The Green Man Who Came to Dinner: Nature as Antagonist in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”

©April 2014 Mary Crockford

In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” nature is portrayed in numerous guises—nature as the feral, undeniable force underpinning all life, inner nature in the form of human flesh and its instinctive drives, and nature as a divine expression of the benevolent but powerful Christian Creator God. In the anonymously penned medieval poem, nature’s hyperbolic “wild man” satisfies the Anglo-Saxon audience’s lingering attachment to the deities and lore of pagan and Celtic myth, while cleverly challenging the period’s courtly conventions and trappings. The Green Knight, while bearing the appearance of a man, as a towering green man is in fact both the person of nature and the monster of Celtic storytelling tradition. He is also the agent of Sir Gawain’s testing as the soldier of Camelot traverses the perilous path of the hero’s spiritual and psychological journey.
Gawain, a knight in King Arthur’s court, is not simply a figure trained and prepared for battle. He is a figure inside whom a battle wages between his own fleshly and divine natures, and with the natural world that endangers all that is courtly, courteous, and clean – all that the citizen of Camelot considers “civilized.” The Green Knight invades King Arthur’s court and threatens its phalanx of fearless warriors and refined ladies, who are seated at the feast table, commemorating a yuletide military victory at Troy:

“Thus the king sat before the high tables, and spake of many things; and there good
Sir Gawain was seated by Guinevere the queen, and on her other side sat Agravain,
à la dure main; both were the king’s sister’s sons and full gallant knights.”

This “big green monster” of Celtic and pagan mythology is nature personified, and he invades the hybrid heavenly and earthly realm of Arthur’s court, instantly upending the polite conventions it represents. Arthur’s own lauded “young blood and wild brain” are diminished by the Green Knight’s occult nature and appearance:

“…there came in at the hall door one terrible to behold, of stature greater
than any on earth; from neck to loin so strong and thickly made, and with
limbs so long and so great that he seemed even as a giant. And yet he was
but a man, only the mightiest that might mount a steed; broad of chest and
shoulders and slender of waist, and all his features of like fashion; but men
marvelled much at his colour, for he rode even as a knight, yet was green
all over.”

As a symbol of indomitable nature, the Green Knight’s own wealth rivals Arthur’s, as seen in the gold, gemstones and other riches that hearken back to the Celtic reverence for earth-mined treasures. He is Cernunnos, the green god of early European myth who “symbolises irrepressible life, renewal and rebirth, the eternal cycle of life, death and regeneration” (Green Man, Para 6,7). Even his beast bears the hallmark colors, stature and decorations of the Celtic “horse-father,” Teutates (Eddy and Hamilton, Para 3):

“Around his waist and his saddle were bands with fair stones set upon
silken work, ’twere too long to tell of all the trifles that were embroidered
thereon–birds and insects in gay gauds of green and gold. All the trappings
of his steed were of metal of like enamel, even the stirrups…the steed on
which he rode was of the same hue, a green horse, great and strong, and
hard to hold, with broidered bridle meet for the rider.”

The author of “Setting in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” describes King Arthur’s court as the place where “civilization has reached its pinnacle and courtesy reigns,” and quotes Norton Anthology editors Donaldson and David’s description of Camelot as “the place where chivalry has reached its zenith”. The Green Knight, as a metaphor for the natural world in all its pagan-godly bluster, is “loud and rude and even disrespecting toward the King” (Para 2). The compulsively chivalrous Gawain pleads with Arthur to “let this venture be mine” and ends up drawn into a beheading game to avenge the king’s besmirched honor. The wild giant mocks the company of the Round Table and “breaks the facade of the excessive courtesy and exposes the weakness of the court”, much as “nature does in our world in reality, sometimes more severely than we expect” (Capshaw):

“What, is this Arthur’s hall, and these the knights whose renown hath run
through many realms? Where are now your pride and your conquests, your
wrath, and anger, and mighty words? Now are the praise and the renown of
the Round Table overthrown by one man’s speech, since all keep silence for
dread ere ever they have seen a blow!”

Gawain, the “good knight,” severs the Green Knight’s head, who survives in a decapitated state which Gawain certainly would not, becoming, like nature, impervious to destruction in contrast to the members of the court. He takes his head under one arm, instructing Gawain to appear on the Green Knight’s own ground one year hence to take his own “turn” in the beheading game:

“Come thou, I charge thee, to the Green Chapel, such a stroke as thou hast
dealt thou hast deserved, and it shall be promptly paid thee on New Year’s
morn…it behoves thee to come, or to yield thee as recreant.”

As Gawain embarks on his quest one year after the Green Knight’s request and leaves the conventional niceties of the court for his adversary’s realm, the Celtic-inspired native and supernatural aspects of the story become even more widely apparent in the narrative. The author juxtaposes the timing of the New Year, the Celtic observation of Riuros or “cold-time” in which “nature appears to be dying down” (Celtic Year, Para 1), with the Green Knight’s decidedly non-coincidental appearance in Arthur’s court during the Christian feast of Christmastide.
For Gawain, upon his departure for the tangled and verdant wildness of the woods one year hence, mortality looms, emphasizing the Celtic perspective that man’s attachment to self-congratulation and tradition are futile in the face of nature’s endurance and potential for destruction:

“Sometimes he fought with dragons and wolves; sometimes with wild men
that dwelt in the rocks; another while with bulls, and bears, and wild boars,
or with giants of the high moorland that drew near to him.”

