Green Knight: A Symbol of Life, Death and Rebirth?
By Bobby Carnicella
No matter the interpretation of the vibrant hue, the color green plays a significant role in the Middle English poem probably written near 1400 A.D., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (afterward referred to as SGGK). In his essay explaining the importance of the color green in SGGK, Brewer states that the Gawain-poet (labeled such because the poet's name is unknown) uses the color green 44 times in this poem (181). Likewise, the Gawain-poet uses this color only eight times in the additional three poems he wrote. If the color green is an important symbol in SGGK, then the enigmatic and paradoxical Green Knight must be the primary character of study if scholars are to determine the relevance of the color. The reader encounters the importance of the color green when the Green Knight enters King Arthur's court unannounced during the New Year' feast searching for someone 'in řis court a Crystemas gomen' (I.13.283). The poet describes the Green Knight with exceptional detail and the reader finds the Green Knight's color to be the paramount feature at first glance. About the Green Knight's green skin, Benson writes, "[his skin] which occurs at the exact center [of his description, in line 149], allows the poet to unite the two antithetical figures in a single portrait' (92). Benson suggests that the poet combines two traditional figures in the Green Knight's description: 'the literary green man' and 'the literary wild man.' However, scholars have intensely debated the meaning of the Green Knight, thus shedding light on the poem as a whole, during the entire 20th century.
A particular interpretation of the Green Knight offered initially by E. K. Chambers suggests the Green Knight to be a vegetation or nature god due to the outcome of the beheading game at Arthur's court. Gawain bravely accepts the challenge of the Green Knight: to offer a buffet with the great green ax on the Green Knight while promising to receive a returned blow from the Green Knight one twelve-month and a day. Gawain takes the hefty ax and beheads the Green Knight to the court's surprise without any resistance from the Green Knight. Although the Green Knight's color, offer for a beheading game, and general appearance must spook Arthur's court, his subsequent picking up of his own head and speaking from the decapitated body part is by far the strangest scene of the first Fitt. Chambers interpreted this scene, by writing, 'It is interesting to note that the green man of the peasantry, who dies and lives again, reappears as the Green Knight in one of the most famous divisions of Arthurian romance' (186). In his book describing medieval folk-festivals and rituals, Chambers describes the Sword-dance festival in which peasants attempt to insure the fertility of their land and continuing of the seasons by offering sacrifices to the forces of nature. He writes, 'Such are the ceremonial burial in the ground, the ceremonial burning, the ceremonial plunging into water, of the representative of the fertilization spirit. There are, however, other versions of the mock death in which the central figure of the little drama is not the representative of the fertilization spirit itself, but one of the worshippers' (185). Chambers suggests the festivals concern the 'discarding of winter' (186). Thus, Chambers interprets the Beheading Motif in SGGK as a fertility festival but he also suggests that as Christianity spread through England the significance of these festivals seem to have altered. With the influence of Christianity, these festivals began to depict the death and resurrection of Christ instead of the peasant 'green man' dressed in green (186-187). If in fact the Gawain-poet used the 'green man' from the Sword-dance festivals, he may or may not have used the color green for the Green Knight as a pagan symbol of natural fertility. The crux of Chambers' interpretation is that the Gawain-poet placed the Green Knight either in the guise of a nature god as seen in the festivals or as a representation of Christ's death and subsequent victory over death with the Resurrection, a point to which we will return later.
C. S. Lewis seems to rhetorically refute Chambers' interpretation of the Green Knight as a nature deity by stating Chambers' merely alludes to festivals which are dead and quite distant to many readers who no longer remember the pagan rituals. Lewis writes, "I have never seen Jack in the Green. None of us have, as believers, taken part in a pagan ritual. We cannot experience such things from inside' (101). Lewis contends that scholars cannot elucidate literature with old rituals because the rituals themselves are a mystery which he argues are misunderstood. Lewis ends his critical essay by writing, 'The savage origins are the puzzle; the surviving work of art is the only clue by which we can hope to penetrate the inwardness of the origins. It is either in art, or nowhere, that the dry bones are made to live again' (101). He perhaps intended to refute Chambers' and Spiers, a scholar which we shall explore next because he used more detail from SGGK to strengthen his interpretation of the Green Knight.
