Canto IV


By noon the next day, Gawayne and his host
Rode side by side along the perilous coast
Of the gray Mere, from whose unquiet sleep
Reverberating murmurs of the deep
Startled the still December’s listening air.
The baron, shuddering, pointed seaward. “There,”
He said, “year in, year out, these voices haunt
That fearful water; heaven knows what they want!
Men tell me–and I have no doubt it’s true–
They are knights-errant whom the Green Knight slew!
Woe unto him, the over-bold, who dares
Adventure near that uncouth monster’s snares!”
Quoth Gawayne: “How have _you_ escaped the net?”
The baron answered: “I? We never met!
When I’m about, he seems to shun the place,
And where he is, I never show my face;
But if we did meet, ‘t would be safe to say
Not more than one of us would get away!”

And then the baron told tales by the score
About the Green Knight’s quenchless thirst for gore,
And kept repeating that no magic charm
Was proof against the prowess of his arm;
At his first blow each vain defense must fall,
For he was arch-magician over all.
And as from tale to tale the baron ran,
Sir Gawayne, had he been another man,
Would certainly have felt his heart’s blood curdle,
Despite his secret wearing of the girdle;
But when the baron finally suggested
Abandoning the venture, and protested
That the whole monstrous business was absurd,
Sir Gawayne simply said: “I gave my word.”
And when the baron saw he would not bend,
He seemed to lose all patience. “Well, my friend,
I’ll go no further with you. On your head
Shall be your own mad blood when you are dead.
Yonder your two roads fork; pause there, I pray,
And ponder well before you choose your way.
One takes the hills, one winds along the wave;
To Camelot this,–the other to your grave!
Choose the high road, Sir Gawayne; shun the danger!
Say you were misdirected by a stranger;–
I swear by all that’s sacred, I’ll not tell
One syllable to a soul:–and so farewell!”
He galloped off without another word,
And vanished where the road turned. Gawayne heard,
Long after he had disappeared, the sound
Of iron hoof-beats on the frozen ground,
Till all died into silence, save those drear
And hollow voices from the Murmuring Mere.

But Gawayne chose the lower road, and passed
Along the desolate shore. The die was cast.
The western skies, as the red sun sank low,
Cast purple shades across the drifted snow,
And Gawayne knew that the dread hour was come
For the fulfillment of his martyrdom.

