Sir Gawaine, a fabled member of Arthur’s Round Table, was the epitome of chivalry, loyalty and honor. Perhaps more than any other knight, Gawaine served King Arthur in a manner that was good for the kingdom, even though it may be terrible for him. But with Kharma playing a role, Gawaine always turned around the negativity to be blessed with great fortune.
One tale of Gawaine that caught my eye was of his marriage. It starts innocently enough, with King Arthur roaming the wilderness at the bequest of a damsel in distress. It seems that an evil knight had taken her lover captive. When Arthur reaches the knight’s castle and challenges him, he finds that the castle grounds are enchanted. He becomes weak and yields.
Rather than slay Arthur, the knight offers him a bargain. If Arthur comes back in one year and answers a riddle he may keep his kingdom. If not, the knight wins it. Arthur accepts the terms and leaves.
When his time runs out, Arthur returns to the knight’s castle but is saddened because he doesn’t know the answer to the riddle. An ugly hag happens across him just as he is about to pay his penance and tells him the answer to the riddle.
Arthur enters the knight’s enchanted lair and is asked by the knight, “What is the one thing woman desire most?” Arthur replies with what the hag told him, “Women desire to have their will.” Arthur wins the bet and keeps his kingdom. However, the ugly hag had charged him a price for the answer. And that price was for Arthur to have one of his knights marry her.
Upon learning of Arthur’s plight, his nephew, Sir Gawaine accepts the terms and volunteers to marry the hag. He soon regrets it though because she is so hideous. He hides from her most of the time until she finally corners him and tells him that her ugliness was a curse and she had to do two things to rid herself of it, one of which was marrying a knight. She tells him that she can be beautiful half the time, either by day or night and he has to choose which. He chooses day so she can be happy mingling with Arthur’s court. This removes the other have of the evil enchantment and she becomes beautiful forever.
The other Sir Gawaine tale that I fell in love with, is perhaps the best known of the Gawaine fables. This one is called Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight. As the story goes, a great Green Knight happens upon Camelot during festival and challenges any knight to strike him once today, only to have the Green Knight repay the strike in one year. Sir Gawaine answers the challenge and beheads the Green Knight with an axe.
Unfazed, the Green Knight bends down, picks up his head, mounts his steed and warns Gawaine that they will meet again in one year to finish the bargain.
When the year is nearly up, Sir Gawaine travels to the Green Knight’s castle only to find the route dangerous and desolate. Happening upon another castle, the knight within welcomes Gawaine. After a meal and drinks, he offers Gawaine another bargain. He shall hunt the next day and give Gawaine whatever he kills. In return Gawaine must give the knight whatever he receives during the day in return.
When the knight leaves, his wife tries to seduce the honorable Sir Gawaine, but he refuses her advances. He does, however, kiss her. When the knight returns he gives Gawaine his kill and the knight’s wife gives him a kiss. This goes on for a couple of days before the lady offers Gawaine a golden ring for sleeping with her. He refuses. Finally she offers him her magickal green girdle, enchanted with the power of keeping its owner from physical harm.
Not wanting to offend the lady, and realizing this could keep him from being killed by the Green Knight, he accepts it. But when the knight returns, his wife gives him kisses that she earlier gave Gawaine, but he doesn’t give him, or even mention, the enchanted girdle.
Emboldened, the next day he heads of to the nearby castle of the Green Knight. When the Green Knight hauls back his axe he stops short of dealing a fatal blow and Gawaine flinches, not believing in the power of the girdle. The Green Knight chastises him and accuses him of cowardice, thus shaming Sir Gawaine.
On his next try, the Green Knight barely touches Gawaine’s neck, leaving a small cut. Seeing the bargain has been met, and the magick of the girdle saved him, Gawaine exults in himself. The Green Knight however has tricked him. He removes his helmet and reveals himself to be the knight whose lady gave him the girdle. It was all a test, and Gawaine failed.
Sir Gawaine kept the girdle and wore it as a reminder of this failure of his basic values. When he returned to Camelot and told his tale, the other knights were so inspired that they too began wearing green sashes on their armor.
I have included a copy of this epic poem by Yvor Winters:
Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight
BY YVOR WINTERS
Reptilian green the wrinkled throat,
Green as a bough of yew the beard;
He bent his head, and so I smote;
Then for a thought my vision cleared.
The head dropped clean; he rose and walked;
He fixed his fingers in the hair;
The head was unabashed and talked;
I understood what I must dare.
His flesh, cut down, arose and grew.
He bade me wait the season’s round,
And then, when he had strength anew,
To meet him on his native ground.
The year declined; and in his keep
I passed in joy a thriving yule;
And whether waking or in sleep,
I lived in riot like a fool.
He beat the woods to bring me meat.
His lady, like a forest vine,
Grew in my arms; the growth was sweet;
And yet what thoughtless force was mine!
By practice and conviction formed,
With ancient stubbornness ingrained,
Although her body clung and swarmed,
My own identity remained.
Her beauty, lithe, unholy, pure,
Took shapes that I had never known;
And had I once been insecure,
Had grafted laurel in my bone.
And then, since I had kept the trust,
Had loved the lady, yet was true,
The knight withheld his giant thrust
And let me go with what I knew.
I left the green bark and the shade,
Where growth was rapid, thick, and still;
I found a road that men had made
And rested on a drying hill.