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Adventure falls on Christmas knight

20 December 2013

Nicholas Orme discusses Gawain's quest, and the medieval Christmas scenes presented in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


Kest vp þe cortyn and creped withinne: the lady of the castle begins her seduction of Sir Gawain, by an unknown artist in the British Library's unique manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Kest vp þe cortyn and creped withinne: the lady of the castle begins her seduction of Sir Gawain, by an unknown artist in the British Library's uniq...

A KNIGHT in armour is riding alone through a forest in Cheshire in the late 1300s. It is Christmas Eve. He has been travelling across wild countryside for nearly two months, in distressing weather, and yearns for a refuge indoors - not for relief from his journey, but because this is a holy time, and he wishes to worship Christ on Christmas Day, as a good Christian should.

He prays as people did, repeating the Pater noster and Ave Maria in Latin, crossing himself three times and saying in English "Christ's cross speed me." No sooner has he done so than he sees through the trees a castle on a mound, glimmering in the winter sunshine. Around it is a park of great oaks fenced by palings: part of the landscaping that surrounded great medieval houses to set off the buildings and proclaim the status of the owners.

This scene comes from the poem now known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in Chaucer's day by an unknown author writing in the north-west of England. If the author lacks Chaucer's range, he rivals or exceeds him in other respects, writing in a rich alliterative verse that is both vivid in its descriptions and deep in the issues that it handles.


THE framework of the story is fantastic. A Green Knight - green in body as well as in clothing - comes to King Arthur's court on New Year's Day, and challenges anyone there to "a Christmas game". He will endure a blow from an axe, but he must give one in return. Gawain accepts the challenge, and cuts off the knight's head. The body then gets up, retrieves its head, and departs, warning Gawain to come for the reciprocal blow at the Green Chapel on the same day next year.

This is supernatural, as is Gawain's journey to find the chapel. He travels alone, which knights never did, and how he got his food is unexplained. But, within that framework, the story is highly realistic. The castle to which Gawain comes, and how it functions, reflect what might have been true of a wealthy and well-organised noble residence in Richard II's reign. The result is one of the best Christmas stories ever written - or, more accurately, the best midwinter stories, since it starts at one New Year and ends at another.

On reaching the castle, Gawain is immediately asked to stay and shown to a bedroom with a charcoal fire burning in a fireplace. A table and chair are set up, and food is brought, since he has arrived in the afternoon and dinner is over. A white cloth is spread, silver spoons are put out, and a lavish meal is served, consisting of fish - baked, stewed, and spiced. Fish, because this is the vigil of a major feast, as well as the last day of Advent, when the wealthy, at least, have followed a more austere diet.

His meal over, Gawain goes with his host to the castle chapel for first vespers of Christmas, as dusk falls in mid-afternoon - the time of the modern King's College carols. The service is preceded by "rich" bell-ringing - the ringing together of as many bells as there were - and the chapel closely resembles those that can still be seen at Haddon Hall, in Derbyshire, or at the Tudor/medieval house Cotehele, in Cornwall.

There is an antechapel with a screen through which the lord of the castle leads Gawain to a stall in the privileged chancel area. The lord's wife and her maidens watch from an upper window. It is a mark of Gawain's famously good manners that he sits "soberly" during the service, presumably not moving about, or talking.

THE author does not describe Christmas morning, which would have begun with more chapel attendance at matins and mass. Instead, he depicts the festal midday dinner in the castle hall. The chief people present are placed at a high table on a dais. The principal guest, an elderly lady (in fact, she is Morgan la Faye), has the seat of honour at the north end of the table. The lord of the castle sits on her left, facing the hall, with Gawain next to him, and then the lord's wife. Other guests are put at lower tables, according to their rank. Servants wait on them.

Hands are washed before meals, and grace is said. We are not told of the menu, but it would have consisted of two or three courses, each of numerous dishes of butchered meat, birds, or fish. In the later courses, tarts and custards would appear alongside the meat. Guests would taste several of the dishes, and there were interludes between the courses, partly for the convenience of the kitchen and partly to allow the guests to digest, and find room for more.

The interludes would be filledby entertainment from household members or visiting performers. Trumpets, drums, and pipes are mentioned, and there might have been jugglers, singers, dancers, or even short plays. After dinner, the guests dance or play active party-games with blindfolds or forfeits, accompanied by laughter and high spirits. Eventually, they retire to a great chamber with a fireplace. There they sit, converse, and drink wine, and nibble fruit, nuts, and biscuits.


