Otherworld Journeys: Death and Rebirth
There once was a world like no other, and so it was called the Otherworld. Over the centuries, there have been countless stories written about a hero’s journey to the Otherworld, and Arthurian literature is no exception. Three well-known Arthurian examples are Sir Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur’s journey to Avalon in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and Sir Galahad’s journey to the Grail Castle in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Yet these three works do not merely describe the hero’s physical journey to the Otherworld; they also describe his psychological journey. By using the typical features of an Otherworld journey – such as a setting associated with death, a hero associated with light, and a journey associated with water – these works ultimately relate the hero’s journey to the Otherworld to a journey towards death and, finally, rebirth.
An Otherworld journey can be defined as a journey to a supernatural world, often a world of the dead. The Otherworld is most commonly associated with Celtic legend, though it appears in folklore from around the world. According to the Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols, the Otherworld is simply the “world to which the soul departs without the body” and may be associated with “Heaven or Paradise,” “Hell,” “Limbo,” “Purgatory,” or even “Fairyland” (1220). The details of this world vary from culture to culture, sometimes even from tale to tale, yet its association with death is constant. Some of the most common descriptions of the Otherworld include a faraway island in the west (Patch “Elements” 628), an underground kingdom (612), and an everlasting garden (619) – descriptions that can all be associated with death. After all, the west is associated with the setting sun, the underground has an obvious connection with a grave, and even the garden has parallels to a heavenly paradise. In short, a setting associated with death is a typical feature of the Otherworld journey.
The hero’s association with light or fertility is a second important feature of the Otherworld journey. This association becomes important because it sets up the hero as a sort of antithesis to the Otherworld, a symbol of life in a world of the dead (Jobes 1624). An example of this antithesis comes from the Egyptian myth of Ra, a solar god who was said to sail the sun through the underworld each night (Taylor 1). Another example comes from the Greek myth of Persephone, a fertility goddess whose yearly passage into the Underworld was believed to cause the seasons (Chevalier 749). In these two examples, we can see the importance of light and fertility as a feature of the Otherworld visitor; it is only by being associated with life that a visitor can safely pass through the world of the dead.
Finally, the “perilous passage” represents the third important feature of an Otherworld journey. According to Esther C. Dunn, a perilous passage is “a stock incident of Otherworld journeys” and includes any number of dangerous crossings, such as the drawbridge in Chrétien’s Contes del Graal, the cliff bridge in the Celtic myth the Wooing of Emer, and the sword bridge in Chrétien’s Chevalier de la Charrete (401-402). Even the Classical myth of Orpheus crossing the Styx may be considered a type of perilous passage. Curiously, all of these examples involve a passage over water, and indeed, water does play an important role in the Otherworld journey. On a practical level, since most descriptions of the Otherworld involve a world “cut off from the every-day world by some sort of water barrier” (Patch, “Elements” 604), a hero must cross over water in order to reach the Otherworld. Yet there is also a symbolic significance. Water is, after all, a symbol of both life and death and helps one to understand how a journey to the Otherworld also can be a symbol of death and rebirth.
Gawain’s Journey to the Green Chapel
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes Sir Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel, yet it also describes his journey towards death. In the story, the Green Chapel is the place where Gawain has agreed to meet the Green Knight and receive an axe-blow that he is certain will kill him. Therefore, the imagery of death associated with the setting actually mirrors Gawain’s own psychological state as he prepares himself for death. One of the most prominent reminders of death is the winter imagery. Gawain sets out to find the Green Chapel after feasting with Arthur on “Al-hal-day” (All Saint’t Day), so it is November when he begins his journey. Descriptions of the landscape emphasize the coldness and barrenness of the season. It is a world of “slete” and snow that “fres er hit falle” and of “mony bryddes unblythe upon care twyges, / that pitosly ther piped for pyne of the colde” (Sir 44). Another reminder of death can be seen in the imagery of wild beasts. During Gawain’s journey, he meets with foes including “wormes” (dragons), “wolves,” “wodwos” (wild men), “bulles,” “beres,” “bores,” and “etaynes” (giants), thus lending an atmosphere of savagery to the winter landscape. Finally, even the Green Chapel is associated with death. It is described as a “berwe” (mound), that “hade a hole on the ende and on ayther syde, / and overgrowen with gresse in glodes aywhere” (100). While this description is very similar to that of a Celtic ‘Sidhe,’ a hill or mound that serves as an entrance to the Otherworld (“Death” 14), it also reminds one of a grave overgrown with grass. In fact, burial mounds of this sort were frequently seen in the English countryside. Thus the grave-like chapel and the dangers of winter and wild beasts actually become external symbols of Gawain’s fears, emphasizing the true deadliness of his Otherworld journey.
