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Beheading Game Forumla A


The Feast of Bricriu

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Greene Knight

1.  An outsider, in both outward appearance and social status, comes to the court and challenges.

At the court of Ulster in Ireland, a hideous creature called a “Bachlach” challenges the court.  He carries “a great spreading club-tree the size of a shed,” (40).

The Green Knight, a huge “half-etayn” clad entirely in green enters the court.  He wears no armor, carries an axe and a holly bob, as a symbol of non-aggression.

A knight named Sir Bredbeddle, under “transposed likenesse” (56) arrives in Arthur’s court.  He is entirely green, and has a “long fauchion” (77).

2.  The hero accepts the challenge, usually after others pass off the responsibility.

After ‘Fat Neck’, Loigaire, and Conall skirt the return blow, Cuchulainn accepts.  Note that all four characters give a blow to the Bachlach.

Arthur accepts, but Gawain asks for the responsibility to be shifted to him.  He claims that his relationship to Arthur is the cause for his praise (354-57).

Both the porter and Kay treat the Greene Knight without courtesy; Gawain asks Arthur for the right to respond to the challenge, is granted.

3.  The hero gives the outsider a blow, cutting off his head.

“Cuchulainn sprang towards him and dealt him a blow with the axe, hurling his head to the top rafter,” (43). 

Gawain hits the Green Knight, “schyndered pe bones…and schade hit in twynne,” (424-5). 

“Sir Gawaine, to the axe he braid / To strike with eger will / He stroke the necke bone in twaine,” (188-190).

4.  Hero journeys to the court of the outsider.

None.  The Bachlach makes a return visit in this story.

Without knowledge of the location of the Green Chapel, Gawain rides through Wales searching for the Green Knight.

Without knowledge of the Greene Knight’s location, Gawain rides from Carlisle, “For to seeke the Greene Chappell,” (287).

5.  Outsider tests the hero, who is a symbol of the court.

The Bachlach makes Cuchulainn stretch his neck entirely across the cutting block, “as long as a crane” (44).

A ‘Bed Test’ ensues between Bertilak’s wife and Gawain; Gawain refuses her advances, but accepts the green girdle that will protect his life.

A ‘Bed Test’ ensues between Bredbeddle’s wife and Gawain.  Gawain refuses her advances.

6.  Hero accepts the return blow, and returns to court.

The Bachlach gives Cuchulainn a blow with the blunt side of his axe, and then praises Cuchulainn’s courage. 

After flinching, Gawain accepts the blow; the Green Knight gives another fake blow, before finally hitting him.  “with pe barbe of pe bitte bi pe bare nek,” (2310). 

The Greene Knight strikes Gawain and “little perced the skin” (456).  He and Gawain return to Arthur’s court with the Greene Knight.

The Feast of Bricriu

Irish Folk Tale


Critics often cite this tale as an analogue of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and by extension, all Gawain Beheading Game narratives. The function of the outsider in The Feast of Bricriu is to resolve a running feud between Cuchulainn, Loigaire, and Conall about who should receive the "Champion’s Portion”. At the end of the story we find the Bachlach was sent by Curoi mac Dairi in order to find who really deserves the honor. This tale follows the same basic structure as the other Beheading narratives, and communicates a Celtic influence on medieval tales, in addition to the influence from France and the continent.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Available: (Modern English) (Middle English)

Version Cited: Finch, Casey. The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet. Los Angeles: U California P, 1993.

This poem is one of the most spectacularly detailed and well-constructed pieces of surviving Gawain literature. This work, along with Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Saint Erkenwald, are generally regarded to be the work of a poet roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer. This poem introduces several themes essential to Gawain literature: the concept of fair speech, the Beheading Game, and the Bed Test. Throughout all Gawain literature, exempting perhaps The Jeaste of Sir Gawain and Malory, Gawain is unfailingly courteous, especially in speech. In this poem, Gawain takes the responsibility of exchanging blows from Arthur in a courteous fashion and treats both Bertilak and his wife courteously. His courtesy is the best kind for a knight—he couples fair speech with fair deeds, and follows God without question. His anxiety at the end may be because he has committed his most egregious error by failing to report the girdle to Bertilak, and thus violating their agreement. Chivalry is about honor and keeping your word, especially when in an expressed and repeatedly verified agreement.

The Beheading Game is the central plot of SGGK, providing Gawain with an impetus for leaving court and defending the honor of his court and king. While he travels, he carries with him the burden of upholding the integrity of both Arthur’s court, and of God. He carries a shield with the Virgin’s face painted on the inside as a constant reminder of her presence—and it is through the Beheading Game sequence that Gawain is able to prove that he deserves his place on the high dais.

The Bed Test, too, tests the virtue of the hero. Gawain wins one of his most stunning victories, and one of his most appalling failures, during the Bed Test sequence. He is able to reject the advances of Bertilak’s wife courteously, but accepts the Green Girdle and fails to report it to Bertilak. Gawain cares for his life, and his care for his life becomes problematic when it eclipses his adherence to Chivalry.

