The Green Knight
There lived once a king and queen who had an only daughter, a charming
and beautiful girl, dearer to them than anything else in the world.
When the princess was twelve years old the queen fell sick, and
nothing that could be done for her was of any use. All the doctors in
the kingdom did their best to cure her, but in spite of their efforts
she grew worse and worse. As she was about to die, she sent for the
king and said to him:
‘Promise me that whatever our daughter asks, you will do, no matter
whether you wish to or not.’
The king at first hesitated, but as she added:
‘Unless you promise this I cannot die in peace,’ he at length did as
she desired, and gave the promise, after which she became quite happy
It happened that near the king’s palace lived a noble lady, whose
little girl was of about the same age as the princess, and the two
children were always together. After the queen’s death the princess
begged that this lady should come to live with her in the palace. The
king was not quite pleased with this arrangement, for he distrusted
the lady; but the princess wished so much for it that he did not like
‘I am lonely, father,’ she said, ‘and all the beautiful presents you
give me cannot make up to me for the loss of my mother. If this lady
comes to live here I shall almost feel as if the queen had come back
So a magnificent suite of rooms was prepared and set aside for the
new-comers, and the little princess was wild with joy at the thought
of having her friends so near her. The lady and her daughter arrived,
and for a long time all went well. They were very kind to the
motherless princess, and she almost began to forget how dull she had
been before they came. Then, one day, as she and the other girl were
playing together in the gardens of the palace, the lady came to them,
dressed for a journey, and kissed the princess tenderly, saying:
‘Farewell, my child; my daughter and I must leave you and go far
The poor princess began to cry bitterly. ‘Oh! you must not leave me!’
she sobbed. ‘What shall I do without you? Please, oh! please stay.’
The lady shook her head.
‘It almost breaks my heart to go, dear child,’ she said, ‘but, alas!
it must be.’
‘Is there nothing that can keep you here?’ asked the princess.
‘Only one thing,’ answered the lady, ‘and as that is impossible, we
will not speak of it.’
‘Nothing is impossible,’ persisted the princess. ‘Tell me what it is,
and it shall be done.’
So at last her friend told her.
‘If the king, your father, would make me his queen I would stay,’ she
said; ‘but that he would never do.’
‘Oh, yes! _that_ is easy enough!’ cried the princess, delighted to
think that, after all, they need not be parted. And she ran off to
find her father, and beg him to marry the lady at once. He had done
everything she asked, and she was quite certain he would do it.
‘What is it, my daughter?’ he asked, when he saw her. ‘You have been
crying–are you not happy?’
‘Father,’ she said, ‘I have come to ask you to marry the
countess’–(for that was the lady’s real title)–‘if you do not she
will leave us, and then I shall be as lonely as before. You have never
refused me what I have asked before, do not refuse me now.’
The king turned quite pale when he heard this. He did not like the
countess, and so, of course, he did not wish to marry her; besides, he
still loved his dead wife.
‘No, that I cannot do, my child,’ he said at last.
At these words the princess began to cry once more, and the tears ran
down her cheeks so fast, and she sobbed so bitterly, that her father
felt quite miserable too. He remembered the promise he had given
always to do what his daughter asked him and in the end he gave way,
and promised to marry the countess. The princess at once was all
smiles, and ran away to tell the good news.
Soon after, the wedding was celebrated with great festivities, and the
countess became queen; but, in spite of all the joy and merriment that
filled the palace, the king looked pale and sad, for he was certain
that ill would come of the marriage. Sure enough, in a very short time
the queen’s manner towards the princess began to change. She was
jealous of her because she, instead of her own daughter, was heir to
the throne, and very soon she could no longer hide her thoughts.
Instead of speaking kindly and lovingly as before, her words became
rough and cruel, and once or twice she even slapped the princess’s
The king was very unhappy at seeing his dearly loved daughter suffer,
and at last she became so wretched that he could no longer bear it.
Calling her to him one day he said:
‘My daughter, you are no longer merry as you should be, and I fear
that it is the fault of your step-mother. It will be better for you to
live with her no longer; therefore I have built you a castle on the
island in the lake, and that is to be your home in future. There you
can do just as you like, and your step-mother will never enter it.’
The princess was delighted to hear this, and still more pleased when
she saw the castle, which was full of beautiful things, and had a
great number of windows looking out on the lovely blue water. There
was a boat in which she might row herself about, and a garden where
she could walk whenever she wished without fear of meeting the unkind
queen; and the king promised to visit her every day.
