Sir Gawain The Green Knight -
and the Otherworld Journey.
Published Samhain 1995
Gather a handful of pagans or storytellers round a hearth around Yule and thoughts are likely to turn to that most enigmatic and powerful of initiatory myths - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, linking as it does a story of the Yule season with the characters of Arthur's court in a story of chivalry, magic, temptation, transformation and self-discovery. The story is, no doubt, well known to both magicians and storytellers and cannot be easily summarised - all the more so as the very richness of the story, and in particular its best-known version, are such that any number of interpretations are possible.
The story starts with the invasion of King Arthur's court at New Year by the terrifying and mysterious figure of the Green Knight who lays down a challenge to the assembled court, the challenge being that a volunteer must strike off the Green Knight's head with his axe but must present himself for a return blow a year hence. Only Gawain has the courage to meet the challenge and he strikes off the Green Knight's head with a single blow, only to have the Green Knight pick up his head, mount his horse and ride out of the court.
At the beginning of the following winter, therefore, Gawain rides from Arthur's court to keep the appointment; he rides for some weeks through the dying winter landscape until, just before Christmas, he emerges from the desolate, frozen and still forest and comes upon a castle in the wasteland. There he is welcomed by Sir Bertilak and his wife and entertained until the morning of the appointment, his host having assured him that the place set for the meeting, the Green Chapel, is close by.
During his stay, Gawain and Sir Bertilak make a bargain over three days to the effect that the host will hunt during the day while Gawain will rest in the castle, and in the evening they will exchange their winnings. While her husband is out hunting, however, the wife makes determined attempts on each of the days to seduce Gawain; the first two days she manages to persuade him only to accept kisses from her - one on the first day and two the second. These Gawain duly exchanges for a stag and a boar respectively. On the third day, the wife persuades Gawain to accept three kisses and a magickal garter or belt which, she tells him, will keep him safe from harm. That evening he exchanges the kisses (but not the belt) for a fox.
The next morning he rides to meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, accompanied by a squire who tries to persuade him to ride away with his life instead of going to dreaded encounter. This Gawain refuses to do, but meets the Green Knight as he has promised. The Green Knight aims a first blow at Gawain who flinches, then a second which the Knight deflects on the pretext of parting Gawain's hair so he can better see his target. The third blow slightly cuts Gawain's neck and draws blood. The Green Knight then reveals himself and his mission and insists that Gawain keep the belt and take it back with him to Camelot.
The Gawain Poet
So what do we know about the man known to literature as the Gawain Poet? In reality we know virtually nothing. Certainly not his name. We can, however, surmise a fair amount about this most talented chap. We are fairly sure that he was a near contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer in that his works seem to have been written in the 1380s and 1390s, largely during the reign of Richard II. Apart from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he is believed to have written three other significant works - Pearl, Cleanness (or Purity) and Patience, which together survive in a single manuscript known as MS Cotton Nero A.x Art.3 now kept in the British Library. The other three works are moralistic and/or Biblical in theme. (Which is why we will not talk about them again.)
Our poet was clearly a well educated man with a good knowledge of courtly practice and behaviour, values and ideas, but equally clearly he was behind the times to say the least! David Clarke, in his recently published Guide to Britain's Pagan Heritage, suggests that he may have been a monk living at Dieulacres Abbey near Leek in Staffordshire, though he does not address the question as to why a (supposedly Christian) monk should either waste precious parchment on recording what, in the Church's eyes, must have been a relatively frivolous secular work despite its moral elements - nor indeed why, having composed a work with so many obviously non-Christian elements, and which in so many ways is decidedly suspect, he should have risked commiting all 3,000-odd lines of it to parchment for posterity under the beady and censorious eyes of his ecclesiastical superiors.
