Not all Christmas guests are welcome; not every Christmas game is harmless fun.
King Arthur’s Court had seen many marvels, but all agreed they had seen none as strange as the visitor who appeared one Christmas.
It was a crisp New Year’s Day, carpeted with snow. In the Great Hall, tables were laid with gold and silver, heaped with delicacies of all kinds. King Arthur took his place, Queen Guinevere at his side, both of them smiling and chatting with the Knights and Ladies to right and left.
Suddenly the King sat bolt upright, staring straight ahead, at the far end of the hall. All eyes followed his, and as the whole assembly gazed at the entrance, silence descended on the chamber.
The great arched doorway was filled with the silhouette of a man on a horse. At first they took it for a trick of the light – the doorway was huge, even a mounted knight would only reach halfway to the tip of the arch. Yet the rider and his horse almost blotted out the light.
The giant entered the hall on his giant horse, the hooves striking sparks from the flagstones. Amazement seized the company as the visitor came into the light: more incredible even than his great size was the fact that not only his clothes, but his skin, hair and waist-length beard were entirely emerald green.
Even the horse was green, with a green mane and tail. The man wore no armour and no shoes, just a fine green tunic and green stockings. In his left hand he held a sprig of holly; in his right, an enormous axe, with a razor-sharp blade of green steel.
Alone of all the household, King Arthur found his tongue, greeting the stranger and inviting him to join them at the feast.
“No,” said the Green Knight, “I’m not here to fill my face. I come because your courts is trumpeted far and wide as the home of chivalry. Your knights are said to be the bravest and most noble in the world. But don’t worry, take this holly as a token of peace. I’m not looking for a fight, just for someone to join me in a Christmas party game.”
King Arthur replied: “We’ll be happy to grant your wish – just tell us the rules, and you’ll find plenty of keen players.”
The Green Knight held his axe aloft: “If there’s anyone here with the guts to strike me with this axe and receive a stroke in return, then I’ll give him the axe as a Christmas gift. You can have one free strike – I promise not to flinch – on condition that you find me in 12 months’ time, to kneel in turn and let me strike you back.”
No-one moved. No-one spoke.
The Green Knight burst out laughing: “Is this the famous Court of Arthur? Are these the bravest knights in the world? If you flinch from a festive game like this, how would you fare in a proper fight?”
Arthur flushed with anger and leapt forward, pulling the rider from his saddle and grasping the axe. He raised the blade, making ready to strike – while the Green Knight waited, making no attempt to defend himself.
Then the voice of Sir Gawain, the King’s nephew, broke the silence: “My Lord, stay your hand, allow me to take up the challenge!”
Granting his wish, Arthur handed over the axe. The Green Knight knelt. “Strike away Gawain – and make sure it’s a good blow!”
Gawain lifted the blade and swept it clean through the green neck, like scything the stem of a flower. The head bounced and rolled around the floor, kicked like a football by the nearest knights. Blood spurted from the neck, but the body didn’t fall – instead, horribly, the hands groped around on the floor, retrieving the head by grasping its green hair.
The body stood up straight and remounted the green horse, holding its own dripping head aloft. The Green Knight’s laughter pealed through the hall. “Well struck, Sir Gawain! You’ve played your part well. Now remember your promise – next New Year’s Day you must find me and kneel as I did, while I strike you the same way!
“I am known as the Green Chapel Knight. Ask for me by that name and you’ll be sure to find me – if you’re man enough to do as I’ve done!”
Then he wheeled his great horse and galloped from the hall, leaving the company staring at the blood-spattered stones.
All day long, no-one spoke of anything else. All but one of the company had a marvellous tale to tell. But Gawain alone was silent. The adventure was his to live, not just tell – and it had barely begun.
Image by Mami
Sooner or later, the Green Knight rides into everyone’s life. It’s often when we least expect or want it – when we’re feeling settled and comfortable, and want nothing more than a quiet life. But the Green Knight takes no account of our comfort zone, and bursts in anyway, daring us to take up the challenge.
Who knows what he’ll urge you to do? Travel the world? Fall in love? Quit your job? Leave your home? Start a business or a family? Drop everything to help someone in need?
Whatever it is, you can guarantee it won’t be easy. It will involve a complete change of direction, and you’ll feel a strong resistance to doing it. There will be plenty of voices advising you against it. And you won’t be short of reasons and excuses for ignoring it and staying put.
Improvisation guru Keith Johnstone once said that there are two kinds of people: the ones who habitually say ‘no’ to new experiences, and the ones who say ‘yes’. If you say ‘no’, you are rewarded with security; if you say ‘yes’, you are rewarded with adventures.
Note that answering ‘yes’ doesn’t guarantee you happiness, fulfilment or success. Not even safety. Adventures make exciting reading, but it’s not so much fun to live through them – they are usually terrifying, demanding, humiliating, relentless, even boring. And there’s no knowing whether your adventure will have a happy ending.
Because of this, the people in the ‘no’ camp steer well clear of adventures. They don’t see the point of chasing after rainbows, and they don’t trust anyone who does. Adventures are all very well for children’s stories, but these days we are much too grown-up and technologically advanced to take them seriously.
The people in the ‘yes’ camp look at things differently. They’ve heard all about the dangers and objections, but that doesn’t stop them. They can’t imagine all the difficulties and suffering their adventure will entail – but even if they could, they’d do it anyway. For they know that an adventure is shot at living a dream. It’s possible they may die on the way, but if they say ‘no’, it’s certain that the dream will die. Which makes the decision clearer, if not easier.
Like I say, sooner or later the Green Knight will ride into your life and challenge you to play his game.
When he does, will you keep your head down like all the others, watching your breath mist your reflection on the silver plate? Or will you raise your head, answer the challenge, step into the arena, and play?
If you want to know how Gawain’s adventure ends, treat yourself by reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – one of the finest poems in English, and one of the greatest tales of adventure in any language. The Medieval English of the original is beautiful but a bit heavy going if you’re new to it – a good alternative is the superb recent translation by Simon Armitage.
Last but not least – Merry Christmas from the Lateral Action team. Have fun, and beware of strangers bearing holly. 😉
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.