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Into the woods

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Title:
Into the woods yet another exploration of myth and ritual in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Creator:
Segovia, Ketievia
Place of Publication:
Denver, CO
Publisher:
University of Colorado Denver
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
iv, 47 leaves : ; 28 cm

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ( lcsh )
Gawain and the Grene Knight ( fast )
Ritual in literature ( lcsh )
Myth in literature ( lcsh )
Myth in literature ( fast )
Ritual in literature ( fast )
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 45-47).
Thesis:
English
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
Ketievia Segovia.

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Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
|Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
62879044 ( OCLC )
ocm62879044
Classification:
LD1193.L54 2005m S43 ( lcc )

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Full Text
INTO THE WOODS: YET ANOTHER EXPLORATION OF
MYTH AND RITUAL IN SIR GA WAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT
by
Ketievia Segovia
B.A., Metropolitan State College of Denver, 2000
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
English
2005
'It i i |


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Ketievia Segovia
has been approved
by
Pompa Baneijee


Segovia, Ketievia (M.A. English)
Into the Woods: Yet Another Exploration of Myth and
Ritual in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Thesis directed by Professor Nancy Ciccone
ABSTRACT
The poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight had access to and used a
number of Celtic stories in creating his work. These Celtic stories are the record,
sometimes incomplete and vague, of a Celtic myth and ritual practice. This paper
traces some of these mythic and ritual themes through the trope of the pentangle, or
endless knot, that underlies five of the rituals written into Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight and discloses them to be rituals of transformation.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Sign
in
Nancy-Ciccone


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTO THE WOODS..............................1
2. THE BEHEADING GAME..........................8
3. THE SOLAR AND CORN KINGS...................12
4. THE ARMING RITUAL..........................21
5. GAWAIN'S JOURNEY...........................25
6. THE HUNT...................................30
7. THE TEMPTATION GAME........................34
8. END-GAME...................................38
9. HOMECOMING.................................42
BIBLIOGRAPHY
45


CHAPTER 1
INTO THE WOODS
Into the Woods,
Without delay,
But careful not
To lose the way
Into the woods,
Who knows what may
Be lurking on
The journey?
Stephen Sondheim
There is no straight, clear path from the deep woods of the Cemunnos/Heme
figure and the sacrificed Sun King to the plethora of foliate heads in Gothic
cathedrals and Sir Gawains Green Knight; no straightforward logical reasoning
between them. Some of the avenues seem broad and smooth, but when one has
walked a mile or so, the trees seem to shift like the trees in Tolkiens Fangom
Forest, and the path narrows to a track and then peters out into a myriad of
suggestions that lead nowhere at all. One catches glimpses of faces in the trees, but
when one looks directly at them, they disappear in the foliage. Scholars who have
encountered Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have spent untold hours trying to
make logical, workable sense of its symbolism, provenance, mythology, and word
use; they have discussed the abortive alliterative revival, medieval French romance,
1


made slighting reference to folklore, tied in Gothic architecture, and performed
exhaustive studies of etymology. Perhaps because there is little firm scientific or
historical evidence of its origin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has become, of
late, a point of study for historians and literary critics wishing to tie Richard II, and
thus Richardian poetry (which is usually the venue of Chaucer and Gower scholars),
into their studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Jones 36, 38). Earlier
studies of the poem, notably Sir James Frazers The Golden Bough and Jesse
Westons seminal book From Ritual to Romance, started a new form of literary
criticism called the "ritual-dominant school" (Doty 234). This new form of
criticism was based on Westons idea that all mythology actually came from ritual
forms and reenactments. Weston, however, used the French romances and the
Quest for the Grail as her primary sources, pursuing the tropes put forth in Malorys
Le Morte Darthur and in Chretien de Troyes Perceval, all of which are late
compilations of Arthurian tales, many of which had been distorted over time from
what must have been original pre-Christian stories. Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight is, of course, one of these compilations, but, as this exploration intends to
show, it is closer to the original pre-Christian Celtic and Anglo-Saxon tales than to
the stories of the Arthurian quest for the grail. Using a reversal of Westons idea of
ritual to romance into a myth-to-ritual model, this is also an exploration of a
different way of reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that ties together the
2


Gawain poets main trope of the pentangle, its magical rituals of transformation and
the tale of Sir Gawains rite of passage from mythic hero to human.
When the Christian missionaries came to Britain in the 3rd century, they
found two cultures living uneasily beside one another: the Anglo Saxon and Celtic
tribes. The Anglo Saxons were invaders or immigrants, and they had pushed the
Celtic peoples back into the west and north of the island (what is now Scotland and
Wales) and into Ireland. Both cultures were largely illiterate, but with a wealth of
sophisticated religious myth and legend, that included the transmission of their
religious belief system, legends of the descent of their kings and priests, stories that
included their day-to-day lives and historical happenings, and doubtless included
religious ritual in the form of myth and myth in the form of ritual. The missionaries
immediately set out to convert these heathens to the one true faith, but they found it
a difficult task. Old religions, especially when deeply rooted in the soil of a land,
are very difficult to root out, and the Anglo Saxon and Celtic religions were no
exception. Like todays Christians, the Celtic and Anglo Saxon peoples must have
seen their mythology as being a reasonable way of viewing the world, and the
variability of mythic expression allowed for a freedom of creativity which led to
ritualized myth, and so became an instrument of exploration and transformation,
rather than an attempt to control a menacing outside world (Doty 344). The stories
that survived the imposition of Christianity would naturally be the exciting stories
of heroes and kings, as well as fabulous stories of magic and transformation, which
3


were passed from generation to generation, each generation adding their own
material and dropping material that no longer made sense to them. It is unfortunate
that most of this material, being oral or proscribed by the Church, has been lost or
so garbled that it is difficult to trace even one Anglo-Saxon or Celtic theme from
beginning to end. Indeed, sources for the beliefs and practices of the Anglo Saxon
and Celtic cultures are almost non-existent since the Christian missionaries did their
best to obliterate knowledge of the older cultures except when it was necessary to
refer to them for their suppression. Ironically, one of the rich sources for the study
of these cultures is the Christianization of the folklore and culture in literary works
(Chaney 4). These texts are, for the most part, stories and songs that were known
and/or interesting to a society newly converted to Christianity: literature that spoke
to a pre-literate, still-agrarian, and still-tribal society, whose culture and way of life
was deeply rooted in the Otherworld, from which manifestations of spirit and deity
often appeared; in other words, their mythology. From this mythology must have
come a body of ritual practices that consisted, in part, of worship and propitiation
rites that were performed seasonally, and rites of passage that marked personal and
community events such as birth and death rites, marriages and coming of age
rituals.
The Anglo-Saxon culture with its roots in Germany and Scandinavia, the
Celtic culture with its roots deep in English soil, and a soupgon of Greek and
Roman myth, were seminal in the formation of medieval folklore and the Arthurian
4


tradition, and it is this meld of cultural stories that makes up the folklore of the
medieval period that has become known as the "Matter of Britain." The Matter of
Britain can be defined as tales of adventure and magic loosely related to King
Arthur, his Knights of the Table Round, their sources, and an immense body of
scholarly and not so scholarly writing. These stories, songs and poetry started as an
oral tradition, which has given rise to the many versions of the same or similar tales
within the canon of Arthurian and Arthurian-related material. Before Chretian de
Troyes wrote his own selective telling of these stories in the second half of the
twelfth century, Arthur and his court were a large part of the British oral tradition
we now ascribe to folklore, and were taken up, reworked and told again and again
by the Bretons, who were British expatriates living in France (C. Matthews 6-7). It
is these unknown story tellers that the Gawain poet undoubtedly heard and
pondered, and finally turned their stories into his own retelling of the real hero of
the Matter of Britain, Sir Gawain.
Most of the stories of the Matter of Britain that survived the depredations of
the Church are mythic and, since myth and ritual are closely related, are told in
ritual form. Ritual is a transformative activity that starts with a static position and
results, through a series of changes, in a completed metamorphosis, which then
becomes the status quo until the next transformation is complete. This process is
seen most clearly in rituals of passage from adolescence to adulthood, whether it be
the transformation of a human being or the transformation of a culture. In the case
5


of a dramatic change in the culture which involves, for instance, the move of an
agrarian society to a city society, or the imposition of Christianity on a pre-Christian
culture, the rites, practices and symbols of the changed culture tend to become, over
time, the stories, songs, and games of the new culture. These stories, songs and
games, may still carry mythic material from the old culture, but that material will be
largely unintelligible to the new. Since much pre-Christian ritual in the agrarian and
warrior cultures of the Anglo-Saxons and Celts must have revolved around seasonal
vegetation and battle issues, it is not surprising that the traditional games played and
stories told at British medieval courts would be based on the diurnal death and
rebirth of the sun (seen as a king who holds the luck of the land), the seasonal death
and rebirth of crops and woodlands, and the tales arising out of the Cult of the Head,
all of which were conflated over a thousand years into Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight.
Games play a large part in Sir Gawain, all of which are games of forfeit. In
forfeit games there is always a challenge and a consequence for not meeting the
challenge. The modem game of Truth or Dare, for instance, is played by
challenging a participant to tell the tmth about a subject (as in, "With whom did you
sleep last night?") or to take on a dare (as in, "I dare you to take off all your clothes
and dance naked in the woods"). The challenges in Sir Gawain involve his honor:
the Green Knight challenges Gawain to cut off his head and then show up to have
his own cut off; Baron Bercilak challenges Gawain to honorably trade his winnings
6


for the day with Bercilaks; and Lady Bercilak challenges Gawain to refrain from
impinging on the rules of hospitality and courtly love by not succumbing to her
sexual overtures. Gawain wins every game but the second, withholding from
Bercilak the green girdle which he thinks will protect his life, and so pays the forfeit
of having the Green Knight draw blood at the Green Chapel. Each of these games
is part of Gawains rite of passage, by way of a transformative ritual, from mythic
pre-Christian infallible hero into a human fallible Christian knight. As subsets of
the main Beheading ritual, and like the pentangle on Gawains shield, there are five
transformative rituals that make up a Yuletide game of forfeits. The first is that of
the Summer King/Winter King seasonal transformation where the Beheading Game
is introduced; the second is that of the arming of Sir Gawain that creates the
chrysalis from which the transformed knight will emerge at the end of the story; the
third is the journey of the hero to the site of the ritual testing where his faith in the
Goddess is tested; the fourth is the test of the hero through the game of forfeits that
includes three ritual hunts and an attempted seduction; and the final test is that of
the finish of the Beheading Game, where Gawain is given the true accolade of
knighthoodnot with the flat of a blade, but with the nick of the Green Knights
axe on his neck.
7


CHAPTER 2
THE BEHEADING GAME
The Green Knights first words to Arthurs court is a rude question: "Wher
is," he sayd, / "The govemour of this gyng? / Gladly I wolde / Se that segg in sight,
and wish himself speke raysoun" (224-226). He is looking for the King in order to
propose a "Crystemas gomen, / For hit is Yol and Newe Yer, and here ar yep mony"
(11 284-285). The game the Green Knight proposes is typical of many games of
forfeits that were popular at medieval courts, and the usual forfeits were kisses or
some bit of jewelry or clothing. The Green Knights game is grimmer, and consists
of a very simple concept: "you cut off my head this year, and Ill cut off your head
next year." The Beheading Game is hardly a Christian concept. Indeed, the cult of
the head was central to both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic pagan cultures.
Posidonius, a 2nd century BCE chronicler describes the Celtic propensity for what
amounts to a beheading game:
They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and
attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-
stained spoils they hand over to their attendants to
carry off as booty,... and they nail up these first
fruits upon their houses (Davidson 71)' 1
1 While this sounds more than barbaric in the 21st century, Elizabeth I declared that
all who did not attend the Protestant churches or who still espoused the Catholic
rites were traitors and were subject to being beheaded. The heads were placed on
pikes at the gates to the City in London.
8


