One of my favorite scenes in English literature–or Middle English lit, if we’re getting technical–takes place this time of year in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In my 2002 review of W.S. Merwin’s translation, published in The New Criterion, here’s how I described it:
The event it depicts occurs in the first part of the poem. As the knights of the Round Table gather for a Yuletide feast, King Arthur demands a “tale all new of some wonderful event.” As if on command, a hulking figure bursts into the royal hall unannounced. Carrying a huge battle-axe and wearing no armor, he seems a barbaric throwback to a time before there was courtly chivalry. His most impressive quality of all, however, is his color: He is entirely green.
This otherworldly intruder mocks his hosts and challenges them to an absurd game. He will let one of the knights strike him with his axe, if in return he is allowed to deliver a blow of his own a year later. Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain, accepts the bizarre offer. Just as he grips the axe, the Green Knight flashes some skin on his neck, daring the young man to behead him. In a fierce stroke, Gawain cuts straight through. The Green Knight’s head drops to the floor, gushing blood. Arthur’s men actually kick it around like a soccer ball. All the while, however, the Green Knight’s body remains standing. It steps into the scrum, grabs the decapitated head by the hair, and lifts it up high. The severed thing actually speaks: See you in a year, Gawain. Then the Green Knight turns and goes, leaving behind a stunned audience.