It’s New Year’s Day at Camelot and the whole of Arthur’s court is celebrating in the Great Hall. There’s feasting, singing, gift-giving, games and general carousing. Into the midst of the festivities rides a strange knight, with an even stranger challenge. The knight is,
On the most in the molde on mesure hyghe,
Fro the swyre to the swange so sware and so thik,
And his lydes and his lyes so longe and so grete,
Half etayn in erder I hope that he were.*
[The biggest in the world in terms of his height, / From the neck to the waist so square and so thick, / And his sides and his limbs so long and so big, / That I believe he may indeed have been half-giant.]
He is also ‘overal enker-grene’ (completely bright green). His clothes are green. The livery that his horse wears is green. The horse itself is green. The knight’s hair and beard are green. His face is green. Only his eyes are red.
The lords and ladies of Camelot are astounded, and only Arthur dares speak. It is here that the encounter becomes even stranger. Welcoming the Green Knight to his court, Arthur invites him to join in the festivities. In response, the Green Knight proposes a game. Offering up his huge axe, he invites the knights of Camelot to aim a blow at his neck. In a year’s time, the Green Knight will return the stroke.
None of Arthur’s knights are keen to take up the challenge. At first, only the king is brave enough to accept, but to save him the dishonour of having to do so, Sir Gawain offers to take his place, taking up the axe.
The Green Knight bows his head, exposing his neck, and Sir Gawain takes aim. The Green Knight’s head is cut cleanly off, blood spurting over his green skin and clothes. But the Green Knight does not fall down. Picking up his head, he tucks it under his arm and remounts his horse. Before galloping out of the Hall he reminds Sir Gawain that in a year’s time the Knight will have his own turn to strike a blow…at Sir Gawain’s neck.* The quotation is written in Middle English. From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J. J. Anderson (Everyman: London, 1996, 2005), ll. 137-140, 150.
This medieval ‘snapshot’ of what it means to be human is one of a series to inspire Karrie Fransman’s medieval comics artwork. To read more, go to project + snapshots.
Charlotte Knight (@C_Knight16) is a Ph.D. student in the English Department at King’s College London. She is currently working on a project looking at representations of the bedchamber across different genres in later medieval literature.