The Green Knight is a character in a story of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. The Green Knight rides into their hall, in Jessie Weston’s translation:
Now I will say no more of the service, but that ye may know there was no lack, for there drew near a venture that the folk might well have left their labour to gaze upon. As the sound of the music ceased, and the first course had been fitly served, there came in at the hall door one terrible to behold, of stature greater than any on earth; from neck to loin so strong and thickly made, and with limbs so long and so great that he seemed even as a giant. And yet he was but a man, only the mightiest that might mount a steed; broad of chest and shoulders and slender of waist, and all his features of like fashion; but men marvelled much at his colour, for he rode even as a knight, yet was green all over.
For he was clad all in green, with a straight coat, and a mantle above; all decked and lined with fur was the cloth and the hood that was thrown back from his locks and lay on his shoulders. Hose had he of the same green, and spurs of bright gold with silken fastenings richly worked; and all his vesture was verily green. Around his waist and his saddle were bands with fair stones set upon silken work, ’twere too long to tell of all the trifles that were embroidered thereon–birds and insects in gay gauds of green and gold. All the trappings of his steed were of metal of like enamel, even the stirrups that he stood in stained of the same, and stirrups and saddle-bow alike gleamed and shone with green stones. Even the steed on which he rode was of the same hue, a green horse, great and strong, and hard to hold, with broidered bridle, meet for the rider.
The knight was thus gaily dressed in green, his hair falling around his shoulders; on his breast hung a beard, as thick and green as a bush, and the beard and the hair of his head were clipped all round above his elbows. The lower part of his sleeves were fastened with clasps in the same wise as a king’s mantle. The horse’s mane was crisp and plaited with many a knot folded in with gold thread about the fair green, here a twist of the hair, here another of gold. The tail was twined in like manner, and both were bound about with a band of bright green set with many a precious stone; then they were tied aloft in a cunning knot, whereon rang many bells of burnished gold. Such a steed might no other ride, nor had such ever been looked upon in that hall ere that time; and all who saw that knight spake and said that a man might scarce abide his stroke.
The knight bore no helm nor hauberk, neither gorget nor breast-plate, neither shaft nor buckler to smite nor to shield, but in one hand he had a holly-bough, that is greenest when the groves are bare, and in his other an axe, huge and uncomely, a cruel weapon in fashion, if one would picture it. The head was an ell-yard long, the metal all of green steel and gold, the blade burnished bright, with a broad edge, as well shapen to shear as a sharp razor. The steel was set into a strong staff, all bound round with iron, even to the end, and engraved with green in cunning work. A lace was twined about it, that looped at the head, and all adown the handle it was clasped with tassels on buttons of bright green richly broidered.
The knight rideth through the entrance of the hall, driving straight to the high daïs, and greeted no man, but looked ever upwards; and the first words he spake were, “Where is the ruler of this folk? I would gladly look upon that hero, and have speech with him.” He cast his eyes on the knights, and mustered them up and down, striving ever to see who of them was of most renown.
Then was there great gazing to behold that chief, for each man marvelled what it might mean that a knight and his steed should have even such a hue as the green grass; and that seemed even greener than green enamel on bright gold. All looked on him as he stood, and drew near unto him wondering greatly what he might be; for many marvels had they seen, but none such as this, and phantasm and faërie did the folk deem it. Therefore were the gallant knights slow to answer, and gazed astounded, and sat stone still in a deep silence through that goodly hall, as if a slumber were fallen upon them. I deem it was not all for doubt, but some for courtesy that they might give ear unto his errand.
Then Arthur beheld this adventurer before his high daïs, and knightly he greeted him, for fearful was he never. “Sir,” he said, “thou art welcome to this place–lord of this hall am I, and men call me Arthur. Light thee down, and tarry awhile, and what thy will is, that shall we learn after.”
The Knight challenges Arthur, but Gawain takes up the challenge in Arthur’s stead and chops off the Green Knight’s head. The Knight calmly puts his own head back on and Gawain, fulfilling his promise, goes to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year’s time. On the way to meet his certain doom, Gawain demonstrates his chivalry and is pardoned by the Green Knight.
The whole story is well worth reading; it’s beautifully written, energetic and absorbing, and at the same time bafflingly enigmatic. Why, for instance, is he green? Is he somehow the Green Man? Or the devil, sometimes represented in green? Or something else entirely? And the bit about cutting off his head is completely unexpectedly strange; he actually rides off holding his head by the hair, talking. What’s with that? This ambiguity has a rich charm all its own.
I first read this story in Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, which I read aloud to my kids. Green (the editor — too much green!) along with CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, was a member of the Inklings, the amazingly productive Oxford literary circle. Green was also the father of Richard Green, a leading Sherlock Holmes scholar, who died a very unusual death. I quite like Green’s version of the Green Knight; he puts it alongside Mallory-derived stories but doesn’t try to change the basic arc of the story or to remove the inexplicably symbolic details that make it so compelling. (The cheap Puffin edition has handsome woodblock illustrations by Lotte Reiniger.)
Although it draws on rich tradition, the story itself was composed by a single writer, a contemporary of Chaucer’s who is generally known as the “the Gawain Poet” or the “Pearl Poet.” The text is known from a single manuscript, Cotton Nero A.x, now in the British Museum. The manuscript preserves also three other poems by the same author (Pearl, Patience, Cleanliness).
The notation ‘Cotton Nero A.x’ comes from Robert Bruce Cotton‘s idiosyncratic shelving system, in which he named bookcases by Roman emperors; each case was identified by a bust of the eponymous emperor, so the mss. of Gawain and the Green Knight was in the Nero case, on the top shelf, tenth from the right (or left, I’m not sure). Domitian only had one shelf because he was over the door.