Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt) is a 14th century Arthurian chivalric romance, written by an unnamed writer who is often referred to as the Pearl Poet, which is split into four parts called FITS. In each fit there are many short stanzas which all end with a rhyming bob and wheel (the “bob” is a short line, usually not longer than two syllables and the “wheel” is made up of longer lines with internal rhyme). The poem follows Sir Gawain, one of the Knights of the Round Table, as he takes up a “beheading challenge” forced on him by the Green Knight, a mythic figure whom is said to be an allusion to Christ or a representation of the Green Knight of Welsh folklore. As said in another post last week I will be splitting up my Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reviews into four parts (Fit I, II, III, IV) and a general concluding post. This post will review FIT I.
Straightaway shall I speak it, in the city as I heard it,With tongue;As scribes have set is dulyIn the lore of the land so long,With letters linking trulyIn story bold and strong.
The narrator then moves on to the present, Christmastime in Camelot (New Years Day to be exact). King Arthur, Guinevere, the Knights of the Round Table and other lords have been feasting for fifteen days, and it’s now New Years Day. The court participates in the giving and receiving of gifts and then they sit down to feast. The narrator then describes the court of Camelot in beautiful verse:
…saving Christ’s self, the most celebrated knights,The loveliest ladies to live in all time,And the comeliest king to ever keep court.For this fine fellowship was in it’s fair primeFar famed,Stood well in heaven’s will,It’s high souled king acclaimed;So hardy a host on hillCould not be else named.
Arthur then announces that he will not eat until a good story is told, or some momentous marvel is seen before his eyes, and he sure as hell gets it (more about that later). The narrator describes the seating arrangements around the tables with King Arthur and Guinevere in the centre, with Gawain on Guinevere’s side (which side is not stipulated). As they are all (except Arthur) beginning to eat the first course an unknown knight enters the hall on horseback. He is described as an almost inhuman figure:
..an awesome fellow
Who in height outstripped all earthly men.
From throat to thigh he was so thickset and square,
His loins and limbs were so long and so great,
That he was half a giant on Earth, I believe
…men gaped at the hue of him
Ingrained in garb and mien,
A fellow fiercely grim,
And all a glittering green.
Throughout the high hall was a hush like death;
Suddenly as if all had slipped into sleep, their voices were
Hushed not wholly for fear,
But some at honour’s behest;
But let him whom all revere
Greet that gruesome guest.
King Arthur then addresses the Green Knight and invites him to dismount from his horse and to join the feast. The Green Knight immediately refuses to do so and states that he has come to King Arthur’s court because he has heard tales of the Knights of the Round Table. The Green Knight demands to be indulged in a “good sport” and states that it’s his right. Arthur promises him a fight but the Green Knight states that he wants to play a “game” in which he will give one of the Knights the opportunity to strike him with his own axe as long as the knight agrees to a return blow in one year and one day. The court is once again stunned and silent and the Green Knight begins to mock the court of Camelot:
‘What, is this Arthur’s house, the honour of which
Is bruited abroad so abundantly?
Has your pride disappeared? Your prowess gone?
Your victories, your valour, your vaunts, where are they?
The revel and renown of the Round Table
Is now overwhelmed by a word from one man’s voice,
For all flinch for fear from a fight not begun!’
‘Except that you shall assent, swearing in truth,To seek me yourself, in such place as you thinkTo find me under the firmament, and fetch your paymentFor what you deal me today before this dignified gathering.’
Now Gawain give a thought,Lest peril make you pauseIn seeking out the sportThat you have claimed as yours.