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

Book IBook II  |  Book III

Christmas at a Strange Castle

He held back his horse where the bank halted
in a deep double ditch close dug to the wall,
which plunged in the pool impossibly deep --
and then its full, huge height heaved itself up
in tiers of tough stone straight to the top,
its battlements built in the best style,
its guard-towers rising in graceful rows
lined with loopholes covered and latched:
a barbican better than the best he knew.
He noticed behind it a high-roofed hall
tucked among towers, from whose clustered tips
buttresses sprang, and pinnacled spires
cunningly carved, and crafted with skill.
Chalk-white chimneys were checkered about
like radiance rising from rooftops and towers.
So many painted pinnacles stood round that place
or climbed from the castle's crenellated walls
that it seemed like a cutout clipped from paper.
As he sat there in saddle, it seemed very fine
if only he could enter the innermost court,
and win welcome there to worship in a house
so blessed.
A porter came at call,
more gracous than the best,
who stood upon the wall
and hailed that knight on quest.


"Good sir," said Gawain, "please grant me the favor
(if your lord allows) to lodge in this house."
"By Peter," said the porter, "be perfectly sure
that you, Lord, are welcome as long as you like!"
Then swift-paced the porter moved to approach him,
and others came with him to welcome their guest.
They dropped the great drawbridge, then drawing near proudly,
they bowed, their knees bent upon the bare earth
to one whom they welcomed as worthy of honor.
They granted him passage; the portals swung wide;
he called them to rise, and crossed the great bridge.
Men steadied his saddle: he slipped off his horse
and sturdy men came to lead it to stable.
Knights and their squires were the next to come,
delighted to lead the lord to the hall.
Hardly had he lifted his helm when many hands
were swift to receive it in courteous service --
and in the same way his sword was set by his shield.
He nobly acknowledged each of those knights,
proud men close-pressed to honor a prince.
Still strapped in bright steel, he strode to the hall
where a bonfire burned bright on the hearth.
Then the lord himself descended to see him,
moving to meet him with exquisite manners.
"You are welcome," he said, "to what this house holds,"
"everything is yours to use as you please
in this place."
"God bless you," said Gawain then,
"And Christ repay your grace."
They met like joyful men
in open-armed embrace.


Gazing on one who greeted him so well,
Gawain felt that fortress had a fine lord:
a man in his prime, massively made;
his beard all beaver-brown, glossy and broad;
stern, stalwart in stance on his sturdy thighs,
his face bold as fire, a fair-spoken man --
who certainly seemed well-suited, he judged,
to rule there as master of excellent men.
The lord led him in, and ordered at once
that someone be sent to serve in his chamber.
Then the household staff hurried to obey
and brought him to a bedroom, brightly arranged
with gold-trimmed curtains of the clearest silk
and fine-crafted coverlets, beautiful quilts
with bright fur above and embroidered edges.
There were rings of red gold on rope-drawn drapes,
tight-hung tapestries from Tarsus and Tolouse;
and similar fabrics were set underfoot.
As they talked with him gaily, they took off his garments,
removing his byrnie and his bright armor.
Then rich robes were brought as the servants rushed in
a choice from the best to change for his own.
As soon as he picked one and pulled it in place,
a fine-fitting kilt with swirling folds,
it seemed to them all that suddenly light
shone round his shape in the shades of spring,
beautiful, bright about all his limbs.
Christ never had such a handsome knight,
they thought:
Wherever men appear,
surely Gawain ought
to reign without a peer
in fields where fierce men fought.


Before the chimney where charcoal glowed a chair
lined with fine fabric was found for Sir Gawain,
sumptuous with cushions on a quilted seat.
And then a rich robe was thrown around him
of brilliant, gaily embroidered silk
filled out with fur: the finest of pelts,
and every bit ermine, even the hood.
Thus he sat, relaxed and in lavish splendor,
till he felt far better in the fire's warmth.
Then they took a table, laid it on trestles,
and covered it with clean and clear white cloth,
saltcellars, napkins, and a silver service.
He washed as he wished and went to his meal.
Then the table was set in suitable style
with soups of all kinds, seasoned superbly
in double-sized servings; plus assorted fish,
some breaded and baked, some broiled on the coals,
some simmered, some set in savory stews;
each subtly spiced with sauces that pleased him.
Exclaiming he kept on calling it a feast,
but all of them answered with equal courtesy
and said,
"Take penance while you can;
tomorrow you'll be fed!"
He made a merry man --
the wine went to his head.