If the setting of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight represents Gawain’s fear of death, then Gawain’s association with light becomes a symbol of his virtuousness, of the qualities that, nevertheless, compel him on this journey. As has already been noted, the Otherworld visitor is often associated with light, and Gawain is associated with light through his shining golden armor “that al glytered and glent as glem of the sunne” (Sir 39). Furthermore, Celtic scholar Roger S. Loomis notes that Gawain’s shield “of schyr gowles / with the pentangel depaynt of pure golde hewes” (40) is remarkably like the shield of the Celtic hero Cúchulainn. In the myth The Cattle-Raid of Cooley, Cúchulainn’s shield is described as “dark red, dark crimson with five wheels of gold,” making it similar both in the red background and in the golden design associated with the number five. Since Cúchulainn is considered a solar hero, Gawain’s shield thus serves as a second sign of Gawain’s association with light (Loomis 168). Yet Gawain’s shield also offers us some insight into his character. After all, the pentangle design symbolizes, among other things, the five courtly virtues – “fraunchyse” (liberality), “felawschyp” (friendship), “clannes” (purity), “cortaysye” (courtesy), and “pité” (piety) (Sir 41). Like his armor or his shield, it seems that these virtues are things Gawain must put on in order to be a good knight. The fact that the light imagery is associated with these external objects, not with Gawain himself, perhaps hints at Gawain’s flaw. He is not perfect himself; he merely puts on an act of perfection.
Finally, Gawain’s perilous passage offers us some further insights into his psychological state. On the day he goes to meet the Green Knight, he must pass through a storm of snow and mist: “The heven was uphalt, bot ugly ther-under / mist muged on the mor, malt on the mountes, uch hille hade a hatte, a myst-hakel huge” (Sir 96). Since fairies are known for their ability to influence weather, a passage through snow and mist is actually a common feature of the Celtic Otherworld journeys like The Voyage of Cormac and The Conception of Cúchulainn (Puhvel 225-226). Yet one should also note that a storm differs somewhat from the traditional journey over water; instead, it is a journey through water. In terms of the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the fact that Gawain must struggle physically through a storm seems to reflect his own psychological struggle with death. In this perilous passage, we see Gawain literally armed against the storm with his golden armor and shield. Symbolically, however, we see how he is using a show of virtues to try to combat his fear of dying.
When Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel, he is not killed; instead the Green Knight teaches him a valuable lesson about virtue. Thus Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel can also be seen as the story of Gawain’s death and rebirth. As stated before, Gawain fully expects to die at the Green Chapel, and the grave-like imagery associated with the chapel furthers this link between the chapel and death. Yet the Green Knight does not kill Gawain there. Instead, he reveals the trick that has been played on Gawain, and this trick, in turn, reveals Gawain’s weakness: “Bot here yow lakked a lyttel, sir, and lewté yow wonted; / not that was for no wylyde werke, ne wowing nauther, / bot for ye lufed your lyf” (Sir 107). In other words, Gawain’s fault was motivated by his fear of death. Gawain’s reaction to this trick then becomes a sort of rebirth. He realizes his weakness and vows to wear the lady’s girdle as a “syngne of [his] surfet” so “when pryde schal me pryk for prowes of armes, / the loke to this luf-lace schal lethe my heart” (109-110). He returns to Arthur’s court sporting the belt “as a bauderyk, bounden bi hys syde,” and lives the rest of his life with the knowledge of this weakness (111). Thus, Gawain is reborn a sadder, but wiser, knight returning from his journey.
Arthur’s Journey to Avalon
Tennyson’s Idylls of the King likewise uses elements of the Otherworld to transforms Arthur’s journey into a story of death and rebirth. The landscape, even before the journey, is filled with imagery of death. Winter is once again the season. Indeed, it is the winter solstice, “that day when the great light of heaven / burn’d at his lowest in the rolling year.” Furthermore, Arthur is fighting “on the waste sand by the waste sea” where “a death-white mist” “slept over sand and sea” (Tennyson 274). Since this is the landscape in which Arthur will fight Mordred, it is important that the landscape reflects the promise of death. Yet unlike Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the landscape does not merely symbolize the hero’s death. It symbolizes the death of his knights, his Round Table, his dream of Camelot. When the mist clears and Arthur sees his dying knights, he says, “Now I see the true old times are dead… Now the whole Round Table is dissolved / which was an image of the mighty world” (283). Tennyson clearly believed sin was responsible for the fall of Camelot. In an earlier idyll, Arthur even blames the destruction of Camelot on Guinevere, for her “shameful sin with Lancelot” which led to so many other sins in Camelot (265). This death-filled landscape, therefore, might easily be seen as a symbol of the sin that has infected Arthur’s kingdom.