For a long time she dwelt in peace, and grew more and more beautiful
every day. Everyone who saw her said ‘The princess is the loveliest
lady in the land.’ And this was told to the queen, who hated her
step-daughter still more because her own daughter was ugly and stupid.
One day it was announced that a great meeting of knights and nobles
was to be held in a neighbouring kingdom distant about two days’
journey. There were to be all kinds of festivities, and a tournament
was to be fought and a banquet held, in honour of the coming of age of
the prince of the country.
The princess’s father was amongst those invited, but before he set out
he went to take leave of his daughter. Although she had such a
beautiful home, and was no longer scolded by the queen, the poor
princess was dreadfully lonely, and she told her father that it would
be better if she were dead. He did his best to comfort her and
promised that he would soon return. Was there anything he could do to
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You may greet the Green Knight from me.’
Now the king wondered a little at these words, for he had never heard
of the Green Knight; but there was no time to ask questions, therefore
he gave the promise, and rode off on his journey. When he came to the
palace where the festivities were to take place, the first thing he
did was to ask:
‘Can anyone tell me where I may find the Green Knight?’
No, they were very sorry; but none had ever heard of such a person
either–certainly he was not to be found there. At this the king grew
troubled, and not even the banquet or the tournament could make him
feel happier. He inquired of everyone he saw, ‘Do you know the Green
Knight?’ but the only answer he got was:
‘No, your majesty, we have never heard of him.’
At length he began to believe that the princess was mistaken, and that
there was no such person; and he started on his homeward journey
sorrowfully enough, for this was the first time for many months that
the princess had asked him to do anything for her and he could not do
it. He thought so much about it that he did not notice the direction
his horse was taking, and presently he found himself in the midst of a
dense forest where he had never been before. He rode on and on,
looking for the path, but as the sun began to set he realised that he
was lost. At last, to his delight, he saw a man driving some pigs, and
riding up to him, he said:
‘I have lost my way. Can you tell me where I am?’
‘You are in the Green Knight’s forest,’ answered the man, ‘and these
are his pigs.’
At that the king’s heart grew light. ‘Where does the Green Knight
live?’ he asked.
‘It is a very long way from here,’ said the swineherd; ‘but I will
show you the path.’ So he went a little farther with the king and put
him on the right road, and the king bade him farewell.
Presently he came to a second forest, and there he met another
swineherd driving pigs.
‘Whose beasts are those, my man?’ he asked.
‘They are the Green Knight’s,’ said the man.
‘And where does he live?’ inquired the king.
‘Oh, not far from here,’ was the reply.
Then the king rode on, and about midday he reached a beautiful castle
standing in the midst of the loveliest garden you can possibly
imagine, where fountains played in marble basins, and peacocks walked
on the smooth lawns. On the edge of a marble basin sat a young and
handsome man, who was dressed from head to foot in a suit of green
armour, and was feeding the goldfish which swam in the clear water.
‘This must be the Green Knight,’ thought the king; and going up to the
young man he said courteously:
‘I have come, sir, to give you my daughter’s greeting. But I have
wandered far, and lost my way in your forest.’
The knight looked at him for a moment as though puzzled.
‘I have never met either you or your daughter,’ he said at last; ‘but
you are very welcome all the same.’ And he waved his hand towards the
castle. However, the king took no notice, and told him that his
daughter had sent a message to the Green Knight, and as he was the
only Green Knight in the kingdom this message must be for him.
‘You must pass the night with me here,’ said the knight; and as the
sun was already set, the king was thankful to accept the invitation.
They sat down in the castle hall to a magnificent banquet, and
although he had travelled much and visited many monarchs in their
palaces, the king had never fared better than at the table of the
Green Knight, whilst his host himself was so clever and agreeable,
that he was delighted, and thought ‘what a charming son-in-law this
knight would make!’
Next morning, when he was about to set forth on his journey home, the
Green Knight put into his hand a jewelled casket, saying:
‘Will your highness graciously condescend to carry this gift to the
princess, your daughter? It contains my portrait, that when I come she
may know me; for I feel certain that she is the lady I have seen night
after night in a dream, and I must win her for my bride.’
The king gave the knight his blessing, and promised to take the gift
to his daughter. With that he set off, and ere long reached his own
The princess was awaiting him anxiously when he arrived, and ran to
his arms in her joy at seeing her dear father again.
