by Paul Dunbar
It is New Year’s Eve, and in the great hall at Camelot the court is assembled for the traditional feast. At the head sit King Arthur and his Queen, Guinevere. Along three sides of the hall, seated at tables groaning with food, the Knights of the Round Table and their ladies, finely dressed, wait for the feast to begin. Suddenly, the great doors of the hall crash open, one of them coming off its heavy iron hinges, and into the hall rides the huge figure of a warrior.
He is big – maybe eight feet tall – and his horse is in proportion, their combined height forcing him to duck his head as he passes under the arched door. He is naked to the waist, heavily muscled, and his hair comes down to his shoulders. In his left hand he carries a sprig of holly, and in his right a formidable battle-axe. From head to foot – his hair, his skin, his eyes, everything – he is green.
He advances to the centre of the hall and looks down at them all, surveying them imperiously. (Do it.)
‘Which one of you,’ he says scornfully (do the voice!) ‘is the famous King Arthur?’
It’s an old story, which exists in one anonymous manuscript version dating from the late 14th century – and it’s how I began my first lesson as an English teacher in London, with a group of 11-12 year-olds. The poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in a northern English dialect by an anonymous contemporary of Chaucer, had fascinated me as an undergraduate, and I knew it well enough to be comfortable spinning it from memory, acting it out and improvising the comic elements. The kids seemed to fall straight into the comfortable, hypnotic routine of being told a story.
The terrifying Green Knight issues a mocking challenge to the Round Table – he says he is doing this because he has heard tales of their courage and honour and doesn’t believe a word of it – and the challenge is this: for the King, or one of his knights if he himself is too cowardly, to take this axe and strike off the Green Knight’s head with it. On the condition, of course, that he who accepts the challenge must submit to a return match in one year’s time.
The knights gather around the King and tell him that this must be a trick and to let one of them take the challenge for him. A young knight named Gawain is desperate to prove himself, and is given the honour. The Green Knight dismounts, hands Gawain the axe, and kneels down in front of him, flipping his long hair over his head to expose his neck. And now you mime the beheading, the weight of the axe, the downward trajectory of the blade, and go into slow motion as you describe (just as the original does) how the blade sheers through skin, muscle, gristle and bone and strikes sparks from the stone floor – how the head rolls messily across the floor and under the tables, making the ladies scream and kick out at the head as if it were a football – and how the headless body of the Green Knight, pumping out green blood, nevertheless remains kneeling, and then reaches out and grabs the head by the hair.
Then you mime it getting to its feet and holding up the head, turning it to face Gawain.
The eyes come open, and the head speaks: ‘I will see you on the anniversary of this day, at the Green Chapel.’ Then you’ve got the business of the Knight remounting his green horse, holding his own head and an axe (not easy – try it!) and this time not having to duck as he passes under the arch – the sound of the great hooves clattering across the stone square and thundering into the distance, and the shocked silence in the hall.
There’s not a lot that I still use from my first year in teaching, but I do the story of Gawain whenever I’m with that age-group. Wherever the students are from, they can identify with the concepts of honour, temptation, courage and shame dramatized by the story. In order to be a knight, Gawain must uphold five vows – fidelity to his God and to his King, of course, protection of the weak, and, crucially for this story, the vows of truth and finally chastity. Yes, you have to explain what that is, and you can make some comedy out of Gawain’s struggles to maintain this last vow. The story has got a strong outline, and you can interrupt the narrative at will to explain and discuss things without disrupting its momentum too much.
Anyway, Gawain doesn’t know where the Green Chapel is, so he sets off months in advance, on his horse Gringolet (you can build up his relationship with her a little bit as you go along) – and travels north, through the wild lands between England and Wales. He faces many dangers (make them up, but make sure you mention wodwoes – half-human wildmen types) and by Christmas he’s exhausted and half-starved and doesn’t have a clue where he is, though we can locate him in the Dane Valley on the Cheshire /Shropshire border in Northern England, where buried deep in the woodlands is a secret church almost impossible to find.
Gawain comes to a clearing in the forest where a beautiful castle stands, and he approaches to ask for hospitality. The lord of the castle is (in my version) played by Brian Blessed, and I have recently awarded the role of his beautiful young wife to Olga Kurylenko. There’s also an ugly old woman in the castle, the mother of Sir Bertilac de Hautdesert (Brian Blessed) apparently, who doesn’t do much, but it’s important to mention her because she might come in handy later. His host makes Gawain feel completely at home, and encourages him to come hunting on Boxing Day and the days after that. Gawain declines, explaining that he needs to rest and to pray. Bertilac accepts this but proposes a wager – he will exchange whatever he catches on the hunt for whatever Gawain has received during his day at the castle. Gawain is a bit puzzled by this but shakes on it. Next morning he is awoken at dawn by the sounds of the hunt clattering around in the courtyard and galloping away, and as he tries to go back to sleep the door of his room opens softly and in comes the lady. She sits on the edge of the bed and tells Gawain that she fell in love with him the first moment she saw him, and begs him to take her away from her husband, who she says is cruel and monstrous to her despite his bonhomie and good humour in public. Gawain, like a good knight, tells her this can’t happen, but she cries and begs him for at least a kiss, and eventually he lets her kiss him.
