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The Green Knight, or Heroes are Made in the Wilderness by Carlos Perona Calvete

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The Green Knight, or Heroes are Made in the Wilderness

A painting from the original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight is seated on the horse, holding up his severed head in his right hand.

Director David Lowery’s 2021 cinematic adaptation of the 14th Arthurian poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, provides a good excuse to discuss the original tale and its present relevance. The film is visually impactful and superbly edited, albeit its symbolist streak does not always live up to its implied insights, which seem to remain at the level of an extended memento mori: The Green Knight as that “green” whose color stands for mere vegetable life, infection, and moss—the knowledge that our best laid plans will be covered over, that the city of man will succumb to the wilderness. Indeed, remembering that the wilderness is both older and more persistent than humanity may deliver us unto a kind of humility. But without a transcendent vista, heroism in its truer sense will elude us. 

This vista is not lacking from the original tale. When once upon a Christmas, King Arthur’s court convened, there came to it a visitor, a friend—or else fiend. His title was the Green Knight, and he suggested to the king that the bravest man there present should play a game with him: the two would duel, and if Arthur’s champion landed a blow on the Green Knight, whatsoever it was, would be returned to him one year hence, in a northern place called the “green chapel.”

It was Gawain who accepted the challenge, being young, not yet a knight, and in need of exploits to prove his worth. He rushed headlong into the test, and unthinkingly moved to end the stranger’s life, chopping off his head. But the stranger, being strange indeed, simply picked up his severed head and repeated the words, “one year hence.”

Being bound by honor, when a year had nearly passed, Gawain travelled north, experiencing many adventures and seeing many marvels along the way. Finally, he received lodging at a castle whose lord, Bernlak de Haudesert, assured him the green chapel was nearby. At the castle, Gawain met an old, unnamed woman, as well as the lord’s wife. Each night, the latter attempted to seduce the young visitor, but her advances toward the would-be-knight were rebuffed. In spite of this, he found favor with the temptress, who made for him a green belt, telling him that no ill would befall him so long as he wore it. 

Afraid for his life, he bore this belt when he finally came to the Green Knight. Taking the position of a condemned man awaiting the executioner’s axe, Gawain received only a small nip to the back of his neck, instead of the killing blow owed to him. Spoke the Green Knight: “I promised thee a stroke—thou hast it; hold thyself well paid. I hereby release thee of the remnant and of all other rights.” 

The knight now explains that the whole affair was arranged by the unnamed woman of the castle, who turns out to be Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister and Gawain’s aunt. Her purpose, ever ambiguous, seems to be to test her brother’s knights. In making Gawain’s family complicit in all this, Lowery’s filmic treatment of the story does draw out a genuine implied thread, the alliance of court with a magical wilderness.

The Green Knight now revealed himself to be the same lord of the castle at which the youth had taken refuge, sending his wife to test him, and, finding Gawain steadfast and pure of heart, admits “I sent her to assail thee, and I found thee to be the most faultless man on earth.” But Gawain disagrees. He feels himself to have shrunk away from the trial for having worn the protective belt, “for fear of thy stroke cowardice seized me … Now am I faulty and false and fearful … when I ride in renown I shall feel remorse for the fault and cowardice of the crabbed flesh, and how easy it is to be smirched by filth.”

Just as the Green Knight had seen no great fault in him, so too does King Arthur attempt to raise his spirits when Gawain returns to court, “[t]he king comforted the knight, as did all the court; and they laughed loudly.” Wiser people than Gawain—the man to whom he owed his life, and the king to whom he owes his loyalty, no less—consider his transgression to be no great blemish. This is one lesson to be extracted from the poem, then: that youth is harsher than age, and that, perhaps, a certain subterfuge is permitted us. After all, we do not typically condemn Jacob for pretending to be his brother Esau and receiving that one’s inheritance from father Isaac, a blessing for his descendants. 

And if it was wrong of Gawain to guard his life as he did, this failure is not final. The lesson is well learned. Gawain has received a first test, one of many. Perhaps in order to be a knight, one must understand what it is to be a knave. He is young, and there will be time enough for initiatory ordeals. He has only to submit to his king, who bids him forgive himself the fault.

Whether Gawain’s wearing of the belt was for the best or not, the idea of throwing oneself into the void only to find it a feathered bed—and finding in the harsh, unyielding law of honor, room enough for mercy—is central to such tales of overcoming. It is the theme of resurrection, of entering death, yet receiving life.

The fact that this happens in the wilderness, at the hands of an entity who seems to somehow personify that wilderness, is important. Knights, who defend the circle of human life, are nonetheless made outside that circle, just as a sovereign ruler who makes the law, must himself stand outside it, just as we do not appreciate life before facing death. 

Pontius Pilate washed his hands of Jesus, whereafter Christ was cast out of the law and placed at the mercy of the mob. In Roman law, one expulsed from the law was called a “homo sacer”—a term fittingly related both to sacrifice and sacredness. Such a person could be killed just as an animal, without penalty, or else allowed to live, depending on the whims of whosoever might happen upon the wretch. 

The Green Knight is the outside, the lawless, the natural. His alliance with Morgan, a witch, reinforces this. Yet he is not devoid of humanity. His blow is not so deathly as the impersonal devouring power of brute nature would seem to be. With him is the revelation that nature is not what it appears, that latent within it is the same Logos that governs human understanding, and whose character is such as to be disclosed by forgiveness of debts rather than condemnation. 

