Sir Gawain and The Green Knight promises to be an authentic, Arthurian-quality tale from its very beginning. The narrator (commonly called the ‘Pearl Poet’) personally beckons for its reader to come closely, and listen to this magnificent story.
Like other works (cf. Esther 1:1), it begins with a feast, a Christmastide feast lasting fifteen-days. Having traced the epic origins of some select Western-European geopolities, starting with Aeneas himself (of Troy), it alludes to strange happenings in the land of Britain.
The epic links this story to the Aenid and Oddyssy, and asks the reader to compare the following tale to these renown works, of times more ancient than the story of Gawain.
The opening seems to be readily recognized as a sort of Esther story, where the ‘comeliest of ladies’ are gathered, only to pale in comparison to Queen Guinevere — and the camera zooms toward her gray, rainstorm eyes, dancing like lightning in the night. She sits in the company of a man named Gawain, who has been placed in the seat beside her.
Despite the festivities Aurthur’s chivalry is not lost on us; he does not eat until all the others are served. He is a servant-king, the ideal kind. He insists on the equality of the festivities, though he himself is king.
Jolly and juvenile, he is like David, dancing before the Lord. And, it’s not the only David typology of the story. Though I make this type explicit, the author does invite a sort of comparison to David at the end, demonstrating Israel’s king is always on the author’s mind, weaved between the story’s threads.
The feasting is extravagant, between every pair of people are twelve dishes, and beside them the best beer and wine. The extravagances resemble, but still don’t rival or surpass the feasting of Ahasuerus. But, it being Christmastide, the year-end atmosphere promotes the most joyous of celebrations.
Yet upon the arrival of a stranger, the music stops. Dressed in luxurious green, whose outfit was laced with gold and appended with silks, a foreigner rides into the midst.1 Well-kept, trim, and fit, he obviously looks athletic and desirable, described in more detail than even the fashionable women at the party.
But, if you were expecting a knight, you’d be surprised. Though truly a knight, he man wears no armor, only his silky vestments — neither mail, nor chains, nor helmet or breastplate. He doesn’t even carry a conventional weapon — only an axe, and not even a shield.
Riding up and down the hall, the mysterious green man sizes up the king’s knights, looking for the best and most burly of them.
Then he asks, “Where’s the governor of this place?”
Arthur speaks up, with clear authority and claims he is such. They exhange politudes and the enigmatic green-man confidently challenges all Arthur’s warrior to a sort of Olympic games, Yule festivities. He is the Goliath, though the David, and like the Philistine scene in the Scriptures, everyone remains still — frozen in the standoff.
Yet, there’s a twist; for, the Green Knight does not wish to challenge any of the court to a formal fight (claiming he would outmatch them far too greatly in that respect). Arthur’s company is like children to him in fact. Rather, the game is that someone will strike him with his own axe, and a year from then, at the next New Year, he will return the favor.
Gawain, nephew to the king, petitions that he fulfill the man’s request, accepting the challenge in Aurthur’s court. With the king’s approval, the nobles also confer and the game is given to Sir Gawain.
So in an odd twist, the knight bares his neck, and Gawain swings the mighty axe toward the knight, cleanly severing his head from his body. It rolls across the floor, but the rider never falls from his horse!
Rather, he reaches down, picks up his head (which reiterates the terms and conditions), and departs in sparks, flying from the hooves of his horse, leaving everyone stunned in the hall.
After a pause, the court deems it an interesting party-trick, and hangs the acr above the hall. Somehow, the crowd manages to return to the festivies with the shrug of a shoulder?!
Though Queen Guenivere is visibly distressed, both Aurthur and Gawain laugh, seemingly hiding their concern of what will come when he returns. They manage to scrape up some Christmas cheer too and go on with the rest of their evening.
Arthur, like Abraham, expresses his belief that against all odds, his nephew will not be killed when his turn for the axe comes. Whether this belief is true remains to be seen.