At Christmastide King Arthur held a high feast at Camelot, and thither came many a comely lord and lovely lady, and all the noble brotherhood of the Round Table. They held rich revels with merriment and glee. Now they would sally forth to joust right gayly together, and again they would make the high hall ring with the sound of carols and dancing. The feast was held for fifteen days with all the mirth that men could devise. Hall and chamber were crowded with the loveliest ladies and the bravest knights that ever lived, and Arthur was the comeliest king that ever held a court.
On New Year's Day a double portion was served at the table of state, and thither came the king with all his knights from the service in the chapel. They greeted each other for the New Year, and gave rich gifts one to another, and laughed and rejoiced together.
But when they were all served Arthur would not eat, for he had a custom that on a feast day he would neither eat nor drink till he had heard some strange adventure, or knightly deed, or till some stranger knight or distressed damsel had given a challenge or sought redress of the knights of the Round Table. With the sound of trumpets and the waving of banners the first course of that feast was brought in and served, and so great was the abundance that the serving men could scarce find place on the tables for the dainties. Each helped himself as he liked best, but still Arthur sat at the head of the board, and though he made much mirth yet would he not eat.
Suddenly there rushed in at the hall door a man terrible to look upon. He was taller and broader and mightier than any man that was ever seen, so that he seemed as if he were a giant. Yet he was but a man clad in knight's armor, and the knights marveled most at his color, for he was green all over. His coat and his mantle were of green, and his hood and his hose and all his vestures. And the trappings of his steed were all of green, even to the saddlebow and stirrups, and his horse was green and strong and hard to hold, so that none but a mighty man might ride him. But most marvelous of all were his hair and his thick beard, that were green as any bush.
The knight bore neither shield nor spear nor helmet, but in one hand he held a bough of holly, that is the greenest of all trees in winter, and in the other he bore an ax, huge and uncomely, a cruel weapon with strong staff and sharp, keen blade. He rode into the hall and drove straight to the table of state, which was set on a platform above the rest. He greeted no man, nor looked at any. The first words he spoke were: "Where is the ruler of this assembly? I would gladly look upon that man and have speech with him."
All had sat silent to see so strange a sight as a man and his steed both green as grass, and many had thought this was some fairy prince who had come among them. Whether they were right we shall see.
But Arthur had not fear, and he answered him courageously: "Sir, thou art welcome to this place. Lord of this hall am I, and men call me Arthur. Light thee down and bide awhile, and what they will is, that shall we learn hereafter."
"Nay," quoth the stranger, "it is not my errand to tarry in this hall; but the fame of thy people and thy city is lifted up on high, and thy men are held the best of all that wear armor. The wisest and the worthiest in the world are they, and well proved in knightly sports. And here, I am told, is fair courtesy; therefore have I come hither, bearing the holly bough in peace. For had I chosen to journey in warlike guise, I have at home both shield and helmet and spear. But if ye be as bold as all men say, ye will grant me the boon I ask."
"Sir knight," said Arthur, "if thou cravest battle here, thou shalt not fail to find a foe."
"Nay," quoth the knight, "I seek no fight. In faith, those on the benches here are but beardless children. Were I clad in armor there is no man here to match me. Therefore I ask in this court but a Christmas jest. If there be any here so bold as to dare me one stroke for another, to him will I give this ax. I will abide the first blow with it unarmed as I am. If any man is bold enough to come to me here and take this ax, I will abide his stroke; but thou shalt give me the right to deal him a stroke in return in a twelvemonth from this day. Now haste, and let us see whether any here dare abide my words."
Then there was a stillness in the hall, and every man pondered these strange words. And the Green Knight gazed at the company from under his bushy green brows and frowned and twisted his beard.
"What!" he exclaimed loudly; "is this Arthur's hall, and are these the knights whose prowess is told in many realms? Is the Round Table overthrown by one man's speech, since all keep silence for dread ere ever they have seen a blow?"
With that he laughed so loudly that the blood rushed into the king's fair face; he waxed wroth, as did all his knights, and sprang to his feet, and said: "Foolish is thy asking, and as thy folly has asked so shalt thou be answered. Give me thine ax, and I will grant thee the boon thou hast desired."