Then queries and questions carefully framed
on private matters were put to that prince.
So he spoke of his court, in courteous words,
as that which highborn Arthur held as his own,
who ruled the Round Table as its regal king --
and their guest, he told them, was Gawain himself,
come to them at Christmas as his course unfolded.
On learning whom luck had brought him the lord
laughed out loud for sheer heart's delight.
Within that moat every man was eager to move,
and pressed forward promptly to enter the presence
of "that paragon of prowess and of perfect manners,
whose virtues and person are constantly praised:
of all men on earth most worthy of honor!"
Each man of them, murmuring, remarked to his fellows,
"Now we shall see courtesy cleverly displayed
among faultless feats of fine conversation!
We will learn untaught how to talk nobly
when we face such a fine father of breeding!
God has graced us indeed, with a grand blessing,
to grant us the guest that Gawain will make
when we sit and sing glad songs of Christ's
new birth.
The meaning of his mannered ways
will show what words are worth --
and teach us terms to play
the game of lovers' mirth."


When the dinner was done, and their darling rose,
it was nearly dark, for night was approaching.
The chapels were opened as the chaplains came
with bells ringing richly, right as they should
for vesper devotions on the verge of Christmas.
The lord now led the way, his lady beside him;
she paced along prettily and entered her pew.
When Gawain came gliding in with a glad heart,
the lord latched on to him and led him to his seat,
glad-handing Gawain, greeting him by name,
and said he was the most welcome guest in the world.
After hearty hugs and heartfelt thanks,
they sat soberly together till the service ended.
As the lady had been longing to look on the knight,
she emerged to meet him, her maidens about her.
In form she was fairest: in figure and face,
complexion, comportment surpassing all others,
and to Gawain not even Guinevere could equal her grace.
She steered through the chancel to strengthen his welcome.
Another lady led her by the left hand
who was obviously older: an elderly matron
whom the household held in the highest honor.
But in looks the two ladies were obviously unlike:
one active and young, one yellow with age.
On the first a flush rose, ruddy and fair;
on the other, rough wrinkles on rugged cheeks
. On the first one, clear pearls displayed on a kerchief
shone from her breast and her bare throat
whiter than snow on the winter hills.
The other one's kerchief covered her neck,
and bright veils billowed round her black chin,
while silk framed her forehead, which was fretted round
with lacework linked in delicate loops.
Nothing was bare about her but her black brows,
over eyes and nose over naked lips,
and those made a sorry sight, bleary and sour.
She was, God knows! A lady of grace
and pride --
but her body was short and thick;
her buttocks big and wide.
A tastier plum to pick
was the beauty by her side.


Meeting her gracious, light-hearted gaze
he took the lord's leave and approached the ladies.
He greeted the elder with a grand bow,
and wrapping the lovelier in a light embrace,
he planted a pretty kiss with extravagant praise.
They offered their acquaintance, and he asked at once
to be their faithful servant if it seemed fitting.
They took him between them and led him off, talking,
to a chimneyed chamber; and they charged the servants
to speed out for spices, and not to be sparing,
but to bring back each time the best of the wine.
The lord kept leaping about in delight,
bid them make merry as much as they could,
then hauled off his hood and hung it on a spear,
urging them to earn it as a signal honor
for the merriest man among them that Christmas.
"By my word! I shall work to win with the rest
against all this company, to keep it myself!"
Thus the lord made it lively with laughter and jokes
to gladden Sir Gawain with the joy that games
Time passed; the twilight fled;
the servants kindled light.
Then Gawain sought his bed,
and bade them all good night.


In the morning when men remember the birth
of our dear Lord to die for our destiny's sake,
all men on earth grow merry at heart.
So it was that delicacies filled out their day:
At breakfast and banquet the best of the food
was spread out in splendor by spirited men.
The old, ancient woman had honor of place,
with the lord, I believe, politely beside her.
Gawain and the gracious lady were both given seats
in the middle, where the meal was measured out first,
and afterward to everyone all through the hall,
served in due sequence, as it seemed proper.
They had food, they had fun, they were filled with joy:
too much for tongue to tell of with ease,
and a struggle, at least, to state it in full.
But this I give you: that Gawain and the gracious lady
were perfect companions in their place together,
and such pleasantries passed in their private speech
(which was fine and fair; also free from sin)
that no princely sport could possibly surpass
their game.
Then trumpets, drums to measure
tunes that pipes proclaim:
as each man took his pleasure,
and those two did the same.


