Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Bertilak de Hautdesert: the Green Knight

[an Arthurian story I wrote for school. Needless to say, I'm very proud of myself]

Never has a woman cut off my head. I am sure any person alive, man or woman, can say that with confidence, save, perhaps, those who have died due to beheading. I, however, cannot say that. Oh, yes, a woman has removed my head from my shoulders, and yet, I am alive to say, 'I cannot say never has a woman cut off my head.'
  But then, she was not just any woman. Morgan Le Fay. Sometimes I wonder if I should have left her offer, but what she offered me was sibling to invulnerability, which any man would be willing to have. Though I live in peaceful lands, invulnerability would be a good gift to have if any wars were to happen. If asked why I am not willing to die in war, my answers would be both logical and honorable. I do not wish to leave my beloved and faithful wife alone, I would rather grow old with her, raise children with her. Also, I am, for the moment, childless. Who would protect my land if I am dead?
  I do have another answer that is more relatable, but viewed as dishonorable. I would rather not die. Many men have a fear of death, even those who claim not to, especially those who claim not to. Such as the knights of Camelot. Which is where I am going at this moment.
  Why, and what relation does this have to my invulnerability, and Morgan Le Fey? See, it was she who sent me to Camelot after granting my invulnerability (as I call it, for it is simpler that way) a year and a day past. No gift is free, especially a gift granted by a sorceress.
  After granting this gift to me, the Lady Le Fay gave me these conditions: "Spend the next year creating an intimidating reputation for yourself, as the knight of the Green Chapel."
  For with this gift of invulnerability came a body much different from my own; not only did I tower over most men, not only did my muscles increase in strength and size, but I was green, from head to foot, from my hair to my toes. Initially this alarmed me, but the sorceress assured me that this only represented my invulnerability. If I wished to lose the gift temporarily, then I would turn to my normal self.
  "Kill someone if you wish, I do not care. But after a year and a day, go to Camelot. There King Arthur and his knights will be celebrating the year anew, and the king will be eager for a story or show of adventure. In your invulnerable form, challenge the court to a game, a beheading game."
  "Beheading?" said I, both confused and alarmed.
  "Yes, man, beheading. Challenge any of the knights in the court to take up your axe and smite off your head. Your invulnerability will save you, but do not tell them that until one knight is courageous enough to do as you challenge and smites off your head. After this is complete, tell the knight who has smite you to come looking for you in the Green Chapel after a year and a day."
  Of course, though I was invulnerable, the idea of my head departing from my shoulders alarmed me, and I voiced my doubts. This seemed to annoy the sorceress, and before I knew what was happening, and mighty axe appeared in her hands, and with strength very unusual to a woman, she lifted said axe and sliced off my head.
  I was alive. After my mind forgot the initial shock, I picked up my green head and set it on my shoulders. I truly believed my invulnerability after that, and Morgan Le Fey continued to set her conditions. "This will prove the true bravery and courtesy of the Knights of the Round Table," said she.
  Now, mounted on a mighty green horse (another gift from Lady Le Fey), I burst into King Arthur's court, where the festivities seem to have just begun. Over the year, I have practiced confidence in my invulnerable form, and now I feel invincible as look over the Knights of the Round Table. If I were another man, or if I did not have a task at hand, I might have challenged them all to a duel. But I have no desire for meaningless destruction, and I do have a task to complete. Thus why I wear no armor, and hold a holly branch as a symbol of peace.
  "Who here is your lord and leader?" I bellow. "Let him reveal himself so we may talk!" Though I can easily identify King Arthur, I give him an opportunity to declare himself.
  For a long while, all I receive are stares. I can imagine what thoughts are going through these knights' heads. What am I? Where do I come from? What do I want? But then, King Arthur stands, his face and movement a perfect show of courtesy, with no fear to mar it.
  "Welcome to my court, stranger," says he. "I am Arthur, the master of this castle. If you wish to dine with us, I and my knights welcome you gladly, and whatever business you have might wait until after the feasting."
