Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part Two   Leave a comment

[Related Post: Arthur]

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

sggk-ms

First folio of the Sir Gawain manuscript*

In the previous post, in the tradition of cliff-hangers everywhere, we left Gawain in Camelot, no doubt in a daze. He’s just accepted and accomplished the first half of the challenge of the beheading game from the Green Knight.

The unseely green holiday visitor to the fabled court of Arthur has, in turn, taken Gawain’s best blow and withstood it. He both lost his head and retrieved it, apparently none the worse for wear. Clearly he’s magical, or divine (when did those two split, to our great loss?), though the poet makes no mention of this. No need, when the deed speaks for itself.

greenchapel

“Lud’s Church,” Staffordshire, UK — one possible candidate for the “Green Chapel”

And in a year and a day — an interval both long enough and one that will spin by all too quickly — Gawain must present himself at the Green Chapel, somewhere vaguely to the north of Camelot, to fulfill the second half of the challenge game. This time it’s his neck that goes under the axe. “Come, or be called coward forever!” The Green Knight’s words still ring in his memory.

And the devil of it all is that Gawain’s clearly asked for this. Nobody else he can blame. He rose from among the gathered court to seize both challenge and axe from the hands of his uncle the king. Clearly both men thought the challenge would end then and there, with the foolish visitor’s head bouncing across the floor. But you never know for sure when magic will intervene, nor how it will shape what comes next.

So the Medieval poet’s got the “death” part of the title already in play. We all know we’ll die, somehow, someday. As for sex, so far we can find plenty in the lively and erotic holiday atmosphere of the court, lords and ladies celebrating together in a two-week-long revel, food and drink in abundance. A Christian holiday, indeed, but not one that excludes the secular delights of feasting and dancing, flirtation and dalliance. For Gawain, there’s added pleasure in his seat of honor beside the lovely Guinevere, Queen and chivalric ideal.

But wait, as the poet might have said, there’s more and better to come.

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A brief magical interlude here. Alert to what we can learn from the “wisdome of olde bookes,” we can consider a portion of what this story may have to teach us. From one point of view, Arthur has set up magical intentions and chosen the moment. After all, the time is right for them, with all the swirl of energies around the winter solstice and new year.

The king, the male half of the royal spiritual self, will not eat until all are served, opening his heart with generosity and fellow-feeling. All parts of our own kingdoms benefit from this. And he likewise won’t eat till either a marvel manifests or — another kind of marvel — some challenge or “game” presents itself. It’s surprising what we may chance to discover and experience, when we choose to look with such preparation. And the Queen? She is a chess-piece in the larger game, but also the most powerful figure, once the pawns and knights move out of her way.

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A year and a day lasts long enough to permit some really magnificent bouts of denial and procrastination. As a period of magical testing, it can sort the committed from the undisciplined, the patient from the reckless.

At Michaelmas, late September, the poet tells us that the moon itself signals to Gawain that his appointment draws near. Yet a month later, on All Saints, the Christian Samhain, Gawain lingers still at the court, reluctant to depart. Finally, after more feasting, and loads of unsolicited advice from other knights at court, Gawain presents himself to Arthur and asks for permission to go: “Now, liege lord of my lyfe, leave I you ask.”

sggk-shield

Here in a modern conception, the Green Knight is clearly a giant. Note Gawain’s shield adorned with pentacle/pentagram.

And the poet moves on to describe Gawain’s apparel and weaponry in splendid detail, focusing for some 30 lines on a careful exposition of the meaning of the pentangle on Gawain’s shield, though he concedes it “must tarry him in his telling.”

This passage alone, in a poem plainly dating from the 1400s, should at least temper the silly hubbub that arises every year around Halloween from certain quarters about Satanists and their evil pentagrams or pentacles. But of course, it won’t.

Here, centuries before Anton LaVey with his Church of Satan was even a twinkle in his ancestors’ eyes, the pentagram is clearly a Christian symbol. Thus, among other things, the five points of this “pure pentaungel” signify here “the fyve woundes that Cryst caught on the cross, as the Creed telles.” As a holy symbol of power, it’s been around for much longer than Christianity, of course, and will be long after Christianity is a legend and other faiths overtake it. And it will continue to acquire and shed secondary associations that may help or hinder any seeker from recognizing the pentagram as nothing less, and nothing more, than a symbol of spiritual reality beyond human opinion and (mis)perception.

Off Gawain goes on his faithful steed Gringolet, through the land of Logres — a Welsh word for England, and famous over centuries in legend and stories both old and more recent, such as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia and Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone.

After some eight weeks of winter travel north — no modern M5 and M6 motorways for him to gallop along — Gawain arrives, weary and weather-stained, by chance as it seems on Christmas Eve, at a noble castle whose inhabitants welcome him warmly.

Three persons hold his particular regard — the castle’s lord Bertilak, an obvious focus, but also two noble women, one ancient, who notably sits at the table in the seat of highest honor, and the young and lovely lady of the lord — so fair in “her face, her flesh, her complexion, her quality, her bearing, her body, more glorious than Guinevere, or so Gawain thought” (Armitage translation, pg. 85).

After Mass they “feast and dance” for three days, and on the 27th of December, St. John’s Day, other guests depart, and Gawain, explaining his purpose to Bertilak in detail, announces he must also set out on the final leg of his journey to find the mysterious Green Chapel, and fulfill his pledge with the strange knight.

But there’s no need, exclaims the lord, laughing. “Ye schal be in your bed at thyne ease” till “the first of the yere.” As for the “grene chapayle … it is not two miles hence.”

Now let’s attend to the time till then, Bertilak continues. You promised to obey my will here, and you may linger in bed till morning Mass, then pass the day with my lovely wife, while I’m off hunting away from the castle. But let’s agree to a game of exchange. Whatever I win while I’m out, I’ll give you on my return, and just so, you must give me whatever you receive.

Agreed! says Gawain, always — we’re beginning to understand — up for a game or challenge, however much he may come to regret it later.

And so they each raise a glass together to drink on it to seal their pact.

Now at his ease after weary weeks of travel, Gawain has already taken much comfort in the lovely lady, enjoying her conversation, and sitting head to head sharing confidences. It’s innocent up to this point. Courtly love shows here at its best — no “foulness,” the poem emphasizes, attaches itself either to their words or manner. Reputations and honor have held them both to clear boundaries. But they do grow increasingly intimate and relaxed under the influence of youth, proximity, holiday revels, and the easy hand with which Bertilak holds his realm.

From the original manuscript: the Lady and Gawain

From the original manuscript: the Lady and Gawain

Bertilak leaves with the hunt early next morning, and Gawain, still abed, hears “a lyttel din at his door.” So he “heaves up his hed out of the clothes. A corner of the curtain he caught up a lyttel, and waits warily thitherward what it be might. It was the lady, loveliest to beholde, that drew the door after her dernly [secretly] and stille.” Less innocent now … and definitely more interesting!

The story will continue in Part Three.

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Images: the Sir Gawain manuscript, formally named MS Cotton Nero A X, located at the British Museum; Lud’s Church, Gradbach, Staffordshire, UK — one of the possible sites of the poem’s “Green Chapel”; Gawain, shield and Knight; The Lady and Gawain, from MS Cotton Nero A X

*For the curious, the first line of the mauscript in the top image above  reads: “Sithen [since] the s(i)ege and the assau(l)t was sesed [ceased] at Troye …” The anonymous poet opens by giving his poem a Classical backstory.

Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007.

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