Archive for the ‘Dylan Thomas’ Tag

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

[Updated 2 January 2019]

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 | Part Four]

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?

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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The Fires of May, Green Dragons, and Talking Peas   2 comments

Ah, Fifth Month, you’ve arrived.  In addition to providing striking images like this one, the May holiday of Beltane on or around May 1st is one of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic world and of revival Paganism. Along with Imbolc, Lunasa and Samhain, Beltane endures in many guises. The Beltane Fire Society of Edinburgh, Scotland has made its annual celebration a significant cultural event, with hundreds of participants and upwards of 10,000 spectators. Many communities celebrate May Day and its traditions like the Maypole and dancing (Morris Dancing in the U.K.). More generally, cultures worldwide have put the burgeoning of life in May  — November if you live Down Under — into ritual form.

I’m partial to the month for several reasons, not least because my mother, brother and I were all born in May.  It stands far enough away from other months with major holidays observed in North America to keep its own identity.  No Thanksgiving-Christmas slalom to blunt the onset of winter with cheer and feasting and family gatherings.  May greens and blossoms and flourishes happily on its own.  It embraces college graduations and weddings (though it can’t compete with June for the latter).  It’s finally safe here in VT to plant a garden in another week or two, with the last frosts retreating until September.  At the school where I teach, students manage to keep Beltaine events alive even if they pass on other Revival or Pagan holidays.

The day’s associations with fertility appear in Arthurian lore with stories of Queen Guinevere’s riding out on May Day, or going a-Maying.  In Collier’s painting above, the landscape hasn’t yet burst into full green, but the figures nearest Guinevere wear green, particularly the monk-like one at her bridle, who leads her horse.  Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot eroticized everything around her — greened it in every sense of the word.  Tennyson in his Idylls of the King says:

For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might …

Of course, there are other far more subtle and insightful readings of the story, ones which have mythic power in illuminating perennial human challenges of relationship and energy. But what is it about green that runs so deep in European culture as an ambivalent color in its representation of force? 

Anya Seton’s novel Green Darkness captures in its  blend of Gothic secrecy, sexual obsession, reincarnation and the struggle toward psychic rebalancing the full spectrum of mixed-ness of green in both title and story. As well as the positive color of growth and life, it shows its alternate face in the greenness of envy, the eco-threat of “greenhouse effect,” the supernatural (and original) “green giant” in the famous medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the novel and subsequent 1973 film Soylent Green, and the ghostly, sometimes greenish, light of decay hovering over swamps and graveyards that has occasioned numerous world-wide ghost stories, legends and folk-explanations. 

(Wikipedia blandly scientificizes the phenomenon thus:  “The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine spontaneously ignites on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires.”)  And most recently, “bad” greenness showed up during this year’s Earth Day last month, which apparently provoked fears in some quarters of the day as evil and Pagan, and a determination to fight the “Green Dragon” of the environmental movement as un-Christian and insidious and horrible and generally wicked. Never mind that stewardship of the earth, the impetus behind Earth Day, is a specifically Biblical imperative (the Sierra Club publishes a good resource illustrating this).  Ah, May.  Ah, silliness and wisdom and human-ness.

We could let a Celt and a poet have (almost) the last word. Dylan Thomas catches the ambivalence in his poem whose title is also the first line:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind

Hauls my shroud sail …

Yes, May is death and life both, as all seasons are.  But something in the irrepressible-ness of May makes it particularly a “hinge month” in our year.  The “green fuse” in us burns because it must in order for us to live at all, but our burning is our dying.  OK, Dylan, we get it.  Circle of life and all that.  What the fearful seem to react to in May and Earth Day and things Pagan-seeming is the recognition that not everything is sweetness and light.  The natural world, in spite of efforts of Disney and Company to the contrary, devours as well as births.  Nature isn’t so much “red in tooth and claw” as it is green. 

Yes, things bleed when we feed (or if you’re vegetarian, they’ll spill chlorophyll.  Did you know peas apparently talk to each other?).  And this lovely, appalling planet we live on is part of the deal.  It’s what we do in the interim between the “green fuse” and the “dead end” that makes all the difference, the only difference there is to make.  So here’s Seamus Heaney, another Celt and poet,  who gives us one thing we can do about it:  struggle to make sense, regardless of whether or not any exists to start with.  In his poem “Digging,” he talks about writing, but it’s “about” our human striving in general that, for him, takes this particular form.  It’s a poem of memory and meaning-making.  We’re all digging as we go.

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

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Beltane Fire Society image; Maibaum; John Maler Collier’s Queen Guinevere’s Maying; Soylent Green; Green Darkness; peat.

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