John Spiers admittedly worked from Chambers' interpretation of the Green Knight but also managed to expound on the evidence of the folk dances by writing an entire essay about the connection between the 'green man' of the festivals and the Green Knight. Although logically instead of chronologically, Spiers unintentionally seems to answer Lewis' call for more evidence from the poem by citing and interpreting the motives and actions of the Green Knight in the first Fitt of SGGK. Spiers notes that although the Green Knight is an intimidating character with his 'half giant' height and green skin: 'The Green Knight whose head is chopped off at his own request and who is yet as miraculously or magically alive as ever, bears an unmistakable relation to the Green Man...of the village festivals of England and Europe' (83). Spiers suggests that the Green Knight ensures he is beheaded by a knight of the Round Table at the New Year festival. The astute reader will remember that Chambers reported the folk festivals occurring in the winter since this time would signify a time of stagnant growth to the medieval villagers who undoubtedly were counting down the days until spring. For Spiers, the Green Knights' relatively unchanged composure after the beheading signifies the life after death theme which played a significant role for the 'green man' of the folk festivals to ensure spring would in fact return after winter. Spiers writes, '[The Green Knight] is the descendent of the Vegetation or Nature god of (whatever his local name) almost universal and immemorial tradition whose death and resurrection mythologizes the annual death and re-birth of nature' (83). Spiers fleshes Chambers' suggested relationship between the 'green man' and the Green Knight by writing, 'The central episode of the traditional Folk Play, Sword Dance and Morris Dance was (as Chambers shows) a mock beheading or slaying followed by a revival or restoration to life' (87). As a last impression of Spiers' interpretation of the Green Knight as none other than the green man, he suggests that the 'Crystemas gomen' is not complete until Sir Gawain fulfills his oath by submitting himself to be beheaded at New Year -month from that evening. This in fact would fulfill not only Sir Gawain's oath but also the sacrifice of another knight during the middle of winter to satisfy the offering to ensure spring's return the following season. Thus, the festivals demonstrate not only death but also subsequent life after the sacrifice.
With the virtue of hindsight, Fran and Geoff Doel claim the folk festivals have less significance than Spiers and Chambers suggested but the Doels actually report more details about the festivals which draw more connections between the green man and the Green Knight. The Doels demonstrate that the Green Knight's 'Crystemas gomen' is meant as a game or play by presenting Arthur's words with which he tries to cheer Guinevere:
Dere dame, today dismay yow never,
Wel becomes such craft upon Cristmasse,
Laykyng of enterludes, to laghe and to syng,
Among these kynde caroles of knightes and ladies. (I.21.470-473)
The Doels suggest the seasonal festivals appear as: 'the seasonal nature of the plays would suggest a religious or seasonal significance (or both), reinforced by the ritualistic nature of the plays. We feel it very likely that some form of folk play acting out a death and revival pattern as sympathetic magic for the turning year was taking place in the fourteenth century' (80). These plays or festivals included mummers or actors who dressed in green garments with green ribbons, which may have replaced green leaves or at least mocked green leaves (Doels 80). These characters from the Mummer festivals and plays certainly seem to resemble the Green Knight: "Very gay was this great man guised all in green,/ hair of his head with his horse's accorded:/ fair flapping locks enfolding his shoulders,/ a big beard like a bush over his breast hanging/ that with the handsome hair from his head falling/ was sharp shorn to an edge just short of his elbows' (I.9.179-184). Characters covered in green leaves appear to connect with the green man or vegetation deity while also shedding light on the mysterious foliate heads that oddly appear in medieval churches and cathedrals which we shall investigate below.
