During a Feast on New Year sometime in the early 6th century, King Arthur and his nobles are interrupted while exchanging gifts by a most unusual figure.
A giant of a man entered the hall, riding a horse, carrying the ‘Mother of all Axes’ and a holly bough. The man’s stature was by far the least remarkable thing about him, as his was green from head to foot. He wore no armour, but his hair, skin, tunic, and hose were all green. The giant is not there for a fight, for he finds that no one amongst Arthur’s court to be a match for him, but instead proposes a friendly Christmas game: The verdant colossus would take a blow with the axe from any man, as long as that man would take the same stroke in a years time. As a reward the man to join in the game would get the enormous axe.
None of Arthur’s men seem keen to join this game, and Arthur himself prepares to step up against the giant, but his young nephew Gawain intercedes and agrees.
Gawain beheads the green giant with a single swing, but much to the surprise of everyone at the feast, the green man picks up his own head, mounts his horse, displays his own head for the court to see, and reminds Gawain of his duty.
“Sir Gawain, be wise enough to keep your word
and faithfully follow me until I’m found
as you vowed in this hall within hearing of these horsemen.
You’re charged with getting to the Green Chapel,
to reap what you’ve sown. You’ll rightfully receive
the justice you are due just as January dawns.
Men know my name as the Green Chapel knight
and even a fool couldn’t fail to find me.
So come, or be called a coward forever.”
This Christmas game provides the impetus for the rest of the story. Gawain encounters further shenanigans when coming to the castle of Count Bertilak as he travels to the Green Chapel, encountering the Gawain Poet’s rendition of a Temptation Fable. Bertilak proposes a game of his own to Gawain as he shelters in his castle. Bertilak will go on the hunt each day, and will give Gawain what he has won, and Gawain will likewise give him whatever he has gotten from the castle. Bertilak’s wife attempts to seduce Gawain, but being the virtuous paragon of chivalry he is, he refuses, and only allows a single kiss. Bertilak returns with a deer, which he gives to Gawain and Gawain provides the kiss of the Lady Bertilak to him, not disclosing it came from her. The next day the exchange is a boar for two kisses, and then on the final day a fox and three kisses. The Lady Bertilak had given Gawain a fourth gift however that day, a green and gold sash that would protect him from harm. Knowing this would be useful considering the blow he must take the next day he conceals it from Bertilak.
Gawain then sets out for the Green Chapel, which is a cavern in a green mound. The green man awaits sharpening his axe. Gawain bares his neck to receive the dutiful blow. Upon the giant’s swing young Gawain flinches.
“Call yourself good Sir Gawain?” he goaded,
“who faced down every foe in the field of battle
but now flinches with fear at the foretaste of harm.
Never have I known such a namby-pamby knight.
Did I budge or even blink when you aimed the axe,
or carp or quibble in King Arthur’s castle,
or flap when my head went flying to my feet?
But entirely untouched, you are terror struck.
I’ll be found the better fellow, since you were so feeble
The green man swings again, this time at an unflinching Gawain, but the giant stops short, testing the young warrior’s mettle. Gawain angrily mocks the Green Giant.
“Get hacking, then, head-banger, your threats are hollow.
Such huffing and fussing—you’ll frighten your own heart.”
“By God,” said the green man, “since you speak so grandly
there’ll be no more shilly-shallying, I shall shatter you
The Giant swings, and the blow lands causing a slight nick to Gawain’s neck. The Giant is Bertilak, the lord he sheltered with just a day before. The entire beheading game has been a ruse put in place by Morgan Le Fay. Gawain is ashamed for the use of the sash, which is the cause of the nick in his neck. Bertilak proclaims him blameless, and Gawain returns to Arthur a hero. Arthur’s warriors vow to wear a green sash to remind themselves to remain true.
The story of the green giant with the "Mother of all Axes" is probably influenced by two main sources, one Irish, one part of French Arthuriana.
The idea of a "Beheading Game" becomes a common motif for Celtic tales after the Irish story of Bricriu's Feast became popular during the 8th Century. In this tale the heroes Cúchulainn, Conall Cernach, and Lóegaire Búadach are tasked with a game to cut off a giant's head. Like the later Gawain tale they are then tasked with receiving the same blow. They each cut off the gaint's head, who then picks it up and leaves, but only Cúchulainn stands firm and appears to meet his fate, and is thus declared the winner.
Similar to the Gawain tale, it is a man in Disguise, Cú Roí the King of Munster. This motif spreads like wildfire, appearing in numerous tales, such as the Life of Caradoc, a French retelling of possibly earlier Welsh and Breton tales of the famed Caradoc Vreichvras. Caradoc also is subject to the beheading game, with the beheaded being revealed to be Caradoc's father.
The Gawain poet was likely influenced by both of these stories. Another portion of the story that was likely influenced by an earlier Welsh tale is the Temptation Fable, between Gawain and Bertilak's wife.
While the temptation fable is a common motif, the root here may come from the Welsh tale of Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed from the Mabinogi. Pwyll, though transfigurated into Arawn, abstains from relations with Arawn's wife, similar to Gawain and the Lady Bertilak.
This potential melding like many of the later Arthurian tales like shares little with the likely historical candidates for Gawain, Gerguan (Gwalchmai) ap Letan of the Gododdin, or possibly Gwrfan ap Llew, a possibly apocryphal grandson of Cynfarch Oer. It is likely Letan of Gododdin’s pedigree was at some point attached to Cynfarch’s possibly even done to try and reconcile the genealogies with later ahistorical legends of Arthur. Gerguan ap Letan and his brother Medraut, both stand as potential inspirations for Gawain and Mordred. Gerguan first filtered in the guise of Gwrfan Arfwyn, an early warrior of Arthur’s seen in Culhwch and Olwen. Gerguan likely stood opposed to the Northern Arthur, Arthwys ap Mar, late in his reign in the Hen Ogledd. This is in fact depicted in the Modena Archivolt, a pre-Galfridian carving depicting the abduction of Guinevere, with Gawain fighting against Caradoc Vreichfras who is fighting on Arthur’s side. It’s very likely that Gerguan even was part of the force that met Arthwys at Camboglanna, leading to Arthwys’ death and the famed entry in the Annales Cambriae.
537 The strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell, and there was great mortality in Britain and Ireland.
Like many of the figures that feature in these tales there isn’t much of a trail to follow to figure out why Gawain was the figure featured here, but we can surmise a few things. There are small sprinkles and hints that Gawain may have been at once associated as a ‘Grail knight’ figure, and he even attains the Grail in the middle-German work Diu Crône. This would hint at a lingering popularity, even as others such as Peredur, Lancelot, and Galahad began to take the limelight. There doesn’t seem to be an earlier association with Gawain and the Beheading Game to suggest it was an earlier tradition, but that wouldn’t stop the Gawain Poet from creating what I believe is a synthesis of multiple traditions, with his favorite Arthurian figure (who also happens to have a name that is alliterative with Green) taking the lead role.