Heads play an important part in many of the Celtic stories of gods and heroes, most
notably that of Bran the Blessed, whose story is told in Branwen, Daughter ofLlyr,
a part of the Mabinogion, whose disembodied head entertained his men for many
years in the Otherworld and then was buried at the White Mound in London to
protect the land as a talisman against invasion. Most of these tales involve the
Celtic hero Cuchullain and the Irish king Conchobar. Many of the tales of the
Matter of Britain that surely came from the earlier stories include Sir Gawain,2 and
are likely later and more Christianized than the tales in the Mabinogion. Many
involve the beheading of one who has been enchanted, but others are about the
honor of the heroes who vie for a position at the head table and the good cuts of
meat at feasts called the "Heros Portion" (C. Matthews 126). Bran the Blessed
was, if not a god, certainly a king, and as such was bound to the welfare of his land
and his people. The fertility of the land and the harvests are dependant on the kings
Tuck, and his kingdoms fruitfulness on his vitality and ability to protect the land
and the people. These abilities are tied directly into the kings person, and flow
even from the royal touch (Chaney 86). The divine king may also be seen as the
keeper of the tribe's land, through a bargain renewed every seven years with the
Goddess of Sovereignty (C. Matthews 18). The Celtic kings and heroesnotably
Cuchullain and Conchobarare bound by geasa, which are taboos or things he
2 Cf John Matthews compilation of Arthurian stories, The Book of Arthur: Lost
Tales of the Round Table, notably The Mule Without a Bridle, p. 133-141.
9


must or may not do and are designed to promote the welfare and prosperity of the
tribe (Weston 54).
There are also a plethora of stories in the Arthurian cycle that include
beheading of one sort or another. Some of these involve the freeing of an enchanted
person, and some of them involve ritual murder. In the story of "Gawain and the
Carl of Carlisle," Sir Gawain, Sir Kay, and Bishop Baldwin seek shelter at Carlisle
in spite of the Carls reputation for being "a fierce wild Carl" who may give them
rougher welcome than they like (J. Matthews Arthur 111). The Carl, however
gives them shelter, and because Sir Gawain is so polite, he asks Gawain for a favor:
Sir Knight, do as I bid you. ... Do you see that axe
resting by the door to the buttery? Well, I want you to
take it and cut off my head with it. Do as I say and all
shall be well. Do not fear, you cannot hurt me!
Gawain complies (not without misgivings), and the Carl transforms from an "ugly,
powerful fellow" into a "handsome man dressed all in fine clothes." The Carl tells
the knights that he has been enchanted for more than twenty years and that the only
way the spell could be broken was for him to "find a man who would do everything
that I asked of him, and behave with perfect courtesy" (114). Evidently the Carl
also had to lose his head to gain his freedom. Other stories reflect the profound
Otherworldliness of the ubiquitous bachlach, for instance as in Bricrius Feast
portrayed as a "giant, club-carrying herdsman" who challenges the warriors of
Ulster to a beheading game. Several of the warriors find this an easy game and
10


accept the challenge, only to disappear when it is discovered that the bachlach's
head magically returns to his shoulders and he will come around the next night to
claim the return blow. The resonances with the Green Knight in these stories cannot
be missed. In "The Carl of Carlisle," it is Gawains courtesy that earns him the
favor of cutting off the bachlach's head, as it is partly Gawains courtesy that gets
him that honor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The bachlach casually picks
up his head and remarks that he will be back to return the blow, while the Green
Knight courteously invites Sir Gawain to his house to finish the game. It is also
worth noting that the word "bachlach is very close to the name of the Green
Knights alter-ego "Bercilak" (C. Matthews 126-127).
11


CHAPTER 3
THE SOLAR AND CORN KINGS
Early Christianity was faced with many threats, not the least of which was
the worship of Helios, the sun, which was absorbing many other cults of the Roman
Empire during the first four centuries CE. In order to bring the cult of Helios into
the Christian mythology, the Christians, in 273 CE declared the birth of Christ to be
on the feast of Sol Invictus, the day of the winter solstice, and invoked Christ by the
name of the Unconquered Sun (Warner 257). This was a symbolically sensible
step in order to bring Jesus into line with the other sun gods (such as the Persian
Mithras, also bom at the Winter Solstice). This decision, explained St. Chrysostom,
Archbishop of Constantinople, put the birth of the "Sun of Righteousness" on this
date so that, "while the heathen were busied with their profane rites, the Christians
might perform their holy ones without disturbance." (Farrar, Eight Sabbats, 137-
138, cf Graves 319)3 Sol Invictus was certainly nothing new to the pre-Christian
Celtic tribes; Celtic solar heroes or kings can be identified in numerous ways, not
the least of which is that their strength waxes and wanes with the diurnal tides.
3 Jesus, as Sol Invictus was not sacrificed for the sins of the people, but as a
renewal of the fertility of the earth and the humans who lived there. The Christian
fathers, in order to keep control of the people, made fertility, i.e., sex, sinful, and
virginity, both in men and women, the highest of holy attributes. This is a strange
strategy in that the best and brightest of the population were incarcerated in
monasteries and nunneries, and were unable to reproduce, and it was the rude folk
that were left to carry on Natures push for renewal and life.
12


Cuchulainn, the most famous of these heroes, is also linked to the sun in that he has
a halo of golden hair. Cuchulainn is linked to Gawain in that many incidents of
Gawains career are much the same as Cuchulainns, one of which is the frequent
playing of the Beheading Game (J. Matthews Gawain 30). There are two solar
kings: the Summer King and the Winter King, and they change places each year at
the summer and winter solstices.
The first ritual of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the Beheading Game,
which introduces the theme of the Summer (Oak) and Winter (Holly) Kings who
exchange places each year at the Summer and Winter solstices each sacrificing the
other endlessly year after year (Graves 180). Yule is the time of the changing of the
tide of the year. The winter solstice is traditionally the day out of time when the
shortest day shows winter to be at its strongest; and the day after the solstice shows
the defeat of the Winter King and the advent of the Summer King, as the days grow
longer until the summer solstice, when, presumably, the Beheading Game is played
again (Graves 180-185). Nor is it an accident that in Britain the day after
Christmas, Boxing Day, is the day that people box up their unused items and
distribute them to the poor of their parishes-certainly symbolic of the start of the
waxing year. Fragments of the myths and rituals of the solar kings can still be
found in Britain in the dances and plays of the Morris dancers and the Mummers,
whose dances have come down generation after generation from at least the
fifteenth century (although most scholars acknowledge them to be much older).
13


The mummers of several locales in Britain, "whose ancient dances were a last
flickering memory of more primitive rites," still perform a five-man sword dance at
the climax of which they link their swords into a star, and cry: "A Nut, a Nut (i.e.,
a knot -the endlesse knot which was an ancient name for the pentangle).4 They
then place the linked blades over the head of one of their number and pretend to cut
off his head" (J. Matthews Gawain 159). In many areas of Britain at Yule,
mummers perform the play of St. George and the Turkish Knight, in which St.
George kills the Turkish Knight, and immediately "cries out that he has slain his
brother" (Farrar Witches 36). Both Morris dances and Mummers plays keep the
ritual of the fertility sacrifice of the Solar Kings alive, even into the 21st century.
The Oak King dominates the waxing year of expansion and growth, when
the fertility of the earth is high and the days long. His reign is from the Winter
Solstice to the Summer Solstice, when the Holly King should rightfully take his
place, although in the Christian calendar the Summer Solstice ritual has been taken
over by the feast of St. John the Baptist, whose feast is celebrated on June 24 and
who, according to the Bible, was beheaded at the behest of Herodiass daughter.
The oak is a powerful symbol of strength and longevity; "its acorn is expressively
phallic, and its roots are said to extend as far below ground as its branches do into
4 Perhaps it is no coincidence that the mummers plays and the Morris dances are
connected with the Beheading Game and that Sir Gawains shield bears the knot or
pentangle, but to be fair, the knot depends on how many dancers there are six
dancers create a hexagram, while five create a pentangle.
14


the air the oak god thus having dominion over Heaven, Earth and the Underworld"
(Graves 176-177). The Holly King, as representative of the waning year, the period
of withdrawal and rest, symbolizes the withdrawal of life from the vegetable world.
It has been suggested that the Holly King is the twin of the Oak King, and as such,
"he is his brothers other self and holds life in trust while the earth rests." The is an
evergreen, and it has red berries that "glow red when all else is bare of fruit." In
Britain the harvest is brought in early in his reign and as such "it is he who oversees
the product of his brothers fertility" (Farrar, Witches God 36). The Holly Kings
reign ends with Yule, when games are played with abandon, especially the games of
forfeit or exchange on which the whole story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
hinges.
If Arthur is the Oak King then the Green Knight must be the Holly King,
and indeed he carries the "holyn bobbe, / that is grattest in grene when greves ar
bare" (11. 206 -7), though he says it is carried a sign of peace: "Ye may be seker bi
this braunch that I bere here, / That I passe as in pes, and no plyght seche" (265-66).
Arthur and his court might have been reassured by this except for the "hoge and
unmete" axe the Green Knight also carries (267). Another indication that the Green
Knight is a solar king is the amount of gold he has woven, hammered, knotted, and
in general placed on his person and his horse, as well as the "kinges capados that
closes his swyre" (186). He is dressed, and his horse is caparisoned, like a king.
Perhaps, over six hundred years into the Christian era in England, the Gawain poet
15


was unaware of the significance of the Green Knights kingly appearance, and it is
likely that the solar kings were still part of the oral tradition. The Green Knight,
then, has come to Arthur's court to be sacrificed so that Arthur can take over the
duties of the Summer King. The Gawain poet has made this a one-time Christmas
game rather than a yearly or seven-year cycle, doubtless because this ritual has
become obsolete with the entrenchment of Christianity where the belief is that
Christ, the ultimate Sun King, is the sacrifice and with his sacrifice ended the yearly
cycles of Summer/Winter King sacrifices.
Since the solar king was regarded as the incarnation of divinity and his life
was sympathetically tied to the prosperity of the land and the tribe, if his powers
declined "the cattle would sicken and cease to multiply, the crops would rot in the
fields, and men would perish of widespread disease" (Frazer 312-13). Any signs of
ill-health or failing strength subjected him to a ritual sacrifice. Rather than leave the
timing of such degeneration to natural or accidental causes, a term (generally seven
or eight years)was fixed, at the close of which the solar king would have to die in
order that his spirit (and therefore the spirit of the god) could animate a more
appropriate body for the god (319). Frazer cynically remarks that as a result "kings,
who had hitherto been bound to die a violent death at the end of a term of years,
conceived the happy thought of dying by deputy (324). Frazer uses many
examples of how the surrogate is chosen, ranging from the use of prisoners of war,
16


to felons sentenced to die anyway, to the sacrifice of the king's sons, but he misses
the volunteer surrogate, of which Sir Gawain is one.
The Green Knight opens the ritual with his challenge, and it is met with
appalled silence from the most celebrated knights of the age, he taunts them with
their supposed mighty reputation ("What, is this Arthures hous," . / "That al the
rous rennes of thurgh ryalmes so mony?") and accuses the worthy Knights of the
Round Table of cowardice (309-315). Arthur is justifiably angry, and responds that
the Green Knights challenge is nothing more than madness, but if that is what he
wants, Arthur himself is willing to give it to him (323-325) and takes up the axe. In
the quiet, as Arthur prepares to give the Green Knight his wish, Gawain volunteers
for the job and gives as his reason for doing so that he thinks it not right that Arthur
take on this task himself, "Whil mony so bolde yow aboute upon bench sytten"
(348-351). Though he claims to be the "wakkest, I wot, and of wyt feblest, And
lest liir of my lyf," (354-55), Gawain is Arthurs nephew, and therefore his heir,5
and it is in that role that he has ritually offered to be the surrogate sacrifice. Gawain
plays the role of surrogate in many of the Celtic Arthurian stories; indeed, it
sometimes seems that Gawain is more often the hero of these stories than Arthur
himself. In the tale of "The Wedding of Gawain and Ragnall" Gawain willingly
marries the extremely ugly Dame Ragnall in order to save both Ragnall and Arthur
5 The Celtic way of calculating descent and succession was through the female line,
so since Gawain is Arthurs sisters son, he has the right to the throne when Arthur
dies (C. Matthews (96).
17


from the wrath of the otherworldly Gromer Somer Jour (J. Matthews Book of
Arthur). In the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Arthur is saved by his
nephew, who takes on the adventure with the knowledge that his death at the end of
the next year allows Arthur to continue his reign, as well as salvage the honor of
Arthurs knights. It is Gawains lineage that entitles him to become the solar king
surrogate, taking on the ritual sacrifice that is here represented as a Christmas game.
In a famous passage, the Gawain poet gives a great deal of attention, as well
he might, to the surprising color of the intruder into Arthurs court:
For wonder of his hewe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And overal enker grene. (147-150)
The Green Knight is a symbol of both wild nature and the fertility of the earth in the
form of agrarian pursuits and domesticated animals, and deep woods and wild
animals. Green is, of course, the color of the natural world and of vegetation,
growth and renewal. As such it represents the spring when life returns to the
vegetable world as well as the evergreen plants that are a symbol of continuing life
through the winter. Green is also closely linked with the Otherworld and fertility of
mind and soul as well as body.6 As a pre-Christian and Otherworld figure, the
6 Various sources suggest that Otherworld figures are often associated with a Bronze
Age people driven by the Celts to live underground in what are now known as the
mounds of the sidh (Doel 28). The sidh, or sidhe (pronounced shee) are still part
of Irish folk legend, the most well-known of which is the banshee (in Gaelic ban-
18