The Doels expound
on the folk dances Chambers illustrated nearly a century ago and which Lewis
impolitely categorized as savage and suggest that they continued in
Mr. Kittredge is
a particularly important scholar in the search for the answer to why the Gawain-poet
made the Green Knight green because he examined many old Irish and Welsh tales
to find a source for SGGK instead of
investigating medieval folk-festivals. Kittredge
cites a specific Irish tale known as The
Champion's Bargain which is a smaller story found in the great epic saga
of Fled Bricrend or Bricriu's
Feast. In The Champion's Bargain a 'carl' to the
apparently noted that the Irish tale is not a perfect match because when
refuting Chambers' interpretation of the Green Knight as a vegetation deity
Kittredge also gives an account of a Welsh tale called The Green Man of Noman Land. In
this tale, Jack plays a game with an unknown man and wins until finally the
unknown man wins. The unknown man
reveals himself to be the Green Man of Noman's Land and that Jack must come to
find him in one year or else he will behead Jack.
This story incorporates the challenge and also supplements the green
coloring and quest to find the castle during the winter as Gawain must do in SGGK.
About this tale, Kittredge admits: 'It shows how easily the developed
Irish literary form of the Challenge might have been modified under influence of
some current folk-tale of a quest with which it had originally only a slight and
accidental resemblance' (p. 197). Another
version of this tale is called The Green
Knight of Knowledge and this story depicts a Green Knight who bids a man to
find his dwelling in one year or else the man will lose his life.
Matthews suggests this story to be quite common because very similar
versions were told in
Whoever gave him that [green] color first, whether the English poet or some French predecessor, was influenced, of course, by current folk-lore, and that folk-lore may have descended to the innovator in question from primeval ideas about the forces of nature. So much we must grant, but that is all. Neither the Irish author of The Champion's Bargain nor any of his successors in the line had any notion of associating the challenger with Celtic 'probably arboreal' deities, Arician groves, spirits of vegetation, or the annual death and rebirth of the embodied vital principle. (p. 199)
However, much to Mr. Kittredges' dismay many scholars after him have only strengthened the interpretation of the Green Knight as a nature deity with more factual research pertaining to the 'primeval folk-lore' to which Kittredge refers in the preceding quote. William Nitze's rebuttal to Kittredge sheds much light on the search for the meaning of the Green Knight because he argues that a writer may use a motif or theme without understanding the significance of the motif.
Nitze begins his essay by asking the reader to consider a scenario where
the Gawain-poet and his Irish and Welsh predecessors may have used a vegetation
myth without the knowledge of the origins of the myth.
Nitze jokingly asks how many people light a Christmas tree or burn a Yule
log without having any notion of the original significance.
To demonstrate that the Challenger motif may have a vegetative origin,
Nitze examined a particular version of the Green Knight challenger story known
This story also uses the
Nitze admits that while Perslesvaus is a vegetation motif with little need for interpretation, SGGK the Irish predecessor The Champion's Bargain only contain images of the vegetation motif. Nitze argues, 'But, unless I am completely in error, vestiges of it are still to be seen in The Champion's Bargain's reference to the "bushiness of a tree" upon the carl's head, in the dramatic contrast between winter and verdure in SGGK, and surely in the name and dress of the Green Knight' (p. 362). To strengthen the interpretation, Nitze presents Kittredge's own admittance that the Green Knight does resemble the literary nature gods. Kittredge actually writes, "That the particular guise in which our Green Knight shows himself, owes something to another creature of the primitive imagination or primitive philosophy. He may have taken on, in part, the qualities of a Wood-Deity or Demon of Vegetation' (p. 195). With this confession, Kittredge manages to allow scholars to interpret the Green Knight as a nature deity because he does in fact resemble one. Because Kittredge admitted a connection between the Green Knight and the primitive nature gods, Nitze concludes that the Gawain-poet may have written his poem with or even without the knowledge of vegetation myths. Nitze writes:
The premise of the new hypothesis is the realization that such stories as SGGK cannot be understood unless we are willing to keep our minds open to the idea that, in addition to literary documents, popular ceremonies and rites may be of first-class importance in considering not only the derivation of a story but also the significance or "myth" that originally produced it. The fact that "mythologizing" has been discredited is due to abuse and not to any fundamental mistake in human reasoning. (365)
Nevertheless this interpretation is valid because the Green Knight resembles the literary and folk-festival representations of the nature gods.