  "No, I do not come to feast," says I, my voice ever powerful. "Rather, I heard tell that this is where I might find the best! The best knights, the bravest knights! I also heard tales of your boldness and courtesy, Arthur, master of Camelot, yours and your knights', and I have come to see proof of all of it! Be assured that I seek no war against Camelot, as you can see that I hold this branch, and wear no armor. But if you are as good as the children's stories say, then you will grant what I ask."
  "And what is it that you ask for, stranger?" King Arthur replies, betraying wariness. "If you wish to duel I am sure none of my knights will turn you down."
  "I just said I am not dressed for battle, as I do not wish to create one," I say impatiently. "Though if I wished to, I would not need armor to beat every single one of these boys you call knights." Those I mock look outraged, but they dare not say anything. "No, I simply wish to entertain you with a Christmas game."
  I draw my mighty axe, the one which had felled me a year and a day past. The knights murmur. "Let one young man, one knight come forth and bear this axe. Let him use this axe to remove my head from my shoulders, I give my word that I will bear his blow without a flinch. If I perish, the weapon is his to keep. But if I survive his strike, the game will recommence in a year and a day: that knight must allow me to return his blow accordingly. Now come, who is willing to rise to this challenge?"
  I know that my uninvited entrance, as well as my appearance, had shocked all of those in the hall, but now I can see that my challenge has shocked them still more. For the longest time they all just gape at me, but no one rises to the challenge.
  "Is this it?" I declare mockingly. "Is this the brave house of Arthur? Are these the courageous knights of the Round Table? Fah! Your superiority and conquests are nothing now! All I ask is that you strike off my head, and you cower like children!" I throw my head back and laugh, twisting the blade in the wound.
  Then, King Arthur steps forward, his pride and the pride of his knights, in his mind, wounded enough. "Enough," says he, hands clenched into fists, a clear show of anger. "This sounds like a challenge only a fool would propose or agree to, but I will rise to it. Hand me your axe!"
  Smiling, I dismount my horse and hand my weapon to the king of Camelot. Though the man is obviously put off by the weight of the weapon, he is quick to regain his composure. Kneeling, I expose my neck. But as the king raises the axe, preparing to strike, a cry arises from the Round Table.
  "My lord and king, do not do this!"
  I admit, I am surprised, having been sure that King Arthur would be my challenger. The king draws back and I look to see who the speaker is.
  "King and uncle, I apologize," says a young knight, standing alongside Arthur's queen and wife. "But this task is not so pressing that you, the king above this court, must complete it. Your life is not worth risking for just a game. Here sit many men who ought to be willing to take your place. But if you will, allow me to complete the game, for of all these knights I realize that I am neither the strongest of body nor strongest of mind, and my life is nothing compared to yours. Also, my uncle, I ask that you see this as an opportunity to prove myself worthy of sitting at the Round Table."
  The king seems against this thought at first, but I say nothing. After all, a young knight eager to prove himself, there is often little to say against that. Indeed, after a short and murmured council, King Arthur allows his nephew to come forward. The knight kneels before his king, and the king blesses him readily.
  My weapon in his hands, the knight approaches me with a boldness that impresses me. "Let us reaffirm the conditions of the game," says I. "But first, what is it you call yourself, knight of the Round Table?"
  "I am Gawain," the knight replies readily. "I accept your challenge and your conditions, accepting no help from outside sources."
  I then remind Sir Gawain of what he must do a year and a day from now, come and seek me so that I might make to return the blow he is to give me.
  "I must seek you, you say," says he. "Where then do you live? You do not expect me to go after you like a dog after its tail, do you?"
  "Strike me, Sir Gawain, and if I should speak even with my head detached, then I will tell you where you might find me, and you must come through with my conditions. But if I lie well and truly dead, then keep my weapon, and remain in Camelot, my conditions null and void."
  "Sounds like a fair agreement," Sir Gawain says. He lifts the axe. "Shall we begin?"
