Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Part 1 Continued
JESSIE L. WESTON (1898)
Then Arthur beheld this adventurer before his high daïs, and knightly he greeted him, for fearful was he never. "Sir," he said, "you art welcome to this place--lord of this hall am I, and men call me Arthur. Light you down, and tarry awhile, and what your will is, that shall we learn after."
"Nay," said the stranger, "so help me He that sits on high, 'twas not mine errand to tarry any while in this dwelling; but the praise of this your folk and your city is lifted up on high, and your warriors are holden for the best and the most valiant of those who ride mail-clad to the fight. The wisest and the worthiest of this world are they, and well proven in all knightly sports. And here, as I have heard tell, is fairest courtesy, therefore have I come here as at this time. You may be sure by the branch that I bear here that I come in peace, seeking no strife. For had I willed to journey in warlike guise I have at home both hauberk and helm, shield and shining spear, and other weapons to mine hand, but since I seek no war my raiment is that of peace. But if you be as bold as all men tell you wilt freely grant me the boon I ask." And Arthur answered, "Sir Knight, if you crave battle here you shall not fail for lack of a foe."
And the knight answered, "Nay, I ask no fight, in faith here on the benches are but beardless children, were I clad in armor on my steed there is no man here might match me. Therefore I ask in this court but a Christmas jest, for that it is Yule-tide, and New Year, and there are here many fain for sport. If any one in this hall holds himself so hardy, so bold both of blood and brain, as to dare strike me one stroke for another, I will give him as a gift this axe, which is heavy enough, in sooth, to handle as he may list, and I will abide the first blow, unarmed as I sit. If any knight be so bold as to prove my words let him come swiftly to me here, and take this weapon, I quit claim to it, he may keep it as his own, and I will abide his stroke, firm on the floor. Then shall you give me the right to deal him another, the respite of a Year and a day shall he have. Now haste, and let see whether any here dare say aught."
Now if the knights had been astounded at the first, yet stiller were they all, high and low, when they had heard his words. The knight on his steed straightened himself in the saddle, and rolled his eyes fiercely round the hall, red they gleamed under his green and bushy brows. He frowned and twisted his beard, waiting to see who should rise, and when none answered he cried aloud in mockery, "What, is this Arthur's hall, and these the knights whose renown has run through many realms? Where are now your pride and your conquests, your wrath, and anger, and mighty words? Now are the praise and the renown of the Round Table overthrown by one man's speech, since all keep silence for dread ere ever they have seen a blow!"
With that he laughed so loudly that the blood rushed to the king's fair face for very shame; he waxed wroth, as did all his knights, and sprang to his feet, and drew near to the stranger and said, "Now by heaven foolish is your asking, and your folly shall find its fitting answer. I know no man aghast at your great words. Give me here your axe and I shall grant you the boon you have asked." Lightly he sprang to him and caught at his hand, and the knight, fierce of aspect, lighted down from his charger.
Then Arthur took the axe and gripped the haft, and swung it round, ready to strike. And the knight stood before him, taller by the head than any in the hall; he stood, and stroked his beard, and drew down his coat, no more dismayed for the king's threats than if one had brought him a drink of wine.
Then Gawain, who sat by the queen, leaned forward to the king and spoke, "I beseech you, my lord, let this venture be mine. Would you but bid me rise from this seat, and stand by your side, so that my liege lady thought it not ill, then would I come to your counsel before this goodly court. For I think it not seemly when such challenges be made in your hall that you yourself should undertake it, while there are many bold knights who sit beside you, none are there, methinks, of readier will under heaven, or more valiant in open field. I am the weakest, I think, and the feeblest of wit, and it will be the less loss of my life if you seek sooth. For save that you are mine uncle naught is there in me to praise, no virtue is there in my body save your blood, and since this challenge is such folly that it beseems you not to take it, and I have asked it from you first, let it fall to me, and if I bear myself ungallantly then let all this court blame me."
Then they all spoke with one voice that the king should leave this venture and grant it to Gawain.
Then Arthur commanded the knight to rise, and he rose up quickly and knelt down before the king, and caught hold of the weapon; and the king loosed his hold of it, and lifted up his hand, and gave him his blessing, and bade him be strong both of heart and hand. "Keep you well, nephew," said Arthur, "that you give him but the one blow, and if you read him rightly I believe you shall well abide the stroke he may give you after."
Gawain stepped to the stranger, axe in hand, and he, never fearing, awaited his coming. Then the Green Knight spoke to Sir Gawain, "Make we our covenant ere we go further. First, I ask you, knight, what is your name? Tell me truly, that I may know you."
"In faith," said the good knight, "Gawain am I, who give you this buffet, let what may come of it; and at this time twelvemonth will I take another at your hand with whatsoever weapon you wilt, and none other."
Then the other answered again, "Sir Gawain, so may I thrive as I am fain to take this buffet at your hand," and he said further, "Sir Gawain, it likes me well that I shall take at your fist that which I have asked here, and you have readily and truly rehearsed all the covenant that I asked of the king, save that you shall swear me, by your troth, to seek me yourself wherever you hope that I may be found, and win you such reward as you deal me to-day, before this folk."
