Sir Gawain the Undefeated
Now, everyone who knows anything at all about
knights knows that they used to dress in metal
suits and bash each other off their horses with
pointy sticks called lances. This only makes sense,
of course. Anyone who happened to have a metal
suit, a horse, and a pointy stick would do the same.
Some may have also heard that knights fought
dragons as well, often to rescue damsels. (Damsels
are what they used to call women. Don’t ask why;
they just did.) This is less sensible, because—Well,
really now! What would a dragon want with a
damsel? Still, if a dragon did for some reason
make off with one, then it would be perfectly reasonable
for a knight to rescue her.
But what many do not realize is that, at least in
King Arthur’s court, knights were also expected to
be courteous and respectful. The king was very
clear about this: He wanted no bullies at his
Round Table. In fact, he said that courtesy was
even more important than wearing metal suits
and bashing people from horses. Not surprisingly,
this notion took a while to sink in. Knights who
had spent their whole lives learning swordsmanship
and pointy-stick-bashing did not always see
how something else could be more important.
Indeed, King Arthur had reigned for several years
before he felt that his knights were starting to get
During those early years, the most celebrated
of King Arthur’s knights was his nephew Sir Gawain.
Sir Gawain had won so many tournaments—
which is what knights called the contests
where they did all that bashing—that he was
called Sir Gawain the Undefeated. One day, as Sir
Gawain the Undefeated was riding through a forest,
he heard a loud scream and a ferocious roar.
Sir Gawain urged his horse forward and soon
came upon a huge black lizard that was holding
a damsel in one scaly, knobby claw.
“Whatever does a dragon want with a damsel?”
wondered Sir Gawain. The idea seemed absurd to
him as well.
But Sir Gawain did not have time for philosophical
questions, because at that moment the
dragon roared again, sending a ball of fire into the
air, and the damsel screamed. Sir Gawain
charged. It was a fierce battle, which took quite a
long time, and an onlooker would doubtless have
found it gripping to watch. For some reason,
though, secondhand blow-by-blow accounts of
battles are not nearly so interesting as the things
themselves, so it won’t hurt anything to skip
ahead here. What matters is that when the fight
was over, the dragon lay dead at Sir Gawain’s feet.
“Hooray!” shouted Sir Gawain triumphantly. “I
“Oh, thank you, Sir Knight!” cried the damsel.
“You saved my life!”
“Yes, I suppose I did,” agreed Sir Gawain. “By the
way, do you have any idea why the dragon captured
“What difference does that make?” the damsel
replied. “He was an evil creature.”
“Just wondering,” Sir Gawain said.
“What matters is that you saved me, Sir
Knight,” the damsel repeated.
“Not Sir Knight,” Sir Gawain corrected. “I’m Sir
Gawain. Sir Gawain the Undefeated.”
“I’m ever so grateful to you, Sir Gawain.”
“Yes, I suppose you are,” Sir Gawain replied. He
turned back to the dragon’s corpse and gazed at it
with satisfaction. “It was quite a fight, wasn’t it?
Did you see how the lizard tried to get behind me
but I reversed my lance? A very tricky bit of
lancemanship, let me tell you!”
“Er, quite,” said the damsel.
“And how, when it shifted to my weak side, I
tossed my sword to my left hand? Not everyone
can do that, you know.”
“Very clever of you, I’m sure.” The damsel’s
smile was smaller now. “Sir Gawain, to thank you
for your service, I would like to give you a gift:
this green sash.” The woman began to remove a
gleaming strip of green silk from her waist. “Wear
this as a reminder of your victory, and—”
“Oh, I shan’t forget this victory,” Sir Gawain said.
“But this is a special sash. As long as you wear
“I really don’t have a place for a sash,” Sir Gawain
said. “Why don’t you keep it?”
“Oh,” the damsel said. “Well . . . if you wish. But
I want to thank you somehow. Perhaps it would
be enough if I gave you a kiss on the cheek, just
“I say!” interrupted Sir Gawain. “You don’t think
that just because I saved your life we’re, you
know, in love or something, do you?”
“Because a lot of girls might think that, but
really I would have saved any damsel. It didn’t
have to be you. Besides, I’m not looking for a lady
of my own right now.”
“A lady of your own? ” gasped the damsel. “I never
“Nothing personal, of course,” Sir Gawain
said hurriedly. “I’m sure you’ll
make a very nice lady for someone
someday. It’s just that I’m not in the market
for romance at the moment.”
“Of all the . . . All I wanted to do was
show you my gratitude!”
Suddenly remembering King Arthur’s
lectures on courtesy, Sir Gawain bowed
and said, “You’re very welcome,” then
turned his horse and rode away. He was
already thinking about how he would tell
the tale of his great victory once he got back to the
The story was a success. Sir Gawain held the
court spellbound as he recounted his defeat of the
horrible dragon, even during the duller bits when
he described his lancemanship. But when he told
about his conversation with the damsel after the
battle, King Arthur sat up.
“Do you mean to say, Gawain,” the king asked,
“that the lady tried to give you a token of thanks
and you refused it?”
“So then she asked if she could give you one
kiss on the cheek, and you turned that down as
“I didn’t want her to get the wrong idea, you
“And I gather that you told her your name but
never asked for hers?”
Sir Gawain blinked. The king was right. He had
no idea who the lady was.
“And then,” King Arthur concluded, “you rode
away, leaving her alone, on foot, in the forest?”
For a moment, Sir Gawain was silent. “I didn’t
think about that,” he admitted, frowning. “That
wasn’t . . . wasn’t my best choice, was it?”
King Arthur shook his head.
“I did say ‘You’re welcome,’” Sir Gawain said.
“‘Very welcome,’ I think.”
King Arthur covered his eyes with his hands.
Sometimes in those early days he wondered what
it would take to prove to his knights that courtesy
was as important as courage.