“In this domain more marvels have by men been seen
than in any other that I know of since that olden time.”
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by J. R. R. Tolkien
In my previous post, we talked about how Arthurian legend combines pagan and Christian elements to create a syncretic mythology. The Holy Grail, for example, is explicitly connected to Christian myths around the death of Jesus, but it may also be related to Irish and Welsh myths about divine cauldrons with healing properties. A lot of Arthuriana is like that — a patchwork quilt of pagan and Christian elements.
One of the most unapologetically pagan Arthurian legends is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This tale has it all — sex, violence, magic items, and a Green Man figure whose appearances are tied to the winter solstice. While Christian elements are still present (like Gawain’s shield which bears an image of the Virgin Mary), they take a backseat to a pretty straightforward fairy story.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a fairy story both in the sense that it features at least one of the Good People (the titular green dude) and in that it follows the protagonist on a journey into the realm of the Good People which is, confusingly, also called Fairy. In studying fairy lore for an upcoming project, I realized how similar this story is to other Fairy Journey narratives from the British Isles, and I think reading it through that lens can help explain a lot of the elements that don’t always make sense to modern audiences.
The story opens with a Christmas celebration at the court of King Arthur. Ye olde partying is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious knight, who is both bigger than a normal man and entirely green, from his skin to his hair to his clothes and even his horse. The visitor says he has heard tales of Arthur’s knights and wants to test their bravery. He proposes a game: he will allow any man in the room the chance to swing at him with his (probably enchanted) axe as long as they will allow him to return the favor in a year and a day. Arthur’s nephew, Gawain, accepts this challenge. Gawain beheads the Green Knight with his own axe, but instead of dying the Knight picks up his decapitated head, gets back on his horse, and reminds Gawain of his promise before leaving.
The fact that the stranger who visits Arthur’s court has Otherwordly origins is explicitly stated in the text: “in his face and form that showed; / as a fay-man fell he passed, / and green all over glowed.” [Emphasis added, quote from Tolkien’s translation.]
In other words: “His face and body looked like a terrible fairy man and glowed green all over.”
In their book Fairies, A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk, Morgan Daimler says that green is probably the most well-known color associated with the Good People, and that they are often described as wearing green. Daimler also points out that the Good People often appear wearing a combination of green and red — usually green with red accents. It’s worth noting here that the Green Knight is decribed as having red eyes.
When he enters Arthur’s hall, the Green Knight is described as holding an ax in one hand and a holly bough in the other. Some authors have argued that this connects him to the Holly King, a figure who represents winter in British folklore. Author John T. Kruse says in his book Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic, & World of the Good Folk that holly was used to protect the home from the Other Crowd, but at the same time they were said to shelter under it in the winter. This connects the Green Knight once again to Fairy, and to midwinter.
There are a few details in the encounter in Arthur’s court that seem to indicate fae mischief. First, the Green Knight proposes that he accept a blow from one of Arthur’s knights and be allowed to return it in a year and a day — this time frame is common in fairy stories. Second, he asks to know Gawain’s name before they begin. Names have power in Fairy, and Gawain freely giving his name to the Green Knight may be what allows the Knight to trick him later in the story.
The following year, Gawain sets out after All Soul’s Day (Samhain) to search for the Green Knight. He cannot find any sign of the Green Knight or of the Knight’s home, the Green Chapel in England or Wales, and we are told he wanders into “countries unknown.” The poem skims over this part of Gawain’s journey, but we’re told he fights with worms (possibly referring to dragons), wood-trolls, and ogres. It seems pretty clear that at this point Gawain is in the Otherworld.
Gawain eventually arrives at a beautiful estate which belongs to a man named Bertilak. Bertilak’s court is consistent with descriptions of Fairy courts — wealthy and opulent, but very similar to contemporary human society.
The way the poet describes Bertilak’s wife may also hint that this is a Fairy court. Lady Bertilak is described as supernaturally beautiful, and Gawain feels immediately drawn to her. This is similar to descriptions of Fairy Queens throughout the Ireland, Wales, and the British Isles.