"Where shall I seek you?" said Gawain. "Where is your place? By Him that made me, I know never where you dwell, nor know I you, knight, your court, nor your name. But teach me truly all that pertains thereto, and tell me your name, and I shall use all my wit to win my way there, and that I swear you truthfully, and by my sure troth."
"That is enough in the New Year, it needs no more," said the Green Knight to the gallant Gawain, "if I tell you truly when I have taken the blow, and you have smitten me; then will I teach you of my house and home, and mine own name, then may you ask your road and keep covenant. And if I waste no words then fare you the better, for you canst dwell in your land, and seek no further. But take now your toll, and let us see how you strike."
"Gladly will I," said Gawain, handling his axe.
Then the Green Knight swiftly made him ready, he bowed down his head, and laid his long locks on the crown that his bare neck might be seen. Gawain gripped his axe and raised it on high, the left foot he set forward on the floor, and let the blow fall lightly on the bare neck. The sharp edge of the blade sundered the bones, smote through the neck, and clave it in two, so that the edge of the steel bit on the ground, and the fair head fell to the earth that many struck it with their feet as it rolled forth. The blood spurted forth, and glistened on the green raiment, but the knight neither faltered nor fell; he started forward with out-stretched hand, and caught the head, and lifted it up; then he turned to his steed, and took hold of the bride, set his foot in the stirrup, and mounted. His head he held by the hair, in his hand. Then he seated himself in his saddle as if naught ailed him, and he were not headless. He turned his steed about, the grim corpse bleeding freely the while, and they who looked upon him doubted them much for the covenant.
For he held up the head in his hand, and turned the face towards them that sat on the high daïs, and it lifted up the eyelids and looked upon them and spoke as you shall hear. "Look, Gawain, that you art ready to go as you have promised, and seek till you find me, even as you have sworn in this hall in the hearing of these knights. Come you, I charge you, to the Green Chapel, such a stroke as you have dealt you have deserved, and it shall be promptly paid you on New Year's morn. Many men know me as the knight of the Green Chapel, and if you ask, you shall not fail to find me. Therefore it benefits you to come, or to yield you as recreant."
With that he turned his bridle, and galloped out at the hall door, his head in his hands, so that the sparks flew from beneath his horse's hoofs. Where he went none knew, no more than they know whence he had come; and the king and Gawain they gazed and laughed, for in sooth this had proved a greater marvel than any they had known aforetime.
Yet Arthur the king was astonished at his heart, yet he let
no sign of it be seen, but spoke in courteous wise to the fair queen: "Dear lady, be not dismayed, such craft is well suited to Christmas-tide when we seek jesting, laughter and song, and fair carols of knights and ladies. But now I may well get me to meat, for I have seen a marvel I may not forget." Then he looked on Sir Gawain, and said gaily, "Now, fair nephew, hang up your axe, since it has hewn enough," and they hung it on the dossal above the daïs, where all men might look on it for a marvel, and by its true token tell of the wonder. Then the twain sat them down together, the king and the good knight, and men served them with a double portion, as was the share of the noblest, with all manner of meat and of minstrelsy. And they spent that day in gladness, but Sir Gawain must well bethink him of the heavy venture to which he had set his hand.
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ARCHETYPES OF THE QUEST
The Tasks/Trials: There are often a number of tasks or trials for the hero to perform in order to succeed in the various levels of the quest. They often start off rather easy, but as the hero journeys nearer and nearer to the abyss, the increase in difficulty as the hero attains the level of growth needed to perform the ultimate task or trial at the center of the abyss.
The Call: This is the information about the need for the quest, which is given to the hero in an infinite number of ways. During “the call”, the hero finds out about the evil that is encroaching upon his world.
Refusal of the Call: Often, the hero refuses to heed the call out of duty to home, custom, or fear. Upon refusing the call, the hero’s life begins to change and his world begins to crumble. Often, he is forced into the quest anyway as he loses all he cherishes.
Bestowal of the Magic Weapon: Almost always, the hero is given an item with some magic or technological power (usually by a mentor figure) that aids him along the way on the quest.
Threshold of Departure: The ultimate threshold marks the passage between the world of safety and the world of danger, representing a spiritual death of the old self for the hero.
The Initiation: The trials of the quest act as initiations for the hero. They mature the hero, weathering him into a mature being, giving him the strength and power to approach the center of the abyss. These often turn the hero from an immature and indecisive weakling into a mature man of action and decision.
The Unhealable Wound: A physical or mental wound, gained on the quest, from which the hero suffers that reminds him of a (former) character weakness or error in judgment.
The Center of the Abyss: The center of the abyss is where the ultimate trial for the hero takes place, where he undergoes an apotheosis, where the devil figure is often confronted, and usually where the boon is located.
Apotheosis: Once the hero has undergone the trials of the quest, he has changed, matured, grown. Only when sufficiently matured can the hero approach the center of the abyss and the boon. We might say he has gained a “god-like” power of understanding at this point.