characters of the folk-festivals prove an excellent analogue for the Green
Knight, researchers also investigate the mysterious foliate heads which appear
in medieval churches. The meaning of
the foliate heads is less understood than any literary source or festival
because the heads cannot speak to us. Like
all art, the foliate heads carved in stone and wood are subject to the
interpretation of the viewer. In
1939, Lady Raglan offered an interpretation of the foliate heads she found in
medieval churches as 'green men.' When
describing the green man Raglan writes, 'It is a man's face, with oak leaves
growing from the mouth and ears, and completely encircling the head' (p. 45). Raglan
reports that these green man carvings are located in 23 counties across
Cave suggests the
foliate heads are indeed connected to the folk-festivals 'when men dressed up
in greenery' (p. 68) which would imply that the foliate heads have fertility
or a life force suggestion to them. The
Doels note that while the foliate heads rose in popularity during the fourteenth
and fifteenth centuries there also was a major event which happened prior to the
popularity explosion in
offers a different interpretation of the foliate heads.
He investigated the origins iconographic green man and suggests that the
origins may come from the Roman cult of Dionysos, to Celtic legends, the pagan
tree cult and the Christian Tree of Knowledge.
Much has been made of them. They have been interpreted as symbols of Christ, as representations of Dionysos, as portraits of the horned god of Celtic mythology, as emblems of Natural Law. They may be any or all of these. The mysterious, leaf-enfolded visage, a pagan image in a Christian environment, is old wine in a new bottle, and ancient text in a new book, still retaining its mystery, like the figure of the Green Knight in the Christian poem...Each is a vestige of the green world, all are avatars of the same energy. (94)
Indeed this research presents a fusion of Cave's interpretation in which he hypothesized the foliate heads represented the folk-festivals and the Doels' theory that the foliate heads symbolize God creating nature. Each theory focuses on a creative or life giving force for the green man carvings.
The iconographic foliate heads or 'green men' carved into medieval churches may have a connection with the Green Knight for several reasons. The Green Knight's appearance is rather similar to the foliate heads because his great 'bushy beard' and his overwhelming color reminiscent to a head with leaves and vines sprout from the eyes, mouth and ears. While drawing a parallel to the foliate heads Cave found and the Green Knight, Spiers writes, 'The "vegetation" aspect of the Green Knight will be immediately recognized. His green beard is like a bush, and together with his long green hair covers his chest and back all round down to his elbows' (87). Along with the color of his hair, the Green knight also represents unrestricted growth with hair that supposedly comes down to his elbows. The Gawain-poet also says the beard was bushy which as Flieger suggests is: 'a mere figure of speech, a dead metaphor, but like all metaphors, it has its roots in real perception. A full beard can look like a bush, as in Edward Lear's limerick' (91). The limerick reads:
There was an old man of Liskeard
Who said, "It is just as I feared.
A cock and a hen, four larks and a wren
Have all built their nests in my beard".
In this limerick, the character is
said to house birds which as the reader may remember are also said about Curoi,
the carl, in The Champion's Bargain.
One must that the Green Knight's beard literally would have been as big
as a bush if it came to his elbows. The
Gawain-poet is also quite suggestive with the description of hair growing from
the Green Knight's chin and scalp in a way that appears to be vegetation.
Spiers writes, 'If [the Green Knight] is life, he is wild, uncouth, raw
life' (88). Spiers continues to
champion his idea that the Green Knight represents green or vegetative life by
drawing a connection between the
Now we shall investigate meaning of the color of the enigmatic Green Knight. Sadowski described the color's significance in literature and religion as follows: 'Green is experienced as the color of life itself because it signifies growth and the verdant energy of nature. It is the color of rebirth and resurrection' (65). Brian Stone, an influential translator of SGGK, describes greenness in relation to the Green Knight by writing, 'Green is also the colour of spring and vegetation' (121). Stone acknowledges the Gawain-poets' use of two literary archetypes to create the Green Knight's character. He writes, 'Yet the Green Knight's combination of greenness, hairiness, energy, earthiness and mainly rough, imperative speech incline us irrevocably to think of two common medieval types, one an outcast and the other a rural deity... The green man, on the other hand, was a personification of spring, a mythological supernatural being' (122). Goldhurst seems to agree with Stone that the Green Knight has among other things qualities associated with nature, by writing, 'The Green Knight is Nature, to be sure...' (62). No one can deny that nature when fully alive during spring and summer assumes many shades of green. Brewer supports this unequivocal statement with indirect evidence by explaining huntsmen wore green because green 'was generally felt to be an agreeable colour, associated with the spring of the year' (184). Some scholars contest that dead and decaying bodies are also associated with the color green. While discussing the double meaning of the color in the natural world, Sadowski plainly writes, 'To put the problem in a nut-shell: with regard to the natural world greenness denotes both the process of growth and life, and the process of decay and death' (63). Thus, the color alone is not enough to categorize the Green Knight as a vegetation deity or figure of death.