One fun-filled day followed another,
with a third day thrust into the thick of it.
Saint John's day was generous with jubilant song:
the last day like it left to them there.
The guests would be going in the grey morning,
so they were up to all hours over their wine,
kept calling for dances and caroling round,
and left their leavetaking till late in the night
that would soon send them off by separate ways.
'Good day,' began Gawain, but grabbing him his host
pulled him aside privately by a pleasant fire,
laid it on at length and lavishly thanked him
for granting him such grace and gladness of heart
as to honor his house on this high season
and fill up his fortress with the finest manners.
'As long as I live, sir, my life will be better
to have had Gawain as my guest at God's own feast.'
'God help me,' said Gawain, 'may He grant you better:
for any such honor is only your due.
I am simply your servant, one who seeks to please you,
oath-bound to honor all men, be they high
or low.'
And though the lord takes pains
to urge him not to go,
Sir Gawain still explains
his answer must be no.


"But Gawain," that good man graciously asked,
"Has some dark deed driven you forth,
that you rushed from the royal court? Must you now ride alone
when holiday feasts are not wholly done?"
"Sir," he responded, "you have spoken truly:,
"I had to depart on a high and a hasty matter.
For I myself am summoned to seek out a place,
though I wonder where in the world to find it.
I'd not fail to near it by New Year's morning
for all the land in Britain -- by the love of God!
I have come with questions that require answers --
so tell me the truth: has any tale reached you
of the Green Chapel, or on what ground it stands,
or about its guardian, a green-skinned knight?
For I have set myself, by most solemn pledge,
to meet this man, though it may go hard.
But now the New Year is nearly complete,
and if the Lord allows it, I'll look upon him
more gladly -- by God's Son! -- than on any good thing.
Therefore sir, as you see, I must set out now
for I doubt that three days will do for this business
and I'd far rather die than be doomed to fail."
Then the lord answered, laughing, "You must linger now!"
"You will get to your goal in good enough time,
and can give up guessing on what ground it lies,
and can lie abed as late as you wish,
and finally set forth the first of the year,
yet make it there with morning still mostly left
that day --
spend till New Years as you please,
then rise and ride that way;
We'll guide you there with ease --
it's not two miles away."


Then gaiety filled Gawain, and he gladly laughed.
"I must earnestly offer my uttermost thanks!
With my goal at hand, I can grant your wish,
dwell here a while, and do as you bid me."
"Sit down," said his host, seizing his arm.
"Come, let's delight in the ladies' presence!"
Thus they made a pleasant party apart by themselves.
The lord let out laughs as loud and as merry
as a madman, maybe, whose mind was far gone.
He called to his company, crying aloud,
"You have sworn to serve me however seems best;
will you act to honor this oath here and now?"
"Certainly, sir," he said in reply.
"While your walls ward me your will is supreme."
He returned: "You are tired, and have traveled far.
We all have been wakeful, nor are you well-rested,
nor fed quite as fully, I fear, as should be.
You must lie in late, and lounge at your ease
past morning mass, and make it to breakfast
whenever you wish. My wife will eat with you
and keep you company till I come again.
You stay,
but I myself will ride
hunting at break of day."
Then Gawain bowed with pride
and promised to obey.


"Look," said the lord - "Let us now bargain:
What I get in the wood I will give to you,
and charge in exchange whatever chance may deal you.
Friend, here's how to do it: we'll hold to our word
regardless who gains or gives up the most."
"By God!" Gawain answered, "I grant what you ask;
just give me the game -- I will gladly play it!"
"Then let's down this drink, and our deal is made!"
said the lord of that land, and they laughed together.
So these lords and ladies relaxed as they drank
and played gallant games while it gave them pleasure.
Then in French fashion, with many fine words,
they made their excuses with murmured farewells,
and pretty pecks planted on either cheek.
Then bright burning torches were born by the servants
who led them at last to lie down softly
in bed.
Before they reached the door,
what promises they said!
And how that country's lord
made fun times fly ahead!

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