Sir Gawain’s Little Green Book retells two of the classic stories about one of King Arthur’s foremost knights.
The Green Knight takes its title and its story from the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
In The Green Knight Sir Gawain reminisces, looking back on his life from his point of view as an aging legend. He recalls his youth, when he was much greener, and his first adventure, the only one that has remained his through all the centuries.
One Christmas the knights of King Arthur are waiting for the Yuletide banquet. Arthur, as is his custom, will not start a meal on a great feast until some wonder has been seen or miracle performed. This Christmas he is rewarded by a huge, green giant riding into his castle on his green horse, carrying a huge green axe. The giant proposes a simple game, an exchange of blows. One knight gets to try to chop the giant’s head off with the green axe. In a year and a day that knight will seek out the Green Knight, offering his neck for a return stroke.
No one is eager to take up this challenge, and just when it looks like it will fall to Arthur, Gawain, and the king’s nephew, volunteers. He takes the green axe and neatly and completely slices off the head of the green giant. The intruder walks over to where his head had fallen, picks it up and it announces that he is the knight of the Green Chapel and that is where Sir Gawain should seek him in a year and day to receive his return blow. He then remounts his horse and, carrying his head, rides away.
For the rest of the year Gawain dallies. He wants to ride out in search of the Green Knight, but Arthur keeps him close to court out of love. Spring become fall and Gawain finally sets out.
In the course of his journey he meets several different types of people: A peasant wife, a knight guarding a ford and a wild man of the woods. None of them have ever heard of a place called the Green Chapel. Finally, just before Christmas, he finds himself before a great castle. He is welcomed and made much of as a famous knight from a great court. He is told that the Green Chapel is very nearby.
His host proposes a game. Gawain should rest until New Years’ Day, when he must keep his appointment. In that time he would exchange whatever he won around the castle with the lord of the castle for whatever he got in the course of a day’s hunting.
Each morning for the next three days, when Gawain awakes, the lady of the castle is in his room. She throws herself at him, asking for lessons in love. Gawain is honorable, and does not give in. He does accept kisses from her. Meanwhile her husband is hunting, first deer, then a boar, then a fox. Each evening Gawain gives the host kisses in return for his hunting prizes.
On the final morning Gawain weakens. While he doesn’t give in to the lady’s demands for love he does accept a gift from her, a green belt, that she tells him will keep him from being wounded in any way. When that night’s exchange takes place, Gawain doesn’t mention this prize.
Finally, Gawain sets out for the Green Chapel. It is a cold and gray day. The page sent along to guide tries to scare him off, but Gawain goes on alone. He descends into the valley where the Green Chapel is said to be but doesn’t see anything. Eventually he hears the sound of a sharpening wheel. Then the Green Knight makes himself known, vaulting down to the valley floor on the haft of a new axe.
Gawain, true to his word, opens his collar and offers his neck to the giant. The knight takes his swing, but Gawain flinches. The giant tries again, but it is a feint. Finally a third blow comes, which nicks Gawain’s neck, causing just a scratch. Gawain leaps back, ready to fight, but the Green Knight just stands laughing at him.
The Green Knight then reveals himself as the lord of the castle that had harbored Gawain. He had been changed into this form by Gawain’s aunt, Morgan le Fay, in order to test the character of her favorite nephew. Gawain had almost passed the test but he fell short by keeping the green belt to himself, so his neck was nicked. Gawain, chastened, rides back to Camelot a better man.
The story of The Green Knight is told first person by Gawain, with all his knowledge of what is to come to King Arthur and the Round Table. Along the way he tells about the trials and joys of being a legend and the difficulty of being Sir Gawain.
In a coda, My Midsummer Marriage, Gawain tells of the devious workings of the enchantress Nimue and how they led, through trickery and magic, to his finally joining the ranks of the happily married.
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