Archive for the ‘courtly love’ Tag

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

[Updated 2 Jan 2019]

[Related Post: Arthur]

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

An excursus on tradition, culture and purpose follows. If you’re not interested and you just want to pick up the story of Gawain and his deadly appointment where the last post left off, scroll down to the first break below marked by the triple awen /|\.

You’re still here? Part of my intent in this series of posts about Arthur and Gawain is to begin examining a native source of wisdom that’s not wholly Celtic in origin. The story of Taliesin from the Welsh tradition has been fruitfully mined by many modern Druid orders. But we can also seek more widely and find fertile sources of insight, wisdom and technique within other English language traditions, demonstrating how much of our lore, Arthurian and other, truly is a marvelous mix of multi-cultural magic. And this holds true with many cultural and linguistic traditions — what we need are explorers to locate and bring these half-forgotten treasures back to wider awareness. The sense of restlessness, rootlessness and apathy that beleaguers many people today has both real causes and real solutions.

In other words, as vital and growing traditions like Wicca and Druidry already have demonstrated, we don’t need to focus our spiritual journey only on Shamballa, or join an ashram in India, or sit under a Bo tree in meditation in a quest for wisdom and enlightenment beyond the physical and financial means of most people outside those traditions. These are all fine and worthy resources — but closer ones have also always stood lurking shadow-like on the edge of our vision.

Of course, it’s not a case of either-or, but both-and. The cultural garb that wisdom occupies, and the training any one culture gives in moving within that specific garb, properly belong to that culture. Wearing that cultural garb, to continue the metaphor, when I’m not entitled to it by participation in that culture, is indeed a kind of impostership. That’s cultural (mis)appropriation.

tlingit-totem

Tlingit totem and community house

But the wisdom which the cultural garb clothes is the common inheritance of all of humanity. I can’t rightly erect a Tlingit totem in my living room or front yard, to cite a single example, and claim to be a Tlingit shaman empowered to pass on Tlingit cultural forms to cash-flush weekenders looking for a quick psychological pick-me-up in a workshop — or even a serious course of study. But shamanism itself is a worldwide phenomenon with common features across cultures, and it can be learned without raiding anyone’s cultural heritage.

And so stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offer immediate hints of ways that Druidic and Christian themes, images, precepts and practices may be fruitfully explored and adapted to modern life without injury to or theft from either tradition. Even questions like “But can you be both Christian and Druid?” are found to dissolve in actual practice, when each way illuminates the other. It’s typically those on the outside of a practice who ask that question, after all. We’d rather justify our opinions to others than genuinely test their validity for ourselves.

It betrays an unseemly and groundless fear of a universe permeated with the divine, if we shy from investigating any of its corners and crannies. Certainly such fears have no place in modern Paganism, nor should they find any home in Christianity either. For the latter tradition, to put the matter in explicit Christian and Biblical language, such fears betray a painful lack of faith in an all-powerful God who declared his original creation “good,” whose Son incarnates out of love of that creation in order to redeem all things, and whose divine will is sovereign.

toxfaithThe fact that whole traditions like Christianity have become toxic for many people is actually a most helpful guide when we come to look at Celtic Christianity, and particularly at movements like the Gnostic Celtic Church, which gently points out that the practice of sacramental nature spirituality “can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion” (article at GCC link above) and serve all life, not just an in-group.

Beyond such immediate hints, then, deeper study, practice and contemplation of stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reveal a wealth of images, lessons, techniques and perspectives useful not just to “those on a spiritual path” but to anyone alive today.

All right — back to our regularly scheduled program.

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Over the next three days at Bertilak’s Castle, Dec. 29th, 30th and 31st, Gawain faces a perfect triad of temptation, reward and opportunity. It’s just hard for him (and us) to tell which is which. On each of the three days Bertilak returns from the hunt, he has different game to offer his guest, and though his wife plays the same game of flirtation with Gawain while her lord is away, she skilfully ratchets up the sexual tension each time. She speaks:

And right here you lie. And we are left all alone,
with my husband and his huntsman away in the hills
and the servants snoring and my maids asleep
and the door to this bedroom barred with a bolt.

She should know — she’s the one who barred it behind her!

I have in my house an honored guest
so I’ll take my time; I’ll be talking to him for a while.
You’re free to have my all,
do with me what you will.
I’ll come just as you call
and swear to serve your will.

(Armitage translation, pg. 103)

The Middle English of those last four lines is even more explicit: ” Ye ar(e) welcum to my cors (body)”!

The delicate challenge of the situation, as the original audience to this poem knew well, is one founded in the Medieval traditions of Courtly Love: if Gawain is to uphold his reputation and preserve both his own honor and the Lady’s, he must do what she asks, while at the same time not giving in to the temptation she clearly offers him.

Toward the end, before they negotiate things to just a kiss, she even scolds him: you can’t be the famous Gawain, she exclaims, or you would have acted long before now and taken what I offered.