‘And did you see the Green Knight?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ answered the king, drawing out the casket the knight had sent,
‘and he begged me to give you this that you may know him when he
arrives and not mistake him for somebody else.’
When the princess saw the portrait she was delighted, and exclaimed:
‘It is indeed the man whom I have seen in my dreams! Now I shall be
happy, for he and no other shall be my husband.’
Very soon after the Green Knight arrived, and he looked so handsome in
his green armour, with a long green plume in his helmet, that the
princess fell still more in love with him than before, and when he saw
her, and recognised her as the lady whom he had so often dreamt of, he
immediately asked her to be his bride. The princess looked down and
smiled as she answered him:
‘We must keep the secret from my step-mother until the wedding-day,’
said she, ‘for otherwise she will find a way to do us some evil.’
‘As you please,’ replied the prince; ‘but I must visit you daily, for
I can live no longer without you! I will come early in the morning and
not leave until it is dark; thus the queen will not see me row across
For a long time, the Green Knight visited the princess every day, and
spent many hours wandering with her through the beautiful gardens
where they knew the queen could not see them. But secrets, as you
know, are dangerous things, and at last, one morning, a girl who was
in service at the palace happened to be walking by the lake early in
the morning and beheld a wonderfully handsome young man, in a
beautiful suit of green satin, come down to the edge of the lake. Not
guessing that he was watched, he got into a little boat that lay
moored to the bank, rowed himself over to the island where the
princess’s castle stood. The girl went home wondering who the knight
could be; and as she was brushing the queen’s hair, she said to her:
‘Does your majesty know that the princess has a suitor?’
‘Nonsense!’ replied the queen crossly. But she was dreadfully vexed at
the mere idea, as her own daughter was still unmarried, and was likely
to remain so, because she was so ill-tempered and stupid that no one
‘It is true,’ persisted the girl. ‘He is dressed all in green, and is
very handsome. I saw him myself, though he did not see me, and he got
into a boat and rowed over to the island, and the princess was waiting
for him at the castle door.’
‘I must find out what this means,’ thought the queen. But she bade her
maid of honour cease chattering and mind her own business.
Early next morning the queen got up and went down to the shore of the
lake, where she hid herself behind a tree. Sure enough there came a
handsome knight dressed in green, just as the maid of honour had said,
and he got into a boat and rowed over to the island where the princess
awaited him. The angry queen remained by the lake all day, but it was
not until the evening that the knight returned, and leaping on shore,
he tied the boat to its moorings and went away through the forest.
* * * * *
‘I have caught my step-daughter nicely,’ thought the queen. ‘But she
shall not be married before my own sweet girl. I must find a way to
put a stop to this.’
Accordingly she took a poisoned nail and stuck it in the handle of the
oar in such a way that the knight would be sure to scratch his hand
when he picked up the oar. Then she went home laughing, very much
pleased with her cleverness.
The next day the Green Knight went to visit the princess as usual; but
directly he took up the oars to row over to the island he felt a sharp
scratch on his hand.
‘Oof!’ he said, dropping the oars from pain, ‘what can have scratched
so?’ But, look as he might, only a tiny mark was to be seen.
‘Well, it’s strange how a nail could have come here since yesterday,’
he thought. ‘Still, it is not very serious, though it hurts a good
deal.’ And, indeed, it seemed such a little thing that he did not
mention it to the princess. However, when he reached home in the
evening, he felt so ill he was obliged to go to bed, with no one to
attend on him except his old nurse. But of this, of course, the
princess knew nothing; and the poor girl, fearing lest some evil
should have befallen him, or some other maiden more beautiful than she
should have stolen his heart from her, grew almost sick with waiting.
Lonely, indeed, she was, for her father, who would have helped her,
was travelling in a foreign country, and she knew not how to obtain
news of her lover.
* * * * *
In this manner time passed away, and one day, as she sat by the open
window crying and feeling very sad, a little bird came and perched on
the branch of a tree that stood just underneath. It began to sing, and
so beautifully that the princess was obliged to stop crying and listen
to it, and very soon she found out that the bird was trying to attract
‘_Tu-whit, tu-whit!_ your lover is sick!’ it sang.
‘Alas!’ cried the princess. ‘What can I do?’
‘_Tu-whit, tu-whit!_ you must go to your father’s palace!’
‘And what shall I do there?’ she asked.
‘_Tu-whit!_ there you will find a snake with nine young ones.’
‘Ugh!’ answered the princess with a shiver, for she did not like
snakes. But the little bird paid no heed.
