David Russell Mosley delves into Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poem that starts at Christmas. Mosley draws on an argument by Tolkien, not coincidentally one of the translators of Sir Gawain, that fairy tales and mythical figures point beyond themselves to the truth of the Gospel. David will share more about Faerie and the Gospel in future Scholar’s Compass posts.
Quotations from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in this post.
One of my favourite Medieval, Middle-English poems (if you don’t have one you really should), is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It begins at a Christmas feast in King Arthur’s court. All are feasting and laughing when suddenly a giant of a man comes riding into the hall where the courtiers are feasting. His size is larger than normal, but that alone is not what distinguishes him. In addition to his large size, the man is entirely green, both his raiment and his person. He comes to ask for a participant in a Christmas game. Using the great axe he has brought with him, his opponent would give him a blow to the neck. Then, a year and a day later, his opponent must receive the same from the Green Knight. None of Arthur’s knights come forward, much to Arthur’s chagrin, so he begins to accept the challenge himself. Gawain, one of Arthur’s cousins, will not see his lord debase himself so, and accepts the challenge. He strikes off the green man’s head. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the Green Knight collects his head, reminds Gawain of the terms of their agreement, tells him to find him at the Green Chapel and rides off. Time goes by and eventually Gawain sets out to fulfill his end of the bargain. As he travels he finds himself lost on Christmas Eve without anywhere to celebrate the Christ Mass. So he prays, ‘”I beseech thee, Lord,/and Mary, that is mildest mother so dear,/of some harbour where highly I might hear Mass,/and thy Matins tomorrow, meekly I ask,/and thereto promptly I pray my Pater and Ave and Creed.”‘ Suddenly he sees before his eyes ‘a castle the comeliest that ever knight owned….’ It is, or so it would appear, though the poem never says this, a Faerie castle. We will later find out that the owner of this castle, Bertilak de Hautdesert, is the Green Knight and that his emerald hue and survival are due to the magical ministrations of Morgan le Fay (that is Morgan the Fairy). As they part, Bertilak invites Gawain to spend time with his Aunt (for she is Arthur’s half-sister). Gawain declines to rush back home and ‘They clasped and kissed, commending each other/to the Prince of Paradise, parted in the cold where they stood.’
I bring all this up because the poem shows us some very interesting things, namely a relationship between the Church and Faërie. Gawain prays for somewhere to celebrate the Incarnation, the coming of God into the world and the revelation of the world to itself in Christ. And he does. Bertilak’s castle has a chapel where Gawain worships and receives the Eucharist. He later finds out that all that has happened has been at the hands of a woman who is called Morgan the Fairy, typically the villain in so many Arthurian legends. Yet here she is seen as a tester of Arthur’s court, seeing if it is as good as it is rumoured to be (she also has a seemingly more nefarious purpose, namely killing Guinevere by scaring her to death via Bertilak’s living headlessness). Still the ambiguities aside, one thing is clear, Christ is not seen as antithetical to Faërie. This enchanted world in which Gawain lives is our world. A world where angels and demons exist, a world where miracles happen, a world where the Timeless One has entered into time, where the Creator has become a creature. There is more to this poem, the testing of Gawain’s virtue, the real failures of Arthur’s court, etc. Nevertheless, one of the keys we can take away from this poem during Christmas this year is just what Christmas means. It means a world that is not reducible merely to what we see and this was proven to us when its Creator entered into it. This is the magic, the enchantment of Christianity. This is what we are reminded of each Christmas.
Where have you seen God breaking into the world and transforming it this Advent? Where have you realized the wonder of living in a world that is more than we know? What books help you to experience life in that way?
Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Book of Common Prayer, Church of England
|God our redeemer,
who prepared the Blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. A. S. Kline. 2007. http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/GawainAndTheGreenKnight.htm
Image: Sir Gawain by Howard Pyle, from King Arthur and His Knights (1903). From http://www.gallery.oldbookart.com/main.php?g2_itemId=2708 via wikipedia.