  Willingly I kneel, again exposing my neck. I can almost sense the axe lifting upwards, but I make no movement, not even when the blade strikes downward and my head is detached from my shoulders. I can feel my blood, red against the tiles of the hall, pouring from my neck, but I pay no heed. I stand to my feet, and gather up my head by its long green hair. Paying no heed to the shocked murmurs of the court, I mount my steed, head still in hand.
  "Listen well, Sir Gawain," says I. "Come searching for me at the Green Chapel, be there a year and a day from now so you might honor the conditions set. If only for the sake of your honor, remember, Sir Gawain. A year and a day from now, be at the Green Chapel so I might return the blow you gave to me."
  Then turning my horse, I ride from the hall and from Camelot. Now, I wait.
--
I was happy when my servants reported a wandering knight in need of shelter. This was well before the Christmas celebrations, and when I met the knight I recognized him surely as Sir Gawain. Of course he did not recognize me, which is all the better. To him, I am in no way related to the green knight who set him the Beheading Challenge almost a year ago, I am just a kind lord willing to give him hospitality.
  But it is now after the Christmas celebrations, which Sir Gawain willing celebrated with myself and my court. As all my guests, but for Gawain, leave my court after the Christmas celebrations, I approach him. I thank him heartily for gracing my court with his presence. Indeed, I have enjoyed the young knight's company greatly, which is why I must hope that he will surpass these next conditions I plan to subtly lay out for him.
  These conditions are very sly, a compliment to the Lady Le Fey, who has been living in my castle since she granted me my gift. To others she is but an ancient noble woman and is treated with respect, by Sir Gawain as well, but I know that she is here to survey the task.
  "Indeed, sir," says I. "It is an honor to have Sir Gawain of Camelot as a guest in my court."
  "No, indeed," Sir Gawain replies. "The honor has been all mine. But I am afraid, good lord, that I must depart from your company, for I have very pressing business that I must tend to."
  I object greatly, pressing him to stay. But in fact I am impressed with his resolve, for even after these long weeks of finery and celebration, he does not forget the oath he made to me - to the green knight - long, long ago. An oath he must fulfill only three days from now. But though he does not know, it is these three days that will fully determine Sir Gawain's fate.
  "What business is so pressing, sir knight, if I may ask?" says I. "For surely it must be very pressing, seeing as you had left the court of King Arthur to celebrate the birth of Christ alone and not among friends."
  Sir Gawain seems to hesitate for but a moment, before speaking. "Indeed it is very pressing, my lord, for long ago I made an oath with a man all in green that I would meet him in the Green Chapel a year and a day from then. That time is in three days, and I must find the Green Chapel before then. Otherwise, I would rather die."
  I throw my head back and laugh. So, the young man has remembered his oath. "If that is your pressing task, good knight, then stay! For I know where the Green Chapel is, this very castle being only two miles from it!"
  Sir Gawain sighs and smiles. "If that is so, then I will stay just a little longer, my lord. Thank you."
  "Yes, yes," says I, my hand about his shoulder. "I think you deserve some true rest for your travels and the celebration. Take your rest, as much as you want, sir knight, and my lady will look after you. Tomorrow I ride with my court on a hunting party. And it is because of that I propose a game."
  "A game?" says Sir Gawain, looking mildly amused. "What game?"
  "A bargain. Whatever I win during my day of hunting, I will give to you in exchange for whatever you have earned or received that day. What do you say, Sir Gawain, does this sound like a game worthy of a knight of Camelot?"
  My guest laughs. "Yes, I accept the terms of the game."
  Thus, we drink to our challenge, and spend the night being merry. But truly, Sir Gawain's fate depends on the outcome of our game.
--
It was a good day of hunting. Having got up early, I and my court entered the forests and came out with much winnings. Very find venison if I might say so. And when I and my court finally come back to my castle, the sun has already sunken beneath the hills, and Sir Gawain waits for me patiently. We greet each other like old friends. I then bade my entire household to gather in the hall, and there I present my winnings to Gawain with great ceremony.
