King Arthur and five hundred of his knights go out to hunt. Gawain, Kay and Bishop Baldwin become separated from the group and seek shelter at the castle of the Carle of Carlisle, who is well known for mistreating his guests. Though Kay protests, Gawain insists that they behave courteously.
Despite a reluctant porter the knights gain access to the hall, and find the Carle, a fearsome giant, sitting with his pets: a bull, a boar, a lion and a bear. When the animals are calmed Gawain kneels, but the Carle warns that he can only offer ‘carle’s courtesy’. He orders a huge cup of wine, and they all drink. When the knights check on their horses Baldwin moves a foal that is eating alongside them, while Kay chases it out of the stable into the rain. Both are rewarded with buffets from the Carle. Gawain covers the foal with his own cloak, makes sure that it is fed, and is thanked courteously by his host.
At dinner, the Carle reads Kay’s thoughts and rebukes him for admiring his beautiful wife. He then insists that Gawain attack him with a spear, which the knight does with such force that the Carle dodges and the spear shatters against the wall. Gawain falls in love with the Carle’s wife, but his host reminds him that she is unavailable. His daughter enters and sings songs about Arthur.
When the knights are shown to their rooms, Gawain is led to the Carle’s own chamber, where his host tells him to embrace and kiss his wife. Gawain obeys him, but the Carle stops him just before they have sex. He promises to reward Gawain for his obedience and summons his daughter, who spends the night with Gawain.
In the morning, they all attend mass. The Carle reveals that he made a vow, twenty years ago, that no guest should leave his castle alive unless he was completely obedient: Gawain is the first man to achieve this. He shows Gawain the bones and bloody armour of his former victims, promising to build a chantry for their souls and treat future guests well. He gives Kay and Baldwin rich gifts and entrusts his daughter to Gawain, requesting that they invite Arthur to dine with him.
The Carle receives the king nobly, but apologises for his lack of courtesy. The king, however, is so pleased with his treatment that he knights the Carle, making him lord of the country around Carlisle. Gawain marries the Carle’s daughter, and the wedding feast lasts a fortnight. When his guests have left, the Carle builds an abbey for the souls of his victims.
From: Donald Sands, Middle English Verse Romances. Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 1986.
Manuscript: Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Brogyntyn MS ii.1 (formerly Porkington 10)
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