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!