Arthur, therefore, is portrayed as the antithesis of sin, and the light imagery associated with him becomes a symbol of his perfection. Arthur is continually described as “stainless,” “blameless,” and “faultless,” and even the first physical description of Arthur depicts him as “fair / beyond the race of Britons and of men” (14), thus linking his perfection with imagery of light. In “Passing of the King,” the dying Arthur maintains this connection with light:
All his face was white
And colorless, and like the wither’d moon
Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east;
And all his greaves and cuisses dash’d with drops
Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls –
That made his forehead like a rising sun
High from the dais-throne were parch’d with dust. (282)
Note also how Tennyson mixes the light and death imagery in this passage, showing how Arthur’s perfection is dying with him in this sin-corrupted world.
Arthur’s only chance for survival lies in his journey to Avalon and his perilous passage over the sea. Tennyson describes Avalon as an “island valley” which “lies deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard lawns / and bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea” (283-284). One of the most important features of Avalon is that it lies across the sea, thus Arthur must travel there by boat. A boat is often used “as the vessel of an Otherworld journey,” yet there seems to be something special about Arthur’s boat (Patch, “Adaptation” 117). Tennyson describes it as “a dusky barge, / dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern” “dense with stately forms, / black-stoled, black-hooded” (282). Obviously, the darkness of this boat is meant to conjure up associations with death, and one can easily see the parallels between this boat and a funerary boat like Elaine’s in an earlier idyll. Arthur’s journey to Avalon would, therefore, be a symbol of his death. Yet one can also make parallels between this dark boat and the “bright” boat that first bore Arthur from the sea (15), for as Sir Bedivere observes, “From the great deep to the great deep he goes” (284). Therefore, another way to interpret Arthur’s journey to Avalon is as a return to a perfect world, to a world free of sin.
Arthur’s journey to Avalon can ultimately be seen as a story of death and rebirth. Tennyson’s final line hints at the theme of rebirth, for as Arthur sails away, Bedivere watches “the speck that bare the King… vanish into light, / and the new sun rose bringing in the new year” (285). Arthur is mortally wounded when goes to Avalon, yet he expects going there “will heal me of my grievous wounds” (284). One can see Arthur’s healing as a sort of rebirth. There is even an old Breton belief that Arthur is taken to Avalon to “[grow] stronger until the day that England need him most to restore justice and peace to his people” (Snodgrass 45). Arthur, therefore, becomes a sort of savior figure for his country, who will not only be reborn himself, but who also has the power to restore his land to fruitfulness.
Galahad’s Journey to the Grail Castle
Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur describes Sir Galahad’s journey to the Grail Castle and also show how his journey encompasses both death and rebirth. Like all Otherworld journey, the setting of Galahad’s journey includes lots of imagery of death. In particular, it depicts imagery of a wasteland. It was believed that a king was so connected to his country that “a healthy, moral, and even just king [could ensure] a fertile kingdom, whereas an evil king or even one who was merely disfigured or unwhole” could actually destroy his country (Taylor 21-22). Therefore, this wasteland imagery can be linked to the Maimed King, a wounded king who resides in the Grail Castle:
And whan Kynge Hurlain [saw Kynge Labor, he dressed this suerd] and smote hym upon the helme so harde that he clave hym and hys horse to the erthe with the firste stroke of hys swerde. And it was in the realme of Logris, and so befelle there grete pestilence, and grete harme to both reallyms; for there encressed nother corne, ne grasse, nother well-nye no fruyte, ne in the watir was founde no fyssh.
Therefore men calle hit – the londys of the two marchys – the Waste Londe, for that dolerous stroke. (Malory 561)
Since the lance in this story is the Holy Lance with which “the Roman soldier Longinus pierced the side of Christ on the cross” (Lacy 287), the Maimed King’s wound has a strong association with sin. Therefore, as with Tennyson’s Camelot, the wasteland imagery in Malory becomes a symbol for the sin corrupting the kingdom.