But ere the king had finished speaking, Gawain, his nephew, had knelt before him and besought that this favor be granted him, that he rather than his lord take up the challenge; for though he was less mighty, yet would his loss be therefore less felt. And all the knights rose and spoke with one voice that the king should leave this adventure to Gawain.
Gawain stepped to the stranger and took from his hand the ax, and the Green Knight asked him, saying, "What is thy name?"
"Gawain am I," quoth the knight; "I give thee this buffet, let what may come of it, and at this time twelvemonth I will take another from thee."
"That pleaseth me well," said the Green Knight.
"But where shall I seek thee?" said Gawain.
"That will I tell thee when I have taken the blow."
The Green Knight bared his neck and bowed his head, and Gawain let fall the ax with a mighty blow. Straight through the neck it smote, and the head fell to the ground, but the Green Knight faltered not nor fell. With his hand he lifted the head and stepped into the saddle, still holding it; and behold! as he turned the face to Gawain the lips moved, and it said: "Come thou to the Green Chapel, Gawain. Seek it till thou find it. There shalt thou receive a blow on New Year's Day. Come, or thou shalt ever be called a recreant."
With that he turned his bridle and rode out of the hall, and all marveled. Though Arthur was astonished in his heart, yet he gave no sign of it, nor did Gawain. But the king spake to the ladies, saying: "Be not dismayed. Such craft is well suited to Christmas tide, when we seek wonders and jest, laughter and song. Now I may get me to meat, for I have seen a marvel I may not soon forget."
Then the king and the good knight Gawain sat down at the board, and men served them with a double portion, as was fitting for the noblest. With minstrelsy and holiday making the day wore away, and none spoke of the strange sight they had seen, but it lay ever in the minds of Gawain and King Arthur.
Now the year passed quickly, winter and spring and summer. With the autumn Sir Gawain bethought him oft of the dangerous journey that was before him. On Allhallow's Day Arthur made a great feast for his nephew's sake, and though they jested together and spoke no word of it, yet all were in sorrow for fear of what might befall that gentle knight.
After the meal Gawain turned to his uncle and said: "Liege lord of my life, leave from you I seek. Ye know without more words what must be. To-morrow am I bound to set forth in search of the Green Knight."
Then all the noblest knights came together, both Lancelot and Perceval and Kay and many another. They drew near to Gawain, and there was much sorrow that so worthy a knight should go weaponless to seek a deadly blow. But Gawain made ever good cheer and said, "Nay, wherefore should I shrink back? What may a man do but try his fate?"
All day he dwelt there with Arthur, and on the morrow he arose betimes and asked for his armor, and they brought it to him. First a rich carpet was stretched over the floor, and the knight stepped thereon. He was clad in a doublet of silk with a close hood furred with costly skins. Then they put steel shoes upon his feet, and wrapped his legs with steel casings and polished kneecaps clasped with gold. They cased his thighs in armor and brought him a coat of mail of bright steel rings sewed on a fair stuff. With elbow-pieces and polished braces and gloves of mail they covered him, and all the goodly gear that should shield him in his need, and over it all they cast a rich robe of red velvet whereon was emblazoned in precious stones his coat of arms. When they had set on his spurs of gold, that none but the highest knights might wear, and had girt on his sword with a silken girdle, he was fully clad; and his harness was costly, for the least loop or latchet gleamed with gold. Then went he to the chapel and made his prayer and laid his offering on the altar, and afterwards he came before the king and took leave of him and all the lords and ladies.
With that Gringalet, his steed, was ready, and all his trappings and his saddle and his bridle shone with gold.
And Gawain took his helmet and set it on his head and fastened it, and he grasped in his hand his shield which was of bright red, whereon was painted a knot of gleaming gold. Now was Sir Gawain ready, and he took his lance and bade them all farewell, as he thought forever. He smote his steed with his spurs, and he sprang on his way so swiftly that the sparks flew from the stones after him.
By many a wild road Sir Gawain made his way, inquiring ever after the Knight of the Green Chapel, but none had heard of him. It would take too long to tell the tenth part of his adventures. He fought with dragons and wolves, with wild boars and bulls, with men and giants. Had he not been a doughty knight and brave he would doubtless have been slain on the road.
