1912 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
[The 1912 book coded into HTML here May 2020. Material below from the book. Omitted at this time is the lengthy introduction.]
Rendered literally into Modern English from the alliterative romance-poem of A.D. 1360 from Cotton MS. Nero Ax in British Museum
With an introduction on the Arthur and Gawain sagas in early English literature
by Rev.. Ernest J. B. Kirtlan, B.A. (London), B.D. (St. Andrews)
DECORATED BY FREDERIC LAWRENCE
CHARLES H. KELLY
25–35 CITY ROAD, AND 26 PATERNOSTER Row, E.C.
To My Lady of Dreams, My Wife
'Sir Gawain hath sought the isles of Light
Beyond the shores of day,
Where moon never waneth to shades of night
And the silver fountains play.
There he holdeth high court as the maiden's knight
In the maiden's isle for ay.'
Canto the first
AFTER the siege and the assault of Troy, when the city was burned to ashes, the knight who therein wrought treason was tried for his treachery and was found to be the truest on earth. Aeneas the noble it was, and his high kindred, who vanquished great nations and became the rulers of wellnigh all the western world. Noble Romulus went to Rome with great show of strength, and built that city at the first, and gave it his own name, as it is called to this day. Ticius went into Tuscany and began to set up habitations, and Langobard made his home in Lombardy; whilst Brutus, far over the French sea by many a full broad hill-side, the fair land of Britain
Where war and wrack and wonder
Often were seen therein,
And oft both bliss and blunder
Have come about through sin.
NOW, when Britain was conquered by this noble man, brave warriors were bred and born therein that were fond of striving, so that many times sorrow came thereof. And more wonders have been wrought in this land than in any other I wot of since that time. But of all the British kings, Arthur was the most courteous, as I have heard say. And I propose to tell you a wondrous adventure, as some hold it to be, that happened in Arthur's court; and if ye will listen but a little I will tell it you
As I have heard it told,
In a story brave and strong,
In a loyal book of old,
In the land it has been long.
THIS King Arthur was at Camelot at Christmas with many a lovely lord, and they were all princely brethren of the Round Table, and they made rich revel and mirth, and were free from care. And betimes these gentle knights held full many a tournament, and jousted in jolly fashion, and then returned they to the court to sing the Christmas carols. And the feasting was for fifteen days, and it was with all the meat and mirth that men could devise. And glorious to hear was the noisy glee by day and the dancing by night, and all was joyous in hall and chamber, among the lords and ladies as it pleased them, and they were the most renowned knights under Christ and the loveliest ladies that ever lived;
for all these fair folk were in their first age, and great were they
The gayest in the land,
The king was of great worth,
I could not name a band
So hardy upon earth.
AND when the New Year was come, on that day the nobles on the dais were double served, when the king came with his knights into the great hall and the chanting in the chapel was ended. And clerks and others set up a loud cry, and they kept the Feast of Christmas anew, and they gave and received New
Year’s gifts, and much talking was there about the gifts. And ladies laughed full loudly, though they had lost in the exchange, and he that won was not wroth, as ye will well trow, and they made all this mirth together as was fitting for the season. When they had washed, they worthily went to their seats, each according to his rank, as was seemly. And Queen Guinevere was full gaily attired as she took her seat on the dais, and on fair silks under a canopy of costly Tarsian tapestry, em broidered with the finest of gems that money could buy on
The comeliest lady, I ween,
She glanced from eyes that were grey,
Her like that he had seen
Truly could no man say.
BUT Arthur would not eat until all were served, for he was so jolly, and almost like a child. Little recked he of his life; and so restless was he that he could not sit or recline for long, so active was his young blood and his brain. And there was another strange thing about him because of his noble birth, that he would not eat on these high days until he had heard some eerie tale of marvellous adventures, of his forbears or arms, or else that some knight joined with another in jousting, life for life as hap would have it. This was the custom of the King when he was in court
at each feast as it came amongst his noble household
Therefore so bold of face
He sat there, strong in stall,
In that new year of grace
Much mirth he made with all.
THUS was the King in the high seat talking before the high table of courteous trifles and good. Sir Gawain was sitting beside Guinevere. Agravayn of the hard hand sat on the other side, and both were sons of the king's sister and very strong and faithful knights. Bishop Bawdewyn was at the head of the table,
and Ywain, son of Urien, was eating by himself. And they were all on the dais, and well were they served, and afterwards many a true man at the sideboards. With the crashing of trum pets came the first course, and with banners and beating of drums and piping loud, so that many a heart heaved full high at the sound, and there were many dear and full dainty meats. And there were so many dishes and such great plenty that it was hard to find room to set before the folk the silver service that held the courses
Each man as he loved himself
There laughed he without loath,
Each two had dishes twelve,
Good beer and bright wine both.