Stylistically he wrote in what is known as the alliterative long line - a style of poetry which was extremely out of date at the time this work was written and which harks back in no uncertain terms to the (even by then) archaic Old English style of rhythmic and alliterative poetic metre instead of using the fashionable courtly rhyming form which had been introduced by the Normans and which remains the basis of what most folks today recognise as "poetry". In alliterative verse, the line is divided into two half lines with a definite rhythmic break between them and the poetic unity between those half lines is established by the poet's choosing words start with the same letters, ie they alliterate. Alliteration, incidentally, explains in part the importance to Old English and Old Icelandic or Norse literature of the "word-hoard", in which the poet can choose from a wide range of different words, often meaning much the same as one another but having different first letters. Thus there are words to fit every alliterative context. To give a brief sample to show what I mean, here are a few lines from the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, followed by a few from Sir Gawain:
"Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað". "There was blawing of prys in mony breme horne, Heght halowing on highe with hatheles that myght, Brachetes bayed that best, as bidden the maysteres, Of that chargeaunt chace that were chef huntes."
Even more impenetrable for modern readers is the dialect in which he wrote, for unlike Chaucer (who wrote in a dialect then prevalent in the SE Midlands and which later, through its use at the royal court, became the basis of modern spoken English) the Gawain Poet wrote in an obscure dialect which has been traced to the area of Clwyd, Cheshire, north Staffordshire, western Derbyshire and parts of West Yorkshire. Given that the style and dialect of this poetry are so awkward, it must be presumed that the poet was writing for an audience which could at least comprehend his dialect, and from that it has been assumed that he was a locally-based poet writing for a local audience. An alternative theory, however, has been put forward that the dialect of the poem as we have it today was merely accidental - ie that the poem was originally composed in a more standard form of Middle English but that the surviving manuscript was copied by a provincial scribe who laid his own dialect over that of the original poem.
The Green Chapel
A careful reading of the poem by researchers familar with the landscape of the Welsh borders has led to the tentative plotting of the route which Gawain followed from Camelot - wherever the poet imagined that to have been; this route has been said to lead eventually into that precise corner of the country from which the poet appears to have originated. In other words, the poet led his hero from through hundreds of miles across a deserted winter landscape and set the central events of the poem, ie the trials and testing of Gawain in the castle of Sir Bertilak or the Green Knight, in his own back yard. Presumably this was done so that his intended audience could identify (and identify with) the places in which the main action took place and to make more real and immediate to them this intensely metaphysical and esoteric story.
Based on the topographical evidence contained within the poem, Professor Elliot has suggested as the site of the Green Chapel the cave knownas Lud Church situated in a narrow gorge in the upper reaches of the Dane Valley of north Staffordshire, though other suggestions have also been put forward by other researchers - virtually all of them being in the same general area of north Staffordshire or around the Manifold Valley area of Derbyshire. Lud Church is marked on OS maps of the area and is reachable by footpath, with carparking a mile or so away.
Until recently the gorge was the home of a white owl who was often seen in broad daylight sitting in the tree closest to the cave. A number of recent visitors have reported that she may have gone, though on a recent earth mysteries field trip psychic quester Andrew Collins is reported to have felt her presence in vision though he did not see her physically. Within the wider Arthurian context, perhaps we may interpret this white owl as having some connection with Gwenhwyver, whose very name in Welsh means white shadow . The Peak District National Park people have recently marked the footpath to the gorge which as a result is attracting more visitors than previously so if she is a flesh and blood creature the owl have become fed up with the intrusion.
Another explanation which has been put forward from time to time for the Green Chapel has been that of tying it in with the faery mound of legend and folklore, or the Bronze Age round barrow or burial mound of the ordinary landscape. The faeries, like the dead, were widely believed to dwell in the "hollow hills". This past summer I visited the Iron Age village of Chrysauster in Cornwall and was struck by how much the stone-walled round houses with their enclosed courtyards could have looked, from a distance, like "hollow hills". With a dense mat of weeds and heather covering the overgrown drystone walls, and the idea of smoke emerging from the centre of similarly overgrown turfed roofs, it is easy to imagine how these ordinary houses could have been regarded as hollow green mounds, inhabited in later times by those who lived on the margins of occupied land.
