, when no fight is offered?"
He let out a laugh so loud that Arthur winced
with shame; the blood shot to his flushed face
and churned
with rage and raised a storm
until their hearts all burned.
All king in face and form,
he reached that rider, turned,

(15)

and said, "Look here, by heaven! Have you lost your mind?
If you want to be mad, I will make you welcome!
Nobody I know is bowled over by your big words,
so help me God! Hand me that ax --
I will grant you the gift you beg me to give!"
He leaped lightly up and lifted it from his hand.
Then the man dismounted, moving proudly,
while Arthur held the ax, both hands on the haft,
hefted it sternly, considered his stroke.
That burly man bulked big and tall,
a head higher than anyone in the house.
He stood there hard-faced, stroking his beard,
impassively watching as he pulled off his coat,
no more moved or dismayed by his mighty swings
than anybody would be if somebody brought him a bottle
of wine.
Gawain, sitting by the queen,
could tell the king his mind:
"Lord, hear well what I mean,
and let this match be mine."

(16)

"Grant leave, good lord," said Gawain to the king,
"to stir from my seat and stand by your side;
that I might rise without rudeness from this table
without fear of offending your fair queen,
and come before your court as a counselor should.
It is plainly improper, as people know well,
to point this proposal at the prince himself.
Though you may be eager to act for yourself,
there are so many bold knights on the benches all about,
none more masterful in mind maybe than move move under heaven,
nor many built better for the field of battle.
Of all your men of war I am the weakest and least wise,
and my life little enough to lose, if you look at it clearly.
My only honor is that you are my uncle;
my only boast is that my body carries your blood.
Since this whole matter is such a mockery, it is not meant for you;
and I am first on the field: let this folly be mine.
If my claim is uncalled-for let the court judge; I will bear
the blame."
They huddled hushed around
and all advised the same:
respect the royal crown,
and give Gawain the game.

(17)

Then the king commanded him to rise and come forward,
and he stood quickly, walked with stately steps
to kneel before the king and claim his weapon.
Arthur handed it over and held up his hand
to give him God's blessing. With a glad smile
he charged him to be hardy in heart.
"Cousin, careful," he said, "cut him but once.
and if you teach him truly, I trust you will find
you can bear the blow that he brings you later."
Gawain went to the warrior, weapon in hand,
not the least bit bashful, as bold as can be.
Then the Green Knight said to Gawain,
"We should go over our agreement before we begin.
First, knight, I would know your name,
told truly as one I can trust."
"My name is Gawain," he said, "I give it in good faith,
as I will give you a blow and bear what comes after.
At this time in twelve months I will take a blow back
from what weapon you wish, but from no other knight
alive."
The other answering spoke,
"Sir Gawain: good. I derive
great pleasure from the stroke
your hardy hands will drive."

(18)

"Gad!" the Green Knight said. "Sir Gawain, I am glad
that your fist will fetch me the fun I hoped to find.
You have quickly retold in trustworthy words
a correct account of the contract I asked of the king,
save one stipulation that I must state: let it stand as your oath
that you will seek me yourself, and search anywhere
you feel I may be found to fetch back the same wages
I am paid today before this proud court."
"Where should I look?" Gawain asked, "Where do you live?"
"By Him that made me, your house is not known to me,
neither do I know you, knight, nor your court nor your name.
But teach me truly, tell me where to find you
and I shall work my wits out to win my way there.
I give my plain promise; I pledge you my word."
"That is enough for a New Year's pledge; you need say no more,"
-- So the green man answered gracious Gawain --
"If I'm telling the truth, why, when I've taken your tap,
and you've lopped me lovingly, you'll learn at once
of my house and my home and how I am named.
Then you can try my hospitality and be true to our compact.
Or I'll have no words to waste, which would be well for you:
you'd relax in this land, and not look for me further.
But stop!
Take up the grim tool you need,
and show me how you chop."
"Gladly, sir," he said, "Indeed,"
and gave the ax a strop.

(19)

The green knight got ready, feet firm on the ground;
leaned his head a little to let the cheek show,
and raised the rich riot of his hair
so the nape of his neck was naked and exposed.
Gawain held the ax high overhead,
his left foot set before him on the floor,
swung swiftly at the soft flesh
so the bit of the blade broke through the bones,
crashed through the clear fat and cut it in two,
and the brightly burnished edge bit into the earth.
The handsome head fell, hit the ground,
and rolled forward; they fended it off with their feet.
The red blood burst bright from the green body,
yet the fellow neither faltered nor fell
but stepped strongly out on sturdy thighs,
reached roughly right through their legs,
grabbed his graceful head and lifted it from the ground,
ran to his horse, caught hold of the reins,
stepped in the stirrup, strode into the saddle,
the head dangling by the hair from his hand,
and seated himself as firmly in the saddle
as if he were unhurt, though he sat on his horse without
a head.
He swiveled his bulk about;
the ugly stump still bled.
They gaped in fear and doubt
because of the words he said.

(20)

For he held the head up evenly in his hand,
turned the face toward the top of the high table,
and the eyelids lifted and looked on them all
while the mouth moved, making these words:
"Gawain, get ready to go as you have promised,
Seek me out, sir; search till you find me
as sworn here in this hall where all these knights heard.
I charge you, come as you chose to the Green Chapel to get
as good as you gave -- you've got it coming
and will be paid promptly when another year has passed.
Many men know me as the Knight of the Green Chapel,
so search faithfully and you'll not fail to find me.
Come, or be called a faithless coward!"
He roared like a raging bull, turned the reins,
and drove for the door, still dangling the head,
while fire flashed from the horse's feet as if its hooves were flints.
Where he went no one knew,
nor could they name the country he came from nor his kin.
What then?
The king and Gawain grinned
and laughed at the Green Knight when
they knew full well it had been
a portent to their men.

(21)

Though High King Arthur's heart was heavy with wonder
he let no sign of it be seen, but said aloud
with a king's courtesy to his lovely queen:
"Beloved lady, never let this dismay you.
It is good to get such games at Christmas,
light interludes, laughter and song,
or the whole court singing carols in chorus.
But truly, I can turn now to my table and feast;
as my word is good, I have witnessed a wonder."
He turned to Sir Gawain and tactfully said,
"Hang up your ax; it has cut all it can."
It was attached to a tapestry above the high table
for all men to marvel on who might see it there,
as a true token of a tale of wonder.
Then they sat in their seats to resume their feast,
Gawain and the king together, while good men served them
the rarest, dearest delicacies in double portions,
with whole batteries of the best foods, and the singing of bards.
The day finished, and their feast was filled with joy
and zest.
Sir Gawain, have a care
to keep your courage for the test,
and do the deed you've dared.
You've begun: now brave the rest.

Forward to Book II

(back to top)

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