NOW will I tell you no more of the serving, for ye may wot well no want was there. Another and a full new wonder was draw ing near. Scarcely had the noise ceased and the first course been served in the court, when there came in at the hall door an ugly fellow and tallest of all men upon earth. From his neck to his loins so square set was he, and so long and stalwart of limb, that I trow he was half a giant. And yet he was a man, and the merriest that might ride. His body in back and breast was strong, his belly and waist were very small, and all his features
Great wonder of the knight
Folk had in hall, I ween,
Full fierce he was to sight,
And over all bright green.
AND he was all clad in green garments, and fitting close to his sides was a straight coat with a simple mantle above it and well lined with gay and bright furs, as was also his hood hanging about his locks and round his shoulders; and he had hosen of that same green on his calves, and bright spurs of gold, that hung down his legs upon silk borders, richly striped, where his foot rested in the stirrup.
And verily all his vesture was of pure green, both the stripings of his belt, and the stones that shone brightly in his gorgeous apparel, upon silk work, on his person and saddle; and it would be too tedious to tell you even the half of such trifles as were thereon em broidered with birds and flies in gaudy greens, and ever gold in the midst. The pendants of the horses's neck-gear, the
proud crupper, the ornaments, and all the metal thereof, were enamelled of green; the stirrups that he stood in of the same colour, and his saddle-bow also; and they were all glimmering and shining with green stones; and the foal on which he rode was of that same hue
A green horse great and thick,
A steed full strong to strain,
In broidered bridle thick,
To the man he was full gain.
THUS gaily was this man dressed out in green, and the hair of the horse's head was of green, and his fair, flowing locks clung about his shoulders; and a great beard like a bush hung over his breast, and with
his noble hair was cut evenly all round above his elbows, and the lower part of his sleeves was fastened like a king's mantle. The horse's mane was crisped and gemmed with many a knot, and folded in with gold thread about the fair green with ever a fillet of hair and one of gold, and his tail and head were intertwisted with gold in the same manner, and bound with a band of bright green, and decked with costly stones and tied with a tight knot above; and about them were ringing many full bright bells of burnished gold. Such a horse or his rider were never seen in that hall before or
'He looks like flashing light,'
Say they that him descry,
'It seemed that no man might
His dintings e'er defy.'
AND he had no helmet nor hauberk, nor was he armour-plated, nor had he spear or shield with which to smite; but in one hand he held a holly branch, that is most green when the groves are all bare, and in the other he held an axe, huge and uncanny, and a sharp weapon was it to describe whoso might wish. And the head thereof measured an ell, and its grain was of green steel and of hewn gold, and the broad edge of it was burnished brightly, and as well shaped for cutting as a razor. And the sturdy knight gripped the steel of the stiff staff that was wound round with iron right along its length, and engraven in green
with many noble deeds; and lace lapped it about and was fastened on the head, and looped about the handle full oft with many tassels tied thereto and broidered full richly on buttons of bright green. And the man haled into the hall, and pushed forward to the high dais, fearful of nothing, and saluted no one, but looked scornfully over them all. The first word that he uttered was 'Where is the chief of this company? Gladly would I see that man in the body, and speak with him seasonably
The knight cast round his eye,
And reeléd up and down,
He stopped and 'gan to spy
Who was of best renown.
THEN they all looked at him, and every man marvelled much what it might mean that a man and his horse should be of such acolour of green, green as the grass and greener, as it seemed, than green enamel upon gold shining brightly. All studied him carefully, and came nearer to him, for they had seen many wonders, but nothing like unto this; therefore the folk deemed it to be a phantom or some faery. And many of them were afraid to answer him; as tounded at his voice, stone still they sat. And there was a solemn silence through that rich hall, as though they had all fallen asleep
Not all, I trow, for fear
But some for courtesy :
Let him whom all hold dear
Unto him make reply.