Thematic elements of Gawain’s journey through the woods to Bertilak’s castle, the Catholic mass and celebratory hunt, and the temptations of comfort and sensuality that await him, are arranged by the author to confirm the the Celtic belief that despite man’s ability to manipulate elements of his environment to his benefit and comfort, it is fertile and fecund nature which reigns supreme. While he withstands the sensual Lady Bertilak’s flirtations, he subconsciously places his trust in nature, in a moment of “false courtesy” hiding her green girdle from the king’s eyes, thus exposing even to himself the cracks in his seemingly rock-like character:

“…when she was gone Sir Gawain arose, and clad him in rich attire, and took
the girdle, and knotted it round him, and hid it beneath his robes. Then he took
his way to the chapel, and sought out a priest privily and prayed him to teach
him better how his soul might be saved.”

Gawain departs the priestly chapel for the Green Chapel, and is shortly thereafter abandoned by his court-appointed guide. He rides alone into a site of “high and burnt banks on either side and rough rugged crags with great stones above,” an “ill-looking place” that lacking in any green hue, seems forsaken even by Nature itself. Here, on the cusp of his own hell, Gawain moves forward until he sees bubbling water and a greening branch, the Holy Spirit and Rood of Christianity, spring triumphantly from the green ground of Celtic myth. Rooted momentarily betwixt faith and courage, fear and reason, the knight views the Green Chapel and must choose the altar upon which he will place his fate:

“The knight turned his steed to the mound, and lighted down and tied the rein
to the branch of a linden; and he turned to the mound and walked round it,
questioning with himself what it might be.”

“Helmet on head and lance in hand, he came up to the rough dwelling, when
he heard over the high hill beyond the brook, as it were in a bank, a wondrous
fierce noise, that rang in the cliff as if it would cleave asunder.”

Gawain persists and shortly thereafter faces down the Green Knight, whose initial greeting of “fair sir” and then ensuing mockery of Gawain’s faithfulness to his pledge belie the same false courtesy the author of the tale intends to criticize in Gawain’s “polite” Anglo-Saxon society:

“Gawain abode the stroke, and flinched in no limb, but stood still as a stone or
the stump of a tree that is fast rooted in the rocky ground with a hundred roots.
Then spake gaily the man in green, “So now thou hast thine heart whole it
behoves me to smite. Hold aside thy hood that Arthur gave thee, and keep thy
neck thus bent lest it cover it again.”

Gawain bears the Green Knight’s axe-blow, earning the grudging respect of the giant, but not before confronting a revelation that shocks him: The Green Knight is not, in fact, a fellow knight or even a new adversary at all, but King Bertilak in disguise:

“I promised thee a blow and thou hast it–hold thyself well paid! I release thee
of all other claims. If I had been so minded I might perchance have given thee
a rougher buffet. First I menaced thee with a feigned one, and hurt thee not for
the covenant that we made in the first night, and which thou didst hold truly.”

“For ’tis my weed thou wearest, that same woven girdle, my own wife wrought
it, that do I wot for sooth. Now know I well thy kisses, and thy conversation,
and the wooing of my wife, for ’twas mine own doing. I sent her to try thee,
and in sooth I think thou art the most faultless knight that ever trode earth.”

The Green Knight, in Celtic fashion, is both god and man, passion and playfulness, and one could argue, a projection of Gawain’s inwardly warring “good knight” and knave. As forest king and pagan trickster-god, the Green Knight is at once liege and master of the game. For all Gawain’s nobility and bravado, his conflicted journey through the wilds of nature in search of absolution for his sins against Heaven is the mythic fulfillment of the modern truism that “men plan, God laughs.” At the story’s outset it appears that Gawain faces the Jungian conundrum of choosing between the competing interests of self and the collective, the hero’s journey or the coward’s death, between allegiance to God and subservience to nature. He is at once the warrior of the Iron Age and the saint of King Arthur’s court. As such, for Gawain it is not necessary to separate self-preservation from a life of service, because a precarious balance of passion and reason dwell in the unified soul, and God and Nature are one and the same.

Works Cited

Anonymous, and Jessie Weston. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Sir Gawain and the Green  Knight: A Middle-English Arthurian Romance. N.p.: n.p., 1898. N. pag. Robbins Digital Library Project — The Camelot Project. Web.

Capshaw, Corbyn L. “General Post 2: The Color Green.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. WordPress, 12 May 2011. Web.
Eddy, Steve and Hamilton, Claire. “Celtic Animal Symbols: Horse.” SymbolicDictionary.net — A Glossary of Religious Symbols. WordPress, n.d. Web.
“Setting in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Schoolworkhelper. St. Rosemary Education Institution, n.d. Web. ic Animal Symbols: Horse.” SymbolicDictionary.net — A Glossary of Religious Symbols. WordPress, n.d. Web.

“Setting in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Schoolworkhelper. St. Rosemary Education Institution, n.d. Web.

Tarcsay, Tibor. “The Nature of Monstrosity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Diss. Pazmany Peter Catholic U, n.d. (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Robbins LibraryDigital Projects, n.d. Web..

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