On Christmas eve as Gawain rode through a wood he saw before him a fair castle, standing on a mound and surrounded by a moat. Then was he right glad, for the way had been lonely and night was falling, and he rode gayly toward the great gate. But the bridge over the moat was drawn up and the gates were shut fast. The walls of that castle were strong and thick, and they were set deep in the water and rose aloft to a great height. They were of heavy stone, carved beneath the battlements with fair carvings, and turrets were set in the walls with many a loophole. A better castle for defense Sir Gawain had never seen, but he thought it fair enough if he might find shelter there that night. So he called aloud, and there came a porter and greeted the knight and asked him his errand.
"Good sir," quoth Gawain, "will you go to the high lord of this castle and crave for me a lodging?"
"Yea," quoth the porter, "in sooth I trow you will be welcome to dwell here so long as you like."
Then he went and came again swiftly, and many folk with him, to receive the knight. They let down the drawbridge, and came and knelt down on the cold earth to give him worthy welcome, and then they opened wide the gate, and he bade them rise, and rode over the bridge. Men held his stirrup while he dismounted, and took and stabled his steed. Knights and esquires came to bring him into the castle hall, and when he raised his helmet, many stood ready to take it from his hand, and his sword and shield as well.
Sir Gawain gave them all good greeting, and they led him, clad in his fair armor, to the hall, where a great fire was burning brightly on the hearth; and the lord of the castle came forth to meet the knight.
"Ye are welcome," he said, "to do here as ye like. All that is here is your own, to have at your will and wish."
Of all the welcome that they gave Sir Gawain in that castle I would fain tell you, but ye may well believe that they rejoiced when they found that Sir Gawain, of the court
of King Arthur, had come to keep Christmas with them. They put on him rich robes, and served him many dainties, and one said to another, "Now shall we see courteous manners and hear noble speech, since here we have welcomed the fine father of knightly courtesy."
When evening was come the lady of the castle came to greet him, and she was wondrous fair in face and figure and coloring. When Gawain saw that fair lady, who looked on him graciously, he took her lightly in his arms and kissed her courteously and greeted her in knightly wise. She hailed him as a friend, and he quickly begged to be reckoned as her servant, if she so willed. With gay words and merry games they passed that evening together, and the lord and his lady thought only how they might gladden their guest, the noble knight.
To tell of the joy of that Christmas feast that they held on the morrow would take too long. Three days they feasted, but on the fourth day Gawain would bid his kind host farewell. The lord asked him full courteously what errand had driven him forth from King Arthur's court at this time of joy and gladness.
"Ye say well," answered Gawain. "'Tis a high quest only that could have driven me forth. I am summoned to a certain place, and I know not where in the world I may find it, and there must I be on New Year's morn. Tell me truly if ye ever heard of the Green Chapel, and the Green Knight that keeps it, for I have sworn a solemn compact to be there in three days' time, and I would as fain fall dead as fail of mine errand."
Then the lord laughed merrily and said: "Now must ye surely stay, for I will show you the Green Chapel. Ye can take your ease till the fourth day, for 'tis not two miles hence."
At that word was Gawain glad, and he laughed gayly and said, "Now is my quest achieved, and gladly will I tarry at your will and do as ye ask."
To his lady the lord sent word that Gawain would stay with them, and she came, and they rejoiced together. In merry jest the lord said
to Gawain before his lady, "Ye have promised to do the thing I ask you; will ye hold to this word?"
"Yea, forsooth,"said the knight, "while I abide in your castle I am bound to do your behest."
"Ye have traveled far," said the host, "and since ye have been with me ye are not refreshed by rest and sleep. Ye shall therefore abide in your chamber these three days, and go to meal with my wife, and she shall sit with you and care for you; and I shall arise early and go a-hunting."
To this Sir Gawain agreed full courteously.
"But listen, Sir Knight," quoth the lord, "we will make a covenant. Whatsoever I win in the wood shall be yours, and whatever ye shall achieve, that shall ye give to me. Let us swear to make this exchange, whether it be for better or for worse for each one of us."
"I grant you your will," quoth Gawain. "Be it as you like."