THEN Arthur on the high dais beheld that adventure, and royally did rever ence unto him, for nothing could af fright him, and he said, 'Sir, welcome art thou to this hall. I am Arthur, the head of this hostel. Alight from thy horse, and linger with us, I pray thee, and afterwards we will come to know what thy will is.' 'Nay,' quoth that fellow, 'As He that sitteth on high shall help me, it is not mine errand to dwell any while in this place, but I am come because the fame of thy knights is so highly praised, and thy burgesses and thy town are held to be the best in the world, and the strongest riders on horses in steel armour, and the bravest and the worthiest of all mankind, and
proof in playing in all joustings; and here, too, courtesy is well known, as I have heard say; and it is for these reasons that I am come hither at this time. Thou mayest rest assured by this holly token I hold in my hand that I am come in peaceful wise, and seek no quarrel; for had I come in company, in fighting wise, I have both a helm and a hauberk at home, and a shield, and a sharp and brightly shining spear, and other weapons I wield there as I ween; but because I wage no warfare, my weeds are of softer sort. But if thou art so bold as all men say, thou wilt grant me in goodly wise the games I ask
Then Arthur he did swear,
And said, 'Sir courteous knight,
If thou cravest battle bare
Thou shalt not fail to fight.'
NAY, I tell thee in good faith, I seek not to fight, for the men on this bench are but beardless children, and if I were hasped in arms on a high steed there is no man here to match with me. I only crave of this court a Christmas game, as this is the feast of Yule and New Year, and many here are brave. And if any in this house holds himself so hardy and is so bold blooded and so utterly mad that he dare strike one stroke for another in return, I will give to him this costly axe, that is heavy enough, and he shall handle it if he likes, and I will bide the first blow as bare as I sit here. If any fellow here be so brave as to do what I say, let him come forward quickly and takehold of the weapon, and
I will quit claim upon it for ever. It shall be his very own. And I will stand strongly on this floor to abide his stroke if thou wilt doom him to receive another stroke in return from me; yet will I grant him
I'll give to him the blow,
In a twelvemonth and a day.
Now think and let me know
Dare any herein aught say.'
NOW, if this man as || tonished them at the first, even still more were they astonished at this word, both high and low. The man rode firm in the saddle, and rolled his red eyes about, and bent his rough,
green shining eyebrows, and stroked his beard, waiting for some one to rise. And when no one would answer him, he coughed loudly and scornfully, and said, 'What l is this Arthur's house that all men are talking of? Where are now your pride and your valour, your wrath and fury and great words? for now is the revel and renown of the Round Table overcome by one word, for all of you are terrified though no blow has been struck.' Then he laughed so loudly that King Arthur was grieved thereat, and the blood, for shame, shot upwards into his bright face
He waxed as wroth as wind,
So did all that were there,
The king was bravely kind,
And stood that strong man near.
AND he said, 'By heaven, fellow, thy asking is strange, and since thou dost seek after foolishness, it behoves thee to find it. I know of no single man among us that is aghast at thy great words. Give me thy axe, for God's sake, and I will grant thee the boon thou cravest.' Arthur leapt forward towards him and caught him by the hand. Then fiercely alighted that other fellow from his horse. Arthur seized the axe, gripping it by the handle, and strongly bran dished it about. The strong man stood towering before him, higher than any in the house, by his head and more. Stern of mien, he stood there and stroked his beard, and with face un moved he drew down his coat, no more dismayed for the dints he was to receive
than if any man upon the bench had brought him to drink
Gawain sat by the queen,
To the king he did incline,
'I tell thee truth I ween,
This mêlée must be mine.'
lF thou wilt allow me to come down from this bench and with out fault leave this table and stand by thee there, and if my liege lady likes it not ill, I will come to thine aid before all this noble court; for methinks it not seemly that when such a thing as this is asked in this great hall, that thou shouldest
deal with it thyself, though thou be eager to do so, when there are so many brave men about thee, on the benches, that, as I hope, under heaven, are not more precious than thou art, nor are they more able-bodied on the field, when there is any fighting. I am the weakest and most feeble of wit; and who seeketh truth knows that the loss of my life would be a small matter. I have no praise except that thou art mine uncle, and no goodness in my body have I except thy blood that flows in my veins. Since this affair is none of thine and I have first made demand for it, it falls to me; and if I acquit not myself comely, let all this noble court
The knights whispered that day,
And all agreed the same—
The king must yield the fray,
And give Gawain the game.