When Bertilac returns from the hunt, Gawain goes out to meet him in the yard, to find himself presented with the carcass of a fine-looking stag, as per the wager, which he had forgotten all about. And now some of the kids are ahead of you, as Gawain realizes that he is honour-bound to give Brain Blessed a kiss. Very embarrassing.
Pretty much exactly the same things happen the next day. We’re in a threefold sequence now, and of course the second phase establishes a routine which the third will break. The hunt sets off, the lady comes in to Gawain’s room, she cries and pleads and he ends up letting her kiss him again. Twice. Bercilac comes back with a dead boar (or whatever), and Gawain gives him two kisses.
On the third morning Gawain, in my version, is lying there in full armour with his visor down. He feels her sit on the bed, lifts his visor (do it) says ‘Go away!’ and quickly snaps it shut. But it’s different this time – she apologizes to him for putting him in a terrible position, and tells him she will not touch him or cry. So he confides in her – tells her about the Green Knight and his pledge to bare his neck to the axe in a few days’ time. And yet he still doesn’t know where the place is – the Green Chapel. When he tells her this she looks terrified, tells him he mustn’t go there. The ‘Green Chapel’ is only a few miles away but it is a terrible place, and nobody who goes there ever comes back. He says he must, since without honour he would rather be dead. But she says she knows how to save him. Wait here. A minute later she comes back into the room with a piece of green silk in her hands – a lady’s belt, actually, but she tells him that it is magic and that its wearer cannot be physically harmed. She tells him to wear it under his armour.
Bertilac has caught a fox. Not such a good day. And he doesn’t even get a kiss from Gawain this time, as his guest has not been fortunate enough to receive anything at all during his day at the castle.
OK, we’re into the last bit now. The story is really in three parts: the challenge, the journey, and… the third phase will break the routine, because, as per Sam’s comment on my Part 1 of this, it will soon be time to hand over authorship. But first, Gawain has to explain about his death-match to Bertilac, who is very sad and tries to talk him out of it, to no avail. So Lord Bercilac provides Gawain with a servant to guide him to the Green Chapel, and they set off at dawn with Olga staring wistfully out of a window in a tower probably, and the old lady (don’t forget to mention her) somewhere in the background smiling secretly.
Now you have to make the atmosphere more forbidding as the servant leads Gawain deeper into the forest. The landscape gets rockier, the trees darker, the light thicker and greener as they go on. Until they come to a point where the path descends between two big rocks, and twists out of sight into some kind of gorge or ravine. Here the servant stops and turns his horse. ‘That’s as far as I take you,’ he says. ‘You’re on your own from here.’ Gawain thanks him, and the servant rides away, back the way they have come. Gawain pauses for a minute and then nudges Gringolet onwards, and they take their first steps into the ravine.
And that’s where you stop. You can end with the servant’s words if you want – ‘That’s as far as I take you. You’re on your own from here’. The kids will hate you for a minute at most, as you start to discuss their way forward in finishing the story. You can feed in whatever ideas about narrative you want to at this point. The obvious things seem to be, first of all what could happen – the ‘horizon of expectation’ created by the story so far. What’s possible in this story? Secondly, reincorporation – things that could come back into the story that we have nearly forgotten about. And thirdly – what’s going to happen to poor Gringolet (sob)?
I highlight the importance of pace. I tell them they’re going to write their ending in two goes, and that in the first part (their next homework) they have to write x number of words or pages but that nothing is going to happen, except that Gawain is going to move from where he is now to wherever and whatever the ‘Green Chapel’ turns out to be. If the going gets too rough, he can tie Gringolet to a tree, or (better) release her, and carry on on foot. He’s going to see things, hear things, smell things, think things… but nothing’s going to happen yet, OK? You’ve got to build up some suspense. Suspense – the only reason there were three days of hunting, not two. Or one, for that matter. You’ve got to slow it down.
Slow it right down, walking into that place. You’re in no hurry to get to where you’re going, are you? Would you be? Your reader might be impatient to know the ending, but you can play them along. Maybe only a few minutes will go by in your x number of words, and that’s good. You’ve got plenty of time to think about what’s going to happen when you get there – and what the ‘there’ will be like. Will the Green Chapel be some kind of temple? A ruin, maybe? Or not a proper church at all, but a cave, or… maybe this is it, the ravine itself?
‘I see no church,’ thinks Gawain in the original. ‘This is more like a place where witches would gather.’
Slow it down. Play with time. Create the space.