There be dragons!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Green Man and Gawain

In the poem "Gawain and the Green Knight" the "ghostly knight" that enters into the court of Camelot is a manifestation of that legendary spirit of nature, the Green Man.

This character out of English mythology can be seen ornamenting gardens as a face peering out of the foliage

But he isn't necessarily a force that is welcoming to men. The Green man is fundamentally an elemental force that cares primarily for the green, the earth, the force that through the green fuse fires the flower

He has parallels to other cultures and other myths; Dionysus, for instance, or Mother Earth

Ents in Tolkien

Swamp Thing in DC comics

or the force that possesses the boys in Golding's "Lord of the Flies"

or like this rather menacing character in the video game Thief : the Dark Project

And in each of these manifestations the Green Man seeks not the good of humans but the blood, or life-force of humans; we are, after all, fertilizer for the grass.

If we are to survive, or become eternal we have to be able to face this elemental force; our own demise and sublimation into the earth (and all the night terrors that surround that ultimate reality).  The Green Knight is, therefore, like the boulder that pins our arm, or the tsunami that rolls into the beach resort - nature presenting us with an inescapable, unwinnable situation; a kobyashi maru.  Men must transcend or die.

The poem poses the question, then, of whether any civilization can create so noble a character to be able to face such a stark reality.  Does Camelot or any human culture have the ability of producing men and women able to face the Green Man?  or are we all doomed to be cowardly monkeys leaping into the trees away from the tigers in the forest of the night?

This, it seems, is why the character of Gawain as a sun hero seems so important in the poem.  Gawain represents the hero's journey which Campbell speaks of when referring to the monomyth; only Gawain is a specific type of hero which I deem "the sun hero".  He is a mortal who is inexperienced (as he says to Arthur he is without name and has done no deed); his defining colors are red and gold; he has on his shield the image of a star interlocking in eternity; he begins his journey at the start of the solar year (just after the solstice) and must commence finding the Green Chapel after a year and a day have transpired.  Thus in all his elements he is represented by solar imagery.  Moreover the sun hero's quest culminates in finding the home of his nemesis, another solar deity (sometimes his father), overcoming the obstacles set for him by that deity and being thus transfigured into a wiser and more powerful man, or even a solar deity himself (a process we call apotheosis: being exalted to god-like status).
Gawain comes to the castle of Bertilak, himself a solar character, whose lady poses challenges of honor and self-preservation to him.  Gawain defeats almost all of the challenges except the green belt that might keep him alive; an image that echoes of the symbol for eternity and yet is a deception since it is the thing that imperils him in the end.  Bertilak and the Green Knight are revealed to be one and the same and the final nick on Gawain's neck is a reminder of his failure.  He returns to court a wiser man, someone who sees beyond the pettiness of others, the sage or solar figure.  This return is also part of the monomyth and symbolizes resurrection - the new solar year of our own lives reflected in the newborn baby Jesus.

But the question remains whether men can transcend the earthly cycles of the Green Man.  Can we overcome the humus of our humanity?  the Adamah of our Adam?  or are we doomed to push up the daisies?

What Gawain seems to suggest is that our transcendence of death is achieved by transcending our own fears and desire for self-preservation.  Being honorable and exercising self-control need to take precedence over that urge to save ourselves; "he who would save his life will lose it."  The sun hero, Gawain, is only elevated to a greater status, that of the sun deity, by recognizing his own failing - seeing that he is not a god - and using that knowledge to persist in self-control and honor.  Like Phaethon who fails to drive the sun chariot, Gawain ultimately fails to keep faith with Bertilak.  I wonder whether, then the poem is saying that Gawain is ultimately a failure in apotheosis; he doesn't become a sun god b/c he cannot keep faith.  Or is the poem saying that only by the persistent  exercise of honor in the face of failure is he able to return to Camelot as "the boon giver", the wise man - one no longer at the mercy of the eternal cycles, but one with them.

(this entry is for William)


  1. I don't quite understand your point about a "sun hero", but the observation about the Green Knight as a personhood of indifferent, inexorable nature is something I hadn't thought of before. This particular iconography does seem to crop up in an awful lot of places: in characters like the Green Knight at their mildest and the Gnostic demiurge at their scariest.

    That's yet another reason you simply must read Blood Meridian, by the way. Its central figure, Judge Holden, is precisely this character: born out of the howling wilderness (literally: he has no discernible background), incarnating all of the fear of implacable violence and evil that was associated with the wild southwest in our cultural narrative of Manifest Destiny, unchanging, seemingly omnipotent, and (perhaps literally) immortal.

    -- John

  2. Thanks for the comment, Hopsage. If you are interested in the sun hero and the monomyth check out Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a thousand faces". The sun hero is, actually, my own (so far as I know) though the sun deity runs all through literary criticism. There are numerous good articles about that bloke but the best is probably Nannos Marinatos "Sun Imagery in the Odyssey". Well worth a gander.