earthy Green Knight also symbolizes freedom from the human or outer world of
Arthurs Christian court: he is barefoot, wears no armor, and his hair is loose down
his back. Nature and the natural were among the few things the Christian fathers
could not control since green nature is redolent of sexuality, without which there
would be no fertility. The medieval Church emphasized virginity and chastity,
particularly in the cult of the Virgin Mary, whose colors of blue and silver are those
of the moon rather than the fertile earth. So, in addition to the Sun King theme, it
appears that the Green Knight also takes on the burden of a more homely agrarian
seasonal sacrifice.
Given the generic title of "Com King," the vegetation god was ritually
sacrificed every year for the fertility of the crops, and every year he rose again in the
green shoots in the Spring. In time, the sacrifice became symbolic, but it is likely
that for many years the sacrifice was human (Farrar, Frazer). The Com King was
traditionally the best the community had to offer: physically perfect, sound of mind,
and willing to give his life for his community. From the time of his choice as
sacrifice, he was treated with honor as the personification of the seasonal fertility
god, and was, "mated at the harvest with a priestess representing the goddess, and
then immediately put to death, either by her or on her behalf' (Frazer 509). The
resonance between the com-cycle and the sun-cycle is reflected in many customs,
sidhe), a woman of the Otherworld who shrieks or moans from the trees near the
house of a person who is about to die, i.e., make a journey to the Otherworld.
19


some of which are still extant. For example, in Scotland it is traditional to keep the
Com Maiden (the last handful reaped at the harvest) until Yule and then feed it to
the cattle as a fertility aid (Farrar, Eight Sabbats 138). While both the
Summer/Winter and Com King sacrifices had to do with fertility, the Com King
sacrifice was an agrarian ritual to encourage the crops to grow and promote the
fertility of domestic animals, while the Summer/Winter King sacrifices may have
dealt with the attachment of kingship (and kinship) to the land itself, and had more
to do with leadership as well as a general rite for peace, plenty and the well-being of
the tribe.
Gawain duly slices off the Green Knights head, and as surrogate king, may
be one of the few who is not surprised when the Green Knight calmly picks up his
head and reiterates the rules of the game. The first path of the pen tangle ritual ends
with Gawains promise to meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel at the next
Yule season, and the withdrawal of the Green Knight, with head in hand. Sir
Gawain goes back to his seat beside Guinevere, and begins his year-and-a-day reign
as surrogate solar king.
20


CHAPTER 4
THE ARMING RITUAL
The Gawain poet passes over most of Sir Gawains year-and-a-day respite
from becoming the solar king sacrifice with a few lovely lines reminiscent of
Chaucers introduction to The Canterbury Tales. It is not until the Michaelmas
moon in September, though, that Sir Gawain starts to think about finding the Green
Chapel, and it is on All Hallows (November 1) that he finally prepares for his
journey. All Souls Eve (Halloween) had, and still has, particular significance in the
Celtic world, though the Celtic peoples called it Samhain (pronounced "sawien" or
"sowin"), and it had little to do with the blessed saints honored on All Saints Day.
Samhain marked theCeltic new year and was the feast of the dead for the Celtic
peoples. The three nights of the festival, were thought to be nights that the veil
between the outer world and the Otherworld was considered to be particularly thin.
It is therefore appropriate that Sir Gawain should begin the second path of the
pentangle ritual, the Arming Rite, on the day after Samhain.
In contrast to the cool green color of the Green Knight, Gawain is dressed in
the vivid colors of the Summer sun. His ceremonial arming in red and gold at the
beginning of his journey marks his status as divine solar king, as well as forming a
protective and protected space for his transformation. Indeed, the arming ritual
carries the symbols of the formation of a chrysalis from which Gawain must free
21


himself in order to become more than just a brother of the Round Table, i.e., a myth,
and become human. First a red carpet is laid out for him to stand on and he is
dressed in silk that is furred inside for protection from the cold. In contrast to the
Green Knight, he is shod, and the armor is put on piece by piece: "His leges lapped
in stel with luflych greves, / With polaynes piched therto, policed ful clene, / Aboute
his knes knaged with knotes of golde," and a then the "coyntlych closed / His thik,
thrawen thyghes," and the "brawden bryny of bryght stel rynes / Umbeweved that
wygh, upon wlonk stuffe;" and finally the "wel bomyst brace upon his bothe armes,
and gloves of plate" (575-583) effectively enclosing him in a protective cocoon of
silk and steel. Although the Gawain poet does not use the butterfly metaphor
directly, it is implied in the verses that describe both Gawains arming and his
journey to the Otherworld: Gawain rides always in his armor, and even at times
must sleep in it, and as a symbol it is always present, either on his body or in his
mind. The other two symbols that Gawain must always carry in his mind are
painted on his shield, to which the Gawain poet pays particular attention. With the
Virgin painted on one side and the pentangle painted on the other, it represents the
paths of his transformation and his faith in the Goddess.
The pentangle seems to be a general gnomen of the Sun King and his
surrogate, who must be perfect in order to become the sacrifice, and the Gawain
poet supports this with his explanation of the pentangle as a symbol of perfection.
Its five points overlap and are linked with one another and it is called the "endeles
22


knot" (630), which makes it a symbol of rebirth and continuance and is a metaphor
for Gawains journey to the Otherworld and back. This ideal of perfection is linked
to the realms of the heroes of the Otherworld or myth through which Gawain must
pass in order to bring the boon of perfect humanity to Arthurs court. In an
alchemical context the pentangle also represents air, fire, water, earth and spirit (or
mind (intelligence), heart (courage), emotion (love), body, and soul). The balance
of these five qualities represents human perfection. As such, Gawain, through the
symbol of the pentangle is presented as fully balanced, and "possessed in equal
measure of the elemental qualities which, in the medieval mind, expressed the
humanity and excellence of the personality" (J. Matthews Gawain 159, 187),7 and
therefore is perfectly suited and armed for his Otherworld quest. The Virgin painted
on Gawains shield ties him once again to Arthur, who, according to Geoffrey of
Monmouth carried "across his shoulders, a circular shield ... on which there was
painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to be
thinking perpetually of her" (C. Matthews 29). Mary represents the Feminine
Divine, which will be further discussed in the next chapter.
Though the Gawain poet accentuates the powers and perfection of the
pentangle and the Virgin Mary, there are two other important symbols involved in
7 Mathews also points out that Gawains shield can be identified with the Irish hero
Cuchulainn who bore a red shield with five wheels of gold . [that] emphasize
Cuchulainns solar attributes (188). It is interesting to note that modem neo-
paganism has adopted the pentangle as its major symbol.
23


the arming ritual that underscore Gawains solar characteristics and "mark him out
as above average in the hero stakes." These are his horse, Gringolet, and his sword.
Gringolet is arrayed, as is Gawain, in the sun colors of red and gold with a saddle
that "glemed ful gayly with mony golde frenges,... The brydel barred aboute, with
bryght golde bounden;. . and al was rayled on red ryche golde nayles That al
glytered and glent as glem of the sunne." (597-604). Variously called "Gingalet, Le
Gringalet, Gujingalet of Kincaled, all of which seem to mean of good staying
power," Gawains horse is caparisoned as a sun-steed in the same manner as the
Green Knights horse, and gives extra emphasis to Gawains solar aspect. It is
surprising that the Gawain poet gives only two half lines: ("Giirde wyth a bront ful
sure With silk sayn umbe his syde" (588-89)) to Gawains sword, and does not
name it, but it can be connected with Arthurs magical sword, Excalibur or
Calibum. In the Merlin, roman en rose du XHIe siecle, Arthur gives Excalibur to
Gawain, and it seems that Excalibur would certainly be necessary to Gawain as a
surrogate for Arthur, since the sword was a gift to Arthur from the Otherworld (J.
Matthews Gawain 187-88).
Armed now with protective armor, a symbolic shield, a magical sword and a
sun-steed Gawain begins his journey to the Otherworld following the paths of the
endless knot to his ultimate transformation.
24


CHAPTER 5
GAWAINS JOURNEY AND THE HOSPITABLE HOST
Every rite of passage ceremony involves a vigil, and the rites of knighthood
are no exception. The medieval candidate for knighthood stood vigil with all his
armor alone in the church, praying and thinking about his new duties,
responsibilities and status. Sir Gawains rite of passage vigil is a bit different,
though he certainly has time to think about both the past and the future. Alone, as
he should be on a rite of passage vigil, friendless, often shelterless, Sir Gawain,
"Now rides this renk thurgh the ryalme of Logres / Sir Gawan, on Godes halve,
thagh hym no gomen thoght" (691-697). This is, as the Gawain poet states, no
Christmas game, though he rides through the wilderness until Christmas eve.
Although the location of Hautdesert has been fairly, if not definitively, identified as
near Wetton Mill in Cheshire (J. Matthews Gawain, 189), the Gawain poet makes it
clear that Gawain is riding into the Otherworld. In fine Arthurian and Celtic
tradition he finds a foe at almost every ford of a river, fights with dragons and
wolves, and meets a wood-troll or two, for the borders of the Otherworld are always
guarded by fell and fierce challengers. At last he finds himself in a deep, wild forest
the Gawain poet describes as if he has been there: "Highe hilles on iiche a halve,
and holtwodes under / Of hore okes ful hoge a hundredth togeder. / The hasel and
the hawthome were harled al samen, / With roghe, raged mosse rayled aywhere
25


(742-745). Gawain knows that if he cannot find the path through the Otherworld
woods soon, he will lose the Beheading Game, not to the Green Knight, but to the
greater forces of Nature and the Otherworld. Gawain still carries his shield,
however, and on it, facing him is the likeness of the Virgin Mary, and it is to her, in
desperation that he prays.
As has been pointed out, it is likely that the Gawain poet pulled much of his
material for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from Celtic sources, and the Celtic
people revered goddesses as well as gods. The early Christian missionaries tried,
without much success, to expunge the divine feminine from the pre-Christian
culture, but the Goddess in her myriad forms did not vanish overnight from the
streams and groves into the small niches they afforded her in the comers of their
churches. She continued to be revered by the people who had worshiped her at
wells, crossroads, standing stones and sacred trees. Indeed, "the Goddess haunted
the medieval imagination," and "believers evidently approached the new expression
of deity with images drawn from their own native mythic traditions" (C. Matthews
20). Mary, in her role as Gawains patron and protector and goddess of sovereignty,
tests her knight on his journey through the underworld, presenting him with an
almost impassable forest-dark, cold, wet and forbidding. Even as Gawain gives
devotion to Jesus, it is the image of the Virgin Mary that is painted on the inside of
his shield. The image of Mary, a profound and enduring trope for medieval
Christians, in keeping with the fertility aspect of the Solar King, appears here as the
26


goddess of the earth rather than the goddess of the moon as she is often depicted.
The Gawain poet does not tell us which portrait of the Virgin is painted on
Gawains shield, but it is likely that it is the picture of the Mater Dolorosa, Our
Lady of Sorrows. In this aspect, "Mary most resembles the fertility goddesses of
antiquity" in that, as the mother goddess of the sacrificed god, she is well aware that
he will rise from the dead, "but also because she is propitiating those same forces of
sterility and death that the sacrifice of her son is attempting to appease .... She [is]
the principle of the abiding earth" (Warner 221). On the other hand, in keeping
with the fertility theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Mary may be
presented as the com goddess, whose robe has ears of wheat sewn round the hem, or
with La Morenta, a seated woman with a child in her lap (276). Gawain, afraid of
the dark wood and in sorrow that he may not be anywhere where he can celebrate
the Christmas Mass, prays to the Mother of God, and receives his miracle in the
form of a ". .. wod of a won in a mote, / Abof a launde, on a lawe, loken under
boghes / Of mony borelych bole, aboute bi the diches, / A castel the comlokest that
ever knyght aghte" (764-767). And, as luck, or the Goddess, would have it, this
castel is exactly the place where he can not only hear the Christmas Mass, but will
finally hear something about the Green Chapel.
Having come through the test of the Otherworld forest, when Gawain
reaches Hautdesert, he is ritually disarmed and loses the protection of his chrysalis
and dressed in the softness of Spring as befits the surrogate sun king. The new
27


clothes are loose and comfortable and "sete on hym semly, wyth saylande skyrtes; /
The ver by his visage verayly hit semed / Wei negh to iiche hathel, alle on hewes, /
Lowande and lufly, alle his lymmes under" (865-868). The new butterfly is now
ready to try his wings. At Baron Bercilaks castle, Gawain is treated like the sun
king whose surrogate he is. Baron Bercilak greets him and plays the hospitable
host, making Gawain "welcum to welde as yow lykes; That here is, al is yowre
awen, to have at yowre wylle and welde" (835-838). Here again, are references to
the Celtic Arthurian tales. In the "Carl of Carlisle" and the "Knight of the Sword,"
Sir Gawain and friends are invited into the castle with kind words and promises of
hospitality, only to find that there is more danger in the castle than in the
Otherworld forest, a fact that Gawain is soon to learn (Matthews Arthur).
As every reader or listener to this tale knows, Baron Bercilak is in reality the
Green Knight: the Holly King, who is set to make of Gawain the Summer King
sacrifice, which has been shown to be a rite of fertility and well-being for the tribe.
Perhaps because of the lack of green coloring, or through some spell of the
Otherworld, Gawain fails to recognize the Baron as his nemesis, even though the
description of the Baron comes very close to the description of the Green Knight
(842-849). Baron Bercilak certainly knows who Gawain is, and Gawain is happily
ensconced in Hautdesert, introduced to Bercilaks lady and her companion, and
accorded every honor of friendship and hospitality. When Gawain confesses his
errand to the Baron, Bercilak laughs slyly and tells him he has reached within two
28


miles ride of the Green Chapel, and he may rest for the next three days and then
keep his tryst with death. To while away the hours between Christmas and New
Year, Baron Bercilak proposes yet another Yuletide game of forfeits: Bercilak will
go hunting while Gawain will stay in the castle and rest in the company of Lady
Bercilak. "Yet firre, quoth the freke, a forwarde we make: / What-so-ever I
wynne in the wod, hit worthes to youres; / And what chek so ye acheve, chaunge me
ther-fome" (1105-1107). An easy game to win, Gawain thinks, but the plight of
the hero is never easy and though Gawain has now completed the third path of the
pentangle, he is still not out of the woods.
29