THEN the king com manded the knight to rise up, which he readily did, and set himself fairly and knelt down again be fore the king and re ceived from him the weapon, and the king lifted up his hand and gave him God's blessing, and prayed that both his heart and hand might be hardy and strong. 'Take care, cousin, that thou set one blow upon him, and if thou doest it well, then shalt thou bide the blow that he shall give thee afterwards.' Gawain went forward to the man with the axe in his hand, and the Green Knight boldly bided his coming and flinched
not at all. Then said the Green Knight to Sir Gawain, 'Let us make well our covenant ere we go further. First, I want to know thy name—tell me truly.' 'In good faith,' said the knight, 'my name is Gawain, and it is Gawain that offers to give thee this blow, whatso ever befall him afterwards; and in a twelvemonth and a day thou shalt take back the blow with any weapon thou likest, if I shall be
That other answered again,
'Gawain, so may I thrive,
For I am fiercely fain
Of the blow that thou wilt drive.'
THEN said the Green Knight, 'Well it pleases me that I shall take at thy hand that which I sought in this hall. And thou hast truly rehearsed all the covenant I asked of the king; save that thou shalt pledge me to seek me thyself wheresoever thou dost hope to find me on the earth, and to fetch thee such wages as thou wilt deal me to-day in the presence of this noble company.' 'Oh tell me,' quoth Gawain, 'where must I seek thee? Where is thy place? By Him that made me, I wot not where thou dwellest, nor do I know thee, Sir Knight, nor thy court, nor thy name. But tell me that truly, and what is thy name, and I will use all my wit that I may win thither, and that I swear by my sooth.' 'It will suffice in the new year,' quoth the Green Knight to Gawain the gentle, 'if I tell thee truly
when I have received the blow at thy hand. Then it is that I will quickly tell thee of my house, my home, and my name. Then mayest thou ask my faring, and hold the covenant, and if I say nothing at all, then will it speed thee better, for thou mayest linger in thy land and seek to fare no farther in search of such
Take now the weapon grim,
Let us see how thou canst smite.'
'Gladly,' said he to him;
Then stroked the axe that knight.
THE Green Knight then prepared himself, bowed down a little, and discovered his face, and his long and lovely locks fell flowing about his head and he bared his neck for the business in hand.
Gawain gripped the axe and held it up aloft. He put his left foot forward, then he let the axe fall lightly down on the naked neck so that it sundered the bones, pierced through the flesh, so that the point of the steel bit into the ground, and the head of the Green Knight fell to the earth. And many kicked it with their feet as it rolled there, and blood rushed forth from the body and shone red on the green garments. Yet not a whit did the Green Knight falter nor fall, but started strongly forward on stiff shanks where the men were stand ing, and caught hold of his head and lifted it up. Then he went to his horse, seized the bridle, stepped into the sad dle, and striding aloft, he held his head by the hair, and as gravely he sat in the saddle as though no evil had be fallen him and he were not headless
in that stead.
He swayed his trunk about,
The ugly body that bled;
Many of him had doubt
By the time his reasons were said.
HE held up the head in his hands, and ad dressed him to the dearest of those on the bench, to wit, Sir Gawain; and the eyelids were lifted up and looked forth, and the lips moved and said, 'Take heed, Sir Gawain, that thou art ready to go and seek me till thou find me as thou hast promised in this hall with these knights as witnesses. To the green chapel thou shalt come to receive such a blow as thou hast given, on New Year's morning. And many know me as the Knight of the Green Chapel. Fail not, then, to seek me until thou findest me; therefore come thou, or recreant shalt thou be called.' Then roughly he turned his reins, haled out of the hall door, with his head in his hand, and the horse's hoofs struck fire from the flinty
stones. No one there knew of what kith or kin he was, or whence he came
Of the Green Knight they made light,
Yet it was thought that day,
A marvel, a wondrous sight,
Though, laughing, they were gay.
NOW, though Arthur the Gentle at this had great wonder, he let no semblance thereof be seen, but spake with gentle speed to the comely Queen Guinevere : 'Dear lady, let not this day's doings dismay thee at all. Such craft well be comes the Feast of Christmas; gamings
and interludes and laughing and singing and carollings of knights and ladies. And now can I dress myself for meat, for a wondrous adventure have I seen.' He glanced at Sir Gawain and said, 'Now, sir, hang up thine axe; hewing enough has it done for to-day.' Then they hung it up over the dais at the back of the high seat, that all men might look upon the marvel of it and truly tell the wonder of it. Then went these two, the king and the good knight, to the table, and brave men served them, double of all dainties, with all manner of meat and minstrelsy. In good weal they passed the day, but it came to an end, and night
'Now, Sir Gawain, be sure,
Turn not away for fear
From this grim adventure
That thou hast promised here.