Gawain, the Green Knight and the Retreat to Avalon

Hi folks! As I work my way through The Retreat to Avalon, we’re currently in chapter five. Last time we talked about Cair Ligualid (modern Carlisle), and the Arthurian history behind it. Today we’re taking a look at a pivotal point in Gawain’s adventure: meeting the Green Knight.

There are some minor spoilers ahead, but mostly just about adapting this wonderful medieval poem to a modern historical fiction novel. To start, here’s a very brief synopsis of the original Green Knight tale. It is not an easy one for cliff notes because there are so many layers within. For a more detailed synopsis, you can check out my review of ‘The Green Knight’ movie that is based (very) loosely on the original story. For the full original story (translated), check out this link.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in a Nutshell

Gawain and the Green Knight
Illustration from the original manuscript

King Arthur and his knights are enjoying a Yuletide feast when a giant of a man with green hair, skin, and clothes, rides into the hall. He rides a green horse, carrying a huge axe in one hand and a bough of holly in the other. He challenges anyone to use the axe on his neck, on the condition that the person must meet him in a year and a day to receive the same stroke from him.

Of course, anyone who grew up in the magical world of King Arthur’s court could smell something fishy here, so no one took him up on the offer. When Arthur was shamed that his knights were being called cowards, he stood to take the challenge. However, Gawain asked Arthur for the honor of the deed, and proceeds to lop off the Green Knight’s head. The giant stands up, retrieves his head, and says he looks forward to seeing Gawain again in a year at the Green Chapel. After about ten blissful months at Camelot trying to ignore his future (hmm… sounds like my kids…), Gawain sets out to keep his end of the bargain. After many adventures, he finally comes within reach of his goal, and has a few nights to spend at a nearby castle.

While there, he agrees to another game with the lord of the castle: the exchange of winnings. Each day, the lord goes out hunting, promising to give Gawain what he gains, and Gawain must give him whatever he gains. Simple enough when you just plan to sleep and eat, and maybe chat with the lady of the castle. However, while the lord is away, the lady tries to seduce Gawain. This goes on for three days, Gawain politely refusing, only giving in to a few kisses to avoid insulting her completely. On the third day, she gives him a magical cloth belt that protects the wearer from harm. Each day, Gawain repaid the lord with his lady’s kisses, but does not tell him how he received the kisses, nor does he mention the belt.

On the big day, Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel, the magic belt under his armor. He kneels to receive his blow, but understandably flinches when the giant starts to swing. The Green Knight stops and chastises Gawain, then starts to swing a second time. This time, Gawain doesn’t move, but the giant feints, and Gawain rebukes him for stalling. So the Green Knight raises his axe for the third time and swings swiftly down upon Gawain’s neck.

Yet, the blade just nicks the skin, sending a trickle of blood to the snow below. Gawain leaps to his feet and prepares to defend himself, having received the stroke he agreed to. He is surprised when the Green Knight laughs merrily, and says:

“No man here has done you wrong, nor will. Our agreement is fulfilled. If I had intended, you might have received a harsher blow. The two feints were for keeping your word the first and second night, rendering unto me the kisses my fair wife gave you. But the scratch upon your neck is for the third night, in which you failed to give all, holding back the woven girdle, for it is mine, wrought by my wife, and her testing of your virtue was my doing. I find you the most honest knight that ever walked the earth, even if you did lack a little. For your failure in loyalty was not founded in evil, nor to woo my wife, but for love of your own life, for which you are not to blame.”

The giant, revealed as the lord of the castle, said his name was Bernlak, and begged Gawain to return in honor to his castle. But Gawain refused, ashamed for his failure, and tried to return the girdle. However, Bernlak told him to keep it as a memento of their adventure and Gawain said that he would keep it, not for its fineness, nor for friendship,

. . . but in sign of my frailty. I shall look upon it when I ride in renown and remind myself of the fault and faintness of the flesh; and so when pride uplifts me for prowess of arms, the sight of this lace shall humble my heart. 

Gawain returns to Camelot, where he tells all, including the shame of his failures. Arthur comforts him, and the entire court makes an accord that each lord and lady of the Round Table will wear a baldric of bright green for the sake of Sir Gawain and his example of what is best in a knight.