Much discussion has raged in the corridors of academe about the hypothetical court for which this poem was written. For a story, or indeed a poem intended to be read aloud, must have an audience. Various suggestions have been made, of which the most attractive is that it was written for the provincial court of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and a son of Edward III, who was an extremely powerful feudal landowner with extensive lands in precisely this area (and northwards into Lancashire) at just the time that the poem is generally agreed to have been written.
The central point of the story rests with the three temptations undergone by Gawain in Sir Bertilak's castle, in which the Lady of the house (Sir Bertilak's wife) attempts unsuccessfully to seduce Gawain. On each occasion Gawain becomes entangled in a subtle web of thrust and parry - his defence of his honour in courtly and knightly terms against her verbal temptations requires such an understanding of the codes of chivalry that it has never been seriously considered that the subtleties of the exchanges could have been intended to entertain anything other than a cultured and knowledgeable audience. It is on the outcome of these encounters that Gawain's life (and honour) depends.
But could such an audience have existed in the remote English provinces, some 200 or miles from the court in London? Probably, yes. We must remember that the court was essentially mobile and moved itself bodily around the kingdom throughout the year. Kings had their preferred traditions and routes for such progresses - Christmas at Winchester, Easter at Oxford or whatever, and, given that feudal underlings could never be entirely trusted if left alone for too long, we can expect that most kings would have made the odd progress into the remoter reaches of their kingdom from time to time. Further, a feudal figure such as John of Gaunt had the wealth and prestige to have both a regular presence at court in London (as a member of the royal family) and to maintain a significant provincial court as well. It is most unlikely that as highly cultured a court as his was likely to have been would have been content to while away months in the remote provinces without entertainment of the quality to which they were accustomed.
Life, Death and Beheading
In the most popular version of the story, both of the two beheading episodes (that of the Green Knight by Gawain and the mock beheading of Gawain by the Green Knight) take place around the winter solstice but a year apart. This beheading motif has been rightly traced back to sources such as the 8th century ce Irish story Bricriu's Feast; and has generally been interpreted as representing the annual fight between the old Sun God and younger one which took place at the winter solstice in which the old God (Curoi) was necessarily slain by the younger one (Cuchulain).
It has also been suggested, however, that the beheading is a survival in folk memory of the ritual combat of the Holly King (in this case the Green Knight) and the Oak King (Gawain). Significantly the Welsh version of Gawain's name, Gwalchmai, means Hawk of May which does seem to tie Gawain very closely to the young Lord of the Greenwood, particularly as various mediaeval romances make it very obvious that Gawain was considered to be the foremost lover of women from amongst the knights of Arthur's court. His "courtesie" in dealing with women who have at least one foot in the Otherworld is the crucial point of more than one of the surviving stories (most notably his marriage to Dame Ragnell in the 15th century poem The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell). On this basis, the poet's allowing of a full year between the two beheading episodes would arise from his misunderstanding of a half-forgotten pagan original in which the beheading of the Green Knight by Gawain would (correctly) take place at Yule, while the return match must, in order to have any meaning, take place at the summer solstice when the Oak King (Gawain) must hand over power to the Holly King (The Green Knight).
Although the fact of the Green Knight's colour has most commonly been taken to connect him with the Green Man and therefore with the burgeoning of life, it must also be said that in a number of cultures greenness is a colour reminiscent of death - if for no other reason that human corpses do tend to go that colour after a while. In Egyptian art, for example, Osiris was depicted as having greenish flesh which connects him both to the resurrection of plant-life and to the underworld where he is depicted as the lord of death and the ruler of the underworld. Further, Heinrich Zimmer in his book The King and the Corpse points out that in Indian art, supernatural, divine or semi-divine beings connected to death and the realms of the dead are usually depicted with green flesh. But of course this merely serves to remind us of a great spiritual truth - that life and death, dissolution and coming into being are simply parts of a single and great whole - that death is life, and that dissolution from this mode of being is, in itself, a coalescing into another form of existence.
However, the death connection returns us to the poem as we have it, with the action taking place during the intercalary days of the twelve days of Yule. For, as Carlo Ginzburg has so exhaustively catalogued, in folklore and traditional belief virtually the length and breadth of Europe, during the twelve days of Yule the forces of death and chaos were unleashed upon the earth and its inhabitants. Most familar to us, perhaps, is the belief that the Wild Hunt rides out at this time, collecting in the souls either of those who will die during the coming year or of those who have died during the past one but don't know it yet. These were also the days when werewolves and other werebeasts shapeshifted.
And it is precisely during these days of uncanniness that we find the shapeshifting figure of the Green Knight, shimmering, as it were, between one world to another. We see him in the tamed realm of everyday reality which yet is not what it seems when, as the force of both,life and death which intrudes into the human world of pleasure and indolence, he invades Arthur's court and brings the promise of death into that world. We see him as the perfect and genial host who yet is not what he seems, apparently welcoming Gawain with all courtesy while yet setting for his guest a series of fiendishly difficult tests in which Gawain cannot succeed. And we see him again as the Green Knight, once more seemingly the bringer of death, setting before Gawain a death which once again is not what it seems, for the tests are over and the outcome decided even as Gawain believes that his real test is about to begin.
The Otherworld Journey
Celtic myth and story are so full of instances of the otherworld journey that it is not difficult to recognise the symptoms in this poem. Although it is usual to quote from Irish examples (such as the stories of Oisin and Connla) or the Mabinogion (most notably the sojourn of Pwyll in Annwn or the imprisonment of Pryderi and Rhiannon by Llwyd in his enchanted castle) in such instances, I am driven to look to the more esoteric folk tales of Armorica (Brittany) for an equally valid but less well-known comparison. Apart from anything else, with matters Arthurian we are indulging in the Brythonic Matter of Britain and it is in the Breton folktales that we find strongest echoes of archaic Celtic themes and values which have often been removed (or at best heavily disguided) from the more Christianised Welsh material.
In The Crystal Castle the hero Yvon sets off to find his sister, Yvonne, who has mysteriously married "such a handsome and shining young man that she believed she was seeing the Sun in person" and has gone to live with him in his castle at the ends of the earth. After the failure of his older brothers to reach the castle, Yvon sets off. His journey includes a terrifying encounter with the Dark Hag Goddess in the forest, during which his great courtesy to an apparently ordinary but ugly old woman opens doors which would otherwise have remained closed and following which she orders her initially hostile and rather destructive son to assist Yvon. He sets Yvon down by a road which will take him all the way to the castle if he rides along it, but tells him that if he steps or rides off it he will fail in his quest. Intimidated, but not deterred, by the obstacles he finds on the road, from a mass of hissing and writhing snakes to a lake and dense thorns, Yvon stays on the road and eventually reaches the castle where he finds his sister and her husband. The castle proves to be a silent and still place outside of time, populated by servants who are neither seen nor heard, and in which the inhabitants feel no hunger or thirst. We are clearly in the Otherworld.
The following day the unnamed husband agrees to take Yvon with him on his business but warns his guest that whatever he sees or hears he must neither speak to anyone but his guide and must not intervene in anything he sees. Inevitably Yvon disobeys this injunction and intervenes in a fight between two trees who had been a bickering couple during their mortal life, but by his concern and compassion releases them from their fate. Yvon returns alone to the castle and the day after is banished back home "for a short while; and you'll come back here soon and then it'll be for always". On his return home, Yvon finds his parents' house gone and learns from local people that his family died out centuries earlier; he finds his parents' ancient gravestones in the churchyard as proof and immediately falls dead "going, no doubt, to rejoin his sister" as the storyteller commented.
On close reading it becomes clear that the the Otherworld is here regarded as the realm of the dead, a place of timelessness and detachment. Indeed, the image of the Crystal Castle is highly reminscent of the Spiral Castle of Welsh myth. We may recognise the idea (also to be found in Thomas Rhymer in the Queen of Elphame's instruction to Thomas not to speak during this stay in the land of Faery) that the human visitor to the Otherworld must not do or say anything to alter that world's reality, and that if he does so he will surely bind himself irretrievably to it. By interfering in the trees' battle, Yvon does just that.
We can also recognise the universal motif of the difference of the timescale between the ordinary human and other worlds in the 300 hundred years which elapse in an apparently short time, and the fact the destructive son of the old woman (ie the Dark Goddess) whom Yvon encountered in the forest is the dark and destructive aspect of the young man of solar beauty who married Yvon's sister and is therefore Yvon's brother-in-law.
Like Sir Gawain, Yvon sets off on an initiatory journey which takes him into the Otherworld. And like Sir Gawain, he faces two very different tests, one of which is a subtle test of his courtesy which has far greater importance than he realises. Yvon's persistence in the face of temptation (to turn back) and danger win him through the obvious series of tests which bring him to the castle.
For the Green Knight, there was no question but that Gawain would turn up for the encounter at the Green Chapel. The test therefore was comprised in Gawain's encounters with the Lady and how well he could acquit himself. For Yvon, however, it was never inevitable that he should reach the castle, for his brother-in-law tells him that "not anyone can come this far." Having passed what we might consider the tests of the Lesser Mysteries, and not been distracted by the illusions encountered on the journey, Yvon fails at the test leading to the Greater Mysteries by his disobedience which in turn is caused by human compassion. The human realities have intruded on those of the Otherworld and Yvon has committed himself to that Otherworld in a quickly-following death instead of being able to carry back the knowledge of the Greater Mysteries into the human world. Likewise, Gawain has also failed, albeit only slightly, at this initiatory test leading to the Greater Mysteries and returns to the human world with the knowledge of his failure.
And finally we are left with the enigma of the Green Knight, for whatever explanation appears to be given at the end of the poem to explain why the challenge was laid in the first place, it is obvious that so petty and personal a grudge as that desribed could not have triggered so extraordinary a voyage into the realms of death and back. Perhaps the power of this poem lies in the very ambiguity which surrounds to many of its characters, so much of its action.
For pagans, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of our most important initiatory and transformational stories, and one of the richest in terms of both imagery and symbolism. It is therefore particularly rewarding for use in extended "pathworking" or vision quest work, though the whole work is both long and involved. It may as a result be best tackled initially by breaking the story down into stages, with the whole being created gradually as the material becomes more familiar. Apart from anything else, if you try to tackle this much rich material head on you will probably find that you drown in the imagery or the detail (not to mention the magic inherent in the story).
Suitable stages would be: (i) the episode at Arthur's court; (ii) the winter journey until Gawain enters Sir Bertilak's castle; (iii) the hunts and the temptations; and (iv) the episode at the Green Chapel.
Read it Yourself
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo - J R R Tolkein (user-friendly verse translation retaining the atmosphere and spirit of the original) Publisher - Unwin
- Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - (original text but heavily annotated) Publisher - Everyman
- Celtic Folk Tales from Armorica - F M Luzel (a collection of 12 fascinating and profoundly esoteric stories taken from an important collection of the 1860s and 1870s. See particularly Princess Marcassa and The Princess of the Shining Star. Many of this collection repay serious study and their use in pathworking). Publisher - Llanerch.
- The King and the Corpse - Heinrich Zimmer (classic in-depth analysis of Arthurian and Indian myth, devoting much of its energy to a discussion of Gawain's encounters with the Otherworld - particularly the Goddess) Publisher - Princeton University Press
- Ecstasies - Deciphering the Witches Sabbath (sic) - Carlo Ginzburg. (Tremendous study of the archaic roots of the traditional sabat, covering shapeshifting and guizing, ecstatic cults and spirit battles and the survival of ancient Eurasian shamanism into early modern Europe, as well as a fascinating investigation of medieval Christian paranoia which sounds strangely familiar) Publisher - Penguin.