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The Challenge of the Green Knight

Here is my telling of the Tale of the Challenge of the Green Knight. It is an ancient tale, and I pray the gods smile upon my telling of it.

Long ago, in Arthur's Court at Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table gathered for the annual celebration of Midwinter. Many young men and women had been accepted into the Knighthood that day, so it was a time of merriment and revelry.

As was the custom of the time, the King swore he would not feast until he had heard a tale of adventure or seen a marvel. No sooner had Arthur spoken these words than the doors of the feast hall were thrown open. An icy blast of wind and snow swept through the hall, and as stewards rushed to shut the doors, a giant strode in.

He was clad in green armor and draped in holly -- the green color of life in the midst of the dead season. In one hand he held a huge, flashing battle-axe. In the other was a bloodstained chopping block, which he dropped to the floor at his feet.

The strange knight refused to give his name, nor even to remove his helm. Instead he said he was sworn to the service of the Lady of the Lake, and that he was here at her bidding. He then issued a challenge: "Let any here not faint of heart step forward to take this axe from my hand and with it strike my unarmored neck. Afterward, I shall return the blow."

Everyone was astonished by the challenge. Before anyone else could speak, Arthur's nephew Gawain sprang forward and asked for the right to take the test. Arthur was reluctant to place such an ill-seeming task on his nephew, but he knew that above all else, Gawain wished to be a Champion. So he gave in to Gawain's plea.

Gawain thanked the King and turned defiantly to the strange Green Knight, who handed him the axe and knelt before the chopping block.

With the speed and grace of youth, Gawain swung the axe. It whistled through the air and sliced through the giant knight's bare neck. The green helm fell to the floor with a clang, spilling blood upon the paving stones.

Without warning, the headless figure stood. It lifted its helm and turned to Gawain. As the company stared in disbelief, the strange knight's voice came from within the bleeding helm: "In twelve days, fair Gawain, you shall come to me in my own country to the north. Ask any who live there, and you shall be directed to my Green Chapel."

The Green Knight then took his helm and his axe and left the hall. An awkward moment of silence followed his departure, but Arthur was a good host. He called for more wine and, since he had indeed seen a marvel, he joined the feast.

The others at the Round Table understood. Although Gawain would soon be leaving the Court to keep his promise to the Green Knight, they did not want Gawain's last night at Camelot to be filled with gloom. So all were merry, including Gawain, who was very aware that this might indeed be the last feast he would ever enjoy.

The next morning, Gawain armed himself for his journey to the Green Chapel. He wore the new armor the King had given him as a Midwinter gift, and the tabard the Queen had embroidered for him. He also had a new shield, which bore his heraldic devise: a red field inscribed with a pentangle, the symbol of truth.

After saying farewell to the Assembly at Camelot, Gawain rode northward. Shortly after he set out, a winter storm began, but he continued through the wind and snow, still unsure of where he was going.

He rode for ten days through the winter wasteland. He saw few people, and those he did meet only shook their heads when he asked about the strange knight and the Green Chapel.

On the tenth night, as the sun was setting, Gawain came upon a castle. The lights in the windows seemed warm and inviting. Cold and exhausted, he knocked on the huge oaken doors.

Gawain was given shelter by the castle's lord, a knight named Sir Bercilak. He listened to Gawain's tale with interest, then told the young knight that he knew where to find the Green Chapel. Gawain was very relieved to hear this.

Since Gawain didn't have to reach the Chapel for another two days, Sir Bercilak offered his hospitality, thus allowing Gawain to rest and recover from his journey. Bercilak himself would be hunting the next day, but his daughter would attend to Gawain.

Sir Bercilak then offered Gawain another challenge -- though this one was less deadly. Whatever Bercilak would acquire the next day during his hunt, he would give to Gawain. In return, the younger knight would give anything he happened upon to Bercilak. Gawain accepted the offer.

The next day dawned brightly, with no hint of winter storm. Bercilak and his men left for their hunt, and his daughter came to visit Gawain in the room he'd been given. She was a beautiful young woman, and Gawain at once desired her. It was clear to him that she felt the same, but Gawain was too tired and weak to act upon his feelings. Besides, to take advantage of his host's daughter would be dishonorable.

So the two spent the day talking and playing chess. Their attraction for one another grew into admiration, and soon they realized they were falling in love. Before she left to prepare for her father's return, she told Gawain that he must accept a token of her affection. She then gave him a silken green sash with gold trimmings. She explained that this was an enchanted belt which protected its wearer from harm.

Gawain thought about the Green Knight and his axe. He accepted the gift, as well as a gentle kiss from the lady. She made him promise not to tell her father about the green belt.

Late that afternoon, Sir Bercilak returned to the castle with a wild boar he and his men had taken in the hunt. This he offered to Gawain, as part of their bargain. Gawain accepted it, then asked that it be roasted for everyone in the castle. He then gave Bercilak a kiss on the cheek, saying it was all he'd received that day. To protect himself and keep his promise to Bercilak's daughter, Gawain did not mention the belt to his host. The older knight looked at his daughter for a moment, then laughed.

The next morning, Gawain awoke to find that Sir Bercilak had gone hunting again, and his daughter was nowhere to be found. A squire, however, had been left with instructions to guide Gawain to the Green Chapel.

Gawain armed himself and followed the squire into the wasteland. Like the day before, the wilderness was bright with sunlight reflecting off the snow.