Krappe argues that the Green Knight is the very symbol of the latter
choice mentioned above. Krappe
focuses not on the color of the Green Knight nor his amazing feat to remain
alive after losing his head but rather on the observation that the Green Knight
carries an axe. Krappe suggests the
Green Knight is a special executioner who: 'Suffers himself to be beheaded
first, unfortunately, after having bound his victim to submit to a like
operation at the end of a stipulated term, then picks up his head and walks off
with it' (208). Krappe believes
the Green Knight must be Death or Hades because both characters are executioners
with a life to lose. Krappe offers
another connection to chthonic figures such as the Teutonic goddess of death,
Nehalennia and the Norwegian huldres
because these figures conceal there identity with long cloaks and veils.
Krappe even suggests that the Greek ruler of the dead, Hades, was known
as 'the Invisible'. But the
reader will remember that the Green Knight does nothing to conceal either his
intent or his personage. In fact,
the Green Knight is not just green but he 'green all over glowed' (line
178). If the Green Knight were
attempting to conceal himself or his intent, he would need to hide the gigantic
axe he bore and turn down his tint of green so that he would not glow.
Lastly, Krappe states that Christmas 'all over
Although Krappe presents a creative interpretation of the Green Knight,
he must be neglecting final Fitt of the poem to see the Green Knight as a
representation of death. In the
final Fitt, the Green Knight does not execute Sir Gawain or even condemn him to
death by virtue of Gawain's recent sinning with his wife and oath breaking by
keeping the lady's green garment. Conversely,
the Green Knight absolves Gawain of his sin similar to a confessor who offers
penance to a repentant sinner. This
side of the Green Knight, one who makes aware of the amazing God's Grace, is
nearly the antithesis of Death or any executioner.
Instead of giving Gawain death, the Green Knight allows Gawain to have
access to life ever after. The Green
Knight actually dies first before awarding Gawain absolution, which makes him
resemble Christ before the he resembles Death.
Similar to Christ who must die in order to offer life to sinners, the
Green Knight comes to Arthur's court nearly demanding that someone behead him
to perhaps fulfill a sacrifice which will ensure the fertility of the land.
He suffers to lose his head and yet remains alive similar to the
vegetation deity which Spiers describes: 'whose death and resurrection
mythologizes the annual death and re-birth of nature' (83).
If the Green Knight is in fact a symbol of life after death, then the depiction of seasonal change must be important to the Gawain-poet since the seasons of nature seem to follow a cyclic pattern similar to the human condition. To demonstrate the Gawain-poet's focus on not only death but also life, Spiers cites the beautiful opening lines of the Second Fitt in SGGK. The poet suggests a complete observation of the four seasons instead of placing all his focus on the lifeless conditions of winter as his predecessors did in telling The Champion's Feast. The Gawain poet writes, '
With this earnest of high deeds thus Arthur began/ the young year...after Christmas there came the crabbed Lenten/...but then the weather in the world makes war on the winter/...shining rain is shed in shadows that all warm/ fall on the fair turf, flowers there open/ of grounds and of groves green is the raiment/...for sweetness of the soft summer that will soon be on the way/...But then the Harvest hurries in, and hardens it quickly' (II.1-2.490-522).
