Sir Gawain and the Riddle of Life

1991, 1993 by Charles M. Nelson

In the days of King Arthur, when the Knights of the Round Table were scattered o'er the Island of the Mighty like blossoms blown through an orchard, each solitary and intent on his own Quest, Sir Gawain, having mastered the test of the Green Chapel, albeit not without fault, rode back over the River Dee, bound for Camalot. But he lost his way in the high mountains of Wales and found himself in a dying and deserted wood where all the sounds of life had been swallowed up by the black earth, and the grey air hung like a curtain, palpable and sodden. Yet the earth was dry and parched, and as Gawain rode the drear day away in this dismal place, the hooves of Gringalet made brittle protest in the sparse litter which lay under foot. There seemed no end to the dead trees and at the end Sir Gawain was compelled to make his bivouac surrounded by blackened columns made ruddy by a carmine sky which darkened like drying blood as the day fell away from the land.

Though the wood was dry as tinder, it brought forth naught but a niggardly fire while protesting with crackling voices and hurling sparks like tiny slings of naphtha, driving Gawain a few paces off to rest against a hard grey stump and smile ruefully, a wary intruder in a place he could not name. Then it seemed to Gawain that he slept, and woke. In the embers of the fire there stood a tall knight dressed in dun black armor.

"Sir Gawain, thou trespass my kingdom from which none may return save a few who are cursed or blessed of God. Do so bend they neck before me that I may anoint it with my ax!"

Gods Teeth, not another ax, thought Gawain; but he said: "Nay, Sir Knight. I am pledged to quest and may not tarry."

"Then rise up that we may battle unto death. Prevaileth and go forth, living to see thy heart's desire; faileth and black eternity awaits."

"Very well, Sir Knight, we shall meet in the rosy light of dawn after we each hath prayed and acquitted our souls with the Lord our God."

Then it seemed the black knight stirred and grew, though he moved not, and the embers of the fire glowed anew and seemed to cast forth red seams of light from his armor. And his eyes glittered like the reflection of fires cast back from black pools of a moonless night. "Nay, Sir Knight," he mocked in a voice colder than eternal winter, "the appointed time's to hand, pointed as a dagger, sharp as the headsman's ax and as encompassing as the plague. Arise and greet thy fate!"

"Well and good" replied Gawain, thinking furiously as he girt his armor and took up his arms, "but look at me girt in white while thee, Sir Knight, are notable as soot beneath the smithy's eve. Let's have the fire up and drink the stirrup cup as befits my questing and your so noble abode."

"Fairly bargained, but ill said. Mock me again only at thy peril!" The fire roared to life and all the trees about burst into torches of yellow-white light. The Black Knight strode out of the flames bearing a chalice. He drank deeply and his lips, once grey as parchment, came away with the scarlet of freshly drawn blood. Gawain felt suddenly diminished and weak, though it were his own blood this sorcerous knight had conjured and consumed. He could not hide this fear and the Black Night glittered triumphantly as he passed the stirrup cup to Gawain's trembling hand. But to Sir Gawain's amazement the draught, now full and sparkling in the yellow light, was not blood but sacramental wine. He drank it to the last sweet mouthful and was filled at once with renewed strength, hope and certainty.

The Black Knight was matchless in battle and nothing that Gawain could do availed him in the slightest. Yet, after a time, it seemed the sorcerous knight became deliberately negligent. Gawain's sword first took the helm athwart, cutting it half in twain, and it became a deep cowl, black and unassailable. He pierced the armor full in the breast and it folded inward and billowed outward, becoming a cloak which parted on black emptiness. He parried the ax strongly and where its black handle once rang like iron, now it snapped like a brittle branch, and Gawain was carried to the ground by his own momentum. His black opponent stood above him, raising the handle of the ax which grew, arched, blossomed into a scythe. Desperate, Gawain struck upward from the ground at the only thing within reach - the hand which held the great shield. There was the familiar and reassuring impact with flesh and bone, and the shield fell away. But from the severed wrist there grew a skeletal hand, and the hand held a black heart, and the heart dripped smoking blood which seared Gawain's armor. Gawain rolled away in horror and staggered to his feet. The Black Knight looked up into the night with a hollow, ringing, rapacious laugh and his cowl fell back to reveal a parchment of skin and skull.