‘Put them in a basket and go to the Green Knight’s palace,’ said she.
‘And what am I to do with them when I get there?’ she cried, blushing
all over, though there was no one to see her but the bird.
‘Dress yourself as a kitchen-maid and ask for a place. _Tu-whit!_ Then
you must make soup out of the snakes. Give it three times to the
knight and he will be cured. _Tu-whit!_’
‘But what has made him ill?’ asked the princess. The bird, however,
had flown away, and there was nothing for it but to go to her father’s
palace and look for the snakes. When she came there she found the
mother snake with the nine little snakes all curled up so that you
could hardly tell their heads from their tails. The princess did not
like having to touch them, but when the old snake had wriggled out of
the nest to bask a little in the sun, she picked up the young ones and
put them in a basket as the bird had told her, and ran off to find the
Green Knight’s castle. All day she walked along, sometimes stopping to
pick the wild berries, or to gather a nosegay; but though she rested
now and then, she would not lie down to sleep before she reached the
castle. At last she came in sight of it, and just then she met a girl
driving a flock of geese.
‘Good-day!’ said the princess; ‘can you tell me if this is the castle
of the Green Knight?’
‘Yes, that it is,’ answered the goose girl, ‘for I am driving his
geese. But the Green Knight is very ill, and they say that unless he
can be cured within three days he will surely die.’
At this news the princess grew as white as death. The ground seemed to
spin round, and she closed her hand tight on a bush that was standing
beside her. By-and-by, with a great effort, she recovered herself and
said to the goose girl:
‘Would you like to have a fine silk dress to wear?’
The goose girl’s eyes glistened.
‘Yes, that I would!’ answered she.
‘Then take off your dress and give it to me, and I will give you
mine,’ said the princess.
The girl could scarcely believe her ears, but the princess was
already unfastening her beautiful silk dress, and taking off her silk
stockings and pretty red shoes; and the goose girl lost no time in
slipping out of her rough linen skirt and tunic. Then the princess put
on the other’s rags and let down her hair, and went to the kitchen to
ask for a place.
‘Do you want a kitchen-maid?’ she said.
‘Yes, we do,’ answered the cook, who was too busy to ask the new-comer
The following day, after a good night’s rest, the princess set about
her new duties. The other servants were speaking of their master, and
saying to each other how ill he was, and that unless he could be cured
within three days he would surely die.
The princess thought of the snakes, and the bird’s advice, and lifting
her head from the pots and pans she was scouring, she said: ‘I know
how to make a soup that has such a wonderful power that whoever tastes
it is sure to be cured, whatever his illness may be. As the doctors
cannot cure your master shall I try?’
At first they all laughed at her.
‘What! a scullion cure the knight when the best physicians in the
kingdom have failed?’
But at last, just because all the physicians _had_ failed, they
decided that it would do no harm to try; and she ran off joyfully to
fetch her basket of snakes and make them into broth. When this was
ready she carried some to the knight’s room and entered it boldly,
pushing aside all the learned doctors who stood beside his bed. The
poor knight was too ill to know her, besides, she was so ragged and
dirty that he would not have been likely to do so had he been well;
but when he had taken the soup he was so much better that he was able
to sit up.
The next day he had some more, and then he was able to dress himself.
‘That is certainly wonderful soup!’ said the cook.
The third day, after he had eaten his soup, the knight was quite well
‘Who are you?’ he asked the girl; ‘was it you who made this soup that
has cured me?’
‘Yes,’ answered the princess.
‘Choose, then, whatever you wish as a reward,’ said the knight, ‘and
you shall have it.’
‘I would be your bride!’ said the princess.
The knight frowned in surprise at such boldness, and shook his head.
‘That is the one thing I cannot grant,’ he said, ‘for I am pledged to
marry the most beautiful princess in the world. Choose again.’
Then the princess ran away and washed herself and mended her rags, and
when she returned the Green Knight recognised her at once.
You can think what a joyful meeting that was!
* * * * *
Soon after, they were married with great splendour. All the knights
and princes in the kingdom were summoned to the wedding, and the
princess wore a dress that shone like the sun, so that no one had ever
beheld a more gorgeous sight. The princess’s father, of course, was
present, but the wicked queen and her daughter were driven out of the
country, and as nobody has seen them since, very likely they were
eaten by wild beasts in the forest. But the bride and bridegroom were
so happy that they forgot all about them, and they lived with the old
king till he died, when they succeeded him.