Sex, Death, Green Knights and Enchantresses — Part Four

[Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four]

Why now? Well, this fourth and final installment was promised “soon”, at the end of Part Three — on October 14, 2015.  “Soon” can apparently mean more than three years later. Are we on that much-abused term Pagan Tyme here?

Also, someone recently visited one of the posts, reminding me of the series. Thank you, anonymous reader.

A third reason? Perhaps the best: both the quest and the poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight end shortly after New Year’s Day.

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Sex, death, magic — none of these are alien to whatever spirit pervades things, God on high, or pervading Mystery; Goddess who wears all things as her forms in this world, or spirits, devas, demons; Platonic archetypes, or thought-forms who share and shape the cosmos with us.

How do I know? Because these things — sex, death and magic — haven’t been added to the mix. They’re part and parcel of it, part of its shaping, its innermost warp and woof, dynamic, its movement and melody. There’s no break in the continuity among the many ways life propagates here. Things vibrate to each other, so that more of them can join the show, even as the older ones yield the stage, so that the human and world family continues.

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“But wild-looking weather was about in the world”, as Simon Armitage* translates the poem, rousing his hero Sir Gawain on a wet and windy New Year’s Day (like yesterday was, here in New England!), the day of his deadly appointment with the fearsome Green Knight. Enough of feasting and dalliance! We get some 40 lines of the dressing of both knight and his trusty steed Gringolet — anything to delay the inevitable — until finally nothing remains for it but to depart.

Let’s pause for a moment, and recall the twists and turns the tale has taken:

The Green Knight came to Camelot a year ago at Christmas, a fabulous two-week affair of feasts and revelry. The enormous stranger crashes the party. He bursts in on the court uninvited, unannounced, and taunts the assembly. He and his horse, too, people keep noticing, are green. Entirely green. Uncannily green. Magic’s clearly afoot.

The Green Knight has offered a great ax, and the first blow, to whoever has the guts to take him up on his challenge. No one answers. “What, is this Arthures hous?” scoffs the Knight. A pathetic showing from such legendary fighters!


From the British Library manuscript, showing the beheaded Green Knight. (MS Cotton Nero A X, art. 3, fol. 90v.)

The King himself, his blood up at the interruption, the rudeness and the mockery of the man, is ready to answer and seizes the ax. But the king’s nephew Gawain rises and claims the challenge for himself: “This melee must be mine”.

“I schall stand hym a stroke”, says the Green Knight, as long as Gawain agrees to one in return — in a year and day. Repeat the terms, just so we’re entirely clear. And Gawain does.

Hit the green bloke hard enough now, his uncle the King advises Gawain, and you needn’t worry about any future payback. And Gawain heaves the ax and strikes the Green Knight a fearsome blow that does in fact behead him.

But decapitation is small inconvenience when you’re magical. Picking up his own head, the Knight calmly reminds Gawain he’s now bound to take a return blow, a year and a day hence.

“Thou shalt seek me thyself, wherever thou hopest I may be found” says the green head the Knight holds in one hand.

But “What is thy place?” asks Gawain in considerable dismay. “I know not thee, knight, thy court nor thy name”.

The Knight turns the head toward Gawain. “To the Green Chapel … I charge thee” to receive “such a dint as thou dealt”. Many men know me, “the knyght of the Grene Chapel”.

A year and a day. “So come, or be called a coward forever”, as Armitage renders it. At that, the Knight swings up into the saddle and rides off.

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For a long while, procrastination serves Gawain quite well. In fact, he delays his departure and delays it again, until finally bad weather has returned the following December. Set yourself a year and a day to accomplish a task, and you too may feel, as I have, that it’s too much time. Too much, too little. Find a balance. Isn’t that what magic’s about?

Gawain sets off at last, and after many travails arrives at a court that he’s told lies very near the Green Chapel. No need to seek further. So he can spend the final few days at his ease.

Once again, the holiday entertainments at court are lavish. Each day the lord of the region goes out hunting, while Gawain remains in the castle, increasingly tempted by the lord’s lovely, charming wife. Her boldness and obvious wish to sample the love of a knight from the famous court of Camelot become harder and harder to resist with each passing day. Nothing like sex-and-death to blend and kindle our heightened awareness of each. Not quite a liebestod, a “love-death”, an operatic aria or duet preceding the suicide of lovers. Or maybe agreeing to such an insane challenge as an exchange of blows with edged weapons is indeed a form of suicide, when your opponent is magical.

