The School Bag

from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Anonymous - (The ‘Pearl Poet’)

[The New Year feast at King Arthur’s Court is interrupted by the entry of
a Green Knight, on a green horse, who challenges any of Arthur’s knights
to chop off his head and agree to submit to the same blow, from the Green
Knight, at the Green Chapel, one year later. Sir Gawain takes up the
challenge. In the following passage Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel to
keep his word.

Then he spurred Gringolet, and took up the trail.
Trees overhung him, the steep slope close to his shoulder.
He pushed on down through the rough, to the gorge-bottom.
Wherever he turned his eyes, it looked wilder.
Nothing anywhere near that could be a shelter.
Only cliffy brinks, beetling above him,
Knuckled and broken outcrops, with horned crags.
Clouds dragging low, torn by the scouts.
There he reigned in his horse and puzzled awhile.
Turning his doubts over, he searched for the Chapel.
Still he could see nothing. He thought it strange.
Only a little mound, a tump, in a clearing,
Between the slope and the edge of the river, a knoll,
Over the river’s edge, at a crossing place,
The burn bubbling under as if it boiled.
The Knight urged his horse and came closer.
He dismounted there, light as a dancer,
And tethered his costly beast to a rough branch.
Then he turned to the tump. He walked all around it,
Debating in himself what it might be.
Shaggy and overgrown with clumps of grass,
It had a hole in the end, and on each side.
Hollow within, nothing but an old cave
Or old gappy rock-heap, it could be either
          Or neither.
     ‘Ah God!’ sighed Gawain,
     ‘Is the Green Chapel here?
     Here, about midnight,
     Satan could say a prayer.’

‘Surely,’ he muttered, ‘This is desolation.
This oratory is ugly, under its weeds.
The right crypt for that ogre, in his greenery,
To deal with his devotions devil-fashion.
My five wits warn me, this is the evil one,
Who bound me on oath to be here, to destroy me.
The chapel of Mischance — God see it demolished!
It is the worst-cursed Church I ever attended.’
With his helmut on his head, and his lance in his hand,
He clambered up on top of the bushy cell
And heard coming off the hill, from a face of rock,
The far side of the stream, a ferocious din.
What! It screeched in the crag, as if it would split it!
It sounded like a scythe a-shriek on a grind-stone!
What! It grumbled and scoured, like water in a mill!
What! It rushed and it rang, painful to hear!
‘By God!’ thought Gawain, ‘I think that scummer
Is done in your honor, Knight, to welcome you
          As you deserve
     Let God have his way! Ah well,
     It helps me not one bit.
     What if I lose my life?
     No noise is going to scare me.’

Then the Knight shouted, at the top of his voice:
‘Is nobody at home, to collect my debt?
Gawain is here, now, walking about.
If any man is willing, get here quickly.
It is now or never, if he wants payment.’
‘Be patient,’ came a voice from the crag overhead,
‘And I shall satisfy you, as I promised.’
Then he was back at his racket, with fresh fury,
Wanting to finish his whetting, before he came down.
But suddenly he was there, from under a cliff,’
Bounding out of a den with a frightful weapon —
A Dane’s axe, new fettled to settle the wager.
It had a massive head hooking back to the helve,
Ground bright with a file, and four foot long.
It measured as much by the rich thong that hung from it.
That giant, all got up in green as before,
Both the face and the legs, the hair and the beard,
Came down with plunging strides, in a big hurry,
Planting the axe to the earth and striding beside it.
When he got to the water he would not wade it,
He vaulted across on his axe, and loomed up,
Bursting into the clearing, where he stood,
          On the snow,
     Sir Gawain knew how to greet him —
     But not too friendly.
     While the other replied: ‘I see, Sir Sweetness,
     A man can keep his word.’

‘Gawain,’ said the Green Man, ‘God protect you.
Let me welcome you, Knight, to my small holding.
You have timed your coming, as a true man should.
I see you honor the contract sealed between us.
This time twelvemonth back you took a thing from me.
So now, at this New year, I shall reclaim it.
We have this lonely valley to ourselves.
No Knights are here to part us. We fight as we please.
Get that helmut off, and take your payment.
And give me no more talk than I gave you
When you whipped off my head with a single swipe.’
‘Nay,’ said Gawain, ‘By God that gave me my soul,
I shall not grudge one jot of the damage coming.
Stick to the single stroke and I shall not move
Nor utter a word to warn you from whatever
          You choose.’
     He stretched his neck and bowed
     And bared the white flesh.
     Pretending to fear nothing.
     He would not dare to be fearful.

