Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Green Knight is a character from Arthurian literature. He is a formidable judge and tester of knights, and as such the other characters consider him as friendly but terrifying and somewhat mysterious.

In ‘Sir Gawain, the Green Knight,’ a 14th century alliterative poem by an anonymous poet, he is so called because his skin and clothes are green. The meaning of his greenness has puzzled scholars since the discovery of the poem, who identify him variously as the ‘Green Man,’ a vegetation being of medieval art; a recollection of a figure from Celtic mythology; a pagan Christian symbol — the personified Devil.

His true name is revealed to be Bertilak de Hautdesert. Other stories refer to him as ‘Bredbeddle.’ In ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ Bertilak is transformed into the Green Knight by Morgan le Fay, a traditional adversary of King Arthur, in order to test his court. In ‘The Greene Knight’ he is transformed by a different woman for the same purpose. In both stories he sends his wife to seduce Gawain as a further test. ‘King Arthur and King Cornwall’ portrays him as an exorcist and one of the most powerful knights of Arthur’s court.

In ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ the Green Knight appears before Arthur’s court during a Christmas feast, holding a bough of holly in one hand and a battle axe in the other. Despite disclaim of war, the knight issues a challenge: he will allow one man to strike him once with his axe, with the condition that he return the blow the next year. At first, Arthur accepts the challenge, but Gawain takes his place and decapitates the Green Knight, who retrieves his head, reattaches it and tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel at the stipulated time.

The Knight features next as Bertilak de Hautedesert, lord of a large castle, Gawain’s host before his arrival at the Green Chapel. At Bertilak’s castle, Gawain is submitted to tests of his loyalty and chastity, wherein Bertilak sends his wife to seduce Gawain and arranges that each time Bertilak gains prey in hunting, or Gawain any gift in the castle, each shall exchange his gain for the other’s. At New Year’s Day, Gawain departs to the Green Chapel, and bends to receive his blow, only to have the Green Knight feint two blows, then barely nick him on the third. He then reveals that he is Bertilak, and that Morgan le Fay had given him the double identity to test Gawain and Arthur.

The name ‘Bertilak’ may derive from bachlach, a Celtic word meaning ‘churl’ (i.e. rogueish, unmannerly), or from ‘bresalak,’ meaning ‘contentious.’ Characters similar to the Green Knight appear in several other works. In Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur,’ for example, Gawain’s brother Gareth defeats four brothers in different colored armour, including a ‘Grene Knyght’ named Sir Partolope. The three who survive the encounter eventually join the Round Table and appear several further times in the text. The stories of Saladin feature a certain ‘Green Knight’; a Spanish warrior (maybe from Castile, according to an Arab source) in a shield vert and a helmet adorned with stag horns. Saladin tries to make him part of his personal guard. Similarly, a ‘Chevalier Vert’ appears in the ‘Chronicle of Ernoul’ during the recollection of events following the capture of Jerusalem in 1187; here, he is identified as a Spanish knight who earned this nickname from the Muslims due to his eccentric apparel.

Some researchers have considered an association with Islamic tales. The figure of Al-Khidr in the Qur’an is called the ‘Green Man’ as the only man to have drunk the water of life (fountain of youth), which in some versions of the story turns him green. He tests Moses three times by doing seemingly evil acts, which are eventually revealed to be noble deeds to prevent greater evils or reveal great goods. Both the Arthurian Green Knight and Al-Khidr serve as teachers to holy men, who thrice tested their faith and obedience. It has been suggested that the character of the Green Knight may be a literary descendant of Al-Khidr, brought to Europe with the Crusaders and blended with Celtic and Arthurian imagery.

The beheading game, a trope or motif of medieval romance in which the players exchange blows that could decapitate their opponent, appears in a number of tales, the earliest being the 8th century Middle Irish tale ‘Bricriu’s Feast.’ The challenger in this story is named ‘Fear,’ a bachlach (churl), and is identified as Cú Roí (a superhuman king of Munster in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology) in disguise. He challenges three warriors to his game, only to have them run from the return blow, until the hero Cú Chulainn accepts the challenge. With Cú Chulainn under his axe, this antagonist also feints three blows before letting the hero go. In the Irish version, the cloak of the churl is described as ‘glas,’ which means green.

In the ‘Life of Caradoc,’ a Middle French narrative embedded in the anonymous ‘First Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, the Story of the Grail,’ another similar challenge is issued. In this story, a notable difference is that Caradoc’s challenger is his father in disguise, come to test his honor. The French romances ‘La Mule sans frein’ and ‘Hunbaut’ and the Middle High German epic poem ‘Diu Crone’ feature Gawain in beheading game situations. Hunbaut furnishes an interesting twist: Gawain cuts off the man’s head, and then pulls off his magic cloak before he can replace it, causing his death. A similar story, this time attributed to Lancelot, appears in the 13th century French work ‘Perlesvaus.’