Indeed, the fact that the Green Knight releases Gawain from his debt to him is the crux of the tale: Gawain should not prefer the implacable rule of paying like for like (a killing blow for a killing blow), lest he fall under the sway of so brutal a law, the very law king Arthur’s court is sworn away from—for is it not finally revealed in the Holy Grail saga, that the grail is the death of the lamb, precisely that which overcomes law with grace?

And has the Green Knight’s game not fulfilled itself? After all, we might consider that, if the point was to return a blow for the same blow, Gawain’s decapitation of the mysterious stranger does not end in death. Contrastingly, if Gawain were decapitated, he would surely die, lacking as he does the convenience of being endowed with magical abilities. What he receives—a cut on the back of the neck—is, after all, equivalent to what the Green Knight received. The rules of the game can be turned on their head, their meaning altered, even as they are being discarded. This, again, is a very Biblical theme. Catherine Pickstock puts it beautifully (my italics):

redemption consists in … endless allegorical return to the past and ironic removal from the meanings of the past (from Old Testament literal violence, for example) … qualified by the ‘witty’ and indirect descent of God in human form. This accordingly demands … a constant renewal of the meanings of the (Old Testament and pagan) past and our ‘dilation’ throughout a renewed cosmos. 

In Virgil’s Aeneid, we may think of that harpy who curses the Trojan remnant, shipwrecked on Carthaginian shores, that they will be so hungry as to eat their own table. When, finally, our erstwhile heroes arrive on Italian soil, they assemble a feast of fruit, and eat this off what’s left of their hard, flat bread. Softened by the fruits’ acid and sweetened by its sugar, the bread becomes a part of this first meal of the Trojans on their newly arrived at European home. The harpy’s curse has become a joke, and they all laugh heartily. 

Similarly, the green belt which Gawain considers a sign of his cowardice, and which he says he plans to continue to wear as a reminder of his failings, becomes a symbol of honor at court:

And it was agreed that all the lords and ladies of the Round Table, each member of the brotherhood, should have a lace belt, a band of bright green, and wear it for the sake of Sir Gawain as long as they lived.

The problem with such reversals of meaning is that they should lead to letting go of past, slavish adherence to maleficent prophecy or merciless law—to discovering a greater, animating Logos beyond them (as Pickstock indicates). If instead, we remain fixated on them, searching for truth only in the past (memory, prophecy), or in thoughts (the mind, legalisms), we will sooner or later fall under the tyranny of these systems. St. Paul warns against both those who “demand signs” and those who “look for wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22). 

The reference to Trojans is appropriate, since Arthur’s people are said to descend from these, and the tale ends with a reference to it: 

And this was the renown of the Round Table, and he that had it was held in great honour for evermore, as I have seen it written in the best book of romance. Thus in King Arthur’s day did this adventure betide. The Brutus books bear witness to it, since the bold Knight Brutus came hither first after the siege and the assault ceased at Troy…

We find ourselves within a wider European cycle, one which inherits much from the, sometimes unacknowledged, ironies and profounder meanings which Virgil encoded in his work (especially evident when we read the Aeneid together with the Georgics).

In his Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions, a work of Islamic apologetics, Cambridge University professor Abdal Hakim Murad (born Time Winter) at one point provides the following aphoristic statement: “St. Cuthbert never defeated the Green Man, who has now returned with a Law.”

Professor Murad is appealing to an 18th and 19th century literary theme according to which Islam is more in touch with nature than the more ascetical, monastic Christianity, as expressed by such prominent figures as Lord Byron and Nietzsche. The “Green Man” is an artistic motif that occurs in various medieval cathedrals. He is a filigreed, often leaf-haired figure who seems to personify the forest. He is present in the Cathedral of Durham, dedicated to the patron saint of Northumberland, St. Cuthbert. His presence there, however, does not imply a defeat, so much as an integration of what some consider a pagan image. 

The Green Man who professor Murad tells us has “returned with a Law” would be the Islamic al-Khidr, usually translated as “the green” (sharing the root Kha, Arabic “green”). The law with which he is returning, then, is the Shariah. A mysterious figure, al-Khidr discloses the reason for certain apparently incongruous actions to Moses in the Qur’an (18:65-82), and later tradition associates him with secret initiation and esoteric Sufi knowledge. He is sometimes mentioned as initiating persons of a special vocation, without need for a formal, established lineage and school. Like the Green Knight, he is outside the human city, outside the court. 

What better equivalent can European tradition offer to al-Khidr’s mysterious initiating of saints, outside ordinary lineages of teachers and students, than the Green Knight’s testing of young heroes, facing them with their own fear of death? Islamic tradition, by presenting us with the figure of al-Khidr, allows us to better understand the Green Knight as initiator, standing outside, but supporting, the circle of human interaction.

Today, we are continuously faced with the deathblow of the wilderness—a climate turned apocalyptic, a virus gone epidemic, etc. As Giorgio Agamben writes, by living in a state of continuous exception, where the ordinary operations of human community must be adapted to ever-shifting dangers, we fall under the curse of a powerful law, an ever more stringent regulation of life. 

We who watch the wilderness fearfully, we do not become knights.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.

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