Spoiler Alert



If you haven’t read the wonderful poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and intend to do so, then read no further, because this post contains spoilers.

I’m having a series of really interesting exchanges about Sir Gawain and his green nemesis, with my friend Aleksy in Poland. At the beginning of the narrative, the Green Knight appears to be a thing of flesh… albeit green… and blood. However, quite quickly everyone present witnesses the event that reveals him to be ‘not as other men’. People don’t usually go around being able to pick up their own severed heads, as this one does, and then ride off on horseback into a winter night.

That supernatural tone of our first encounter with the Knight, permeates the poem with wonder and dread. Gawain, on his quest, knows that he must submit, for honour’s sake, to the Green Knight’s blade, as the Green Knight has submitted to him. And at the end of the poem he does. Sort of.

Moreover, he survives the eventual encounter, though he flinches beneath the axe. But then the mystery is swiftly stripped away, and the ‘Green Knight’ reveals his true, human identity. He claims that the enchantress Morgan le Fey persuaded him to help her trick Arthur and his knights, to test their mettle, and that it was by use of her magic that the ‘Green Knight’ was conjured from the aristocrat, Bertilak de Hautdesert.

This ‘explanation’ has never worked for me. The extraordinary, visceral encounter that leads to Gawain’s year-long quest to find the ‘Green Knight’, feels real in every aspect. It’s violent, bloody, and spine-tinglingly ‘supernatural’. It is not some stage-illusion in a nightclub, but takes place in the middle of the Christmas Court. Moreover, it’s as though at the end of the tale, the writer doesn’t believe the explanation either, because it’s delivered briefly, without much conviction. It feels to me as though the supernatural is being waved aside, with Gawain being told that it was all just flim-flam, smoke and mirrors, just as a parent will reassure a child that ogres and witches don’t exist, so that sleep will come unattended by nightmares!

I like to think that perhaps a supernatural world protects itself by such deceits, pretending that its enchantments are just trickery, so that humans are misled into believing their eyes have deceived them. I think on the Anne Rice novel Interview with a Vampire, in which the undead hide in plain sight on the stage of a fashionable Grand Guignol theatre, presenting their bloody appetites as entertainments for the city’s beau monde.

And so in my head, I add a scene to the poem, in which Gawain, having said farewell to the Green Knight/Bertilak at the Green Knight’s ‘Chapel’, has a change of heart about returning immediately to Camelot, and decides instead to call at the fair Castle de Hautdesert, perhaps to see Bertilak’s beautiful tease-of-a-wife for the last time. But when he arrives, he finds an ancient, crumbling ruin overtaken by woodland, where only days before he’d lodged in splendour. Nothing is what you think in the world of faerie!

I am a little in love with that Green Knight, walking stoically to his horse while carrying his own head! There is a moment in the poem that I always come back to. When the Green Knight’s head falls to the ground under Gawain’s blow, it rolls along the floor, and the bystanders kick out at it. Here are the lines in a translation by Paul Deane.

‘Gawain held the ax high overhead,
his left foot set before him on the floor,
swung swiftly at the soft flesh
so the bit of the blade broke through the bones,
crashed through the clear fat and cut it in two,
and the brightly burnished edge bit into the earth.
The handsome head fell, hit the ground,
and rolled forward; they fended it off with their feet.’

Brave actions in this Court of Chivalry, to make a game of football of a decapitation. Little wonder Camelot later came undone!

12 thoughts on “Spoiler Alert

  1. Clive, I like that reading of the poem and have no trouble with it. It works. One reason I like it is that we really ought to trust that artists of all sorts know what they are doing (at least until quite convinced otherwise!) and so should expect that the Gawain poet knew what he was doing. In that case, he has a reason to downplay the mythic aspect of the story, as you suggest.

    If you look at “Gawain” next to the mystic dream that is “Pearl,” it seems that the Gawain Poet / the Pearl Poet has a very strong conviction that this world is not all that there is. And so the green man bearing his head tells us wordlessly that the world is crammed with mystery, and things are not as they seem.

    “Gawain” is the one medieval work that has strongly influenced my writing, especially “Val/Orson” and certain minor elements in “The Wolf Pit.” And quite a few poems, too.


    • Marly, I’ve always enjoyed our love-in-common re Gawain and his Green Knight. And of course, Val/Orson was my first book cover for you. But though I’ve returned repeatedly to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a source of inspiration… I certainly read it again when I was working on your volume of poetry, The Foliate Head… this project with the Penfold Press to make fourteen narrative images on the theme has probably been coming for quite a while. Massively inspiring. Right now I’m working on the first image of the Green Knight for the series, and so my work-desk is all a-litter with Camelot, red-berried holly, foliate tattoos and winter nights!