  "Here are my winnings, sir knight," says I. "Tell me, is it befitting a knight of Camelot? Does it earn your praise? Have I won thanks from you?"
  "Yes, yes," Sir Gawain replies with a wide smile. "Never have I seen finer or fresher venison, and it does earn my praise and thanks."
  "That is good," I say. "Now it is your turn, Sir Gawain, what have you for myself?"
  "Yes, that was the agreement was it? Just as you have given me what you have won, I will give you what I have received." Thus, he clasps my head and kissed my cheek.
  So, my lady has done what was told to her. As Sir Gawain draws back, I laugh. "Well, with such an odd gift, surely you cannot expect me to not ask how you received it?"
  "Ah, but that was not part of the game, was it?" the knight replies slyly.
  "True that is," says I. "Now come, let us feast!"
  During the feast, I and the knight talk, drink and jest. I propose that we play the game again, and Sir Gawain readily agrees. That night I walk into my chambers, where my lady is waiting for me.
  "Nothing more than a kiss?" says I.
  "That is all he accepted, and all he would ever accept I think," she replies. "For though I spoke many sweet words, he would only reply with courtesy. Perhaps he is the worthy knight all say he is."
  "Perhaps so," I say. "But he still has two more days. I hope you do not mind, my dearest wife."
  "I love and obey you, husband," says she. "And I also find myself hoping that he will pass the tasks at hand."
--
It was an adventure of a hunting party today. Boars are stubborn creatures, even when lanced. And yet, though it tried to gore me, the boar is now a part of my winnings.
  Again, after having skinned the boar down to its best meat, I and my court come back to my castle, and I present my winnings to Sir Gawain, along with the thrilling story of how I and my court managed to hunt it. I even present the boar's head, and I cannot not tell if the symbolism of this act makes any impact on Sir Gawain, for he simply praises what he had been given.
  Then, he says, "Now that I have received your winnings, I must honor our bargain." Again, he clasps my head, this time giving me two kisses. "Now, again, we are even," says he.
  "More?" I laugh. "By Saint Giles, sir knight, you will be richer than myself if you continue with these winnings!"
  Then our second feast commences. This time I do not talk much with Sir Gawain, for my lady is occupying him. Continually she makes eyes at him, speaking sweet words. I can see that this is rather trying on the young Sir Gawain, and he seems almost angry underneath the careful courteousness, but the anger is not against my lady. But still he continues to reply accordingly, without accepting her obvious invitations.
  Though I attempt to offer a third game, after the feast Sir Gawain seems eager to leave, as his deadline is swiftly approaching.
  "No, good knight, you still have time," says I. "Trust me, you will reach the Green Chapel in due time, and you will finish whatever business you have there. Spend but a little more time here, and we will play one last game. I have found you to be faithful to our agreement these last two games, and there is no harm in a third, just as there is no harm in waiting just a little longer before you continue your quest."
  To this Sir Gawain agrees, and we both go off to our separate chambers.
  "He would not succumb to temptation," says my lady, as I enter our chamber.
  "So I guessed," says I. "But he still has one more task before him."
--
Foxes are, in their own way, more of a task to hunt than boars. Yes, boars are the more dangerous, but foxes are elusive. And it was a fox I and my hunting party spent the day pursuing. Though we managed to catch the elusive creature, I was disappointed that we could not have hunted more. But at least I did not have nothing to offer Sir Gawain.
  It is Sir Gawain who is first to greet me, and I see that my lady worked hard about him, for he is dressed in much finery. "It is my turn to be first in our exchange," says Sir Gawain, before laying three kisses on me.
  No ring he gives. No belt he gives me. He has either rejected both or keeping hidden one. "My," I exclaimed. "You have been more fortunate in your gifts than I today! And I all have to give you is a foul fox-skin. The little devil was quite elusive. Alas, it is poor payment for what you have given me."
  "No," says Sir Gawain. "I am thankful for whatever you have to give to me. Now come, let us drink and feast, and allow me to hear your story of this little devil."