Like Tennyson’s Arthur, Sir Galahad is the antithesis of sin, yet unlike Arthur, his associations with light are almost all internal. There is very little physical description of Sir Galahad. He is initially described as “passyng fayre” which seems to hint at an association with light, but there is little else to draw on (Malory 497). Instead, most of Galahad’s descriptions are internal. Galahad’s purity is repeatedly mentioned as the source of his greatness. As a hermit explains, “Sir Galahad ys a mayde and synned never; and that ys the cause he enchyve where he goth” (516). Since Galahad has all the internal qualities necessary to find the grail, then perhaps the grail itself may be seen as a symbol for Sir Galahad. It is here then that we find Galahad’s association with light. When the grail first appears in Arthur’s court, there “entyrde a sonnebeame, more clerer by seven tymes than ever they saw day,” thus establishing a connection between the grail and light imagery. Furthermore, when Lancelot glimpses the grail, he sees “a grete clerenesse, that the house was as bright as all the torcheis of the worlde had bene there” (576). Therefore, it is through his association with purity that Galahad becomes symbolically associated with both the grail and light imagery.
Finally, during his journey, Sir Galahad undertakes a number of perilous passages. Perhaps the most significant is Galahad’s journey on the rudderless boat. A rudderless boat is actually a common feature of the Otherworld journey and is supposed to be a symbol of one’s faith in God (Patch, “Adaptations” 116-117). Thus, the boat in Malory’s story bears this inscription:
THOU MAN WHYCH SHALT ENTIR INTO THIS SHIPPE,
BEWARE THAT THOU BE IN
STEDEFASTE BELEVE, FOR I AM FAYTHE (559)
Since it is this boat takes Galahad to the castle where the grail is kept, one can easily see it as an example of how Galahad’s faith in God leads him to find the grail.
As with Gawain and Arthur, Galahad’s journey to the Grail Castle can likewise be seen as a story of death and rebirth. However, instead of describing the hero’s death and rebirth, Malory instead shows how Galahad’s death leads to a rebirth for others. Throughout the story of the grail quest, we see examples of characters sacrificing themselves for others, often as a sort of allusion to Christ’s sacrifice. Galahad himself has many Christ-like features. He is introduced at Arthur’s court wearing “a cote of rede sendell" trimmed with white “ermyne” fur, and red and white are the color symbolically associated with Christ (499). Also Galahad’s “name is taken from “Galaad,” or Gilead, in the Vulgate Bible (Genesis 31:48). This, in terms of medieval interpretation, makes him a type of Christ” (Lacy 307). Throughout his quest, Galahad performs many miraculous feats. Like Christ in the Harrowing of Hell, he purges seven wicked knights from the Castle of Maidens and “bought all the soules oute of the thralle” (Malory 516). He also he heals the Maimed King with the blood from the Holy Spear:
And Sir Galahad wente anone to the speare which lay upon the table and towched the bloode with hys fyngirs, and cam aftir to the Maymed Kynge and anoynted his legges and hys body. And therewith he clothed hym anone, and sterte uppon hys feete oute of hys bedde as an hole man, and thanked God that He had heled hym. (584)
what truly makes Galahad into a
Christ figure is his death. Galahad
too pure for this corrupted world, so when his quest is completed,
his soul is
“[born] up to heven” by
“a grete multitude of angels” (586). In a sense, Galahad has died achieving the grail, and so his death becomes analogous to Christ’s final sacrifice.
Sir Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel, King Arthur’s journey to Avalon, and Sir Galahad’s journey to the Grail Castle all represent journeys towards death and rebirth.
Thus the Otherworld journey, by depicting a journey to the land of the dead and back again, becomes a fitting framework for these stories. Indeed, the Otherworld motif helps us to understand these Arthurian journeys by establishing certain conventions about the setting, hero, and plot. We know, for example, that the setting of an Otherworld journey is associated with death while the hero is associated with light. Thus we can use this antithesis to explore the story from a symbolic level. If the imagery of death represents something wrong in the hero’s world, then the hero’s light imagery becomes of symbol of the virtuousness that will allow him to challenge this wrong. The convention of a perilous passage can similarly be explored symbolically; it represents how the hero will challenge this wrong. By understanding these conventions, we can then use them to compare the journeys of Gawain, Arthur, and Galahad and to discover, not only similarities, but also important differences between them.
Though the journeys of Gawain, Arthur, and Galahad all describe a journey towards death and rebirth, each story reveals a different interpretation of this theme. Sir Gawain’s journey represents a near-death experience; it teaches Gawain his own fault and allows him to be reborn with the knowledge of his own imperfection. King Arthur’s journey, on the other hand, becomes a story of resurrection, as Arthur himself becomes a mythical figure whose return to life will only come when his country really needs him. Finally, Sir Galahad’s journey represents a sacrificial death, for he dies after performing many miraculous feats to restore the kingdom of the Grail Castle. Therefore, though the Otherworld journey unites these tales through a common framework, each tale ultimately describes a very different type of journey.
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