The Greene Knight

TEAMs© Introduction

Manuscript: Percy Folio, circa 1650

While lacking in luster and polish when compared to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this version of the same basic story attests to the popularity of beheading literature in popular culture. Like SGGK, this story has a Morgan Le Fey character, Agostes, Sir Bredbeddle’s mother-in-law. She propels the story in more obvious ways then Morgan, first by ordering Bredbeddle to test Gawain’s “points three” after transforming him into the Greene Knight. She also pushes her daughter into Gawain’s room to administer the “Bed Test” and give him the lace that unravels his character. The bed test is important because of the agreement between the Greene Knight and Gawain to exchange any winnings. Although Gawain does refuse her amorous advances, Gawain fails to mention the white lace given to him and therefore exhibits a deficiency in knightly character. At the end, however, all is forgiven as Gawain takes the Greene Knight with him to Carlisle.

Beheading Game Forumla B


The Turke and Sir Gawain

Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle

The Carle of Carlisle

1.  Court challenged by outsider.

Turke challenges Arthur’s court (16-17).  “And said, “Is there any will, as a brother, To give a buffet and take another?”

Gawain, Bishop Baldwin, and Kay are challenged by the Carl’s reputation of faulty courtesy (149-150).  “And yefe he go wytt lyfe away Hit wer but Goddus sonde.”

Gawain, Bishop Baldwin, and Kay are hunting in the woods, they ask the Carl for hospitality.  Plausible reading of challenge as in Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle.

2.  The hero accepts the challenge, usually after others pass off the responsibility.

Kay responds “lewd,” and Gawain accepts the challenge with courtesy.

Kay treats the gatekeeper indignantly, and Gawain treats him with courtesy.

Same as in Carl.

3.  Usually there is no initial blow from the hero to the outsider.

There is an initial blow in Turke.  The Return blow is postponed. (37-38).  “This buffet thou hast…Well quitt that it shall be.”

No initial blow.

No initial blow.

4.  The hero journeys away from his home court.

Gawain immediately follows the Turke, leaving his court (51).  “They rode northwards two dayes and more.”

The tale starts on a hunt, and the three are left in the woods after dark.  They go to the Carl for lodging.

Entire poem takes place away from court.

5.  Outsider tests the hero, who is a symbol of his court.

Series of tests against giants, etc.  The Turke’s role shifts midpoint, and he becomes Gawain’s “boy.”

Baldwin and Kay fail to treat the Carl’s horse kindly, Gawain treats the horse well.  Carl tells Gawain to hit him, does.  Passes a Bed Test, is rewarded with the Carl’s daughter (472-3).

Same as in Carl.

6.  The Outsider is transformed.

The Turke requires that Gawain hit him again, (276).  “Therewith strike of my head.”

No blow.  The Carl is transformed because Gawain satisfies the vow the Carl made with God (516-17). 

“Take this sword and stryke of my head,” (385).  Unlike Carl, Gawain must behead the Carle to break his enchantment.  The Carl assumes a normal appearance (399).

7.  Outsider’s Status is restored.

Gawain returns to court with the Turke, (307).  “First we will to King Arthurs hall.” Becomes King of Man, (323-330).

Gawain marries his daughter.  While no physical transformation, his spiritual change restores his Christian virtues (548). 

“He dubd the Carle a knight anon…and made him Erle of all that land, / And after a knight of the Table Round,” (484-86). 

The Turke and Sir Gawain

Manuscript: Percy Folio, circa 1650

TEAMS© Introduction

Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle

Manuscript: Porkington MS 10; circa 1460 (probably written around 1400)

The Carl stories both start with Gawain, Baldwin, and Kay hunting. Loosing track of time, it becomes dark and they are in need of lodging. The only place available is the Carl’s castle, which is known to be hostile to visitors. In Carlisle, Baldwin advises his company of the danger of the Carl, saying, “He schall be bette, as I harde say, / And yefe he go wytt lyfe away / Hit wer but Goddus sonde,” (148-50). There is no initial or secondary beheading, as in most beheading literature.

Gawain’s courtesy is tested through fair speech, and through a Bed Test, which may seem rather arbitrarily included. The Carl orders Gawain to, “Go take a sper in thy honde/ And at the bottredor goo take thy passe / And hitt me evyn in the face; / Do as I the commande,” (384-87). This blow is important, and reminiscent of beheading, but the Carl’s head is not actually removed. After the spear blow, Gawain passes a Bed Test with the Carl’s wife, and is rewarded with the Carl’s daughter (whom he marries at the end of the poem).

The Carl is a figure in need of transformation in order to become a Chivalric, courteous, Christian knight. The Carl in both stories is under an agreement to continue killing Arthur’s knights until a courteous knight “But he scholde be slayne, iwys, / But he did as I hym bad,” (521-22). Gawain is the knight who transforms the Carl, fulfilling the terms set forth in the Carl’s self imposed enchantment. In both stories, too, the Carl promises to erect a “chauntery” as penance for his sins. The Carl’s transformation, like the Knight’s transformation in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, is not physical, but moral. He promises to “forsake my wicked lawys,” (541) and to “wurschip of Oure Lady,’ (651).

The Carle of Carlisle

Manuscript: Percy Folio, circa 1650

This poem is very similar to the previous Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle. Like Carl, this poem emphasizes Gawain’s fair speech, referring to him as “courteous” seven times during the poem’s 500 lines. This version includes a beheading at the end of the poem, upon which the Carle’s transformation is contingent. The covenant that propels the Carle to kill Arthur’s knights in this poem is not self-imposed, but rather “By nigromance thus was I shapen / Till a knigt of the Round Table / Had with a sword smitten of my head,” (405-07). The agent who placed him under ‘nigromance’ is unnamed, but the transformation is just as vital. He erects a chantry, repents his ways, and becomes a Christian knight.

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