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Chapter 5


SIR GAWAIN was nephew to King Arthur, by his sister Morgana, married
to Lot, king of Orkney, who was by Arthur made king of Norway. Sir
Gawain was one of the most famous knights of the Round Table, and is
characterized by the romancers as the sage and courteous Gawain. To
this Chaucer alludes in his "Squiere's Tale," which the strange knight
"saluteth" all the court-

"With so high reverence and observance,
As well in speeche as in countenance,
That Gawain, with his olde curtesie,
Though he were come agen out of faerie,
Ne coude him not amenden with a word."

Gawain's brothers were Agravain, Gaharet, and Gareth.


Once upon a time King Arthur held his court in merry Carlisle,
when a damsel came before him and craved a boon. It was for
vengeance upon a caitiff knight, who had made her lover captive and
despoiled her of her lands. King Arthur commanded to bring him his
sword, Excalibar, and to saddle his steed, and rode forth without
delay to right the lady's wrong. Ere long he reached the castle of the
grim baron, and challenged him to the conflict. But the castle stood
on magic ground, and the spell was such that no knight could tread
thereon but straight his courage fell and his strength decayed. King
Arthur felt the charm, and before a blow was struck his sturdy limbs
lost their strength, and his head grew faint. He was fain to yield
himself prisoner to the churlish knight, who refused to release him
except upon condition that he should return at the end of a year,
and bring a true answer to the question, "What thing is it which women
most desire?" or in default thereof surrender himself and his lands.
King Arthur accepted the terms, and gave his oath to return at the
time appointed. During the year the king rode east, and he rode
west, and inquired of all whom he met what thing it is which all women
most desire. Some told him riches; some pomp and state; some mirth;
some flattery; and some a gallant knight. But in the diversity of
answers he could find no sure dependence. The year was well nigh spent
when, one day, as he rode thoughtfully through a forest, he saw
sitting beneath a tree a lady of such hideous aspect that he turned
away his eyes, and when she greeted him in seemly sort made no answer.
"What wight art thou," the lady said, "that will not speak to me? It
may chance that I may resolve thy doubts, though I be not fair of
aspect." "If thou wilt do so," said King Arthur, "choose what reward
thou wilt, thou grim lady, and it shall be given thee." "Swear me this
upon thy faith," she said, and Arthur swore it. Then the lady told him
the secret, and demanded her reward, which was that the king should
find some fair and courtly knight to be her husband.
King Arthur hastened to the grim baron's castle and told him one
by one all the answers which he had received from his various
advisers, except the last, and not one was admitted as the true one.
"Now yield thee, Arthur," the giant said, "for thou hast not paid
thy ransom, and thou and thy lands are forfeited to me." Then King
Arthur said:-

"Yet hold thy hand, thou proud baron,
I pray thee hold thy hand.
And give me leave to speak once more,
In rescue of my land.
This morn, as I came over a moor,
I saw a lady set,
Between an oak and a green holly,
All clad in red scarlet.
She says all women would have their will,
This is their chief desire;
Now yield, as thou art a baron true,
That I have paid my hire."

"It was my sister that told thee this," the churlish baron
exclaimed. "Vengeance light on her! I will some time or other do her
as ill a turn."
King Arthur rode homeward, but not light of heart; for he remembered
the promise he was under to the loathly lady to give her one of his
young and gallant knights for a husband. He told his grief to Sir
Gawain, his nephew, and he replied, "Be not sad, my lord, for I will
marry the loathly lady." King Arthur replied:-

"Now nay, now nay, good Sir Gawaine,
My sister's son ye be;
The loathly lady's all too grim,
And all too foule for thee."

But Gawain persisted, and the king at last, with sorrow of heart,
consented that Gawain should be his ransom. So, one day, the king
and his knights rode to the forest, met the loathly lady, and
brought her to the court. Sir Gawain stood the scoffs and jeers of his
companions as he best might, and the marriage was solemnized, but
not with the usual festivities, Chaucer tells us:-

"There was no joye, ne feste at alle;
There n'as but hevinesse and mochel sorwe,
For prively he wed her on the morwe,
And all day after hid him as an owle,
So wo was him his wife loked so foule!"*

* N'as is not was, contracted; in modern phrase, there was not.
Mockel sorwe is much sorrow: morwe is morrow.

When night came, and they were alone together, Sir Gawain could
not conceal his aversion; and the lady asked him why he sighed so
heavily, and turned away his face. He candidly confessed it was on
account of three things, her age, her ugliness, and her low degree.
The lady, not at all offended, replied with excellent arguments to all
his objections. She showed him that with age is discretion, with
ugliness security from rivals, and that all true gentility depends,
not upon the accident of birth, but upon the character of the
Sir Gawain made no reply; but, turning his eyes on his bride, what
was his amazement to perceive that she wore no longer the unseemly
aspect that had so distressed him. She then told him that the form she
had worn was not her true form, but a disguise imposed upon her by a
wicked enchanter, and that she was condemned to wear it until two
things should happen; one, that she should obtain some young and
gallant knight to be her husband. This having been done, one half of
the charm was removed. She was now at liberty to wear her true form
for half the time, and she bade him choose whether he would have her
fair by day and ugly by night, or the reverse. Sir Gawain would fain
have had her look, her best by night, when he alone should see her,
and show her repulsive visage, if at all, to others. But she
reminded him how much more pleasant it would be to her to wear her
best looks in the throng of knights and ladies by day. Sir Gawain
yielded, and gave up his will to hers. This alone was wanting to
dissolve the charm. The lovely lady now with joy assured him that
she should change no more; but as she now was so would she remain by
night as well as by day.

"Sweet blushes stayned her rud-red cheek,
Her eyen were black as sloe,
The ripening cherrye swelled her lippe,
And all her neck was snow.
Sir Gawain kist that ladye faire
Lying upon the sheete,
And swore, as he was a true knight,
The spice was never so swete."

The dissolution of the charm which had held the lady also released
her brother, the "grim baron," for he too had been implicated in it.
He ceased to be a churlish oppressor, and became a gallant and
generous knight as any at Arthur's court.

Thomas Bulfinch