The 15th-century ‘The Turke and Gowin’ begins with a Turk entering Arthur’s court and asking, ‘Is there any will, as a brother, To give a buffett and take another?’ Gawain accepts the challenge, and is then forced to follow the Turk until he decides to return the blow. Through the many adventures they have together, the Turk, out of respect, asks the knight to cut off the Turk’s head, which Gawain does. The Turk, surviving, then praises Gawain and showers him with gifts. ‘Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle’ contains a scene in which the Carl, a lord, orders Gawain to strike him with his spear, and bends over to receive the blow. Gawain obliges, the Carl rises, laughing and unharmed, and, unlike in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, no return blow is demanded or given. Among all these stories, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ is the only one with a completely green character, and the only one tying Morgan le Fay to his transformation.

Several stories also feature knights struggling to stave off the advances of voluptuous women, including ‘Yder, the Lancelot-Grail Cycle,’ ‘Hunbaut,’ and ‘The Knight of the Sword.’ The Green Knight parallel in these stories is a King testing a knight as to whether or not he will remain chaste in extreme circumstances. The woman he sends is sometimes his wife (as in ‘Yder’), if he knows that she is unfaithful and will tempt other men; in ‘The Knight of the Sword,’ the king sends his beautiful daughter. All characters playing the Green Knight’s role kill unfaithful knights who fail their tests.

In English folklore and literature, green has traditionally been used to symbolize nature and its embodied attributes, namely those of fertility and rebirth. Critics have claimed that the Green Knight’s role emphasises the environment outside of human habitation. With his alternate identity as Bertilak, the Green Knight can also be seen as a compromise between both humanity and the environment as opposed to Gawain’s representation of human civilization. Oftentimes it is used to embody the supernatural or spiritual other world. In British folklore, the devil was sometimes considered to be green which may or may not play into the concept of the Green Man/ Wild Man dichotomy of the Green Knight. Stories of the medieval period also portray the color as representing love and the amorous in life, and the base, natural desires of man. Green is also known to have signified witchcraft, devilry and evil for its association with the fairies and spirits of early English folklore and for its association with decay and toxicity.

The color, when combined with gold, is sometimes seen as representing the fading of youth. In the Celtic tradition, green was avoided in clothing for its superstitious association with misfortune and death. Green can be considered in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ as signifying a transformation from good to evil and back again; displaying both the spoiling and regenerative connotations of the color.

Of the many characters similar to him, the ‘Green Knight of Sir Gawain’ is the first to be green. Because of his strange color, some scholars believe him to be a manifestation of the ‘Green Man’ figure of medieval art (a legendary being primarily interpreted as a symbol of rebirth), or as a representation of both the vitality and fearful unpredictability of nature. That he carries a green holly branch, and the comparison of his beard to a bush, has guided many scholars to this interpretation. The gold entwined in the cloth wrapped around his axe, combined with the green, gives him both a wild and an aristocratic air.

Others consider him as being an incarnation of the Devil. In one interpretation, it is thought that the Green Knight, as the ‘Lord of Hades,’ has come to challenge the noble knights of King Arthur’s court. Sir Gawain, the bravest of the knights, therefore proves himself equal to Hercules in challenging the Knight, tying the story to ancient Greek mythology. Descriptive features of the Green Knight suggest a servitude to Satan such as the beaver-hued beard alluding to the allegorical significance of beavers for the Christian audience of the time who believed that they renounced the world and paid ‘tribute to the devil for spiritual freedom.’ Another possible interpretation of the Green Knight views him as combining elements from the Greek Hades and the Christian Messiah, at once representing both good and evil and life and death as self-proliferating cycles. This interpretation embraces the positive and negative attributes of the color green and relates to the enigmatic motif of the poem. The description of the Green Knight upon his entrance to Arthur’s Court as ‘from neck to loin… strong and thickly made’ is considered by some scholars as homoerotic.

Medievalist C.S. Lewis declared the Green Knight ‘as vivid and concrete as any image in literature’ and further described him as: ‘…a living coincidentia oppositorum; half giant, yet wholly a ‘lovely” knight’; as full of demoniac energy as old Karamazov, yet in his own house, as jolly as a Dickensian Christmas host; now exhibiting a ferocity so gleeful that it is almost genial, and now a geniality so outrageous that it borders on the ferocious; half boy or buffoon in his shouts and laughter and jumpings; yet at the end judging Gawain with the tranquil superiority of an angelic being.’

The Green Knight could also be interpreted as a blend of two traditional figures in romance and medieval narratives, namely, ‘the literary green man’ and the ‘literary wild man.’ ‘The literary green man’ signifies ‘youth, natural vitality, and love,’ whereas the ‘literary wild man’ represents the ‘hostility to knighthood,’ ‘the demonic’ and ‘death.’ The Knight’s green skin connects the green of the costume to the green of the hair and beard, thus connecting the green man’s pleasant manners and significance into the wild man’s grotesque qualities.

In the original poem, when the Knight is beheaded, the Green Knight tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel, saying that all nearby know where it is. Indeed, the guide which is to bring Gawain there from Bertilak’s castle grows very fearful as they near it and begs Gawain to turn back. The final meeting at the Green Chapel has caused many scholars to draw religious connections, with the Knight fulfilling a priestly role with Gawain as a penitent. The Green Knight ultimately, in this interpretation, judges Gawain to be a worthy knight, and lets him live, playing a priest, God, and judge all at once.


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