CHAPTER 6
THE HUNT
In addition to the Solar King and Com King, the Gawain poet has added yet
another Otherworld reference, that of the Wild Huntsman. The god of the wild
beasts and deep woods, Cemunnos, is pictured with antlers and is attended by deer,
snakes, and other wild animals (Anderson 40). Often called the Homed God, he
represents the raw force of Nature as well as acting as defender of all things wild, he
is "swift-moving, wide-roaming, concupiscent, respectfully killed [for food], and yet
eternally reappearing as strong and splendid as ever" (Farrar Eight Sabbats 33). The
differences between the Com King and the Cemunnos figure are marked: the Com
King is associated with vegetation and domestic animals, while Cemunnos is
associated with wild animals and hunting. If one subscribes to the anthropological
model of the stages of civilization, Cemunnos represents the god of the hunter-
gatherer culture, while the Com King represents the god of the more settled agrarian
peoples. However, it is clear from the beheading and hunting passages in Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight that the Gawain poet has conflated the two gods.
There were two Anglo-Saxon religious cults, both associated with sacral
kingship, that have been linked by tradition with Cemunnos: the cult of the stag, and
the cult of the boar. Otherworld hunts abound in Celtic literature, many of them
having to do with mythology and ritual. The cult of the stag plays a large part in the
30


story of one of the most famous Arthurian hunts, "The Hunt of the Dangerous
Forest" or the "Chase of the White Hart." A version of this tale is told in the Celtic
tale of Gereint and Enid, which is part of the Mabinogion, and is one of the few
Arthurian stories where Arthur actually plays a major role. In The Crop Eared Dog
(Echtra an Mhadra Mhaoil), an Irish story, which is a frame for another Gawain
story, Arthur has convened this seven-year hunt according to his geasa: "[Tjhere
are many geasa upon me, and one of them is to convene the chase of the Dangerous
Forest at the end of every seventh year.. .. And I shall not break my geasa... for
he is a person without prosperity who breaks his geasa" (C. Matthews 18). In the
Celtic story, the Hunt is one of a three-part set of enchanted games. Arthur plays a
role in only one of these games in which the White Hart is ritually sacrificed and
Arthur cuts off its head. Since Arthur is the true solar king, the story of the hunt for
the White Hart may be a remnant of Celtic ritual that deals with the sacrifice of the
king, but it has lost much of its mythical, if not mystic, content. Also in this context
there is the tradition of the kings hall, Heorot (Hart Hall) that plays a large part in
Beowulf. While the Beowulf poet is more interested in Grendels depredations into
Heorot, judging by the name, Hrothgars folk must have been devotee of the Stag
Cult.8
8 Beowulf himself must have been a devotee of the Boar Cult, as he and his men
wear helmets crowned with Boar heads.
31


The deer hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is atypical of a stag
sacrifice in that Baron Bercilak forbids the killing of the stag and only hinds and
does are hunted (1154-57). Everyone gets into the act of killing the deer, which
leads one to surmise that the stag cult is not the main trope of the hunting passages.
Though plainly symbolic of what is going on in Gawains bedroom with the
temptations of Lady Bercilak, of the three hunts in Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight (the stag, the boar, and the fox), the second stands out as ritualized sacrifice.
The boar is associated with the king, and is chiefly the animal of the mother-
goddess of some of the Anglo Saxon tribes, and as such, it is, along with the pig, a
"form of the grain-spirit and the animal primarily associated with harvest and
fertility and reproduction" (Chaney 121, 125-26). The boar is also representative of
a combination of the agrarian Com King and Cemunnos, the animal god. The boar
hunt is much different from either the deer hunt or the fox hunt, which are less
dramatic and, while ritualized, do not have the same intensity as the boar hunt. For
instance, unlike the deer and fox hunts, in the boar hunt the totem symbol of the
king is reserved for the king to sacrifice: the beaters chase the boar until he is
backed up to the river, and turns at bay, and all the hunters but Bercilak back away,
giving the Baron, the avatar of Cemunnos, the honor of sacrificing the boar. (1437-
1596)
In folklore the fox has been characterized as smart, cunning, and difficult to
catch, and as a symbol of Sir Gawain himself, the Gawain poets fox is no
32


exception. But, in the end, Gawain makes his only mistake in the game, and the fox
is run to ground and killed. During this hunt it is in the bedroom that the actual
ritual takes place. Lady Bercilak hunts the fox (Gawain) with a skill and cunning to
match that of the fox itself, and finally brings Gawain to a defeat with the gift of the
green girdle that is supposed to keep him from all harm in the Green Chapel. The
fox, "swerves then swift again, / and dauntless darts astray; / in grief and in great
pain / to the wood he turns away" (Tolkein 89). The Gawain poet, with
consummate artistry, has woven the tales of the hunts with the story of Lady
Bercilaks attempted seduction of Gawain, and in the third hunt this motif is
particularly clear. The fox dodges, Gawain, dodges; the fox slips through a thicket,
Gawain slips through a thicket; the dogs finally comer and kill it, and Lady Bercilak
finally comers Gawain with a gift he cannot, for his life, refuse.
There are several levels to these sacrificial hunts, and much has been made
in the Gawain criticism of the implied comparison between Sir Gawain and the
deer, the boar and the fox. The boar sacrifice, however, is the true kingly sacrifice,
and the deer and the fox sacrifices are more on the level of the symbology of
Gawain as hero, rather than Gawain as king. The companion piece to the three
hunts is the Temptation Game, where Lady Bercilak plays the part of High
Priestess.
33


CHAPTER 7
THE TEMPTATION GAME
Sir Gawain has quite a reputation for the ladies, and most of the Gawain
tales revolve around his affaires damore. The Celtic story "Gawain and the Carl of
Carlisle" is the most representative of these tales, and ties in with Sir Gawain and
the Green Knight. After Gawain frees the bachlach from his enchantment, the Carl
introduces him to his wife, and, as is typical of Gawain, he becomes enamored of
her beauty (J. Matthews Arthur 114). The Carl tells Gawain to kiss his lady, and
then, with the excuse that "because you have done all that I asked of you without
question," gives Gawain his daughter in place of his wife, and gives them his bed-
blessing (115). In "The Knight of the Sword," Gawain finds himself in much the
same situation, and in this story there are aspects that the Gawain poet echoes.
When Gawain is introduced to the daughter of the house, his host tells him that he is
sure "she will be delighted to converse with so great and courteous a knight" (145),
a statement that supports Gawains reputation for having "alle prys and prowes and
puredthewes Apendes to hys persoun" (913-914). However, when the lady comes
to his bed, and he starts to lose control, she tells him that the sword hanging on the
wall is enchanted, and "[i]f anyone does anything in this room that is not absolutely
honest and true to the highest moral code, it leaps forth of its own volition and runs
him through." When he gives way to his passion, the sword does take some skin
34


from his flank, and Gawain is angry because his prowess as a lover is frustrated, so
he tries again, and this time is wounded slightly on the neck (J. Matthews, Gawain
147), a wound that resonates with the Beheading Game in Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight. Perhaps it is the memory of this encounter that keeps Gawain from
taking Lady Bercilak up on her offer. A third Arthurian story, "The Wedding of
Gawain and Ragnall," explores the topic of sovereignty in that the answer to the
riddle of what all women love best is to have their own way. On one level this is a
light jest on the order of "Women, God love em," but on another it involves the
Goddess of Sovereignty, and it is not until Gawain acknowledges this sovereignty
that Ragnall transforms permanently from a hag to a beautiful woman.
This entire superb sequence reads like a treatise on the medieval concept of
courtesy and chivalric love, as well as another ritual test for Gawain. Lady Bercilak
makes Gawain prisoner in his own bed for the three mornings her husband is
hunting, and while he hunts outside, Lady Bercilak, with infinite courtesy, hunts
inside. This ritual tests Gawains ability to balance the role of the guest of the
Hospitable Host with his reputation as a lover. The Gawain poet likens this ritual to
a fencing match: "Thus thay meled of muchwhat til mydmom paste, The freke
ferde with defence and feted ful fayre" (1280-1281). At the end of the first bout,
Gawain has fought through to a stalemate, but the Lady has the last words. It is
likely that it is the thought that he has an obligation to Baron Bercilak to exchange
his winnings that keeps Gawain honest (and chaste), and he is obviously relieved
35


that she is going to let him pass the first test so easily (1302-1304). By the end of
the third bout, however, he has been worn down, and comes close to a discourtesy
by turning her down with finality. Lady Bercilak asks him outright if there is
another woman in his life, to which he replies: "Be Sayn Jon, And smethely con
he smyle, In fayth I welde right non, Ne non wil welde the while" (1787-1790),
by which he may mean that there is no other woman in his life right now, and since
he is going to have his head cut off, there is not likely to be in the future.
The hunt and the temptation rituals have a form that emphasize their place in
the Otherworld. The Gawain poet has warped time from its linear, sequential habit
into a form that gives a picture of both rituals happening at the same moment,
something that can only happen in the Otherworld. It is also clear from the timing
of the death of the fox and the acceptance of Lady Bercilaks gift of a magical
girdle, that Baron and Lady Bercilak are in collusion with the game of forfeits, and
probably with the whole ritual of the Beheading Gameindeed, it is fair to say that,
in spite of Bercilaks claim that it was the witch Morgan, they set up the whole
game to begin with. Gawain wins the bedroom game by not giving into Lady
Bercilaks blandishments, but loses the game of forfeits in the last battle. Lady
Bercilak tells him that the green girdle will keep his head on his shoulders (1851-
1854), and, in desperation, he believes her and accepts her gift.
It is difficult to tell from the Gawain text just what the point of this game is;
it may be that only the bravest and most worthy knight can be successful (C.
36


Matthews 124), or it may be simply a way for the Gawain poet to prove the worth of
his candidate for most puissant knight of the Round Table. Whatever the Gawain
poets intention, it is clear that Gawain does not lose the game of forfeits by taking
the girdle, but by withholding it from Baron Bercilak at the exchange of winnings.
Lady Bercilak, like the Virgin Mary, is another aspect of the Earth Goddess, and it
is in that guise that she tests Gawain with the bedroom game, and it is in this context
that he loses, having lost faith in the Goddess to defend and protect him, and instead
putting his faith in a supposedly magical implement. On the other hand, the
talisman does prove to be effective, since the sacrifice is made symbolically at the
last minute and Gawain does not lose his head.
37