  This we do, with much laughter and jesting. But when the feast is over, and my court is off to their homes and chambers, Sir Gawain approaches, looking regretful but determined.
  "Your hospitality has been greatly enjoyed, and I am grateful for it," says he. "But as you know, I have a task to be done tomorrow. If you will, provide for me a guide to show me the way to the Green Chapel, as you promised."
  "This I will do, sir knight," I say. I assign one of my servants to Sir Gawain, ordering him to lead the knight to the Green Chapel on the morrow.
  Sir Gawain then bade myself and my lady and the disguised Lady Le Fey a good night and goodbye, before leaving for his chambers. The Lady Le Fey says nothing, only giving me a blank look, and then leaves for her own chambers.
  "He accepted the green girdle," says my lady, when she and I are safe in our chambers. "He denied me when I offered myself to him, and did not accept the ring. If I had not claimed that the belt could protect him from harm, he would not have accepted it either."
  I say nothing. For though I feel gladness that Sir Gawain has kept to almost all conditions set to him, yet there is no disappointment that he has violated a part of the conditions the last game set. After all, he is not the only man who, with fear of death, has accepted a green gift which promises protection.
--
The Green Chapel is not a chapel, but an old barrow that lays by a small waterfall. Even if the green knight was not said to reside there, no man with his senses working would venture by the barrow. No man besides a knight on a quest or the green knight himself, that is.
  I reach the Green Chapel long before Sir Gawain, and there begin sharpening my axe, a fine and new Danish blade. The sound of stone against metal, metal against stone, it is a mighty and powerful sound. Chilling to those who know what it means. Anyone standing outside the Green Chapel will hear it. And there should be but one man.
  "Who resides here?" calls a familiar voice. "For out here stands Gawain! If anyone here wishes to do business with me, let him declare so now or I will depart!"
  "Patience, sir knight," I bellow in my might voice. "I will come in due time." Thus, with five more mighty strokes of my axe, I then exit the chapel and approach Sir Gawain, who awaits outside.
  "I am here," declares he. "As I promised."
  "Indeed," says I. "Welcome to my place, Sir Gawain. Yes, you seem to remember our contract a year and a day past, myself bearing your blow, and now you must bear mine. We are alone out here, and there is no aid for either of us. Take off your helmet, sir knight, and make no protest, just as I made no protest when you removed my head."
  "I do not mean to make protest," replies Sir Gawain, removing his helm and tossing it aside. "Strike as you will, and I swear I will make no movement against you."
  Thus he knelt, and lowered his head, exposing his neck as though he had naught to fear. I raise my axe, as though to smite off his head, and bring it down. But as I do so, the young knight turns his head, casting a glance at the blade, and he draws back if only slightly.
  I stop my weapon, the blade but halfway from his neck. "You cannot be Sir Gawain, boy," I mock. "For he was told to be strong and courageous against all, and you flinch only at the sight of an axe blade. Fah! That is cowardice not worthy of a knight!  Did I draw back when I bade you to smite off my head? No, I did not even cry out when my head left my shoulders! And yet you show a fear that makes you a lesser man compared to myself."
  "Enough," sighs Sir Gawain. "I flinched once, but I will not do so again. Though, unlike yourself, I do not have the ability to reattach my head. I will bear your stroke and start no more till your axe has hit me. Now continue your task, and be swift about it."
  "Have at you, then," says I. Again, my blade rises, and I bring it down swiftly. The blade stops but an inch above his neck, and Sir Gawain makes no movement.
  "Ah, here is Sir Gawain!" declares I. "A knight worthy of King Arthur's court!"
  "God, man!" Sir Gawain bursts out in anger. "Why will you not simply put an end to this? Have you second thoughts to our agreement?"
  "Well, since you seem eager to keep your end of the bargain, I will hold back no longer." This time, my blade is pulled up, and it comes down with means to wound.
  It is not a serious wound, for it simply slices the side of his neck. But when Sir Gawain sees his blood staining the snow, and feels the wound, he is quick to react. Gathering up his helmet and shield, he stands and turns to face me, sword drawn in readiness.
