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

Book IBook II  |  Book III

Gawain's Journey

This gift of adventure is what Arthur got
to bring in the year with the boasts he liked best.
Yet they said little, but sat, took their seats,
gorged with grim business heaped in their hands.
Gawain was glad when those games began,
but no one should wonder at the weighty ending.
Men's minds may grow merry when their drinks are mighty,
but a year paces past in unforeseen patterns:
The model seldom matches what is made.
So Yule raced by, and the year ran after,
each season passing in set sequence.
After Christmas comes the discomfort of Lent,
which tries the flesh with fish and simple food.
But then the world's weather wrestles with winter:
cold clings to the ground, but clouds rise,
releasing warm rain; rinsing showers
fall to the flat earth; flowers appear,
both field and forest are fringed with green.
Birds busy themselves building, and with brilliant song
celebrate summer, for soon each slope
will rush
to bloom with blossoms set
in lines luxuriant and lush,
while noble notes form nets
that fill the forest hush.


Then the summer season when the west breeze blows
and soft winds sigh on seed and stem.
How the green things glory in their urgent growth
when the dripping dew drops from the leaves,
waiting for the warm sun's welcome glance.
But then Fall flies in, and fills their hearts,
Bidding them be rich, ripe, and ready for winter.
The autumn drought drives up dust
that billows in clouds above the broad earth.
Wild winds whistle, wrestling the sun;
Leaves launch from each limb and land on the soil,
while the green grass fades to grey.
What rose at the first now ripens and rots
till the year has gathered its full yield of yesterdays.
In the way of the world, winter winds

til the Michaelmas moon
brings frost to touch the ground.
When Gawain remembers all too soon
that he is duty bound.


Yet he lingered with Arthur past All Saints Eve
who set up a feast to send his knight off
with revelry rich as the Round Table offered.
Yet lordly knights and lovely ladies
gazing at Gawain anxious with grief
let nothing but laughter pass through their lips.
They made themselves merry for one man's sake.
Sad after supper he sought out his uncle,
spoke of his quest, and clearly proclaimed:
"My life's own liege lord, I ask now your leave.
What this matter means, and how much it costs
you know well enough: nothing worth words.
But soon after dawn I must search out onslaught
and meet the green man: may God be my guide."
Then the highest in that hall hastened together,
Iwain, and Erric, and many another –
Sir Dodinel de Sauvage, the Duke of Clarence,
Lancelot, and Lyonel, and Lucan the Good,
Sir Bors and Sir Bedivere (big men both)
And many proud lords, with Mador de la Port.
Thus the court collected and came near the king
to offer advice with anguished hearts.
So much secret sorrow swept through that hall
that one so good as Gawain must go forth doomed
to bear the brunt of a blow and let his own blade
But Gawain said with cheerful face:
"Why shrink back from the quest?
Though fate bring glory or disgrace
A man must meet the test."


He rested till morning then rose to get ready,
asked early for his armor and they brought it all out,
arranging each piece on a rich, red rug
where the gear all glittered like a gallery of gold.
The strong knight stood there to take up his steel,
dearly dressed in a doublet of silk
and a hooded cloak cunningly made
with a lining of ermine layered inside.
His feet were fitted in fine steel shoes,
and his legs were sheathed in shining greaves
with kneeguards above them, burnished bright
and tied to his knees with tassels of gold --
Then cuisse-plates whose clever curves enclosed
his thick, hard thighs, and were bound there with thongs;
while the mesh of his mail-shirt with its rings of bright metal
richly quilted, wrapped him round,
and well-burnished braces on both of his arms,
gallant elbow-gear and gauntlets of steel,
and all the finest, fairest stuff to fit him
for his ride
a surcoat richly made,
his gold spurs worn with pride,
girt with a glistening blade,
a silk sash round his side.


When he got it all on his gear was splendid:
each loop and latch-hook lustrous with gold.
He left as he was, then listened to mass
offered in honor before the high altar,
came to the king and his court companions,
took loving leave of lords and ladies
in a crowd of kisses and hopes for Christ's care.
Gringolet was groomed and ready to go,
his gleaming saddle gaily fringed with gold
newly nailed there for this matter of note.
His striped bridle was bound with bright gold.
The pattern of the harness and the proud skirts,
of saddle-bow, caparison, crupper were all the same:
red arrayed with rich gold studs
that glinted and glittered like the glance of the sun.
Then he held up his helm and kissed it in haste:
It was stiffened with staples, padded with stuffing,
Sat high on his head, and buckled behind
where the neck-guard was graced with gleaming silk
bedecked and embroidered with the best gems.
There were birds on the seams of the broad silk bands:
painted parrots on a field of periwinkles,
turtledoves entwined with truelove blooms too thick
to be sewn by many women in seven winters'
Yet nothing half so dear
brought color anywhere
as the circlet's bright and clear
diamonds in his hair.


When they brought him his shield, it was bright red gules,
painted with a pentacle of purest gold.
Holding the baldric, he hung it from his neck,
and the sign thus set suited him well.
Why the pentacle is proper to that noble prince
I must let you know, though I linger in the telling.
It is a sign that Solomon set long ago
to signify truth by a trustworthy token.
It is a figure with five fine points
and each line overlaps and locks with the others,
everywhere endless: the English, I hear,
most often call it the Endless Knot.
And so it fits this knight with his flashing armor,
who was faithful five ways and five times each.
All knew Gawain to be good as purified gold:
devoid of villainy, his virtues were a court's
Thus he wore the five-point star
on shield and surcoat in plain sight,
his honor without stain or scar,
a gentle, low-voiced knight.


