|Small knight, big green man!|
In the introduction to his translation, Tolkien calls the poem “a fairy tale for adults, full of life and colour.” The poem is written as an “alliterative romance,” but it reads a bit more like a modern day story than the Old English prose Tolkien employed for The Fall of Arthur. Speaking of Arthur, he’s but a minor character in this tale, a king whose “youth made him so merry with the moods of a boy, he liked a lighthearted life ...” Sir Gawain is young too – the youngest of Arthur’s knights, in fact – and he’s the singular protagonist of this tale.
The story begins at a New Year’s feast at Camelot when in barges the Green Knight – a gigantic, mysterious horseman whose flesh and clothes glow with a green hue. He issues a morbid challenge: a chance to strike a blow against him with his very own axe in exchange for the Green Knight delivering a return blow a year later, in a place called the Green Chapel. When none of Arthur’s knights answer the challenge, the young king is prepared to strike the blow himself, until the noble Gawain rises to the task. Gawain strikes hard with the Green Knight’s axe, severing his head. But undeterred, the Green Knight picks up his severed head and warns Gawain that his time will come a year from now when the Green Knight will deliver his own merciless blow.
|Mr. Virtuous himself: Sir Gawain|
Fulfilling his end of the bargain, Gawain eventually embarks on a journey into Northern Wales to find the Green Chapel. His journey takes him to a castle, where he meets its wily lord and his beautiful wife. While the lord is off hunting, his wife tries mightily to seduce Gawain, but being a virtuous and Christian knight, he steadfastly refuses her advances. He refuses her gifts too, until she offers him her silk girdle, which she claims has the power to prevent physical harm – not a bad thing to have when an undead Green Knight is waiting to behead you!
A big reveal comes in the poem’s climax when Gawain goes to meet his fate before the Green Knight at an overgrown barrow mound that serves at the chapel. There’s a twist at the end, and it drives home the poem’s theme, which alludes to biblical tales and even mentions Adam, Solomon, and David at one point. Even a little research about this poem will reveal that its message and its myriad of symbols – the green man, the garter, and even Gawain’s shield, which is emblazoned with a golden pentacle – have been subject to a number of differing interpretations over time. The poem’s ending and all of the symbolism left me pondering its meaning as well. And in my book, that’s often the sign of a good tale.
|The original manuscript penned way back when ...|