  "Back, man, with your blade, and use it against me no more!" declares he, and never have I heard him more bold since when he challenged me a year and a day past. "I have borne your blow readily and without a movement against you. Now, if you wish to strike me again, there is no agreement that says that I may not strike back! But your game is finally complete, so I tell you, lay down your blade!"
  I am weary, but very well satisfied, and I imbed the axe's stave in the snow covered earth, leaning on the blade. I am then no longer the green knight, but myself again. "Stay your blade, good knight, for no one has mistreated you. Yes, you have borne my blow, the terms of all our agreements complete. I release you from any other oaths I might have bound you to.
  "The first two blows were but feints, in return for your honesty during our first two bargains. Indeed, I found you to be honest and courteous in both games. The third blow was in return for the last bargain, for you did not fully keep to our agreement. Yes, Sir Gawain, I know the green girdle you wear, for it is mine, and I bade my wife to give it to you. Also I bade her to woo you, tempt you to evil, and all I can say on this matter, sir knight, is that you are truly a most faultless man. Indeed, comparing a pearl to a whitewashed pea is the same as comparing Sir Gawain to other knights. And yet in one matter you failed, good knight, for though you did no wily work, nor did you succumb to my lady's temptations, you are too fond of your own life, so keeping the belt in the hopes it might guard it. Thus, the mark on your neck."
  Sir Gawain says nothing at first, but draws back in shame. Removing his helm, Sir Gawain gasps, "Curse cowardice and covetousness! True villains, they are against the honor of a knight!" Removing the belt, he hurls it at me. "There is the mark of my cowardice, I want no more of it! It mocks me and declares me unfit to be a knight! Indeed, I am a lesser man, shamed! Hear me, my lord, for this is my confession of covetousness and cowardice, and I lay my fate in your hands."
  As he kneels before me, I laugh. "Up, sir knight!" I declare. "You have confessed, now clean of your faults, and the mark on your neck is punishment enough. I say you are clean of that sin. And here, young Gawain…" Gathering up the belt, I hand it to Sir Gawain. "Keep this girdle as a reminder to yourself of what has happened here today. Now come, my friend, with me to my castle, for myself and my lady will enjoy your company this New Year's Day!"
  Sir Gawain shook his head with a smile, again replacing his helmet. "No, my lord, for I have been away from my home long enough. But I thank you greatly, and ask that you commend me to your lady as well as the noblewoman, for I shall not see them again. Ah, I see now that women are very powerful indeed, able to fool and seduce men to their will. I must practice caution as the times come.
  "As for the girdle, I thank you. I will keep it, not for its finery, but as a token reminder of my sin, and so it might keep me humble. But if I may ask, my lord, what is your name? For I realize that I have never heard your name, though you know mine. And if I may ask something more, why would you, a lord of far off lands, be interested in the knights of the Camelot?"
  "This I can answer," says I. "Bertilak de Hautdesert is my name, and I am lord of these lands. How I gained my invulnerable powers was from the sorceress, Lady Morgan Le Fey. She is a mistress of magic, having learned much from the mysteries of Merlin. She was curious to know if the honor and courtesy of the knights of the Round Table were true and devoid of falseness. She also hoped to frighten the Queen Guinevere to death, the queen witnessing a green man picking up his severed head, though this did not happen.
  "The Lady Le Fey now dwells in my house. She is the ancient noblewoman, and is also your relative, as she is your uncle King Arthur's half-sister. Thus I ask you again, good Gawain, that you come back to my castle and greet both my lady and your aunt, and we may feast together again. My court is very fond of you, and would be glad to see you returned."
  And yet even now Sir Gawain turns down my offer. And so we embrace, we kiss, and go our separate ways.
--
Since Sir Gawain I have not used my gift. There has been no war on my land, so there has been no need to do so. But I always remind myself of this green gift, and why I accepted it. It is my token to remind me of my sin, and of the young knight, who was courteous to a fault, and shared with me more in common than he realized.

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