Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 1, 2023

Feasting Amidst Famine and Plague with Gawain and the Gang

As I have for many decades, it’s time again to read that 14th century Middle English poem — which takes place at New Year — Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

For all but a few of the past dozen years, I’ve had something to say about it here.

For some of those re-readings, I’ve gone looking for something specific. In other years, it’s enough to read it again and wait for the story, the language — something — to strike a new impression. This year is one of the latter. And, yes, something occurred to me, early on in the poem, as King Arthur and his court are celebrating the long holiday (their feast lasts 15 days) at Camelot.

It’s actually a rather obvious thing. This year’s reading is, after all, the third one during the global pandemic. 

What’s the connection?

The unknown author of our tale was writing in the northwest of England, near the end of the 14th century. Virtually the entire century — throughout Europe and much of Asia, not just England — had been marked first by dire famine, then the advent of the bubonic plague in the 1340s, and a second wave of plague in the 1360s.

By the time our anonymous poet was writing, several previous generations had endured wholesale die-offs of a significant portion of the world’s population. 

No, there’s no direct reference to famine or plague in the poem I can point to. Still, consider ….

Most of us, to some degree or another, have closed ourselves in against this modern plague: sometimes voluntarily, sometimes at the direction of a variety of public agencies. We have, in a sense, been living an echo of the two great feasts in Sir Gawain.

In each case, the feasts occur in grand halls of legendary stature. At Camelot, Arthur and Guinevere preside over a throng of noble nights, gracious (and indescribably lovely ladies), plus a host of stewards, servants, musicians, etc. There, the merriment — singing, dancing, jousting, gift-giving, games, in addition to eating — is on an epic scale.

Don’t mistake me. Nothing suggests the court of Camelot is sheltering themselves from the dire conditions of a plague- and famine-wracked world.

Then, though, on New Year’s Day, the “outside” — a literal force of nature in the form of the unearthly, massive Green Knight astride his enormous green steed — rides straight through the doors, into the hall and up to where Arthur sits at the high table.

“Where is,” the Knight demands, “The governor of this gang?”

That outside world has invaded the fastness of Camelot.

What he seeks, the Knight says, is a holiday game. In his hand he holds a terrifying axe with an edge four feet long. If some one of “the gang” want to play, they get the first swing of the axe at the Knight. Then, one year thence — the next New Year — he gets to return the blow.

Young Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, takes him up on the challenge. In a line that’s still funny 600 years later, Arthur points out to his nephew that if he makes a good swing, he shouldn’t have much to fear from the Knight’s reciprocal blow.

Once off his horse, the Green Knight, who stands about eight feet tall, kneels, bares his neck from his waist-length green hair. Gawain takes a firm stance, swings, and separates the Knight’s head from his body, attended by a lot of (red) blood.

To everyone’s astonishment, the Knight picks up the head by the hair and mounts his horse. The head opens its eyes and admonishes Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel, one year later. So much for Arthur’s joke.

So, there’s one feast inside a great hall, which proves to be no defense against intrusion by some unlooked-for, uninvited invasion by a force of nature.

Interestingly, this theme of people closed inside a hall, literally sheltering from the plague, has a famous literary precedent. In Giovanni Bocaccio’s Decameron, written around 1350, ten people retreat to a palace while the plague ravages Florence. To amuse themselves while they’re sequestered, each person tells, in turn, ten (often erotic) tales: one hundred in all.

Writing at exactly the same time as the Gawain poet, several decades after Bocaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer borrowed a number of stories from the Decameron and wove them into The Canterbury Tales. While there’s no evidence that our Gawain author knew Bocaccio, it’s possible that there’s some echo of wealthy nobles sheltering from famine and pestilence.

One year later, as the holidays approach, Gawain puts on his armor, straps on his sword, grabs his shield, mounts trusty Gringolet, and rides into the wilderness, seeking the Green Chapel.

Extending my parallel with our pandemic circumstances, Gawain — like those of us with vaccines and masks — is armed and masked against daunting threats. Which he meets, in the form of wolves, bears, giants, dragons, aggressive attackers, all of which he must fight and defeat. But the weather! It’s unbearably cold. Snowdrifts. Rain freezes on Gawain’s armor. There’s no shelter, and he spends long, bitter nights, sleeping in his armor. Yes, that outside world was a hostile one, and our author crafts some of the greatest poetry in English, describing it.

Fortunately, on Christmas Day, there in the wilderness, Gawain stumbles upon a castle of remarkable scale, surrounded by mighty walls, deep moats, inhabited by the remarkably hospitable Lord Bertilak and his (incredibly lovely, of course) lady. 