CHAPTER 8
END-GAME
The surrogates year of pampered idyllic existence ends with the inevitable
sacrifice of the solar king, but Gawain is ready for the final challenge. He has been
tested in the Otherworld, and to his mind has passed every test; besides he has a new
talisman to protect him from the axe of the Green Knight. To balance the arming
ritual, Sir Gawain is dressed for his coming ordeal. Though he lets his attendants
dress him in warm clothes, he puts on the red and gold Sun King armor himself and
is careful to include his talisman from Lady Bercilak (2026-2042). The green
girdle of protection represents the final stage in Gawains journey from mythic hero
to human knight. Gawain is now not as perfect as he was at the beginning of his
journey, and he is putting his trust in a talisman instead of in the Goddess. With as
much confidence as he can muster, he rides out with his guide to the Green Chapel.
As Gawain makes his way toward the Green Chapel, the Gawain poet returns to the
images of wild Nature, putting him firmly into the Otherworld again, and creating
an atmosphere of lowering menace with no shelter, broken boulders and mist and
rain obscuring the sun and making the landscape dark. (2077-2083). This
atmosphere is appropriate to the sacrifice of the Sun King, since at the Winter
Solstice the sun has reached its most southerly point, and will appear to reverse and
return for the summer half of the year. The guide Baron Bercilak provides to
38


Gawain, takes him to the very edge of the Green Knights demesne and then warns
him about the "wyghe in that waste, the worst upon erthe" (2097), which is
something Gawain already knows. As one more test, the guide offers to keep the
secret if Gawain chooses to go elsewhere, but Gawain is committed to going on and
passes this test, making it plain that if he turned back at this point, even if no one
else knew, he would be a cowardthe accusation the Green Knight threw at Arthur
at the beginning of the Beheading Game. (2127-2135). Too late to turn back, and
seemingly forgetting the Otherworld talisman he wears, Gawain, alone once more,
invokes "Goddes wylle I am ful bayn, And to hym I haf me tone" (2157-2158), and
rides down the path to the Green Chapel.
All rites of passage, Christian or pagan, involve a transformation, many of
them through death to rebirth. From a Christian, and his own, perspective, Gawain
is about to be martyred; from a pre-Christian perspective, he is about to be
transformed and a new person revealed. There is a definite Christian gloss to this
scene. Gawain finds what he thinks must be the Green Chapel, and his first
impression is that it is a place where "myght aboute mydnyght / The Dele his
matynnes telle" (2187-2188), but would have been plain to the Gawain poet's
largely Celtic audience that the Green Knight carries Otherworldly mythic
characteristics that have nothing to do with the Christian devil. As a clearly
psychological ploy, the Green Knight is whetting his axe, and at first does not
39


respond to Gawains call, but when he does appear, his first words are reminiscent
of Baron Bercilaks welcome at Hautdesert:
"Gawayn," quoth that grene gome, "God thee mot loke!
I-wysse, thou art welcom, wyghe, to my place,
And thou has tymed thi travayl as trewe mon schulde;
And thou knowes the convenuntes kest uus bytwene." (2039-2042)
Still, Gawain fails to recognize the two figures as the same person, perhaps because
the Green Knights appearance is overwhelmingly reminiscent of the master of
beasts, or Cemunnos, which Gawain has only seen in his guise as the Green Knight
(C. Matthews 124). The Green Knight, for the third time, runs through the rules of
the Beheading Game, and prepares to cut off Gawains head. Gawains
transformation is almost complete, but he delays it by flinching under the Green
Knights first stroke (2259-2267). The Green Knight withdraws the axe and taunts
Gawain for "Such cowardise," and tells him that it is the Green Knight that is the
nobler of the two contestants. Gawain responds that it is false nobility in that when
his head is on the ground he cannot pick it up and put it on again (2273-2283). The
Green Knight, looking fiercer than before, starts another stroke, but pulls back just
before he completes it. The third time is the charm, however, and the Green Knight
draws blood, but does no more damage than a nick in the neck (2309-2314). With
that symbolic stroke, the Green Knight considers the Beheading Game complete in
that Gawain earned, and was given, his forfeit. The completion of this ritual not-
quite-beheading also ends the ritual of the symbolic sacrifice of the solar king. The
40


Invincible Sun has died and been reborn, and the sun will shine on Camelot once
more.
Although the Gawain poet might have ended his tale at the Green Chapel, he
brings Sir Gawain back to Arthur's court in order to make a truly Christian point: At
his homecoming Gawain is no longer a mythic Arthurian knight, but a Christian
knight who has learned the Christian lessons of shame and humility, neither of
which are found in any of the Celtic or Anglo Saxon stories on which the Gawain
poet based his tale. By the time Gawain returns to Arthurs court the wound on his
neck has healed, but Lady Bercilaks girdle is worn as "In tokeyng he was tane in
tech of a faute" (2488). Because he is shamed, in telling his story to the Court he
keeps his fault and the Christian moral of the story to the last, in a form of
confession. The court laughs at his newly found Christian scruples, but they also
take the badge of the green girdle to represent Arthur's court from that day on, and it
is from that day that Arthur's court becomes Christian and leaves its Celtic and
Anglo Saxon mythology behind.
41


CHAPTER 9
HOME COMING
Because the Celtic cultures were pre-literate, the myths and rituals of their
cultures were transmitted by word of mouth, i.e., stories and tales of gods and
heroes, and with the advent of Christianity in Britain, many of these were
suppressed or altered to fit into the Christian mold. Be that as it may, there were
still bards and troubadours who told the ancient stories of the heroes and gods,
which by this time had become garbled over the centuries of Christian influence.
Since the Gawain poet lived close to the Welsh border, he must have heard many of
these stories and used them in crafting Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. If the
Gawain poet knew these stories, so did his audience, and they would have
appreciated some of the finer points of the tale that a modem, reading, audience,
does not see. There is no doubt that the Gawain poet was Christian and lived in a
Christian court, but there is also no doubt that the pre-Christian stories of mythic
figures in the form of heroes, gods and goddesses, and stories of largely
unintelligible, at least to modem audiences, ritualized activity were told, especially
along the Welsh border where the population was more Celtic than Norman French.
In following the five strange paths through the Otherworld wilderness, Sir
Gawain has come full circle and arrived where he started: at the Court of King
Arthur. He has been subjected to five rite-of-passage rituals that have taught him
42


some of the nature of the five paths of the pentagram, which represent courage,
steadfastness, loyalty, intelligence, and spirituality. Rites of passage of this nature
are deeply rooted in the circle of death and rebirth. These rituals also mark the rite
of passage, "by which, through the processes of separation, regeneration, and the
return on a higher level, both the individual and the community are assured their
victory over the forces of chaos (Doty 234). The Celtic and Anglo Saxon peoples,
like every society, saw their mythology as basic to their culture, and integrated that
mythology into their lives using ritual, so that ritualized myth was, and still is, a
matter of transformation for their lives and their society. Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight can be read as an attempt to bring the Celtic and Anglo Saxon mythology
into line with the new imposition of Christianity onto the pre-Christian peoples.
So it seems that the paths through the woods are not quite as difficult to
follow as some have made them seem. There are at least five paths related to the
Gawain poet's trope of the endless knot of the pentangle that are intelligible as
mythic representations when one looks for the Celtic and Anglo Saxon mythology
that was transmitted into the 13th century through a series of ritual activities. These
magical rituals of transformation revolved around the Winter and Summer solar
kings that relate to the Beheading Game, a game of forfiets; the ritual of arms and
arming which forms a chrysalis for the seeker; the trial of the Otherworld
wilderness where faith in the unseen is tested; the test of the Hospitable Host where
knightly courtesy is given trial; and the final passage of courage and responsibility
43


at the Green Chapel, all of which have Celtic and Anglo Saxon mythic sources.
This exploration of the Gawain poet's woods is certainly not complete in these
pages, but should give a number of starting points for further research and scholarly
conjecture, which is, after all just another path through the woods.


BIBLIOGRAPHY
Anderson, William. Green Man: The Archetype of our Oneness with the Earth.
London: Harper Collins, 1990.
Bassford, Kathleen. The Green Man. First published 1978, Reprinted 1996.
Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004.
Brewer, Elisabeth. From Cuchulainn to Gawain. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1973.
Burrow, J.A. A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Barnes
and Noble, Inc., 1966.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books,
1949.
Capellanus, Andreas, John Jay Parry, trans. The Art of Courtly Love. New York:
Columbia UP, 1960.
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian
and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1988.
Dillon, Miles, and Nora Chadwick. The Celtic Realms: The History and the Culture
of the Celtic Peoples from Pre-History to the Norman Invasion. New York:
Barnes & Noble, 2003.
Doel, Fran and Geoff Doel. The Green Man in Britain. Stroud: Tempus, 2002.
Doty, William G. Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals. 2nd ed.
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.
Dunn, Charles W., and Edward T. Byrnes, eds. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."
Middle English Literature. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.
Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. The Witches God: Lord of the Dance. London:
Hale, 1989.
Forrest, John. The History of Morris Dancing, 1458-1750. Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1999.
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Fox, Denton, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:
Prentice-Hall, 1968.
Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 1 vol.
Abridged ed. New York: Collier Books, 1963.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New
York: Noonday Press-Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 2000.
Herm, Gerhard. The Celts: The People Who Came out of the Darkness. New York:
St. Martins Press, 1976.
Jones, Terry, Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher, Juliette Dor. Who
Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery. New York: Thomas Dunne
Books, St. Martins Press, 2003.
Kittredge, George Lyman. A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight. Gloucester,
Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1960.
Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow, eds. Medieval Folklore: A Guide
to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.
Marsden, John. The Illustrated Bede. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1996.
Matthews, Caitlin. Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain: King and Goddess in the
Mabinogion. London: Arkana-Penguin, 1989.
Matthews, John. Gawain Knight of the Goddess: Restoring an Archetype. London:
HarperCollins, 1990.
The Book of Arthur: Lost Tales from the Round Table.0\A Saybrook, CT:
Konecky & Konecky, 2002.
Milner, Dan. The Bonnie Bunch of Roses. New York: Oak Publications, 1983.
Tolkien, J.R.R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo. New
York: Ballantine Books, 1975.
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Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary.
New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
Weston, Jesse L. From Ritual to Romance. 1920. Mineola, New York: Dover
Publications, 1997.
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Full Text

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INTO THE WOODS: YET ANOTHER EXPLORATION OF MYTH AND RITUAL IN SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT by Ketievia Segovia B.A., Metropolitan State College of Denver, 2000 A thesis submitted to the University of Colorado at Denver in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts English 2005 --.. r I j : i I , l J

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This thesis for the Master of Arts degree by Ketievia Segovia has been approved by Pompa Banerjee "Date

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Segovia, Ketievia (M.A. English) Into the Woods : Yet Another Exploration of Myth and Ritual in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Thesis directed by Professor Nancy Ciccone ABSTRACT The poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight had access to and used a number of Celtic stories in creating his work. These Celtic stories are the record, sometimes incomplete and vague, of a Celtic myth and ritual practice. This paper traces some of these mythic and ritual themes through the trope of the pentangle or endless knot, that underlies five of the rituals written into Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and discloses them to be rituals of transformation. This abstract accurately represents the content ofthe candidate's thesis. I recommend its publication. 111

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CONTENTS CHAPTER 1 INTO THE WOODS .................................................................................. 1 2. THE BEHEADING GAME ................................................. ...................... 8 3. THE SOLAR AND CORN KINGS ........ .... ..... ..... ................. . ................ 12 4. THE ARMING RITUAL ........ ........... ........ . ......... .......... ............... ........ . 21 5. GAWAIN'S JOURNEY ............................................................................ 25 6. THE HUNT ................ ........... ... ...... .......... . ........................................... 30 7. THE TEMPTATION GAME ..................... ........ . ............. ....................... 34 8. END-GAME .................................... ................................... .................... 38 9. HOME COMING ......... ...... ... .............. ......... ..... ...... ............. ............... 42 BIBLIOGRAPHY ...................... ........ ....................... .... ........................................ 45 IV

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CHAPTER 1 INTO THE WOODS Into the Woods, Without delay, But careful not To los e the way Into the woods, Who knows what may Be lurking on The journey? -Stephen Sondheim There is no straight, clear path from the deep woods of the Cemunnos/Heme figure and the sacrificed Sun King to the plethora of foliate heads in Gothic cathedrals and Sir Gawain's Green Knight; no straightforward logical reasoning between them. Some of the avenues seem broad and smooth, but when one has walked a mile or so, the trees seem to shift like the trees in Tolkien's Fangom Forest, and the path narrows to a track and then peters out into a myriad of suggestions that lead nowhere at all. One catches glimpses of faces in the trees, but when one looks directly at them, they disappear in the foliage. Scholars who have encountered Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have spent untold hours trying to make logical, workable sense of its symbolism provenance, mythology, and word use; they have discussed the abortive alliterative revival, medieval French romance,

