Recently I wrote about my longtime love of stories about giants (“Fee Fie Fo Fum“). Stories about giants and ogres predate recorded language, and they appear in some of the oldest written literature, too. Homer has at least one giant in each of the foundational Greek epics: Nestor fights the giant Ereuthalion in the Iliad and Odysseus blinds Cyclops in the Odyssey. You’re probably familiar with good ol’ Goliath in 1 Samuel, and, well, giants are everywhere. In our pre-English linguistic heritage there’s a long line of Germanic and Scandinavian giants in epics and sagas. (For the life of me, I can’t think of any giants on the French side of the tradition. With all that rich food, there should be at least one or two.) (see correction, at bottom of article) By the time we get to the earliest written English, Beowulf gives us Grendel and Grendel’s mother, as well as a dragon: not technically giants, but pretty darned good supernatural foes.
Then, a little before the year 1400, today’s subject appears: a Middle English alliterative romance poem called “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” This is a seasonal story; it takes place at King Arthur’s court during the holiday celebrations. There’s food galore, singing, dancing, and young Arthur is table-hopping, enjoying the revelry of all the great and famous knights who are at Camelot. They include all the names you recognize: Bedivere, Yvain, and so on, and, of course, the beautiful Guinevere, too. Suddenly, in through the doors rides an astounding apparition: a very, very large man, colored green from head to toe, including his hair, astride a green horse. All their armor — on horse and man — is green. This awesome giant is carrying a large, green axe, more than half the size of a man.
Arthur greets him and invites him to join their celebration. That, of course, was the rule of hospitality in that day. The huge green man declines to eat. Speaking politely but directly, he tells Arthur that he has come for some holiday fun: a challenge to any of these knights of renown to participate in a little New Year’s game. Asked to describe this contest, the giant states that he will trade blows of his axe (there are a lot of Middle English words for this implement: one fine one is giserne) with any one of the august assembly here. He’ll receive the first blow, then it will be his turn to deliver one.
No takers. The noise level in the hall has dropped to zero, and everyone has found something requiring his attention, like removing a spot of grease from a greave or retrieving something from under the table. This is rather embarrassing, since in this one room are supposedly gathered the gamest, most fearless and confident warriors in the known world, Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, whose entire ethos centers on never shirking any challenge. Arthur is a little dismayed by this lack of spirit from his gang, and is on point of accepting the challenge himself when finally young Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is shamed at the thought that the host has to step in for all his guests and, swallowing hard, says he’ll give it a go.
Gawain steps up and grabs the haft of that fearsome implement, with the green man towering over him. That gentleman calmly bends down, thoughtfully bares his neck and awaits Gawain’s blow. Gawain swings and severs the green head from the green body, with plenty of red blood in between. Suddenly it occurs to everyone else that THEY could’ve been up there — bozos, how was the guy going to hit BACK when you get first shot with an axe of that magnitude?
Unfortunately, the now-headless giant rises, grasps his own head by the hair and holds it up. The severed head speaks, reminding Gawain of his promise to receive the next blow. He’ll expect to see Gawain one year hence, on New Year’s Day at the Chapel Green. Don’t be late! And he gets on his powerful horse and rides out of the castle, hooves striking sparks on the stones of the hall.
Skipping about a thousand lines of excellent alliterative poetry, Gawain sets out a year later, searches for and finds the Green Chapel, and JUST makes it by New Year. (There are many excellent adventures along the way, told in marvelous detail.) He approaches the Green Chapel, which is a kind of overgrown mound. He can hear the giant nearby, SHARPENING HIS AXE. They meet, confirm the terms of the agreement, and Gawain bows down and bares his neck. The giant swings and STOPS just a fraction of an inch before removing Gawain’s head. But Gawain flinches. The giant takes him to task for this lack of courage, and tells him to take his medicine like a real knight. Gawain swallows hard once again and resigns himself to his fate. However, in the end, the giant, whose name is Bertilak, gives Gawain merely a little nick on the neck, to serve as a reminder of his hubris, and Gawain rides back to Camelot, where they’re pretty surprised to see him at all, let alone in one piece.
The reason I bring this up now is that most years at this time, I pull out my worn Everyman edition of SG&tGK and read it. Some years I get through all of it and sometimes I skip some of the more laborious sections dealing with hunting lore and other things that were probably more compelling in the 14th Century when TV and Internet reception in Northumbria was poor. The poem has lots of Christian themes, but the underlying story of a man setting off to kill a giant is clearly a pagan survival under its religious vestments. The story has always appealed to me, perhaps because of the connection between this tale and the giant stories my mother read to me
Now I give the task to you. When you drive to the nearby Christmas tree lot and pick one of this year’s trees to tie onto the family vehicle and take home, consider yourself to be reenacting the core story of Gawain: going into the wild to cut the green giant, and renew the world for another New Year. Rejoice. We’re all connected, back across many centuries.
If you’re interested in trying it, you will be able to read the original Middle English, at least to some degree. Just remember that it’s alliterative poetry, with three occurrences of one initial sound repeated in each line. There is some spectacular descriptive language that is worth the effort. The Everyman edition is good, and has lots of notes on translations of words and phrases that you won’t get without help. HERE it is on Amazon. This is the exact version I have, my 35 year-old copy with Gawain gazing at the castle of Bertilak.
HERE is an online version of the original text with alternating translation. The U. of Toronto took the irritating step of using the same orthography as the original script, so some “v”s appear as “u”s and vice-versa. The odd symbols are eth and thorn, which are “th” sounds, and “g” looks like a dropped-down “3.”
CORRECTION: My smart-aleck comment above about there being no giants in medieval French romances that I could recall was, like all blanket statements, even about the French, doomed to prove me wrong. I was overlooking the pervasive Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde or take your pick from other spellings) romances that appeared in nearly every European language in the 12th and 13th Centuries. In many of the versions, Tristan slays Morholt, Iseult’s uncle. Sometimes Morholt is a giant. In other stories, he’s just a mean guy who has to be killed. Sometimes he doesn’t appear at all. I’m clearly not up to snuff on my Tristaniana.
© Brad Nixon 2009, 2017
Here are my other posts about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
A 14th-Century Christmas Dec. 24, 2010
The Knight in Winter Dec. 26, 2010
Don We Now Our Green Apparel Jan. 1, 2011
Another Visit with the Green Knight Dec. 10, 2012
When Worlds Collide Jan. 6, 2012
New Year’s Knight Dec. 31 2015
Sir Gawain vs. the Poets Jan. 1, 2017