The squire led Gawain to a dense forest of pine and fir. He pointed the knight in the right direction, but he would go no farther. Gawain thanked the squire and spurred his horse forward.

Soon Gawain came upon a large clearing surrounded by a ring of ancient evergreen trees. In the center of the clearing stood a large stone alter. He thought to himself, surely this must be the Green Chapel.

He dismounted his horse and prepared to enter the strange natural chapel, but he paused when he heard the sound of an axe being sharpened. He remembered that axe, and the silken belt which would protect him from it. But he also remembered that the Green Knight had submitted himself to the axe blow without any such protection. If Gawain was to be called a true and faithful knight, he could not cheat by wearing the belt -- even if it meant his death. Better to die with honor, he reasoned, than to live without it. He removed the green charm and left it with his horse.

As Gawain entered the clearing from the east, he saw the Green Knight entering from the west. His head was back on his shoulders, and he still wore the green face-concealing helm. But his voice and mannerisms told Gawain that this was indeed the same knight he'd met twelve nights earlier in Camelot.

The Green Knight greeted Gawain, saying, "You are a worthy knight, true to your word." Gawain said nothing, but he stepped up to the altar, where the Green Knight stood. There he noticed the chopping block rested before the altar.

"I have come to keep my promise," Gawain said, removing his helm so that his long golden hair shined in the sunlight. The Green Knight nodded, and Gawain sank to his knees before the altar.

Before he lowered his head to the wooden chopping block, he noticed a young squire approaching from the west. He wore a long heavy cloak, with a hood which hid his face. He carried the huge axe, which he handed to the Green Knight.

Gawain bowed over the wooden block. He felt the axe blade come to rest ever so lightly on his bare neck, and he heard the Green Knight speak: "Are you prepared to undertake the Challenge of the Green Knight?"

Sir Gawain replied, "I am."

Again the Green Knight asked: "I ask again, are you prepared to undertake the Challenge of the Green Knight?"

Again Gawain replied, "Strike but the one stroke, and I shall be still and offer no resistance."

A third time the Green Knight asked: "I ask a final time: Are you prepared to undertake the Challenge of the Green Knight?"

Gawain began to lose his temper. Through clenched teeth he said, "Deal me my destiny, and swiftly, for I shall stand your stroke, not starting at all until the blade has hit me -- here is my oath."

"You speak so fiercely," said the Green Knight, "I will not lengthen matters by delaying my stroke, I vow."

He lifted his flashing axe, then swung it downward. But instead of slicing through Gawain's neck, it merely nicked him. Gawain looked down to see a few small drops of blood and a lock of his sun-bright hair on the snow.

Realizing he was not beheaded, Gawain leaped to his feet and drew his sword, saying, "One stroke was promised you, and one stroke you've had. If you want another chance at my neck, you must come past my sword and shield!"

But the Green Knight laid his axe upon the altar and removed his helm. To Gawain's astonishment, the face revealed was that of his host, Sir Bercilak. The older knight bade Gawain put up his sword.

Somewhat reluctantly, Gawain sheathed his weapon. Bercilak explained that he was a knight sworn to serve and protect the Lady of the Lake, who was the goddess of the Island Avalon. The beheading challenge was to find a knight of Arthur's court who was worthy to enter into the sacred knighthood of the Green Chapel.

Gawain was thrilled at the prospect of becoming a champion of the Lady of the Lake -- a very noble occupation. But then his heart sank when he remembered the green sash.

"I am not worthy to enter your Order," said Gawain, "for I am not a true knight. Last night, when you gave me the boar as part of our promise, I did not keep my vow to you. Your daughter indeed gave me a kiss, which I gave to you, but she gave me something else -- something I promised her I would not tell you about."

"Yes, I know," said Sir Bercilak, turning to the squire, who threw back the cloak's hood. To Gawain's utter surprise, the squire was not a boy at all, but Bercilak's own daughter.

She spoke kindly to Gawain, saying, "I release you from that oath now, Gawain, for my father is well aware that you took the magic belt I gave you. But we also know that you are not wearing it now."

From beneath her cloak, she pulled out the silken cord she had found on Gawain's horse. Then Bercilak spoke: "You see, Gawain, although you did not give me everything you found in my castle, you kept your other oaths: you kept your promise to my daughter, and you came here to be beheaded without the protection of the charm.

"We are all human," the Green Knight continued. "And we are all afraid to die. To be otherwise is folly. So you accepted a talisman that would protect your life. But when you came to this Chapel, you overcame your fear and faced death with honor and dignity. That is why I nicked you with the axe: as a reminder of your mortality, but also of your courage and honor."

Despite Bercilak's words, Gawain still felt ashamed of his weakness. But when the Green Knight asked him if he'd like to become a Champion of the Goddess, Gawain accepted. This made Bercilak's daughter, who was the Green Chapel's priestess, very happy.

"This was but the first test," she said to Gawain. "Others will follow, though you may not know it when you are tested. For now, accept this enchanted belt. Wear it as a symbol of your commitment to this path of knighthood." She kneeled before Gawain and tied the sash about his waist.

Bercilak and his daughter took Gawain back to the castle, where he rested for a few more days, before returning to Camelot, where everyone at Arthur's court cheered his return. Gawain remained at Camelot for a time, awaiting the next test, before he was called to action by another adventure.

Here ends the Tale of the Challenge of the Green Knight. May the Blessed Spirit of Sir Gawain be pleased by my telling of it, and may my ancestors smile upon me, now and ever.

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