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made slighting reference to folklore, tied in Gothic architecture, and performed exhaustive studies of etymology. Perhaps because there is little firm scientific or historical evidence of its origin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has become, of late, a point of study for historians and literary critics wishing to tie Richard II, and thus Richardian poetry (which is usually the venue of Chaucer and Gower scholars), into their studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Jones 36, 38). Earlier studies of the poem, notably Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough and Jesse Weston's seminal book From Ritual to Romance, started a new form of literary criticism called the "ritual-dominant school" (Doty 234). This new form of criticism was based on Weston's idea that all mythology actually came from ritual forms and reenactments. Weston, however, used the French romances and the Quest for the Grail as her primary sources, pursuing the tropes put forth in Malory's Le Marte Darthur and in Chretien de Troyes' Perceval, all of which are late compilations of Arthurian tales, many of which had been distorted over time from what must have been original pre-Christian stories. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is, of course, one of these compilations, but, as this exploration intends to show, it is closer to the original pre-Christian Celtic and Anglo-Saxon tales than to the stories of the Arthurian quest for the grail. Using a reversal of Weston's idea of ritual to romance into a myth-to-ritual model, this is also an exploration of a different way of reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that ties together the 2

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Gawain poet's main trope of the pentangle, its magical rituals of transformation and the tale of Sir Gawain's rite of passage from mythic hero to human. When the Christian missionaries came to Britain in the 3rd century, they found two cultures living uneasily beside one another: the Anglo Saxon and Celtic tribes. The Anglo Saxons were invaders or immigrants, and they had pushed the Celtic peoples back into the west and north of the island (what is now Scotland and Wales) and into Ireland. Both cultures were largely illiterate, but with a wealth of sophisticated religious myth and legend, that included the transmission of their religious belief system, legends of the descent of their kings and priests, stories that included their day-to-day lives and historical happenings, and doubtless included religious ritual in the form of myth and myth in the form of ritual. The missionaries immediately set out to convert these heathens to the one true faith, but they found it a difficult task. Old religions, especially when deeply rooted in the soil of a land, are very difficult to root out, and the Anglo Saxon and Celtic religions were no exception Like today's Christians, the Celtic and Anglo Saxon peoples must have seen their mythology as being a reasonable way of viewing the world, and the variability of mythic expression allowed for a freedom of creativity which led to ritualized myth, and so became an instrument of exploration and transformation, rather than an attempt to control a menacing outside world (Doty 344). The stories that survived the imposition of Christianity would naturally be the exciting stories of heroes and kings, as well as fabulous stories of magic and transformation, which 3

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were passed from generation to generation, each generation adding their own material and dropping material that no longer made sense to them. It is unfortunate that most of this material, being oral or proscribed by the Church, has been lost or so garbled that it is difficult to trace even one Anglo-Saxon or Celtic theme from beginning to end. Indeed, sources for the beliefs and practices of the Anglo Saxon and Celtic cultures are almost non-existent since the Christian missionaries did their best to obliterate knowledge of the older cultures except when it was necessary to refer to them for their suppression. Ironically, one of the rich sources for the study of these cultures is the Christianization of the folklore and culture in literary works (Chaney 4). These texts are for the most part, stories and songs that were known and/or interesting to a society newly converted to Christianity: literature that spoke to a pre-literate, still-agrarian, and still-tribal society, whose culture and way of life was deeply rooted in the Otherworld, from which manifestations of spirit and deity often appeared; in other words, their mythology. From this mythology must have come a body of ritual practices that consisted, in part, of worship and propitiation rites that were performed seasonally, and rites of passage that marked personal and community events such as birth and death rites, marriages and coming of age rituals. The Anglo-Saxon culture with its roots in Germany and Scandinavia, the Celtic culture with its roots deep in English soil, and a soupr;on of Greek and Roman myth, were seminal in the formation of medieval folklore and the Arthurian 4

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tradition, and it is this meld of cultural stories that makes up the folklore of the medieval period that has become known as the "Matter of Britain." The Matter of Britain can be defined as tales of adventure and magic loosely related to King Arthur, his Knights of the Table Round, their sources, and an immense body of scholarly and not so scholarly writing. These stories, songs and poetry started as an oral tradition, which has given rise to the many versions of the same or similar tales within the canon of Arthurian and Arthurian-related material. Before Chn!tian de Troyes wrote his own selective telling of these stories in the second half of the twelfth century, Arthur and his court were a large part of the British oral tradition we now ascribe to folklore, and were taken up, reworked and told again and again by the Bretons, who were British expatriates living in France (C. Matthews 6-7). It is these unknown story tellers that the Gawain poet undoubtedly heard and pondered, and finally turned their stories into his own retelling of the real hero of the Matter of Britain, Sir Gawain. Most of the stories of the Matter of Britain that survived the depredations of the Church are mythic and, since myth and ritual are closely related, are told in ritual form. Ritual is a transformative activity that starts with a static position and results, through a series of changes, in a completed metamorphosis, which then becomes the status quo until the next transformation is complete. This process is seen most clearly in rituals of passage from adolescence to adulthood, whether it be the transformation of a human being or the transformation of a culture. In the case 5

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of a dramatic change in the culture which involves, for instance the move of an agrarian society to a city society, or the imposition of Christianity on a pre-Christian culture, the rites practices and symbols of the changed culture tend to become over time, the stories, songs, and games of the new culture. These stories songs and games may still carry mythic material from the old culture, but that material will be largely unintelligible to the new. Since much pre-Christian ritual in the agrarian and warrior cultures of the AngloSaxons and Celts must have revolved around seasonal vegetation and battle issues, it is not surprising that the traditional games played and stories told at British medieval courts would be based on the diurnal death and rebirth of the sun (seen as a king who holds the luck of the land), the seasonal death and rebirth of crops and woodlands and the tales arising out of the Cult of the Head all of which were conflated over a thousand years into Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Games play a large part in Sir Gawain, all of which are games of forfeit. In forfeit games there is always a challenge and a consequence for not meeting the challenge. The modem game of Truth or Dare, for instance, is played by challenging a participant to tell the truth about a subject (as in, "With whom did you sleep last night?") or to take on a dare (as in "I dare you to take off all your clothes and dance naked in the woods"). The challenges in Sir Gawain involve his honor: the Green Knight challenges Gawain to cut off his head and then show up to have his own cut off; Baron Bercilak challenges Gawain to honorably trade his winnings 6

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for the day with Bercilak's; and Lady Bercilak challenges Gawain to refrain from impinging on the rules of hospitality and courtly love by not succumbing to her sexual overtures. Gawain wins every game but the second, withholding from Bercilak the green girdle which he thinks will protect his life, and so pays the forfeit of having the Green Knight draw blood at the Green Chapel. Each of these games is part of Gawain's rite of passage, by way of a transformative ritual, from mythic pre-Christian infallible hero into a human fallible Christian knight. As subsets of the main Beheading ritual, and like the pentangle on Gawain's shield, there are five transformative rituals that make up a Yuletide game of forfeits. The first is that of the Summer King / Winter King seasonal transformation where the Beheading Game is introduced; the second is that of the arming of Sir Gawain that creates the chrysalis from which the transformed knight will emerge at the end of the story; the third is the journey of the hero to the site of the ritual testing where his faith in the Goddess is tested; the fourth is the test of the hero through the game of forfeits that includes three ritual hunts and an attempted seduction; and the final test is that of the finish of the Beheading Game, where Gawain is given the true accolade of knighthood-not with the flat of a blade, but with the nick of the Green Knight's axe on his neck. 7

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CHAPTER2 THE BEHEADING GAME The Green Knight's first words to Arthur's court is a rude question: "Wher is," he sayd, I "The governour of this gyng? I Gladly I wolde I Se that segg in sight, and wish himself speke raysoun" (224-226). He is looking for the King in order to propose a "Crystemas gomen, I For hit is Yol and Newe Yer, and here ar yep mony" (II 284-285). The game the Green Knight proposes is typical of many games of forfeits that were popular at medieval courts, and the usual forfeits were kisses or some bit of jewelry or clothing. The Green Knight's game is grimmer, and consists of a very simple concept: "you cut off my head this year, and I'll cut off your head next year." The Beheading Game is hardly a Christian concept. Indeed, the cult of the head was central to both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic pagan cultures. Posidonius, a 2nd century BCE chronicler describes the Celtic propensity for what amounts to a beheading game: They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood stained spoils they hand over to their attendants to carry off as booty, ... and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses (Davidson 71) 1 1 While this sounds more than barbaric in the 215 1 century, Elizabeth I declared that all who did not attend the Protestant churches or who still espoused the Catholic rites were traitors and were subject to being beheaded The heads were placed on pikes at the gates to the City in London. 8

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Heads play an important part in many of the Celtic stories of gods and heroes, most notably that of Bran the Blessed, whose story is told in Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, a part of the Mabinogion, whose disembodied head entertained his men for many years in the Otherworld and then was buried at the White Mound in London to protect the land as a talisman against invasion. Most of these tales involve the Celtic hero Cuchullain and the Irish king Concho bar. Many of the tales of the Matter of Britain that surely came from the earlier stories include Sir Gawain,2 and are likely later and more Christianized than the tales in the Mabinogion. Many involve the beheading of one who has been enchanted, but others are about the honor of the heroes who vie for a position at the head table and the good cuts of meat at feasts called the "Hero's Portion" (C. Matthews 126). Bran the Blessed was, if not a god, certainly a king, and as such was bound to the welfare of his land and his people. The fertility of the land and the harvests are dependant on the king's 'luck', and his kingdom's fruitfulness on his vitality and ability to protect the land and the people. These abilities are tied directly into the king's person, and flow even from the royal touch (Chaney 86). The divine king may also be seen as the keeper of the tribe's land, through a bargain renewed every seven years with the Goddess of Sovereignty (C. Matthews 18). The Celtic kings and heroes-notably Cuchullain and Conchobar-are bound by geasa, which are taboos or things he 2 Cf John Matthews' compilation of Arthurian stories, The Book of Arthur: Lost Tales of the Round Table, notably "The Mule Without a Bridle," p 133-141. 9

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must or may not do and are designed to promote the welfare and prosperity of the tribe (Weston 54). There are also a plethora of stories in the Arthurian cycle that include beheading of one sort or another. Some of these involve the freeing of an enchanted person, and some of them involve ritual murder. In the story of "Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle," Sir Gawain, Sir Kay, and Bishop Baldwin seek shelter at Carlisle in spite of the Carl's reputation for being "a fierce wild Carl" who may give them rougher welcome than they like (J. Matthews Arthur 111). The Carl, however gives them shelter, and because Sir Gawain is so polite, he asks Gawain for a favor: 'Sir Knight, do as I bid you .... Do you see that axe resting by the door to the buttery? Well, I want you to take it and cut off my head with it. Do as I say and all shall be well. Do not fear, you cannot hurt me!' Gawain complies (not without misgivings), and the Carl transforms from an "ugly, powerful fellow" into a "handsome man dressed all in fine clothes." The Carl tells the knights that he has been enchanted for more than twenty years and that the only way the spell could be broken was for him to "find a man who would do everything that I asked of him, and behave with perfect courtesy" (114). Evidently the Carl also had to lose his head to gain his freedom. Other stories reflect the profound Otherworldliness of the ubiquitous bachlach, for instance as in Bricriu 's Feast portrayed as a "giant, club-carrying herdsman" who challenges the warriors of Ulster to a beheading game. Several of the warriors find this an easy game and 10

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accept the challenge, only to disappear when it is discovered that the bachlach's head magically returns to his shoulders and he will come around the next night to claim the return blow. The resonances with the Green Knight in these stories cannot be missed. In "The Carl of Carlisle," it is Gawain's courtesy that earns him the favor of cutting off the bachlach's head, as it is partly Gawain's courtesy that gets him that honor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The bachlach casually picks up his head and remarks that he will be back to return the blow, while the Green Knight courteously invites Sir Gawain to his house to finish the game. It is also worth noting that the word "bachlach" is very close to the name of the Green Knight's alter-ego "Bercilak" (C. Matthews 126-127). 11

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CHAPTER3 THE SOLAR AND CORN KINGS Early Christianity was faced with many threats, not the least of which was the worship of Helios, the sun which was absorbing many other cults of the Roman Empire during the first four centuries CE In order to bring the cult of Helios into the Christian mythology, the Christians, in 273 CE declared the birth of Christ to be on the feast of Sol Invictus, the day of the winter solstice and invoked Christ by the name of the Unconquered Sun (Warner 257). This was a symbolically sensible step in order to bring Jesus into line with the other sun gods (such as the Persian Mithras, also born at the Winter Solstice). This decision, explained St. Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, put the birth of the "Sun of Righteousness" on this date so that "while the heathen were busied with their profane rites, the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance." (Farrar, Eight Sabbats, 137138, cf Graves 319)3 Sol lnvictus was certainly nothing new to the pre-Christian Celtic tribes; Celtic solar heroes or kings can be identified in numerous ways, not the least of which is that their strength waxes and wanes with the diurnal tides. 3 Jesus, as Sollnvictus was not sacrificed for the "sins" of the people, but as a renewal of the fertility of the earth and the humans who lived there. The Christian fathers, in order to keep control of the people, made fertility, i.e., sex, sinful, and virginity, both in men and women, the highest of holy attributes. This is a strange strategy in that the best and brightest of the population were incarcerated in monasteries and nunneries and were unable to reproduce and it was the "rude" folk that were left to carry on Nature's push for renewal and life. 12