“Strangely enough, it all turns out well”, says Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love.

“How?!” demands Shakespeare, as do other characters in their turn.

“I don’t know”, Henslowe admits. “It’s a mystery”.

Mystery or not, on the third and last day of these temptations, the lady convinces Gawain to wear her girdle at his fateful appointment. “No hero under heaven might hew him” who wears it, she urges him, and so at last he relents. Succumbs to fear. Cheats. “What should we call it but what it is?” But what is it, really? Has Gawain forfeited his honour? Squandered his good name as a knight of Arthur’s court for merely personal safety?

The poem itself offers a number of delicious clues to an answer different from any expected yes or no, and as it does so, to use film-making terms, it pans neither right nor left, but draws back and offers a wide-angle shot.

First is the fact that Gawain does yield to the Lady. He’s no “perfect knight”, whatever that means — not some bloodless ideal, but rather a mortal man.

Next is the triple blow the Green Knight offers him. As with a year and a day, we’re in magical territory with this set of threes. At the first blow, Gawain flinches, and the Knight chides him for it. At the second blow, a test of his resolve, Gawain holds firm. He readies himself for the third, which the Knight delivers, but this time merely to nick his neck, just enough to make it bleed a little.

The challenge, by its own strict terms, has been fulfilled. Gawain stood a blow in return for the one he gave the Knight a year and a day before.

But hold a moment. Gawain has also fulfilled the terms of the second contract, between himself and Bertilak, returning kisses — all he received — in exchange for the wild game the lord brings home each day. Except for this morning, when the Lady gave him the girdle, but Gawain offered no exchange to Bertilak for that.

Third is the Green Knight’s behavior here, at Gawain’s resorting to the trick of the girdle. The Knight reveals himself, and calls Gawain on his failure — but gently!

At the third time thou failed …
And therefor that tappe [of the ax] touched thee.
For it is my wede [garment] thou wearest, that same woven girdle —
My own wife weaved it for thee, I wot [know] well …
I know well thy kisses and thy conduct also,
And the wooing of my wife — I wrought it myself.
I sent her to assay thee …
Thou art the most faultless fellow that ever went on foot …
A little thing you lacked, loyalty …
Not for wooing, or any other wild work,
But that you loved your life, so I blame you less.

Fourth is Gawain’s own overblown sense of shame at being found out: “I am fawlty and falce, and have been ever”, he exclaims. Has he even heard the proportion and balance in the Knight’s estimation of him? As the ground shifts with the Knight’s revelations, both we and Gawain learn that the lady, the Knight and the whole of Bertilak’s castle are all players in a larger play — which Gawain wants nothing to do with, now that he’s been found wanting, even a little.

For Bertilak/the Green Knight reveals still more. Keep the girdle, he urges. Behind all this show is Morgan Le Fay, your uncle king Arthur’s half-sister — and thus your aunt — she who learned magic from Merlin. Come back to the Castle and finish out the New Year’s feast with us. You’ll be most welcome, all trickery now done with.

But Gawain declines. I’ll wear this girdle, yes, and thank you. But as a token of my weakness and sin. And then follows a traditional Christian catalog of men tricked by women, from Adam and Eve on down.

However, the poem’s not yet done. Gawain returns to Camelot and confesses everything to the assembled court, resolving to wear the girdle openly as a penance for the rest of his life. The court holds deep affection for him. Arthur comforts him, and everyone laughs — laughs! Then the knights of Camelot all agree that each of them will also wear a green belt as well, slanting across the chest — for Gawain’s sake! For that was acorded the renoun of the Rounde Table. And so the girdle becomes the sign and symbol of the Order of the Garter, founded in 1350. What good is your shame, if others transform it to honor?

And last is the subsequently-added French tag that closes the poem, the motto of the Order of the Garter, and an admonition to the reader: honi soit qui mal y pense — “shame to anyone who thinks it bad”, we might say. What goes around comes around, say others, centuries later than the Medieval poet.

Perhaps you hear it differently, but in these multiple ending moments I hear Pagan laughter. Tolerant, forgiving, intimately familiar with human weakness and pride, capable of the long view, able to shape good from misfortune, and delighting in the often ironic reversals that achieve these things.

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

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