And now, from just beyond a jutting hill,
Came hideous sounds, as of a giant mill
That hisses, roars, and sputters, clicks and clacks;–
It was the Green Knight sharpening his axe!
And Gawayne, coming past the corner, found him,
With ghastly mouldering skulls and bones strewn round him,
In joyous fury urging the keen steel
Against the surface of his grinding wheel.
The place was a wild hollow, circled round
With barren hills, and on the bottom ground
Stood the Green Chapel, moss-grown, solitary;–
In sooth, it seemed the devil’s mortuary!
The Green Knight’s back was turned, and he stirred not
Till Gawayne hailed him sharply; then he shot
One glance–as when, o’erhead, a living wire
Startles the night with flashes of green fire;–
Then hurried forward, bland as bland could be,
And greeted Gawayne with green courtesy.
“Dear sir, I ask a thousand pardons; pray
Forgive me. You are punctual to the day;
That’s good! Of course I knew you would not fail.
How do you do? You look a trifle pale;
I trust, with all my heart, you are not ill?
Just the cold air? It does blow rather chill!
What can I do to cheer you? Let me see;–
Suppose I brew a cup of hot green tea?
You’ld rather not? You’re pressed for time? Of course,
I understand; then just get off your horse,
And I’ll do all I can to expedite
Our little business for you. There, that’s right;
And now your helmet? Thanks; and if you please
Perhaps you’ll kindly kneel down on your knees,
As I did when I came to Camelot; So!
Are you all ready? Will you bide the blow?”
And Gawayne said “I will,” in such soft notes
As happy bridegrooms utter, when their throats
Are paralyzed with blest anticipation;–
(What Gawayne looked for was decapitation!)
And then the Green Knight swung his axe in air
With a loud whirr; and Gawayne, kneeling there,
Shrank back an inch; and the green giant stayed
His threatening hand, and with a cold sneer said:
“You shrink, sir, from the axe; I can’t hit true
Unless you hold still, as I did for you.”
“Your pardon,” Gawayne said, with bated breath;
“This time I swear to hold as still as death.”
He did so, and the Green Knight swung again
His axe, and whirled it round his head, and then,
Pausing a second time, said: “Very good!
You’re holding quite still now; I knew you would!”
Gawayne, in anger, said: “Jest, if you like,
After the blow; tarry no longer; strike!”
So once again the ponderous axe was raised;
But this time down it came, and lightly grazed
Sir Gawayne’s neck. He felt the hot blood flow,
And saw red drops that sank deep in the snow,
And then he jumped up, faced his foe, and cried:
“Enough: you owed me one blow, though I died;
But be you man or beast or devil abhorred,
I yield no further; with my mortal sword
I do defy you; and if mortal man
May hope against” …
But the Green Knight began
A low melodious laugh, like running brooks
Whose pebbly babble fills the shadowy nooks
Of green-aisled woodlands, when the winds are still.
“My friend, we bear each other no ill will.
When first I swung my axe, you showed some fear;
I owed you that much for your blow last year.
The second time I swung,–yet spared your life,–
That paid you for the kiss you gave my wife!”
“Your wife!” “My wife, Sir Gawayne; ‘t was my word;
And when I swung my weapon for the third
And last time, then I made the red blood spirt
For that green girdle underneath your shirt!
You played me false, my friend!”
And Gawayne knelt
Once more, and casting off the magic belt,
In bitter broken words confessed his shame,
And begged the Green Knight to avenge the name
Of injured knighthood, and with one last blow
To end his guilty life. “Nay, nay, not so,”
The other softly said. “Be of good cheer;
Your fault was small, for all men hold life dear.
We tempted you, my friend, with all our might,
And proved you in good sooth a noble knight;
A veritable Joseph, sir, you are!”
Quoth Gawayne drily, “Thanks, Lord Potiphar!
But may I ask you why you played this part?”
The other said: “Ask Lady Elfinhart!”

He smiled, and from his smile a genial glow
Of green mid-summer seemed to overflow,
Filling with verdure all that barren place.
The warm red blood rushed to Sir Gawayne’s face;
He caught his breath, and in his eager eyes
There shone a sudden flash of dark surmise,
And then he stood a long while pondering;
But in his breast his heart began to sing
The old, old music whose still echoes roll
Forever voiceless through the listening soul.
He said farewell to his good fairy friend
As in a dream, where real and unreal blend
In phantom unison, and with the light
Of love to lead him home, rode through the night,
Beside the tranquil murmurs of the Mere,
And through the silence of the passing year;
And earth and sea and starlit sky took part
In the still exaltation of his heart,
While all but love and wonder was forgot,
Until he came to high-towered Camelot.

To Camelot he came, and there he found
The good King Arthur and his Table Round
Awaiting his return in anxious doubt;
But ere he passed the gates a mighty shout
Rose from the watchmen on the outward wall
And bore the tidings to the inmost hall.
From every window flaunting flags were flung;
From the high battlements brass trumpets sung;
And great bells, chiming in the topmost tower,
Pealed salutation to the joyous hour,
As Gawayne, riding through the cullis-port,
Faced the glad throng that filled the palace court.

And with this tribute paid to knightly glory
It seems most fitting to conclude my story.
Entreat me not, dear reader, to impart
Further of Gawayne, or of Elfinhart.
Let your own fancy round the story out
Whatever way you please; I cannot doubt
The sequel; but when I, in silent thought,
Had brought Sir Gawayne back to her, and sought
With hand profane to lift the veil, behind
Whose secret shelter their two hearts enshrined
The mutual covenant of love’s mystery,
That pure fane would not desecrated be.
But this alone I know: the power that wove
Through human lives the warp and woof of love
Wrought not in darkness, nor with hand unsure;–
His fabric must forevermore endure.
And hence I doubt not that these two were blest
As none may be, save they who have confessed
Allegiance to that mighty spirit’s law,
And trod his holy ground with reverent awe.