PRESENTS were not a feature of Christmas Day. They were given on New Year's Day, which was liturgically the "octave", or week after Christmas, and therefore an important feast in its own right, as well as the recognised start of the natural year (only the calendar year began on 25 March). Kings and lords gave presents such as pieces of silver to lesser folk, and received appropriate gifts in return. At Arthur's court prizes were given in games or guessing competitions.

Manners are formal, with an emphasis on good speaking. Gawain was renowned for his courtesy. When he first meets the lord's wife and her elderly companion, he bows to Morgan, embraces the wife, and asks, in the language of courtly love, if he may be their servant.

Conversation is polite, careful, and full of compliments. Yet, as in the novels of Jane Austen, politeness is pregnant with meaning and issues. Gawain has not come to this castle by chance, or by choice.

The castle is indeed more perilous than the winter countryside from which it seemed to offer an escape. This becomes clear on the fourth day after Christmas, when most of the guests go home. The lord informs Gawain that the Green Chapel is close by. Gawain shall stay at the castle until New Year's Day, to recover his strength, while the lord spends his time hunting. At the end of each day, they will exchange their winnings, whatever these are.


NEXT morning, the lord leaves early for the hunt. Gawain remains in bed, and is horrified when the lady of the castle enters his bedroom - a breach of etiquette that means only one thing: seduction. He has to use all his diplomatic skills to avoid offending her and betraying his host. At length he escapes with a kiss, which he swaps with the lord for a pile of deer carcasses. The same happens next day, with two kisses for a wild boar.

On the last day, New Year's Eve, the lady slips under his guard. He is worried about his encounter with the Green Knight. She tempts him with the offer of a magic girdle that will make him invulnerable. When he has accepted it, she tells him that he must keep the gift secret from her husband, and kisses him three times. Later that day, he passes on the kisses, but not the girdle, and receives a dead fox. This determines what takes place next day at the Green Chapel - which I will not disclose, in case you have not read the poem.

Sir Gawain paints a brilliant picture of Christmas in a medieval castle. It is a time of hospitality; because in an age when travel is slow, guests must be asked to stay for several days. It is a time of devotion; each day begins in the chapel. The lord of the castle hears mass there at dawn before he goes hunting, and a second mass takes place at nine or ten for the late risers, such as Gawain.

There are recognised customs of merrymaking and behaviour, to which all must adapt themselves: what was known in later times as "Christmas rule". The festivity is the more enjoyable because it has followed four weeks of relative abstinence.


OUTSIDE, the poem's landscapes are sublime: now frosty and bracing, now desolate with fog and snow. "Near slain with the sleet, he slept in his irons More nights than enough in naked rocks, Where clattering from the crest the cold burn runs, Or hung high over his head in hard icicles." In four lines, the author evokes cold armour ("irons"), a waterfall cascading down a cliff, and the stillness and wonder of its icicles seen in the freezing air.

But the core of the poem is about identity. Gawain is asked more than once: "Who are you? Are you really Gawain?" He is aware of this question, and is anxious to be Gawain, and the right Gawain. He wishes to be loyal to his king, and polite to other people - especially ladies - and true to his host at the castle. He also aspires to be a good Christian: conscientious in his observances, and having faith that God will keep him safe.

But Gawain is not Galahad. The realism of the poem is also Christian, in showing that the perfection to which Gawain aspires must elude him. That is the fate of humanity. He makes mistakes like all of us, and pays for this in his final New Year encounter.

In the end, his efforts to do well, and God's protection, bring him through the worst dangers. The Green Knight praises him as "the most faultless fellow that ever went on foot." More wisely, Gawain comes out of the story aware of his own shortcomings, and ready to own up to them.

"A sad tale's best for winter," Shakespeare said; but Sir Gawain is not a sad tale. On the contrary, it is richly varied: now set indoors, now out of doors, now sinister, now humorous. At one point, it is full of sound and movement; at another, silence falls. The encounters that it describes are not just a string of events, but parts of an evolving plan whose meaning grows clear at the end.

There are many other great works of literature, but it is doubtful whether anything better has yet been written in English.

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