Gawain and the Green Knight
Gawain and the Green Knight by Julek Heller

Adapting to The Retreat to Avalon

The Green Knight contains motifs that go back much further than the era in which the The Green Knight was written. Pre-Christian imagery such as the green-skinned giant, the bough of holly, and the “beheading game” reach further back, in fact, than even the era of the historical Arthur in the fifth century. Adapting a legendary fantasy story to a historical fiction novel presents some problems, like trying to maintain historical accuracy with any sort of magical component. If you’ve read my novels, you’ll see that I don’t ignore the mystical world. Rather, I try to find ways to show how people viewed the real world in mystical terms.

Even that wouldn’t work with a story like The Green Knight. The subject matter is just too supernatural. So, rather than try to shoehorn the original story into something believable, I went looking for some of the themes behind the story and thought about how they could play out in a more realistic way. Immediately, the idea of a duel came to mind. These were not uncommon in the ancient world, and did not necessarily occur due to animosity. Sometimes it is to decide a war, or to win a woman, or sometimes just bragging rights.

There are other motifs in the original story. Gawain takes up the challenge in place of Arthur, as was expected of a good knight. I go into detail about the nature of Dark Ages warbands in this article, but to summarize, a warrior was responsible for defending his warlord, and the warlord was responsible for generously rewarding that service. It is difficult to understand in our current age, but the level of commitment is impressive. If the warlord died, his warriors were honor-bound to either avenge him or die in the attempt. Otherwise, the result would be life-long shame. In a society where honor and martial prowess were the means to making a living, you didn’t want to try and find a new job with that sort of black mark on your résumé.

Gawain demonstrates further why he was considered Arthur’s greatest knight (before the French invented that cuckolding betrayer, Lancelot), by the fact that he does not run away and hide from his agreement. In fact, he goes on a long and punishing search, knowing that his death lay at the end of the journey. Additionally, Gawain does not violate the trust of his host’s hospitality by taking advantage of the beautiful Lady’s attempts at seduction. Neither does he return to Camelot and try to make himself look good to the folks at home. And this is really what the story is about.

Some think the story is about honesty, but it is not. It is about humility. Gawain is the best of Arthur’s knights, but he still proves fallible. Yet, he is humble enough to admit it, and makes no excuses for his behavior. More importantly, it becomes his reminder to keep himself accountable and strive to do better. This may be why I am so drawn to this story.

There are many small aspects of Gawain and the Green Knight woven into my tale. Bachlach, for instance, is a Gaelic approximation of Bernlak, and my nod to the ancient Irish origins behind the beheading game. I’m tempted to list all the hidden details here, but it would get long, and I would really love to hear from you, in the comments, about the details you are able to pick out. Until next time, thank you for stopping by.

Oh, and if you have read any of my novels, I would appreciate so much if you could leave a short review. It really helps authors get their work noticed. If you haven’t read them, I hope you will, and more importantly, I hope you enjoy them.

4 thoughts on “Gawain, the Green Knight and the Retreat to Avalon”

  1. This was a truly fascinating read! Thank you so much for properly summarizing the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in this post! I am currently reading ‘King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table’ by Roger Lancelyn Green and this post is very well connected to my current literary interests. Thank you very much once again for writing and sharing it here on your blog. All the best, much health, take care, stay safe, many blessings, and great peace your way! Keep up the good work and God bless you!

    Reply
  2. The subject of voluntary obligation and the sometimes less than voluntary geas which include some element of taboo is recurrent. It was the foundation of later Romantic Love where the object of desire was unobtainable and deliberately so. It can be seen in the knight’s perfect freedom and perfect obedience. As early as Gilgamesh it is present in story and even as modern as Forrest Gump.

    Why it is a theme is a difficult question. One reason for it in stories is to make the audience “feel good” and better people by sharing in the virtues of the hero. Obviously the warlord wanted to reinforce the obligations to himself and was himself living the “story” but sadly many fell short, as did clan chiefs, for example, over the Highland clearances.

    Reply
    • Very true, Edwin. Arthur’s Golden Age was held up as the epitome of what should be. The fact that even Gawain, the greatest of Arthur’s knights, was not perfect did not diminish the value of the goal, or the attempt to reach it, even knowing perfection is impossible.

      Reply

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