"Hold!" cried Gawain. "Art thou a sorcerer so skilled as to mock the face of Death?"

"Nay, for thou hast named me truly, Sir Knight." The voice was dry and sibilant, and it seemed endless.

Hope and despair mingled in Sir Gawain's voice then: "I am told, Sir Death, that thou sayest sooth."

"Aye."

"And thou ne'er can fall in mortal combat?"

"Oh, aye!"

"Then surely I am free by forfeit!"

"Oh, nay! For we may joust without weapons. Get out thy board and pieces, Sir Gawain, and pit thy holy stratagems 'gainst my dark and subtle arts. With every man we take, an army shall perish, and with the fall of your King, then shall Arthur and all his noble Knights fall to my scythe within a single turning of the seasons."

"I like not these new stakes, Sir Death."

"Then fight on or submit."

"Nay," said Gawain, drawing forth board and men, bone and blackwood. He set it on the stump and Sir Death, true to nature, conceded him the bone. The game was well fought on both sides, but as dawn was drawing neigh, Sir Death, much vexed, saw that the game might turn against him. In pique, he slammed the butt of his scythe upon the ground with such a potent oath that the stump flared into white hot flames and the game was overthrown.

"Forfeit!" cried Gawain, "the game is mine!"

"Never! We may resume!"

"Look upon the board, O Death, where thou has burnt away the two white corners! Our stratagems may not be fairly matched with the castles hobbled so. Though hast or'set the board to thy great advantage; the forfeit is mine by right!

"Nay, this contest, which knitteth the bones of the earth to the vault of heaven, the living to the dead, and the dark to the light, must be clearly won without forfeit. Therefore, the game shall proceed." So saying, he reached beneath his cloak and wrenched forth a handful of his own ribs. Breaking these into pieces he scattered them onto the board and bade Sir Gawain spit upon them. Each bit of rib was so transformed into a beautiful ivory counter two squares long and one wide. Death brought forth his blackened heart; where drops of smoking blood fell upon the counters, deep black sockets were etched, bringing them to life, giving them eyes that stared inward on his very substance.

"A simple game of chance, Sir Knight. Thou was't white, cast on!"

"Nay, Sir Death, I shall not cast! These bones are too like those cast for the robes of our Lord; this game of chance is evil. Dawn is neigh and the game forfeit!"

"Clever Sir Gawain. Tis true I mayn't take thee, but neither must I let thee free so long as the terms of our engagement be unfulfilled. Therefore, I set thee this task. Sixty-two squares remain unscathed upon the board. Each of my ivory counters will cover two squares. Cover the remaining squares with 31 counters before the sun passes the horizon and ride forth freely with the promised boon. Fail and thou art mine."

After pondering a time, Gawain replied, "Sir Death, this is but another of thy conjurations. The task is unacceptable because it is impossible to complete. No matter which way one arranges the counters, two squares always remain uncovered."

"Ah, yes! But perhaps you are simply not cleaver enough to arrange the counters properly."

"Nay, tis certainly not possible.!"

"Is it not? There is nothing in our bargain which compels me to accept thy discourse. Concede defeat!"

"Sir Death, sooth I shall concede if you but first reveal the solution as thou asserteth its existence."

"Masterfully played, Sir Gawain, but do not expect that I shall reveal my secrets so cheaply. Rather, you must demonstrate to Death howso it is straightwise not possible. Now, surely, we are come to the end. The last play is yours, Sir Knight. How say you?"

As the dawn reddened about them, Sir Gawain smiled and made ready to ride forth. His adversary spake sooth, only sooth; the last play was his and Death was vanquished, at least for a time.


Do you know the answer to Death's riddle? No? Well, have a go at it anyway. A chess board and some dominoes will do nicely. Cover two squares in opposite corners of the board, leaving 62 uncovered. Now prove conclusively that you can't cover these with 31 dominoes.

If you want the answer to the riddle, or to know the outcome of Gawain's encounter with Death, contact me by EMail and all shall be revealed.