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Cuchulainn, the most famous of these heroes, is also linked to the sun in that he has a halo of golden hair. Cuchulainn is linked to Gawain in that many incidents of Gawain's career are much the same as Cuchulainn's, one of which is the frequent playing of the Beheading Game (J. Matthews Gawain 30). There are two solar kings: the Summer King and the Winter King, and they change places each year at the summer and winter solstices. The first ritual of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the Beheading Game, which introduces the theme of the Summer (Oak) and Winter (Holly) Kings who exchange places each year at the Summer and Winter solstices each sacrificing the other endlessly year after year (Graves 180). Yule is the time of the changing of the tide of the year. The winter solstice is traditionally the 'day out of time' when the shortest day shows winter to be at its strongest; and the day after the solstice shows the defeat of the Winter King and the advent of the Summer King, as the days grow longer until the summer solstice, when, presumably, the Beheading Game is played again (Graves 180-185). Nor is it an accident that in Britain the day after Christmas, Boxing Day, is the day that people box up their unused items and distribute them to the poor of their parishes-certainly symbolic of the start of the waxing year. Fragments of the myths and rituals of the solar kings can still be found in Britain in the dances and plays of the Morris dancers and the Mummers, whose dances have come down generation after generation from at least the fifteenth century (although most scholars acknowledge them to be much older). 13

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The mummers of several locales in Britain, "whose ancient dances were a last flickering memory of more primitive rites still perform a five-man sword dance at the climax ofwhich they 'link their swords into a star, and cry: '"A Nut, a Nut' (i.e., a knot -the 'endlesse knot' which was an ancient name for the pentangle).4 They then place the linked blades over the head of one of their number and pretend to cut off his head" (J. Matthews Gawain 159). In many areas of Britain at Yule, mummers perform the play of St. George and the Turkish Knight, in which St. George kills the Turkish Knight and immediately "cries out that he has slain his brother" (Farrar Witches 36). Both Morris dances and Mummer's plays keep the ritual of the fertility sacrifice of the Solar Kings alive, even into the 215 1 century. The Oak King dominates the waxing year of expansion and growth, when the fertility of the earth is high and the days long. His reign is from the Winter Solstice to the Summer Solstice when the Holly King should rightfully take his place, although in the Christian calendar the Summer Solstice ritual has been taken over by the feast of St. John the Baptist, whose feast is celebrated on June 24 and who, according to the Bible, was beheaded at the behest ofHerodias's daughter. The oak is a powerful symbol of strength and longevity; "its acorn is expressively phallic, and its roots are said to extend as far below ground as its branches do into 4 Perhaps it is no coincidence that the mummers' plays and the Morris dances are connected with the Beheading Game and that Sir Gawain's shield bears the knot or pentangle, but to be fair, the 'knot' depends on how many dancers there are six dancers create a hexagram while five create a pentangle. 14

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the air-the oak god thus having dominion over Heaven, Earth and the Underworld" (Graves 176-177). The Holly King, as representative of the waning year, the period of withdrawal and rest, symbolizes the withdrawal of life from the vegetable world. It has been suggested that the Holly King is the twin of the Oak King and as such, "he is his brother's other self and holds life in trust while the earth rests." The is an evergreen, and it has red berries that "glow red when all else is bare of fruit." In Britain the harvest is brought in early in his reign and as such "it is he who oversees the product of his brother's fertility" (Farrar, Witches' God 36). The Holly King's reign ends with Yule, when games are played with abandon, especially the games of forfeit or exchange on which the whole story of Sir Gawain and the Gre e n Knight hinges. If Arthur is the Oak King then the Green Knight must be the Holly King, and indeed he carries the "holyn bobbe, I that is grattest in grene when greves ar bare" (II. 206 -7), though he says it is carried a sign of peace: "Y e may be seker bi this braunch that I bere here, I That I passe as in pes, and no plyght seche" (265-66). Arthur and his court might have been reassured by this except for the "hoge and unmete" axe the Green Knight also carries (267). Another indication that the Green Knight is a solar king is the amount of gold he has woven hammered, knotted, and in general placed on his person and his horse, as well as the "kinges capados that closes his swyre" (186). He is dressed, and his horse is caparisoned, like a king. Perhaps, over six hundred years into the Christian era in England, the Gawain poet 15

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was unaware of the significance of the Green Knight's kingly appearance, and it is likely that the solar kings were still part of the oral tradition The Green Knight, then, has come to Arthur's court to be sacrificed so that Arthur can take over the duties of the Summer King. The Gawain poet has made this a one-time Christmas game rather than a yearly or seven-year cycle, doubtless because this ritual has become obsolete with the entrenchment of Christianity where the belief is that Christ, the ultimate Sun King, is the sacrifice and with his sacrifice ended the yearly cycles of Summer / Winter King sacrifices. Since the solar king was regarded as the incarnation of divinity and his life was sympathetically tied to the prosperity of the land and the tribe, if his powers declined "the cattle would sicken and cease to multiply, the crops would rot in the fields, and men would perish of widespread disease" (Frazer 312-13). Any signs of ill-health or failing strength subjected him to a ritual sacrifice. Rather than leave the timing of such degeneration to natural or accidental causes, a term (generally seven or eight years)was fixed, at the close of which the solar king would have to die in order that his spirit (and therefore the spirit of the god) could animate a more appropriate body for the god (319). Frazer cynically remarks that as a result "kings, who had hitherto been bound to die a violent death at the end of a term of years, conceived the happy thought of dying by deputy (324) Frazer uses many examples of how the surrogate is chosen, ranging from the use of prisoners of war, 16

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to felons sentenced to die anyway, to the sacrifice of the king's sons, but he misses the volunteer surrogate, of which Sir Gawain is one. The Green Knight opens the ritual with his challenge and it is met with appalled silence from the most celebrated knights of the age, he taunts them with their supposed mighty reputation ("What, is this Arthures hous," ... I "That al the rous rennes of thurgh ryalmes so mony?") and accuses the worthy Knights of the Round Table of cowardice (309-315). Arthur is justifiably angry, and responds that the Green Knight's challenge is nothing more than madness, but if that is what he wants, Arthur himself is willing to give it to him (323-325) and takes up the axe In the quiet, as Arthur prepares to give the Green Knight his wish, Gawain volunteers for the job and gives as his reason for doing so that he thinks it not right that Arthur take on this task himself, "Whil mony so bolde yow aboute upon bench sytten" (348-351). Though he claims to be the "wakkest, I wot, and ofwyt feblest, And lest liir of my lyf," (354-55), Gawain is Arthur's nephew, and therefore his heir,5 and it is in that role that he has ritually offered to be the surrogate sacrifice Gawain plays the role of surrogate in many of the Celtic Arthurian stories; indeed, it sometimes seems that Gawain is more often the hero of these stories than Arthur himself. In the tale of"The Wedding of Gawain and Ragnall" Gawain willingly marries the extremely ugly Dame Ragnall in order to save both Ragnall and Arthur 5 The Celtic way of calculating descent and succession was through the female line, so since Gawain is Arthur's sister's son, he has the right to the throne when Arthur dies (C. Matthews (96). 17

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from the wrath of the otherworldly Gromer Somer Jour (J. Matthews Book of Arthur). In the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Arthur is saved by his nephew who takes on the adventure with the knowledge that his death at the end of the next year allows Arthur to continue his reign, as well as salvage the honor of Arthur's knights It is Gawain's lineage that entitles him to become the solar king surrogate, taking on the ritual sacrifice that is here represented as a Christmas game. In a famous passage, the Gawain poet gives a great deal of attention, as well he might, to the surprising color of the intruder into Arthur's court: For wonder of his hewe men hade Set in his semblaunt sene; He ferde as freke were fade, And overal enker grene (147-150) The Green Knight is a symbol ofboth wild nature and the fertility of the earth in the form of agrarian pursuits and domesticated animals, and deep woods and wild animals Green is, of course, the color of the natural world and of vegetation, growth and renewal. As such it represents the spring when life returns to the vegetable world as well as the evergreen plants that are a symbol of continuing life through the winter. Green is also closely linked with the Otherworld and fertility of mind and soul as well as body .6 As a pre-Christian and Otherworld figure, the 6 Various sources suggest that Otherworld figures are often associated with a Bronze Age people driven by the Celts to live underground in what are now known as the mounds of the sidh (Doe! 28). The sidh, or sidhe (pronounced "shee") are still part oflrish folk legend, the most well-known ofwhich is the banshee (in Gaelic "ban18

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earthy Green Knight also symbolizes freedom from the human or outer world of Arthur's Christian court: he is barefoot, wears no armor, and his hair is loose down his back. Nature and the natural were among the few things the Christian fathers could not control since green nature is redolent of sexuality, without which there would be no fertility The medieval Church emphasized virginity and chastity, particularly in the cult of the Virgin Mary, whose colors of blue and silver are those of the moon rather than the fertile earth. So, in addition to the Sun King theme, it appears that the Green Knight also takes on the burden of a more homely agrarian seasonal sacrifice. Given the generic title of "Com King," the vegetation god was ritually sacrificed every year for the fertility of the crops, and every year he rose again in the green shoots in the Spring. In time, the sacrifice became symbolic, but it is likely that for many years the sacrifice was human (Farrar, Frazer). The Com King was traditionally the best the community had to offer: physically perfect sound of mind, and willing to give his life for his community. From the time of his choice as sacrifice, he was treated with honor as the personification of the seasonal fertility god, and was, "mated at the harvest with a priestess representing the goddess, and then immediately put to death, either by her or on her behalf' (Frazer 509). The resonance between the com-cycle and the sun-cycle is reflected in many customs, sidhe"), a woman of the Otherworld who shrieks or moans from the trees near the house of a person who is about to die, i.e., make a journey to the Otherworld. 19

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some of which are still extant. For example, in Scotland it is traditional to keep the Com Maiden (the last handful reaped at the harvest) until Yule and then feed it to the cattle as a fertility aid (Farrar, Eight Sabbats 138). While both the Summer / Winter and Com King sacrifices had to do with fertility the Com King sacrifice was an agrarian ritual to encourage the crops to grow and promote the fertility of domestic animals, while the Summer / Winter King sacrifices may have dealt with the attachment of kingship (and kinship) to the land itself, and had more to do with leadership as well as a general rite for peace plenty and the well-being of the tribe Gawain duly slices off the Green Knight's head, and as surrogate king, may be one of the few who is not surprised when the Green Knight calmly picks up his head and reiterates the rules of the game. The first path of the pentangle ritual ends with Gawain's promise to meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel at the next Yule season, and the withdrawal of the Green Knight, with head in hand. Sir Gawain goes back to his seat beside Guinevere, and begins his year-and-a-day reign as surrogate solar king. 20

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CHAPTER4 THE ARMING RITUAL The Gawain poet passes over most of Sir Gawain's year-and-a-day respite from becoming the solar king sacrifice with a few lovely lines reminiscent of Chaucer's introduction to The Canterbury Tales. It is not until the Michaelmas moon in September, though, that Sir Gawain starts to think about finding the Green Chapel, and it is on All Hallows (November 1) that he finally prepares for his journey. All Soul's Eve (Halloween) had, and still has, particular significance in the Celtic world though the Celtic peoples called it Sarnhain (pronounced "sawien" or "sowin"), and it had little to do with the blessed saints honored on All Saints Day. Sarnhain marked theCeltic new year and was the feast of the dead for the Celtic peoples. The three nights of the festival, were thought to be nights that the veil between the outer world and the Otherworld was considered to be particularly thin. It is therefore appropriate that Sir Gawain should begin the second path of the pentangle ritual, the Arming Rite, on the day after Samhain. In contrast to the cool green color of the Green Knight, Gawain is dressed in the vivid colors of the Summer sun. His ceremonial arming in red and gold at the beginning of his journey marks his status as divine solar king, as well as forming a protective and protected space for his transformation. Indeed, the arming ritual carries the symbols of the formation of a chrysalis from which Gawain must free 21