  2. I like that twist quite a bit, the Green Knight not being some conjuror’s flim flam. He is, as you suggest, far deeper and more supernaturally real. An intangible reality that on a visceral level we immediately recognise. I adhere to the belief he is a woodwose, an eternal earth being, one of the very oldest of gods. I’m so happy you’re exploring this enchanting being, and in such a Clivean comely fashion.

    • The poem is full of riches, and although I may be mentally adjusting aspects of it, that’s just a part of my process of exploration and finding a way into the heart of the narrative. It’s quite a journey, and every day in the studio brings new revelations. My imagination is keeping me awake at nights!

  3. Dear Clive :
    I am very much in love with the Green Knight, and for me the ending you have added seems absolutely perfect and logical. Much better than the ending in the original tale, which doesn’t really dare to go the whole length, and concentrates instead on the ‘conversion’ of Gawain, and his coming to terms with his unworthiness. The original seems to forget about the real hero, that being the Green Knight, with his self sacrifice of coming back to the present with such generosity.

    Your own ending is much better, precisely because it is not an ending, but more of a glimpse of another story, in another, much older and much stranger reality.

    Who is The Green Knight ? Who is Bertilak? And who is Bertilak’s beautiful, enticing, and not very faithful wife? Or perhaps she is faithful, and her part in the tale is a necessity. But why? Were they both punished into living their lives again and again and again, untill they found a worthy hero/victim to break the curse? Did the final ruins of their Castle mean they were finally forgiven, thanks to Gawain accepting his lesson? And were they permitted to die forever ?

    So, you see, I think your ending is the better one. By far.
    Thank You.

    • Maria, that’s a generous account by you of what I’ve ‘re-imagined’ here. Of course I’ve no intention of re-writing this masterpiece, but instead I’m thinking my way through what the poem means to me, and why. It’s a fact though, that I’m building my own back-story to support my work, just as an actor builds the back-story of the character he plays, in order to better understand.

      Sending love from blustery Wales!

      • If Angela Carter wrote such beautiful new versions of old classics beloved by all, (like Blue Beard, Little Red Riding Hood, etc etc)….

        If Picasso painted his idea of Las Meninas

        Why should there not be a new story of The Green Knight by Clive Hicks-Jenkins? Just like we have the poem in Old English, and the Simon Armitage vision of that same poem?

  4. Like you Clive, the first time I read Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, I felt cheated when it came to the revelation about the Green Knight/Sir Bertilak being one and the same. It didn’t surprise me that Gawain was disgruntled by this discovery, because the news also unsettled me.

    I am of the opinion that the mysterious Gawain poet is playing with us by blurring the boundaries between what we understand to be realistic and what is unreal. King Arthur begins the poem calling for a game and a game is what the poet delivers.

    Sir Gawain & the Green Knight is definitely not a typical tale of medieval romance, where the marvellous and the mysterious are accepted as a matter of course, which is why I think the poem continues to fascinate the modern reader, as it leaves us with as many questions as answers. We are unable to distinguish what is magic or Faerie and what is not, as is Gawain, the hero of the tale. All we know, as readers, is that nothing is what it seems.

    I read a wonderful definition of the ‘fantastic’ in medieval literature, which describes it as: “that hesitation experienced by a person who only knows the laws of nature, confronting the supernatural.” I think you have no problem accepting the supernatural Clive, so why shouldn’t the Green Knight remain supernaturally real in your imagination and Bertilak’s castle and its inhabitants be the ones who were conjured up by magic? It seems entirely plausible to me!!

    • Sarah, I agree completely about that blurring of the boundaries, which is why the sudden revelation is confusing, though very likely, not entirely to be believed!

      Good quote, too, and I thank you for that.

      Oh, a book, a book, there has to be a book at some point. This poem is so glorious, and having lit the blue touch-paper of my imagination, it has left me crackling with ideas. Too many, really, and not enough hours in the day to get them all down!!!!

      At my work-desk the Green Knight is making his first appearance in the series, and behind him, Camelot in the winter dark, blazes blood red.

  5. That scene you’ve added, now that is eerie! And it improves the story. I agree the explanation at the end doesn’t convince. I’m sure something altogether more otherworldly is going on! 😉

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