Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by "The Pearl Poet" (Late 1300s).
This should have been the second time I was reading this, but I skipped it in my Early English lit class. Bad Junior! Cuz this is kind of awesome. It is an Arthur story, though that's mostly indirect. Sir Gawain is one of the Knights of the Round Table, and the first scene takes place during the Christmas celebrations at Camelot. A guy bursts into the feast riding an all green horse and wearing all green himself (oh, and his skin and hair is green, too. I wonder where they got the name?) and challenges King Arthur to a beheading game! This was aparently kind of a trope. There would be a challenge where one guy has one go at another dude's neck with a sword or axe or whatever, and if he fails to behead the guy, the roles are reversed. Sounds fun, right? Of course, King Arthur can't risk his very important head for such a silly game, so Sir Gawain steps up and volunteers to take the first swipe at the Green Knight's neck. Before all of this goes down, the Green Knight lays out when he will have his opportunity (basically, the first day after the next New Year's) and pretty much implies that Sir Gawain won't be able to kill him. He's right, of course, because even though Sir Gawain does disconnect Mr. Green's head from his body, that doesn't faze him much, as Mr. Green proceeds to pick up his head and ride off, cackling and saying things like, "I'll see you in a year or so!" What a jerk. Everybody is suitably impressed, though, at Sir Gawain's head chopping ability, and they party even harder.
Seasons change, and as the next Christmas approaches Sir Gawain realizes it's probably best that he get a move on, or else his knightly reputation would be majorly tarnished, which would in turn tarnish that of King Arthur. Not a good thing to do to your king. So he leaves and has adventures that are mostly just alluded to on his way to a castle that is supposedly close to the Green Chapel where the Green Knight hangs out. The lord of the castle invites him in for Christmas celebrations and Sir Gawain can't refuse. He is reassured that the Green Chapel is so close that he could leave on New Year's Day and get there with time to spare. So there is much partying again. At one point, the lord of the castle makes a proposition to Sir Gawain: He'll go out hunting and Sir Gawain will stay in bed, and whatever one gets, he'll give to the other at that night's feast. Sounds like a good deal to me. So as the lord rides out to hunt things, Sir Gawain sleeps in. The lord's wife shows up - seen for the first time without the old crone who almost always attends to her -, though, and tempts him to have an affair with her. Sir Gawain will have none of it, and leaves her with a kiss so as to not insult her own reputation. When the hunting party returns they share the meat and Sir Gawain kisses the lord of the castle as they promised they would do. The cycle repeats again the next day, and again the day after that, though in the third day, Sir Gawain does take a girdle offered by the lord's wife because she says it will protect the wearer from harm. And when the lord returns that night, Sir Gawain kisses him three times, but does not tell him of the girdle. Big mistake!
The next day Sir Gawain and a guide set off for the Green Chapel, which turns out to just be a big mound in the woods with an entrance on either end. Probably not the coolest of places (litote!). He enters and finds the Green Knight there, sharpening his axe for the chopping of Sir Gawain's head. Little does the Green Knight know of Gawain's magic girdle! Sir Gawain gets into the head chopping position and is about to test the strength of the magic girdle (can you tell that I kind of love the idea of a magic girdle?) but he flinches as the Green Knight raises the axe in the air. Mr. Green Knight is not impressed, and admonishes Sir Gawain for being a coward. So, like any good knight, Sir Gawain girds his loins for the chop but the Green Knight misses and barely nicks Sir Gawain's neck. A bit of blood spurts out and Sir Gawain quickly stands up, ready to fight the Green Knight in MORTAL KOMBAT, since each has gotten their one strike in and neither is dead yet. It is at this point that "The Pearl Poet" reveals he is the great great great... great great grandfather (or mother) of M. Night Shyamalan as the Green Knight reveals himself to be the lord from the castle at which Sir Gawain recently stayed! WHAT!?!?! And the old crone who hangs around his wife is none other than Morgan le Fay, sister to King Arthur, apprentice of Merlin, and all around evil lady! SHOCK! AWE! DEUS EX MACHINA! The whole thing was a plan to embarrass King Arthur and scare Guenevere to DEATH! It doesn't work, of course, but now Sir Gawain has been outed as a bit of a coward, and a liar, and a cheat, so he declares that he will wear the magic girdle around his chest like a sash as a sign to the world that he was un-knightly. Luckily, his friends at the round table are totally cool with him, and even adopt his magical green girdle in a show of solidarity. The end.
Ok, that was fun. I'm enjoying re-translating these works into a bit of my own voice. It helps me keep track of what happened and I hope it's kind of fun to read. Anyways, come back soon for some actual literary analysis, including pagan symbolism, the cycles of our lives, and some awesome poetry.