First, he was found faultless in his five senses,
and his five fingers never failed him in any deed,
and all his faith in this world was in the five wounds
that Christ carried on the cross, as the Creed informs us.
No matter where he moved in melee or in battle
it was his fervent thought through thick or thin
that when he fought his courage came from the five joys
the high Queen of Heaven had of her child.
(And so the noble knight would never wear his shield
till her image had been painted on the inner half;
for when he saw her face his courage never failed.)
And a fifth five was found in Gawain:
bounty and brotherhood above all else;
courtesy and a clean heart (these were never crooked)
and the finest point, compassion -- these five virtues
marked him more than any man alive.
Now all these five fives were fastened round this knight
and each embraced the others in unbroken pattern
and met in five fixed points that never failed,
nor bunched together, nor split in pieces,
but ran on endlessly at every point --
where the figure failed, it found new beginnings.
Therefore the shield shone with the knot thus shaped,
gold royally arranged against red gules --
the noble pentacle as it is known by men
of lore.
Now ready to go his way,
he lifted his lance as if for war,
gave them all good day --
and left them there forevermore.


He set spurs to his steed and sprang on his way
so swiftly the sparks sprayed out behind him.
All that saw him so splendid sighed deep within
and whispered soft words one to another
in compassion for that prince: "By Christ, what a pity,
to lose such a leader, wh ose life is so noble!
There is hardly his equal anywhere on earth!
A wary approach would have been wiser;
better to have made such a man a duke --
such a brilliant leader; the best in the land.
Better by far than this foolish waste,
beheaded by an elf, and all for arrogant pride!
What kind of king would take such counsel
when his courtiers quarrel over Christmas games?
How the warm tears welled till all their eyes were wet
when that handsome lord left his home behind
that day,
nor lingered on his road,
but swiftly found his way.
Through pathless realms he rode --
so I heard the annal say.


So this rider rode through the realm of Britain,
Sir Gawain in God's service: and to him it was no game.
He would lie down alone with no one to lead,
nor find before him any food that he liked,
Nor any help but his horse over hill and wood,
Nor any man but his Maker to make conversation --
till he neared the neighborhood of North Wales,
held all the isles of Anglesey on his left
and reached the river where its headlands rose
high near Holyhead, and held on across
through the Forest of Wirral. Few or none lived there
whom God could love, or a good-hearted man.
And he asked often, of all whom he met
if they could give him news of a green knight
or how he could get to the Green Chapel.
And they all said no, never in their lives
had they seen someone who was such a shade
as green.
The paths he would take were strange,
with little cheer to glean,
and his hopes would often change
till that chapel could be seen.


He climbed past cliffs in unknown country,
a stranger faring far from his home.
At each stream and ford that he found in those lands
enemies lurked (unless his luck held) --
vicious, violent, hard to avoid.
In those mountains he met so many strange wonders
a tenth of the total could hardly be told.
He dared to fight dragons and warred with wolves,
or lurking woses, living wild on the crags,
or with bulls, or bears, or boars on occasion,
and trolls that hunted him across the high hills.
Only constant courage and the care of his God
could save him sometimes from certain death.
For if warfare was hard, winter was worse,
when the clouds shed water cold and clear
which froze in the air and fell as sleet.
He lay down half-dead, drenched in his armor,
too many times to bear: and on barren stone
where cold-running creeks came clattering down
and icecicles hardened high overhead.
Thus with peril and pain, in difficult plight,
he carried on alone till the Eve of Christmas
Then lifting head he cried:
"Good Mary, hear me well --
and grant me grace to ride
to realms where people dwell."


With sunrise his heart rose as he rode from the highlands
deep into woodland wild past belief.
There the high hills hemmed in a forest
of huge and hoary oaks -- hundreds together;
and heavy hazel and hawthorn thickets
with rags of rough moss wrapped round each limb --
while on the bare branches the huddled birds
were perched, piping pitifully in the cold.
Gawain passed them on Gringolet, going on
through marsh and mire, a man all alone
and worried. He wondered what he could do
to celebrate our Savior's service on the very night
he was born of a virgin to bear our sorrows.
And therefore sighing he said, "I beseech thee, Lord
and Mary, the mildest, dearest of mothers:
Help me to some haven where mass can be heard,
and matins tomorrow. I ask this meekly,
and in token now pray my Pater, my Ave,
my Creed.
He continued on his way,
confessing his misdeeds,
and crossed himself to pray,
"Christ's cross now grant me speed!"


He had signed himself scarcely three times
when he made out a moat and a mound in the wood --
a low hill with a lawn, through a lacework of branches
that grew from great oaks guarding a dike.
He had found there a castle fit for a lord,
placed in the open, a park all around it,
with bristling stakes in a strong stockade
that turned for two miles round groves of trees.
Sir Gawain saw one whole side of that stronghold
as it shimmered and shone through the shaking leaves.
He held his helm, with head bowed in thanks
to Jesus and Saint Julian, whose gentle grace
had cared for his needs and come to his aid.
"Safe lodging," he called, "I beseech of you yet!"
Then he goaded Gringolet with gilded heels
and choosing the chief roadway by sheer chance
he came quickly to the causeway's end
at last
to drawbridge lifted tight
to gateway shuttered fast.
Such walls in granite might
would shrug off wind or blast.

Forward to Book III

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