The doors of the great hall stood open wide. For a while no one noticed the bitter cold racing into the room. They stood, staring in wonder at the swirling snow concealing the figure of the Green Knight as he left the court of King Arthur. It took some time before anyone did more than blink. It was Arthur himself who rose and spoke, commanding the doors to be shut.
Stirring as if from slumber one by one the courtiers and ladies, wenches and servants, everyone – began to talk together. It was widely decided that the incident – the Green Knight, the challenge, the ax and its horrible fruit – the great green head that severed yet spake – all a mass hallucination brought on by some evil spirit in the mead.
Sir Gawain alone stood stock still, preparing his next move. He knew what he saw, and felt the weight of his ax stroke landing, again, with a shudder. It made him think, and Gawain did not like to think.
This was a strong point in Gawain’s line of work. As a knight of the realm, and personal champion to the king, his job carries him boldly where no one else will. Thinking, from Gawain’s perspective, only leads to hesitation and a regretful tendency to dwell on things. Obviously deadly when dealing with dragons and unscrupulous adversaries.
It was the first time he had encountered a magical being. Nothing made sense anymore, but he could still feel the thud of the ax echoing in his arms. There was nothing for it, he would have to keep his bargain with the giant. The king’s honor and the stature of the realm depended upon it. His personal honor and reputation as a knight were at stake.
Gawain was startled by the arm of the king resting companionably across his shoulders. Arthur bent his head and spoke quietly to his long time friend. “You don’t have to do this. I know you, I know what you’re thinking – I can’t have you gone for such a time. Stay, my friend. Do not chase after phantasms.”
All to no avail. The noble young man paced the halls of the great house. No one spoke of the incident anymore. Gawain, from all appearances had gone mad. He could not please himself with any occupation at court. Even feminine company was tedious, as all alike tried to convince this man without artifice that this occurrence – so newly central to his being- was in fact, so much manure. For a time it was all he spoke of. Now, he rarely spoke at all and this was the breaking point for Arthur.
Each morning the knight would beg leave to search for the Green Knight and fulfill his obligation. Each day the request, and entire incident were denied. It had been well over a month of asking and Arthur was tired of the discontent his favorite wore like a shroud. “Go.” commanded the sovereign, and Gawain was gone before the king spake again.
An act his majesty regretted for months after. And while Arthur and the ladies of the court missed Sir Gawain for very different reasons, the walls of the palace too seemed darker for his absence. Yet our young champion pushed forward in his quest to find the great Green Knight, and finally face the blow that would be certain death. There was no help for it. Gawain was a man of honor, and all he had to give was his word. It was to him a sacred thing, demanding payment like a creditor. There was no escaping one’s word once given despite the extremity of circumstances.
Gawain spends many months battling maidens, rescuing dragons and stopping to ask directions. No one had heard of the Green Knight or had any idea where his home might be. Spring and summer made way for autumn before Gawain grows concern for the impending deadline. He isn’t used to failure, as missing this appointment would certainly be.
His arms still echo the landing of the ax, through bone and flesh to tabletop in shuddering flashes. He cannot refuse the reality of his bargain. In bleakest of moments, Gawain tries to talk himself out of continuing the quest, saying he was drunk and under duress at the time the huge green man of the wintery forest night made his challenge at the king’s court.
But he knew it was no excuse as he often made and accepted challenges this way. With no sign of the Green Knight and eleven months of wandering, Gawain’s hope (against hope) began to fade.
With three days before the deadline set by the Green Knight, chance led Gawain to cross the path of a hunting party in the woods. As fate would have it, the noble leader of the party knew the place Gawain sought. It was nearby and the good gentleman would gladly take him there in time for Gawain’s appointment.
But first, our poor wandering knight was in desperate need of a bath and a hot meal. “Please come,” the good man invited. Gawain was loath to turn down the invitation.