And so it befell three days. Each morning the lord rose early and went to the hunting, and each morning the lady of the castle came to Gawain and entertained him. Ever the lady made as though she loved him, and ever he turned her speech aside, for he was a courteous knight and true. On the first day ere she went from him she kissed Gawain full courteously. When the lord returned at even and showed Gawain the spoil of that day's hunting, and gave it to him, he asked what the knight would give in return, as the covenant went.
With that Gawain clasped his hands about the lord's neck and kissed him full courteously, and said, "Take here my spoils; no more have I won."
And the lord laughed merrily and said, "'Tis good; I thank thee therefor."
Yet another day my lord went a-hunting and Sir Gawain rested at home. And this day the lord brought home a huge wild boar that he had taken. So mighty a beast had Gawain never seen. And this night Gawain gave the lord two kisses in token of those that his lady had given to him. And once
more they jested together, but the knight begged leave to start on his journey, for the time was near when he must come to the Green Chapel.
"Nay, nay," said his host. "As I am a true knight, ye shall come there on New Year's Day. Twice have I tried you and found you true, but the morrow shall be the third day and the best."
On the third day the lady would bid Gawain farewell, and she entreated him that he take with him to the court of Arthur some token of their friendship. First she begged him to give her his glove or some slight token, and he would not, for it accorded not with his honor to give gifts when he was on so dangerous a quest. Then she offered him a ring, but he refused it. Then she was sorely vexed and said, "If my ring be too costly, and ye will not be beholden to me, take of your courtesy this girdle." From her side she unloosed a girdle braided of green silk.
Gawain refused full courteously to take the girdle or any gift whatsoever, be it never so slight, but told her that through heat or cold he would be her servant, for he was dearly beholden to her for her kindness and hospitality.
"You refuse this silk," said the lady, "and it is simple in itself; but if any knew the virtue that is knit into it, he might value it more highly. He who is girded with this green lace cannot be wounded nor slain by any might or magic on earth."
Then Gawain bethought him of his adventure in the Green Chapel, when he must unarmed receive a deadly blow. Could he so order it that he come forth unslain, that were worth the trying by any craft. She pressed the girdle upon him yet once more, and he took it, and agreed at her request that no man should know of it.
That night Gawain kept not all of his covenant, for he kissed the lord as was his wont, but he said naught of the girdle. Ere they slept he took leave of them all and thanked them for their courtesy, and each found it as hard to part from that knight as if he had dwelt with them ever.
On New Year's morn, ere it was yet light, Sir Gawain arose and armed himself, and he forgot not the girdle, the lady's gift, but wrapped it around him twice.
With that Sir Gawain set forth with the servant who should show him the way. They climbed over high hills and rode along steep and dangerous paths until it was sunrise. Then the man who rode beside him drew rein and said: "I have brought you hither, and now ye are not far from the place ye seek. But I tell you, since I love you well, the place whither you go is accounted full perilous, and he who liveth there is the worst man upon earth. None enters the Green Chapel that he does not kill him, and never does he show mercy. Therefore, good Sir Gawain, let him alone and go by some other path, and I will hie me home again. By God and all the saints I swear I will keep counsel faithfully, and never let it be told that ye fled."
Gawain thanked him, but would hear no more of such words, and the man bade him farewell sadly, for he would go no farther into the Green Knight's lands for all the gold upon earth.
Gawain spurred his horse and rode on until he came into a dale. No chapel could he see, but rough, overhanging crags, and high, desolate banks. It was an ill-looking place. He dismounted and walked about to see if he might find a chapel, and he found none. But he came to a hollow in the hill,—whether it was a cave or a crevice he knew not.
"Verily," quoth Gawain, "can this be the Green Chapel? In faith it is an ugly place, and well suited to witchcraft and magic."
As he roamed about he heard a frightful noise. It was as if some one were grinding on a grindstone. "I trove," quoth Gawain, "that is the knight, preparing his gear for me." And he called loudly: "Who waiteth here to give me tryst. Now is Gawain here. If any man willeth aught of him, let him come hither quickly, now or never."
"Stay," quoth the other, "and ye shall have quickly what I promised you."
The Green Knight leaped down from a crag, bearing in his hand a mighty ax. It was that he was sharpening on the grindstone.
"Welcome, Sir Gawain," he cried. "Thou hast timed thy coming as befitteth a true knight. Have off thy helm now, and take thy pay. Make no more talking over it than I did with thee."