When Bertilak learns that Gawain is looking for the Green Chapel, he tells him that it is very close by and suggests that Gawain stay with them to regain his strength before going on. Gawain agrees, and Bertilak proposes a game: Bertilak will go hunting, and each day he will give Gawain whatever he gets on his hunt. In exchange, Gawain will give Bertilak whatever he gets in Bertilak’s house.
On the first morning, after Bertilak leaves to hunt, Lady Bertilak sneaks into Gawain’s bed and offers him sex. (“To my body will you welcome be / of delight to take your fill; / for need constraineth me / to serve you, and I will.”) This exploits a paradox in the knight’s code Gawain lives by: a knight is required to do anything a noble woman asks, but sleeping with a married woman is a serious sin. Gawain compromises by kssing Lady Bertilak, but not going any further.
That night, Bertilak returns and gives Gawain deer he has killed. Gawain responds by giving Bertilak a kiss (“His fair neck he enfolded then fast in his arms, / and kissed him with all the kindness that his courtesy knew”), but refuses to tell him who he “won” it from.
The next day, Bertilak hunts a boar with his men. Lady Bertilak visits Gawain again, and this time she kisses him twice. When Bertilak returns, he gives Gawain the boar. Gawain gives him the two kisses but refuses to tell him what happened.
On the third day, while Bertilak is hunting a fox, Lady Bertilak visits Gawain and insists on giving him a gift. She offers him her girdle. (Which, for those not familiar, is an undergarment — it’s like the medieval equivalent of offering a man your bra.) Gawain refuses this very inappropriate gift, but Lady Bertilak tells him that the girdle is enchanted and will protect him from physical harm. Gawain takes it, thinking it might save him when he faces the Green Knight. When Bertilak returns and gives Gawain the fox, Gawain keeps the girdle for himself.
Let’s unpack this part of the story. First, it’s unusual for hunting to be this good in midwinter — Gawain even comments on how strange it is that Bertilak found such good venison at Christmastime. This is another hint that Bertilak’s lands are not bound to the same cycle of the seasons as ours. Daimler notes that Fairy often appears green and bountiful, even when it is winter in the human world.
Second, Lady Bertilak’s seduction of Gawain falls into a larger pattern of Fairy Queens taking mortal lovers. The Queen often offers her lovers some kind of magical gift or supernatural power in exchange for their affection, but this often comes at a price. In Gawain’s case, his fairy lover grants him protection from harm at the cost of compromising his vows as a knight and lying to her husband.
Third, this fits into the “seduction test” story type. For example: in the first branch of the Welsh Mabinogion, the hero Pwyll trades places with Arawn, lord of the Otherworld, for an entire year but refuses to sleep with Arawn’s wife. After this, the two are lifelong friends, and Arawn continues to be friendly to Pwyll’s descendents after Pwyll dies.
Gawain finally leaves Bertilak and his wife, wearing Lady Bertilak’s girdle for protection. He reaches the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight is waiting for him. The Green Knight fakes him out twice, then gives him a very small cut on the neck. He then reveals that he is Bertilak, and that the cut was a punishment for hiding the girdle Gawain took from his wife. He adds that he doesn’t blame Gawain, because he knows he only took the girdle to save his own life. Aside from a little blood and a lot of embarrassment, Gawain is fine.
Bertilak’s appearance was changed by Morgan le Fay, who he also calls Morgan the Goddess. (Morgan le Fay literally means Morgan the Fairy.) He invites Gawain to return to his house to meet Morgan and to celebrate, but Gawain refuses and returns to Camelot instead.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight makes much more sense as a straightforward tale of a journey into Fairy than it does as a Christian morality tale. The Green Knight is clearly an Otherworldly figure, and both Lady Bertilak and Morgan le Fay fit the role of the Fairy Queen. The test of virtue is consistent with older stories of Otherworld journeys, and Bertilak’s home being in Fairy explains how there is such good hunting in the middle of winter.
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