The Man in Green was eager, and all ready,
Grasping that ugly tool, to hit Gawain.
With all his body’s might he hoisted it high,
Aimed it murderously for the utmost hurt.
And if he had brought it down as he had aimed it
The Knight who had never flinched would have been headless.
But Gawain skewed a sidelong glance at the weapon
As it came down to cut him off from the earth.
And shrank his shoulders a little from the sharp iron.
That other checked his stroke. He deflected the blade.
Then he reproached the prince with shaming words:
‘You are not Gawain,’ he said, ‘whose name is so great,
Who never quailed in his life, by hill nor by vale.
Here you are wincing for fear before I touch you.
I never heard such cowardice of that hero.
When you hit me, I never fluttered an eyelid.
I never let out a squeak, in Arthur’s hall.
My head rolled over the floor, but I did not flinch.
Before you are touched, your heart jumps out of your body.
It seems to me that I am a warrior far
          Far better.’
     Said Gawain: ‘I winced once.
     And that once is the last.
     Though my head rolling on earth
     Can never be replaced.’

‘But hurry up, warrior, for God’s sake come to the point.
Deal me my destiny, and do it quickly.
I shall stand to your stroke with not one stir
Till your axe-head hits me. I give you my word.’
‘Then here it comes,’ cried the other, and heaved it upwards
With a gargoyle grimace as if he were mad,
And with all his strength hauled down, yet never touched him.
He stopped the blade mid-stroke, before it could harm.
Gawain patiently waited, not a nerve twitched.
He stood there still s a rock or some stiff stump
That grips the stony ground with a hundred roots.
Then the Man in Green spoke pleasantly:
‘Now that your heart is hole again, may I ask you,
Let your high rank, that Arthur gave you, preserve you
And recover your neck from my stroke, if it is able.’
Then Gawain ground his teeth and shouted in anger:
‘Why, hack away, you savage, you threaten too long.
I think you have frightened yourself with your bragging.’
‘What’s this?’ cried the other, ‘Rough words from Sir Gawain?
I will no longer withheld from such an appeal
     And he braced himself for the stroke —
     Clenching both lip and brow.
     No wonder he did not like it
     Who saw no rescue now.

Lightly he lifted the weapon, then let it down deftly
With the barb of the bit by the bare neck,
And though he swung full strength he hardly hurt him,
But snicked him on that side, so the sheer edge
Sliced through skin and fine white fat to the muscle,
Then over his shoulders the bright blood shot to the earth.
When Gawain saw his blood blink on the snow
He sprang a spear’s length forward, in one great stride,
Snatched up his helmut as he went, and crammed it on his head.
A shunt of his shoulders brought his shield to the front
And his sword flashed out as he spoke fiercely:
Since he was first a man born of his mother
Never in this world was he half as happy,
‘That’s enough, warrior. I take no more.
I have taken the payment blow, without resistance.
If you fetch me another, I shall match it.
I shall repay it promptly, you can trust me,
          And in full.
     I owed a single cut.
     That was our covenant
     Agreed in Arthur’s Hall —
     So now, Sir, what about it?’

The Knight in Green stepped back, and leaned on his axe.
Setting the shaft in the snow, he rested on the head
And gazed awhile at the prince who stood before him:
Armed, calm, fearless, undaunted. He had to admire him.
Now as he spoke, his voice was big and cheerful:
‘What a brave fellow you are. Do not be angry.
Nobody here has misused you, or done you dishonor.
We kept to the terms agreed in the King’s Court.
I promised a blow. You have it. You are well paid.
And I require from you no other quittance.
If I had wanted it, I could have grieved you.
I could have exacted a cut, perhaps, far worse.
But see how I teased you, my worst was a playful feint.
I did not maim you with a gash. I took only justice,
For the contract we agreed on that first night.
You have kept faith with me and the bond between us,
And all that you took you returned — as a good man should.’

Old English - late 14th century - translated by Ted Hughes