"By God," quoth Gawain, "I shall make no complaint over what may befall."
So Gawain bared his neck, and the Green Knight made ready. With all his force he raised his grim weapon aloft with a feint of striking the knight dead. Had the ax fallen straight it would have slain him. But as it came gliding down, Gawain shrank a little with his shoulders. The other stopped the blade in its course, and reproved him, saying:
"Thou art not Gawain, who is held so valiant, for thou shrinkest for fear before thou feelest hurt. Such cowardice heard I of him! My head fell to my feet, yet I flinched not."
"I shrank once," said Gawain, "yet will I no more, though if my head fall on the stones I cannot replace it."
"Have at thee, then," said the other, and heaved aloft his sword and struck at him fiercely; but he stopped the ax once more before it might strike Gawain.
Gawain abode the stroke and flinched in no limb, but stood as still as a stone.
Then the man in green spake gayly, "Now thou that hast thy heart again, it behooves me to smite thee."
"Thou dost threaten too long," said Gawain angrily. "Methinks thy heart misgives thee."
"Forsooth," quoth the other, "thou shalt wait the end of thine errand no longer."
Then he made as if to give a mighty blow, and let the ax fall lightly on the bare neck; yet it did no more than to sever the skin on one side, so that the blood ran over Gawain's shoulder to the ground. When the knight saw the blood on the snow he leaped swiftly and put on his shield, and drew his sharp sword, and spoke boldly, "Stop, Knight, bid me take no more blows, or I will requite thee with a like blow, for every one thou smitest."
Then the Green Knight rested on his ax, and looked at Gawain, and spoke merrily in a loud voice: "Be not so fierce, bold sir. No man hath done thee wrong. Three strokes have I given thee, as befitted our covenant. Once for the first night, and this time I hurt thee not, for thou didst keep our word. Again for the second day, when as a true man thou didst make return, and this time I made a feint to hit thee and hurt thee not.
But the third time thou didst fail, and therefore didst thou have this blow, for 'tis my girdle that thou wearest, and mine own wife wrought it. Well do I know her ways, for I sent her to tempt thee and try thee; and in sooth I think thee the most faultless knight that ever trode the earth. As a pearl is of more worth than white peas, so is Gawain by other knights. But thou didst lack a little, Sir Knight; yet that was for no evil work, but because thou lovedst thy life; therefore I blame thee less."
The other stood for a great while, sorely angered with himself. The blood flew to his face and he shrank for shame as the Green Knight talked. The first words that he spake were, "Cursed be cowardice, for therein lie villainy and vice."
And he unloosed the girdle and gave it to the knight, saying, "I was faulty and false, and have been afraid. I avow to thee that I have done ill; now do thy will."
But the other laughed and said gayly: "Thou hast confessed clean and hast borne the weight of my ax as penance. I hold thee as if thou hadst never been guilty. And this girdle I give thee to keep as a token of the adventure of the Green Chapel. Now shalt thou come again to my castle and pass the rest of the feast in gladness."
"Nay," quoth Gawain, "I thank thee for thy courtesy; commend me to that courteous lady, thy fair wife; but I cannot return. As for the girdle, I will take it with good will, not for the silk or the woven gold, but in token of my fault. I shall look upon it when I ride in renown, and remind myself of my frailty."
So they bade each other farewell, and Gawain rode swiftly to the king's hall, but about his side and knotted beneath his left arm he bare the girdle of green silk woven with gold.
Joy awakened in the dwelling of King Arthur when that knight came to court. The king kissed him, and the queen, and many of the brave knights. They asked him how he fared, and he told them all that had happened to him. Last of all he showed them the girdle, and the blood flew to his face for shame as he told the tale.
"Lo, here, my lord," he said, and he handed Arthur the girdle, "is the bond of my blame, the token of my cowardice. And I must needs wear it as long as I live, for none may hide his harm, but undone it may not be."
Then the king comforted the knight, and all the court, both the lords and ladies and every knight of the Round Table, agreed with one accord that every one should wear a bright green girdle for the sake of Gawain. To this was agreed all the honor of the Round Table, so that he who wore the green girdle should henceforth be honored the more.
Thus it is told in the book of the adventures of King Arthur's court.