Once more, Gawain’s inside an epic palace, sheltering from a world beset with danger and strife. There’s feasting, comfort of the richest sort, not to mention the company of the literally enchanting Lady Bertilak.

But, just as we do now, Gawain has to go back out. In his case, to finish his journey to the Green Chapel, and bend his neck to the axe of the Green Knight.

For us, we ride out, armed with vaccinations, masks, but look forward to returning to the safety of those castle walls.

A labored parallel? Granted. Still, it helped inform this year’s reading of the poem.

Gawain, that gang and I wish you a happy New Year.

Here are some of my previous Sir Gawain posts you may find of interest:

Silent Night, Green Knight Dec. 13, 2009

A 14th-Century Christmas Dec. 24, 2010

The Knight in Winter Dec. 26, 2010

Don We Now Our Green Apparel Jan. 1, 2011

When Worlds Collide Jan. 6, 2012

Another Visit with the Green Knight Dec. 10, 2012

New Year’s Knight Dec. 31 2015

Sir Gawain vs. the Poets Jan. 1, 2017

A Knight Appears on the Horizon … The Time Approaches Dec. 3 2017

Cherchez les Femmes; It’s All Their Fault (Per Sir Gawain) Jan. 2, 2018

The Knight’s Christmas Eve. A Reading from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Dec. 24, 2018 (includes video)

A Year Runs Swiftly: The Old Year Passes Swiftly for Sir Gawain Jan. 1, 2020

Sir Gawain on the Big Screen, Part One Dec. 30, 2021 (with link to Part Two)

© Brad Nixon 2023



  1. A perspective I can certainly see. Glad to see you posting again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. The pleasure’s mine.


  2. UWS returns after too long an absence. Welcome back!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I see that this story served as the basis for a movie in 1973, 1984, and most recently in 2021—during the pandemic. Do you know whether any of them, especially the last one, play up the connection to a plague?

    Liked by 1 person

    • A good question. I’ve only seen the most recent one of those. The world Gawain travels through there is a harsh one, but beset by war and bandits, not plague (filmmakers missed their chance to include dragons, although there are some bizarre-but-unantagonistic giants). I should be curious enough to look up those other adaptations. Of course, I should also be curious enough to study the published scholarly literature for possible references to this notion, shouldn’t I? Thanks for the question.


    • For a plague-challenged Medieval England, I guess one turns to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail!” I’ll look up those other films, see if I can find ’em at the library or online, and report back.


  4. Beautifully observed.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I thought a good bit about Sir Gawain’s story in 2021, but not because of any plague. Instead, it was our statewide freeze during Valentine’s week that year that brought it to mind.

    Lack of electrical power and freezing temperatures are one thing for a homeowner, but they’re even more serious for institutions like hospitals. In Galveston, who should come riding to the rescue but Sir Gawain: an offshore supply boat that usually carries water to offshore vessels. Instead, it carried its load of water to the local hospital, and off-loaded it. If you use an ad blocker you’ll have to disable it for the page, but you can read a bit about it here. I was so taken with the story I went looking for more information about the company, and discovered they have other boats — Excalibur, King Arthur, and the Green Knight.

    Despite a lot of snooping around, including a trip to the company’s headquarters in Galveston, all I could find out is that the owner of the company named the boats. He’s retired now, and living in the hill country. When I get to his town in the Hill Country again, I’m going to try to track him down there. Some things are better done offline.

    Anyway: that’s my Sir Gawain story. I’ll add a link to the page that shows the boats down below.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Behold, the boats!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Okay. Got ’em. Better than I found at my first stab. I’m delighted to have Arthur and that gang working your coast.

        Liked by 1 person

    • What a great (true) tale. Link to the story worked for me. I’ve found “Sir Gawain” on, currently berthed on the north side of Carpenter’s Bayou, which seems to be in Channelview (outside my geographic knowledge, but you probably know it). Marine Traffic has a rather fuzzy photo of the boat. Can’t send links here, but I’ll email you. I look forward to what more you learn about this shipping owner who’s an Arthurian fan. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. As always an insightful read! Enjoyed the parallels so creatively drawn! Poetic license
    At its best! 😎

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Happy I didn’t let my poetic license lapse. Thanks for reading.


      • Thank you, Brad, for your persistent, consistent, and amazing articulate commentary and observations!!

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment. I enjoy hearing from readers.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: