Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part One   2 comments

cropped-yakushima_forest_1024x7683With this post, A Druid Way marks its 4th anniversary — I started this blog on October 7, 2011.

I’m also committing to at least a weekly post each Wednesday. A hearty thank-you to you, readers of A Druid Way, for your encouragement and support over the past months and years!

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[Related Post: Arthur]

[Sex, Death, Etc.: Part One | Part Two| Part Three]

This post and the next one pick up the theme of Arthurian myth and legend from the previous one. The “Matter of Britain” as it’s often called is an inexhaustible well of inspiration, of course. This time, however, I want to transition from King Arthur to his nephew Gawain and the Green Knight (and the Middle English poem by the same name), to the mysterious Lady that Gawain also encounters in between his meetings with her husband Bertilak, and more largely to the peculiar and delicious Medieval blend of Paganism and Christianity that surfaces in their story.

So what do we do until Arthur returns —
just cower and flinch in our fears and concerns?

Well, no.  Or at least, not necessarily. In the Arthurian peace and flowering of Britain which underlies much of the initial formation of the legend, the focus shifts from Arthur to his court, and more particularly to his knights and ladies, who leave Camelot to set off on their own adventures. A pattern to consider: first, achievement; but then, further exploration and spiritual challenge. Or the opposite — after a few iterations, it amounts to the same thing.

Round Table and vision of the Grail, from an illustrated manuscript, ca 1470, by Evrard d'Espinques.

Round Table and vision of the Grail, from an illustrated manuscript, ca 1470, by Evrard d’Espinques.

After all, once Arthur wins through to his throne, marries, and begins to assemble his court, he himself can seem less interesting (at least until time whirls round again to the Battle of Camlann, his final and fatal engagement with his bastard son Mordred). So singers and storytellers started to look for adventure elsewhere, with knights inspired by Arthur’s example and by the fellowship of the Round Table. King and Queen on the throne, or knight on a noble/ hopeless/ mysterious/ romantic quest — it’s easy to see where the greatest dramatic potential lies.

The Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight sets forth one version of the story in 600-year-old English. The language is intermittently still quite comprehensible to us moderns, if you make some allowances for spelling (I’ve done very minimal editing):

Astrid Briges Frisbee as an archetypical young Guinevere in King arthur 2014

Astrid Berges Frisbey as an archetypical young Guinevere in the upcoming (2016) film Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur.

“This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse” and “was cummen with knyghtes into the halle.” And there Guinevere rules beside him as queen, a Guinevere as yet untouched by the scandal of any affair with Lancelot, “full gay, graythed [arrayed] in the midst” of the noble gathering. And a more lovely lady, “sooth [truly] might no man say.” Here then are the archetypes, before they decline into stereotypes. Here are the originals, magical king and beautiful queen. Part of their appeal is to our own psyches, to the beauty and power we instinctively know both genders possess — or could possess, if only …

The story setting is the three-part holiday of Christmas — New Year’s — Epiphany, the ancient tradition — and ultimate source of the song — of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Midwinter, birth of the Son, rebirth of the sun, the new year at hand. The Court’s right in the middle of its fortnight of feasting. Shortly, it’s New Year’s Day. And as such gatherings and festivals and holidays so often do, this revel has already begun to spin off its own local customs. After all, when does your family open presents on a gift-giving holiday? And what rituals have you perhaps built around it? Or if not you, a relative or friend?

Not surprisingly, in Camelot it’s Arthur himself who starts it, ritualizing the festivities. “The kyng wold not ete til al were served.” It’s a gesture wholly in keeping with the holiday season of generosity and joy. And the king extends the ceremonial atmosphere still further, also refusing to eat before he hears a story: “he wold never ete upon such a dere [dear, special] day ere him devysed were of sum adventurus thyng an uncouthe tale …” Or until someone challenges one of his knights “to joyne with him in joustyng, in jeopardy to lay … life for life …”

And things Medieval and magical being what they are, if you’re Arthur — if you recognize and live from the throne of your spiritual sovereignty — sometimes the “uncouthe tales,” marvelous stories previously unknown — come to you.

greenknight

The Green Knight, William O’Connor, 1996

Right in the midst, then, of all the noble knights and fair ladies, heaping platters and heavily laden tables, sprightly servants and bold banners, talk and revelry, the Green Knight suddenly barges in on horseback. For a moment he just sits his mount, framed by the main door, towering over everyone. The perfect Medieval photo op.

Huge and red-eyed and green is he indeed: “for wonder of his hue men had.” Likewise “his strayt cote” and “his hood bothe” and on his legs “hose of that same grene.” A marvel! The hair on his head, “the barres of his belt and other blythe stones,” even the steed he rides, “a grene hors grete and thikke” — everything’s green! In one hand he holds a branch of holly; in the other, an enormous axe.

Then he spurs into the great hall. “Where’s the governor of this gang?” he demands, haughtily. “To knightes he cast his eye.” For an instant — no surprise — silence greets him. “Each mon had marvel what it might mean” that man and horse both shone “grene as the grass, and grener it seemed.”

Green Man, Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg, Germany, ca 1300s

Green Man, Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg, Germany, ca 1300s

Green can be  unseely — Northern dialect for “unlucky, unholy.” Corpses and cheeses rot to green, metals like bronze corrode, swamps give off their ghostly phosphorence, moss and weed, creeping vines and algae, all overtake things each in their green fashion. Even the Devil himself gets rendered in green in more than one Medieval painting.

With modern commerce and ecology, green is almost wholly a good thing — not so in Medieval times. It represented a mixed bag of lust and youth (we can still be green with envy, too; and an untried youth is still sometimes called a “greenhorn”), nature and fertility, and early versions of the Green Man beloved of Pagans. Another post on this blog, about Beltane, also treats of greenness in some detail.

[Most clearly, perhaps, we see and hear and feel this enchanting but deeply ambiguous green in Dylan Thomas‘s wonderfully Bardic poem “Fern Hill” : “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green” and later “I was green and carefree” and later still “And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman” and “it was air/And playing, lovely and watery/And fire green as grass” and then nearly done “And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows/In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs/Before the children green and golden/Follow him out of grace” and last of all “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,/Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” A poem that doesn’t merely describe but evokes … Follow the link to the poem and read it aloud.]

To return to the Medieval poem: Arthur answers the arrogant Knight with courtesy — the Medieval cortaysye — bidding him join the feast and tell his errand later. It’s an age-old gesture of hospitality, one that dates back to Homer, the traditional and trusting host’s welcome to a stranger. Eat and drink first, and only then speak your will, or recount your story.

Still haughty, the Green Knight declares his nature means he has no intention of lingering. I come, he declares, because of the fame of Arthur’s realm: castle and court are called “the worthyest of the worldes kynde.” The axe I carry, he announces, is no threat. Look to the holly sprig. Be sure “bi the braunch I bere here that I pas in peace.” If I wished for war, I’ld have come fully armed. “But if thou be bold as all folk tellen, thou wil grant me goodly the game that I ask bi ryght.” A Christmas challenge: “I crave in this court a Crystemas gomen.”

Besides, if he were spoiling for a bout, he’d win easily, he boasts. All he sees on the benches around the hall are “berdless children.” But if anyone’s got the guts, “leap lightly to me and latch this weapon. I schall give him of my gifte this axe, to hondele as he likes. I quit-clayme it for ever — keep it as his own. And I shall stond him a stroke” and promise “the doom to deal him an other … and yet give him a respite, a twelve-month and a day.” And again we’re into magical territory, the “year and a day” of testing and challenge, mystery — and mastery — and cyclic completion.

The Knight taunts the company further, and when no one rises to accept the challenge, Arthur himself reaches for the axe. But his nephew Gawain intercedes and claims the right, pointing out that with warriors in the Court to uphold its honor and reputation, the king needn’t lower himself to accept such a challenge. Gawain reasons further with him: besides, as your nephew, if I die, the loss is less.

To make short work of the next few stanzas, Gawain readies the axe, the knight stands with neck bared to receive the keen edge, and Gawain gives him a fierce blow that lops off that green head.  Through fat and flesh, the blade bites the floor. Blood spatters those nearest, and they kick at the head as it rolls past the benches.

sggk-armThe Knight, however, strides forward undaunted, retrieves his head, and turns back to his horse. “The brydel he cachches, steps into stirrup and strydes aloft, and his hede by the here in his hondes holdes.” And he speaks one last time: “On New Year’s morn, Gawain, come to the Green Chapel, I charge thee, to receive such a dint as thou hast dealt and now deserve …” And then, as British poet Simon Armitage* renders it in his fluent and lively translation, “So come, or be called a coward forever” (pg. 51)!

Knight, horse and now chapel — green and Christian mixed. The whole game’s unseely! The Knight departs, more food, drink and dancing displace everyone’s fears — except Gawain’s.

Thus the original anonymous Middle English poet closes this first of his four sections (here again is Armitage’s translation*): “But mind your mood, Gawain, keep blacker thoughts at bay, or lose this lethal game you’ve promised you will play” (pg. 53).

More to come in Part Two.

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Images:  manuscript illustration of the Round Table by Evrard d’Espinques; Astrid Berges Frisbey as GuinevereGreen Knight by William O’Connor; Green Man at Wikipedia; cover of Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

*Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007. (There are other good translations — notably one by J. R. R. Tolkien. But I like this one, partly because my high school seniors liked it when we read it in our British Lit. class, and also because it provides the Middle English text on the facing page, for linguistic nerds like me who enjoy fine language for its own sake. You can find it used and in paperback. Or get thee hence to thy local library.)

Updated 11 October 2015.

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2 responses to “Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part One

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  1. As a novice (dedicant) Druid I so look forward to your posts! They always seem “timely” to what I am studying, or what is needed as a reminder in my day to day life. Thank you so much!

    • Thanks, DebiLynn! Despite appearances, we all walk a great deal of common ground together, and comments like yours encourage me to keep writing. From your mention of being a Druid dedicant, it sounds like you’re affiliated with ADF. May there be light on your path!

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