Well, then, he replies, “I schal kysse at your comaundement … so pleade it no more.” Thus he succeeds this first time in walking a very fine line. His good name and the Lady’s still secure, he bounds up from bed, dresses and dashes off to Mass.

Immediately the scene shifts to the hunt, with explicit details over some 40 lines of the gutting, butchering and feeding of the innards to the dogs, with the dressed carcass at length hauled back to the Castle. The first day the hunters bring back deer — a haul of venison the biggest Gawain’s “seen in seven years.” And in exchange he gives Bertilak a kiss — all he’s had from the Lady. They renew their pact.

Day Two moves things along, with the hunt in pursuit of a boar this time, and the same graphic description of flaying the carcass and butchering it. “Back at the Castle” in Gawain’s chamber, the lovely Lady makes it clear to Gawain that he should take from her what he wants and what she’s already offered, and if he’s rebuffed, why then he’s certainly got the youthful strength to take by force.

But that’s not the custom in my land, replies Gawain, nor the practice for “each gift that is geven not with good wylle.” The Lady chides him again: For somebody so famous, lord, can it be you’re truly ignorant of love, or don’t know how to take full advantage of a lady who’s shown she’s interested?

But at last they bargain things down to two kisses this time, and so once again Gawain barely escapes with reputation and honor intact.

That evening, on Bertilak’s return, Gawain delivers the two kisses according to their pact, which they again renew. He resists all teasing inquiries about the how’s and who’s of the kisses.

The Lady, meanwhile, is still so intent on Gawain, “so loving … with stolen glances and secret smiles,/ that it muddled his mind and sent him half mad …” (Armitage, pg. 131). Somehow he keeps his composure — it’s a near thing — and does not turn from her rudely for his own self-preservation, but courteously engages her all evening.

Edmund Leighton's God Speed!

Edmund Leighton’s God Speed!

Bertilak for his part delights in his guest’s honor — so far. Gawain begs to leave early the next morning to be sure of arriving on time, but Bertilak will hear none of it. He declares to his guest: You’ll reach the Chapel well before dawn in the light of the first day of the New Year, so don’t concern yourself with that. “For I have fraysted [tested] you twice, and faythful I fynd thee. Now ‘third time throw best,’ think in the morn./ Make we merry while we may!” and they drink and at length agree to fulfill their original pact through the third day. If you’re thinking at this point that Bertilak has a pretty good idea what goes on at home while he’s out on his winter hunts — well, you’re not wrong!

It’s Day Three, the third hunt takes Bertilak and company off on the trail of a fox, and we know from prior experience with threes and with past stories that this third time will be the true test.

And so it is. The Lady certainly pulls out all the stops. The next morning she arrives at Gawain’s chamber scantily clothed, her shoulders and back both bare, the cut of her shimmering robe scarcely covering her breasts, clusters of tiny gems sparkling in the tresses of her hair. As before, she bars the door from inside, and in Gawain “a passionate heat takes hold in his heart” (Armitage, pg. 137). The Lady lowers herself onto him and kisses him, and when he doesn’t take things further, berates him for not loving her now that things have gone so far between them. “Telle me that now trwely,” she insists: there must be somebody else. Another lady, perhaps?

No! says Gawain. No one!

“That is a worde,” answers the Lady, “that worst is of alle.” You reject me for no other reason than myself. But surely then you have some gift, some token to give me, to ease the ache of memory when I recall you and our meeting?

Alas, Gawain replies, on this journey I brought nothing to such an unknown land that would serve. The best I could do would be one of my gloves.

Well, says the lovely Lady, “though I have naught of yours, yet shall you have of mine.”

First she offers a ring, which he refuses. And then a green silk girdle, which he treats likewise — until she reveals something of its worth:

“And now he sends back my silk,” the lady responded,
“so simple in itself, or so it appears,
so little and unlikely, worth nothing, or less.”

But if he only knew its value: “the body which keeps it

buckled robustly around him,
will be safe against those who seek to strike him
against any trickery in the world.

Gawain finally relents at that, hoping, we understand,  to up his chances at surviving the axe-blow tomorrow. Then tell my lord nothing, the Lady entreats him. Gawain consents to this as well, and

His thanks are heartfelt then.
No sooner can he say
how much it matters, when
three kisses come his way.
(Armitage, pgs. 144-5)

Bertilak returns, receives from Gawain the three kisses (and nothing else), and laments he has only a stinking fox-hide to offer in return. They feast and drink again, the lord celebrates Gawain’s perfect gift of three kisses, agrees to offer him a guide to the Chapel in the morning, and they part to their bed-chambers.

The Medieval poet closes this third of four “fitts” or sections of his poem like this:

If Gawain sleeps soundly or not, I can’t say.
For he had muche in the morn to mind, if he would, in thought.
Let him lie there stille,
he has near what he sought;
If you will a while be stylle,
I schall telle you how they wrought.

The fourth and final part is coming soon.

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Images: Tlingit totem; toxic religionLeighton’s God Speed!

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

[Updated 2 Jan 2019]

[Related Post: Arthur]

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

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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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