The Boon: This is the magic potion, medallion, golden fleece, herb, or any number of possible items exist that the hero must take and bring back to heal his injured society. Sometimes, there is no boon but rather something to be destroyed that, when destroyed, restores the community.
Threshold of Return: The final threshold (often the same as the departure threshold) that the hero has to cross is usually the easiest to move through. He is often being chased through it by guardians of the boon, and he lands safely, boon in hand, in the world of the community. This movement represents a spiritual rebirth for the hero.
Ritual: After a hero has undergone a quest, the community that has been restored by his actions commemorates the quest of the hero and the hero himself by symbolically acting out the actions of the quest. Rituals happen well after quests have been performed.
Hero: Often a young person taken from an out of the way area, raised by strangers, with some special mental or physical gift. The central figure in any story, the hero goes on a quest—physical or spiritual—in an effort to heal a rift that has caused his world or community to fall apart. All of the archetypal symbols discussed here involve the hero in some way.
Mentor: Usually an older person, usually himself a former hero, who aids the hero, acting as a father or mother figure. The mentor teaches the hero valuable skills needed for the quest and often bestows magic weapons upon the hero.
Noble Sidekick: There is often a character who is particularly loyal as a companion and whose nobility of character reflects the greatest attributes of the hero as the hero develops. Usually this character possesses a particular character trait that highlights the same trait developing in or permeating the hero.
Herald: The source from which the hero receives the call.
Supernatural Aid: This influence aids the hero during the quest with power or advice.
Loyal Companions: These help the hero during the trials and tasks of the quest. They usually do not accompany the hero into the center of the abyss.
Threshold Guardian: Often there is a figure keeping the hero from passing into (or out of) the adventure or a part of the quest. The hero must use cunning to turn this figure into a friend, disable it, or destroy it.
Friendly Beasts: On the journey, the hero often befriends a kind beast who demonstrates that nature is on the side of the hero.
Creature of Nightmare: As opposed to a friendly beast, this is an ugly, disfigured, unnatural beast encountered—often in the center of the abyss—that represents nature in its twisted state.
Devil Figure: This character functions to keep the hero from finishing the quest, often with some temptation or some other dark means.
Evil Figure who is Ultimately Good: Sometimes evil characters end up turning around and helping the hero, turning good due to some inner spark of sentiment that gets amplified due to his positive experience with a good hero. Sometimes, this is the hero himself who has had a revelation of some kind.
Outcast: These are characters whom society has banished for some perceived evil done to the community. Often, outcasts end up ironically saving the societies that banish them.
The Hermit: An isolated (often outcast) being who lives close to nature and the earth and thus has a tremendous spiritual wisdom.
The Old Crone: This is an old, wise woman with special powers who may aid the hero on the quest.
The Educated Fool: This often pedantic figure highlights the distinction between “book-learning” and wisdom gained through experience.
The Scapegoat: This is a special kind of outcast whose banishment is meant to rid society of some greater ill.
Temptress: This woman’s role is to keep the hero from completing the quest, using sexual or other means to distract the hero from his purpose.
Damsel in Distress: This is a female figure who is often a boon to be retrieved by the hero. Sometimes she is used as bait to capture the hero.
Platonic Ideal: This is a figure (usually female) whom the hero admires for noble spiritual or mental qualities. She acts as an inspiration for the hero (e.g., Athena, Virgin Mary, Guenevere)
Earth Mother: Often depicted as an over-weight female, this figure represents fertility, abundance, and the nourishing gifts of the earth. She often acts as a mother figure for the hero.
Unrequited Lover: This character never truly gains the desired affection of the object of his love, sometimes driving the lover to fits of madness in his frustration.
Father Figure: This is a figure that mentors or challenges the hero as a father would.
The Ruling Parasite: A selfish, evil ruler that metaphorically sucks all the life from his surrounding lands, resulting in a desolate wasteland. This figure has often invaded the community and his ousting can be a hero’s primary task.
The Trickster: Often the hero is undermined by a figure whose comical attitude toward life becomes a nuisance. The hero frequently disables this figure’s power by outwitting him at his own game.
The provinces: The hero is often from an out-of-the-way place (or the “provinces”), raised by strangers, uncertain about his true parentage, and ignorant of the ways of the world.
Deserts/Wastelands/Wilderness: Lands of barren emptiness that often reflect a spiritual emptiness and isolation of the hero. They can also be the result of the influence of a ruling parasite or the departure of a being representing fertility.
The Underworld: Often, quests take place in the underworld. It is often contrasted with heaven’s foils to emphasize an opposition.
Places of Extremity: These can be places of bitter cold, intense heat, distant worlds, or the outer reaches.
Places of Massive Abundance: These places hold all the hero could hope for regarding the meeting of physical needs. These can include forests, rain-forests, and gardens.
Havens: Such places act as rest stop or a temporary place of safety for the hero on the quest. They may also be palaces of pleasure or peace found in the center of the abyss.
World Navel: These holy places are where rituals often take place and where temples are sometimes built. It is the place where heaven and earth meet, often in the same location as the return threshold.