Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Code of Honour

The Green Knight was a character featured in the classic fourteenth century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and its derivative The Green Knight (c. 1500). The Green Knight arrived at King Arthur’s hall and asked any one of his knights to trade blows.  Gawain accepted this challenge and he was allowed to strike first. He decapitated the Green Knight, but this knight did not die,  he simply picked up his own head and told Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel on New’s Years Day for his turn. Gawain eventually reaches a splendid castle where he meets its Lord, Bertilak de Hautdesert, and his beautiful wife, Also present is an ugly old croan with any name, but all visitors are well treated.  Gawain speaks of his New Year’s appointment at the Green Chapel and Bertilak explains that it is close by and proposes that Gawain remains as his guest at the castle until New Year’s Day arrives. Gawain gladly agrees. Bertilak proposes a trade, he will give Gawain whatever he catches while he goes out hunting, as long as Gawain does the same. Gawain accepts. Once Bertilak leaves, Lady Bertilak visits his bed chambers and attempts to seduce him, but gains only a kiss. When Bertilak returns, he offers Gawain a deer he has killed and Gawain returns him a kiss. The following day events repeat, but this time with Bertilak returning with a boar, which is exchanged for two kisses.  On the third day, the lady she offers Gawain a ring as a keepsake which he refuses, but pleads for him to instead take a girdle of green and gold silk which she claims can protect him from all harm. Knowing of what will happen to him at the Green Chapel, Gawain accepts it, and they exchange three kisses. That evening, Bertilak returns with a fox, which he exchanges with Gawain for the three kisses – but Gawain says nothing about the green sash.

On the allotted day, Sir Gawain departs for the Green Chapel with the sash around his waist. He finds the Green Knight sharpening an axe and bends his neck to receive his blow. At the first swing, Gawain flinches and the Green Knight berates him for it, but at the second swing, Gawain does not flinch; but again, the blow is withheld as he tests Gawain’s nerve. Angrily Gawain tells him to deliver his blow and so he does but only causing a small wound on his neck. The game is over and the Green Knight reveals himself to be Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert. magic. He explains that the old croan was actually sorceress Morgan, Arthur’s sister, who intended to test Arthur’s knights. Gawain is ashamed at his deception but Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert and he part on cordial terms. Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the sash as a token of his failure, but the Knights of the Round Table absolve him of his act and decide to henceforth wear a green sash in recognition of the lessons learnt by the adventure.

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