This account of the changing seasons brings the reader from the darkest days of winter to the 'sweetness of the soft summer' immediately after Gawain beheaded the Green Knight. The poet also describes the first of the year as something young just as the winter could be characterized as being old. But there is dissonance between Krappe's characterization of the Green Knight as Death and the poet's larger perspective on nature's life cycle which repeats itself every year. Because the poet includes an account of the entire year, he acknowledges both the death and then subsequent life of nature and perhaps even for humans as we saw above. Finally as Krappe keenly recommended, the Green Knight carries a festival holly bob into Arthur's court but many scholars contend that the holly bob has contradictory implications to Krappe's interpretation.
contest that the poet gave the reader another clue to the Green Knight's
meaning with the rest of his description while at Arthur's court because the
Green Knight also carries 'a holyn bobbe (I.10.206)' which is 'grattest in
grene when greves are bare' (I.10.207). To
interpret the meaning of the holly bob, we shall examine what it meant to
Arthur's court and the medieval reader because the masterful Gawain-poet must
have known holly to signify more than its quality of being greenest when the
groves are bare. Sadowski offers a
plain explanation of the holly bob: 'Holly (Ilex
Aquifolium) is a common evergreen shrub with prickly leaves bearing clusters
of small white flowers succeeded by bright red berries' (67).
Sadowski reports that in the Irish tree-alphabet the oak letter was
succeeded by holly. The Irish
considered oak to correspond to June the month which holds the mid-summer
solstice, thus holly was the representation of the waning summer and waxing
winter. According to Robert Graves,
in Celtic tradition they believed there were twin kings responsible for the
changing seasons. There was the
oak-king and his twin brother the holly-king.
Sadowski plainly describes the process holly underwent when absorbed by Christians as follows: 'With the advent of Christianity holly, like many other pagan symbols, was incorporated into the body of Christian beliefs and became closely associated with the figure of the Saviour' (68). The reader will note that we have previously demonstrated Christianity's integration of other characteristics and folklore associations concerning the Green Knight, which once represented rituals associated with fertility. Christianity assimilated yet another pagan symbol into its beliefs by relating holly to Christ. Sadowski continues to illustrate the Christian association of holly and Christ, by writing, 'The association with Christ is due to holly's prickly leaves which symbolize Christ's crown of thorns, and to the white flowers and red berries which stand for the Saviour's innocence and blood of the Passion, respectively' (68). Not only do the red berries and white flowers carry significance from the Christian perspective, the green of the holly which 'is the greenest in winter' may symbolize the hope given by Christ's coming into the world. Robert Blanch interprets the green quality of the Green Knight's holly bob as follows: 'Furthermore, since holly is an evergreen, a symbol of fertility and life within the harsh season of winter, this traditional Christmas emblem is associated with the death and resurrection of Christ' (72). This would make the Green Knight's holly branch festive, indeed, as Mr. Krappe perhaps unknowingly hypothesized earlier.
So what do we make of all the folk rituals and fertility symbolism which seem to have a new and yet similar meaning in the Christian context in which the Gawain-poet wrote? The poet appears to use symbols and refer to old rituals which a medieval reader may associate with death and the subsequent rebirth. The Green Knight carries an axe, an obvious symbol of death and a green holly bob, which some scholars interpret as a symbol of fertility and hope. Likewise, Sir Gawain beheads the Green Knight and yet he still lives. The Green Knight resembles the mummer actors from the Christmas plays and games which mimicked the sacrifice of a vegetation deity and then portrayed his revival. The iconographic green man is also found in many medieval churches just as Christians continued to perform the ritualistic folk-festivals demonstrating the social relevance of the green man in a predominantly Christian society. The Gawain-poet illustrates four seasons depicting harsh winter and sweet summer. We hope the virtue of this paper rests in its openness to the Gawain-poet's use of both death and rebirth themes instead of choosing only one champion because quite frankly both images occur in SGGK. To deny the presence of one or the other really suggests the reader to be rather ignorant because one can easily observe death and life in the poem. The poet seems to focus on the entire cycle of life and death just as the Green Knight holds life in one hand and death in the other.
To complete this
perspective, Besserman calls his reader's attention to the beginning and
ending of SGGK.
Besserman notes that the poet includes people and places such as
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