Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

By Michael Smith

A new and handsomely illustrated translation of the Arthurian mediaeval masterpiece.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - a wonderful story of pride and its downfall

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a wonderful story set in a fabulous landscape of chivalric rules and the ever-present grip of nature and the seasons. It is also a masterpiece of what is now referred to as the Alliterative Revival of the fourteenth century, a form which achieved particular popularity in the north of England and parts of Scotland. Here, for those unfamiliar with the story, I give a brief outline of the plot itself – though, frankly, no summary can ever do justice to what is a magisterial use of the English language from a master in his art…


A dark green stranger brings a devilish demand

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comprises four different sections, or Fitts, which break down the narrative into distinctive parts. In Fitt 1, it is Christmas at Camelot, where the court is enjoying the festivities although Arthur is bored and seeks some adventuire. It is now that the Green Knight arrives at court with a monstrous challenge: anyone can cut off his head provided that, in 12 months’ time, he can return the favour. Gawain persuades King Arthur that he should undertake the task and duly beheads the stranger. However, the Green Knight picks up his head, mounts his horse, and tells Gawain to come to the Green Chapel in a year’s time…


In pursuit of the Green Knight

In Fitt 2, the months pass until it is time for Gawain to set off on his journey. Elegantly dressed in the latest armour, he crosses Logres (Britain) alone before arriving at a strange castle to celebrate Christmas.  Its lord tells him that the Green Chapel is only two miles away so Gawain happily agrees to stay for three days before leaving to meet the Green Knight at his appointed time. To help while away this time, the lord says he shall hunt on each of the days and whatever he catches in the fields, he shall exchange for whatever Gawain achieves while staying in the castle, looked after by the lord’s wife.


Is any armour strong enough to resist Lady Bertilak?

Fitt 3 is the highlight of the poem, where the lady attempts to seduce Gawain on three different occasions while the lord’s hunting scenes are graphically described in counterbalance. After three failed attempts of mounting intensity, the lady then says she is saddened that Gawain does not love her but she gives him a green girdle to protect him against any foe – provided that he tells no-one. This is the critical point for Gawain, for while he has happily exchanged each day’s gains (kisses) for the lord’s hunting triumphs, he does not tell him about the girdle, despite the fact that their agreement said that all gains should be exchanged.


​Gawain travels to find his nemesis one last time...

Finally, in Fitt 4, the story reaches its climax when Gawain ventures out through snow and ice to face his nemesis at the Green Chapel. He then faces his execution but flinches away as the axe falls; the Green Knight strikes again but this time checks his stroke. Finally, on the third stroke, the Knight merely scratches Gawain’s neck with the great blade, leaving specks of blood to pepper the snow. Gawain, thinking he has repaid his dues, now tries to attack the Green Knight but he is shocked to discover that the giant is none other than Bertilak, the lord of the house where he has been staying. Bertilak reveals that everything had been planned, including the seduction of Gawain by the lady and the donation of the green girdle. Gawain, ashamed by his actions and his dishonesty, returns to Camelot. Yet the knights of the Round Table agree that they shall all wear a green sash in honour of Gawain, and in acknowledgement of the folly of overweening pride.

In itself, the story might be seen as little other than a courtly romance yet to read it and savour its language is an absolute delight. In another update, I’ll talk about the language and techniques used by the poet in crafting his work. Save to say, it is the language and how he uses it which makes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight one of the great masterpieces of mediaeval English literature. As the poet himself says, when first luring us into his telling…

     “If you will listen to this tale but one little while     

     I shall tell it as tightly as I in turn heard it,

               by tongue;

          As it’s been stood and stoked

          Into a story stiff and strong 

          With its loyal letters locked

          In this land it’s been so long.”



Once again, thank you all who have pledged support so far to this new illuminated mediaeval manuscript for the modern age. Only with your help will it achieve publication; please do spread the word to others you think would like to help the dream become reality. I am truly grateful for many of the messages of support I have received from all around the world via my Twitter and Facebook Pages (@MythicalBritain). It has been a fantastic journey so far – much like Gawain’s!

(illustrations taken from my range of linocut prints. All these images feature on the greetings cards offered as part of the £50 Greetings Cards Pledge Option, where you will receive not only a signed, personally-dedicated copy of the book but also a set of these rather attractive cards!)

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