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himself in order to become more than just a brother of the Round Table, i.e., a myth, and become human. First a red carpet is laid out for him to stand on and he is dressed in silk that is furred inside for protection from the cold. In contrast to the Green Knight, he is shod, and the armor is put on piece by piece: "His leges lapped in stel with luflych greves, I With polaynes piched therto, policed ful clene, I Aboute his knes knaged with knotes of golde," and a then the "coyntlych closed I His thik, thrawen thyghes," and the "brawden bryny ofbryght stel rynes I Umbeweved that wygh, upon wlonk stuffe;" and finally the "wei bornyst brace upon his bothe armes, and gloves of plate" (575-583) effectively enclosing him in a protective cocoon of silk and steel. Although the Gawain poet does not use the butterfly metaphor directly, it is implied in the verses that describe both Gawain's arming and his journey to the Otherworld: Gawain rides always in his armor, and even at times must sleep in it, and as a symbol it is always present, either on his body or in his mind. The other two symbols that Gawain must always carry in his mind are painted on his shield, to which the Gawain poet pays particular attention. With the Virgin painted on one side and the pentangle painted on the other, it represents the paths of his transformation and his faith in the Goddess. The pentangle seems to be a general gnomen of the Sun King and his surrogate, who must be perfect in order to become the sacrifice, and the Gawain poet supports this with his explanation of the pentangle as a symbol of perfection. Its five points overlap and are linked with one another and it is called the "endeles 22

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knot" ( 630), which makes it a symbol of rebirth and continuance and is a metaphor for Gawain's journey to the Otherworld and back. This ideal of perfection is linked to the realms of the heroes of the Otherworld or myth through which Gawain must pass in order to bring the boon of perfect humanity to Arthur's court. In an alchemical context the pentangle also represents air, fire, water, earth and spirit (or mind (intelligence), heart (courage), emotion (love), body, and soul). The balance of these five qualities represents human perfection. As such, Gawain, through the symbol of the pentangle is presented as fully balanced, and "possessed in equal measure of the elemental qualities which, in the medieval mind, expressed the humanity and excellence of the personality" (J. Matthews Gawain 159, 187)/ and therefore is perfectly suited and armed for his Otherworld quest. The Virgin painted on Gawain's shield ties him once again to Arthur, who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth carried "across his shoulders, a circular shield . on which there was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to be thinking perpetually of her" (C. Matthews 29). Mary represents the Feminine Divine, which will be further discussed in the next chapter. Though the Gawain poet accentuates the powers and perfection of the pentangle and the Virgin Mary, there are two other important symbols involved in 7 Mathews also points out that Gawain's shield can be identified with the Irish hero Cuchulainn who bore a "red shield with five wheels of gold ... [that] emphasize Cuchulainn's solar attributes" (188). It is interesting to note that modem "neopaganism" has adopted the pentangle as its major symbol. 23

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the arming ritual that underscore Gawain's solar characteristics and "mark him out as above average in the hero stakes." These are his horse, Gringo let, and his sword. Gringo let is arrayed, as is Gawain, in the sun colors of red and gold with a saddle that "glemed ful gayly with mony golde frenges, . The brydel barred aboute, with bryght golde bounden; ... and al was rayled on red ryche golde nayles That al glytered and glent as glem of the sunne." (597-604). Variously called "Gingalet, Le Gringalet, Gujingalet of Kincaled, all of which seem to mean 'of good staying power,'" Gawain's horse is caparisoned as a sun-steed in the same manner as the Green Knight's horse, and gives extra emphasis to Gawain's solar aspect. It is surprising that the Gawain poet gives only two half lines: ("Gtirde wyth a bront ful sure With silk sayn umbe his syde" (588-89)) to Gawain's sword, and does not name it, but it can be connected with Arthur's magical sword, Excalibur or Cali bum. In the Merlin, roman en rose du XII!e Arthur gives Excalibur to Gawain, and it seems that Excalibur would certainly be necessary to Gawain as a surrogate for Arthur, since the sword was a gift to Arthur from the Otherworld (J. Matthews Gawain 187 -88). Armed now with protective armor, a symbolic shield, a magical sword and a sun-steed Gawain begins his journey to the Otherworld following the paths of the endless knot to his ultimate transformation. 24

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CHAPTER 5 GAWAIN'S JOURNEY AND THE HOSPITABLE HOST Every rite of passage ceremony involves a vigil, and the rites of knighthood are no exception. The medieval candidate for knighthood stood vigil with all his armor alone in the church, praymg and thinking about his new duties, responsibilities and status. Sir Gawain's rite of passage vigil is a bit different, though he certainly has time to think about both the past and the future. Alone, as he should be on a rite of passage vigil, friendless, often shelterless, Sir Gawain, "Now rides this renk thurgh the ryalme of Logres I Sir Gawan, on Godes halve, thagh hym no go men thoght" ( 691-697). This is, as the Gawain poet states, no Christmas game, though he rides through the wilderness until Christmas eve. Although the location of Hautdesert has been fairly, if not definitively, identified as near Wetton Mill in Cheshire (J. Matthews Gawain, 189), the Gawain poet makes it clear that Gawain is riding into the Otherworld. In fine Arthurian and Celtic tradition he finds a foe at almost every ford of a river, fights with dragons and wolves, and meets a wood-troll or two, for the borders of the Otherworld are always guarded by fell and fierce challengers. At last he finds himself in a deep, wild forest the Gawain poet describes as if he has been there: "Highe hilles on tiche a halve, and holtwodes under I Of hore okes ful hoge a hundredth togeder. I The basel and the hawthorne were harled al samen, I With roghe, raged mosse rayled aywhere 25

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(742-745). Gawain knows that if he cannot find the path through the Otherworld woods soon, he will lose the Beheading Game not to the Green Knight, but to the greater forces of Nature and the Otherworld. Gawain still carries his shield, however, and on it, facing him is the likeness of the Virgin Mary, and it is to her, in desperation that he prays. As has been pointed out, it is likely that the Gawain poet pulled much of his material for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from Celtic sources, and the Celtic people revered goddesses as well as gods. The early Christian missionaries tried, without much success, to expunge the divine feminine from the pre-Christian culture, but the Goddess in her myriad forms did not vanish overnight from the streams and groves into the small niches they afforded her in the comers of their churches. She continued to be revered by the people who had worshiped her at wells, crossroads, standing stones and sacred trees. Indeed, "the Goddess haunted the medieval imagination," and "believers evidently approached the new expression of deity with images drawn from their own native mythic traditions" (C. Matthews 20). Mary, in her role as Gawain's patron and protector and goddess of sovereignty, tests her knight on his journey through the underworld, presenting him with an almost impassable forest-dark, cold, wet and forbidding. Even as Gawain gives devotion to Jesus, it is the image of the Virgin Mary that is painted on the inside of his shield. The image of Mary, a profound and enduring trope for medieval Christians, in keeping with the fertility aspect of the Solar King, appears here as the 26

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goddess of the earth rather than the goddess of the moon as she is often depicted. The Gawain poet does not tell us which portrait of the Virgin is painted on Gawain's shield, but it is likely that it is the picture of the Mater Dolorosa Our Lady of Sorrows. In this aspect, "Mary most resembles the fertility goddesses of antiquity" in that, as the mother goddess of the sacrificed god, she is well aware that he will rise from the dead, "but also because she is propitiating those same forces of sterility and death that the sacrifice of her son is attempting to appease .... She [is] the principle of the abiding earth" (Warner 221). On the other hand in keeping with the fertility theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Mary may be presented as the com goddess, whose robe has ears of wheat sewn round the hem, or with La Morenta, a seated woman with a child in her lap (276). Gawain, afraid of the dark wood and in sorrow that he may not be anywhere where he can celebrate the Christmas Mass, prays to the Mother of God, and receives his miracle in the form of a ... wod of a won in a mote, I Abof a launde, on a Ia we, Ioken under boghes I Of mony borelych bole, aboute bi the diches, I A caste I the comlokest that ever knyght aghte" (764-767) And, as luck, or the Goddess would have it, this caste! is exactly the place where he can not only hear the Christmas Mass, but will finally hear something about the Green Chapel. Having come through the test of the Otherworld forest, when Gawain reaches Hautdesert, he is ritually disarmed and loses the protection of his chrysalis and dressed in the softness of Spring as befits the surrogate sun king. The new 27

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clothes are loose and comfortable and "sete on hym semly, wyth saylande skyrtes; I The ver by his visage verayly hit semed I Wei negh to tiche hathel, aile on hewes, I Lowande and lufly, aile his lymmes under" (865-868). The new butterfly is now ready to try his wings. At Baron Bercilak's castle, Gawain is treated like the sun king whose surrogate he is. Baron Bercilak greets him and plays the hospitable host, making Gawain "welcum to welde as yow lykes; That here is, al is yowre awen, to have at yowre wylie and welde" (835-838). Here again, are references to the Celtic Arthurian tales. In the "Carl of Carlisle" and the "Knight of the Sword," Sir Gawain and friends are invited into the castle with kind words and promises of hospitality, only to find that there is more danger in the castle than in the Otherworld forest, a fact that Gawain is soon to learn (Matthews Arthur). As every reader or listener to this tale knows, Baron Bercilak is in reality the Green Knight: the Holly King, who is set to make of Gawain the Summer King sacrifice, which has been shown to be a rite of fertility and well-being for the tribe. Perhaps because of the lack of green coloring, or through some spell of the Otherworld, Gawain fails to recognize the Baron as his nemesis, even though the description of the Baron comes very close to the description of the Green Knight (842-849). Baron Bercilak certainly knows who Gawain is, and Gawain is happily ensconced in Hautdesert, introduced to Bercilak's lady and her companion, and accorded every honor of friendship and hospitality. When Gawain confesses his errand to the Baron, Bercilak laughs slyly and tells him he has reached within two 28

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miles ride of the Green Chapel, and he may rest for the next three days and then keep his tryst with death. To while away the hours between Christmas and New Year Baron Bercilak proposes yet another Yuletide game of forfeits: Bercilak will go hunting while Gawain will stay in the castle and rest in the company of Lady Bercilak. '"Yet firre,' quoth the freke a forwarde we make: I What-so-ever I wynne in the wod hit worthes to youres; I And what chek so ye acheve chaunge me ther-forne"' (1105-1107). An easy game to win Gawain thinks but the plight of the hero is never easy and though Gawain has now completed the third path of the pentangle, he is still not out of the woods. 29

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CHAPTER6 THE HUNT In addition to the Solar King and Corn King, the Gawain poet has added yet another Otherworld reference, that of the Wild Huntsman. The god of the wild beasts and deep woods Cernunnos is pictured with antlers and is attended by deer, snakes, and other wild animals (Anderson 40). Often called the Horned God, he represents the raw force of Nature as well as acting as defender of all things wild, he is "swift-moving, wide-roaming, concupiscent respectfully killed [for food], and yet eternally reappearing as strong and splendid as ever" (Farrar Eight Sabbats 33). The differences between the Corn King and the Cernunnos figure are marked : the Corn King is associated with vegetation and domestic animals, while Cernunnos is associated with wild animals and hunting If one subscribes to the anthropological model of the stages of civilization, Cernunnos represents the god of the hunter gatherer culture, while the Corn King represents the god of the more settled agrarian peoples. However, it is clear from the beheading and hunting passages in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that the Gawain poet has conflated the two gods. There were two Anglo-Saxon religious cults, both associated with sacral kingship, that have been linked by tradition with Cernunnos: the cult of the stag, and the cult of the boar. Otherworld hunts abound in Celtic literature many of them having to do with mythology and ritual. The cult of the stag plays a large part in the 30

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story of one of the most famous Arthurian hunts, "The Hunt of the Dangerous Forest" or the "Chase of the White Hart." A version of this tale is told in the Celtic tale of Gereint and Enid, which is part of the Mabinogion, and is one of the few Arthurian stories where Arthur actually plays a major role. In The Crop Eared Dog (Echtra an Mhadra Mhaoil), an Irish story, which is a frame for another Gawain story Arthur has convened this seven-year hunt according to his geasa: "[T]here are many geasa upon me, and one of them is to convene the chase of the Dangerous Forest at the end of every seventh year .... And I shall not break my geasa ... for he is a person without prosperity who breaks his geasa" (C Matthews 18). In the Celtic story, the Hunt is one of a three-part set of enchanted games. Arthur plays a role in only one of these games in which the White Hart is ritually sacrificed and Arthur cuts off its head. Since Arthur is the true solar king, the story of the hunt for the White Hart may be a remnant of Celtic ritual that deals with the sacrifice of the king, but it has lost much of its mythical, if not mystic, content. Also in this context there is the tradition of the king's hall, Heorot (Hart Hall) that plays a large part in Beowulf While the Beowulf poet is more interested in Grendel's depredations into Heorot, judging by the name Hrothgar's folk must have been devotee of the Stag Cult. 8 8 Beowulf himself must have been a devotee of the Boar Cult, as he and his men wear helmets crowned with Boar heads. 31

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The deer hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is atypical of a stag sacrifice in that Baron Bercilak forbids the killing of the stag and only hinds and does are hunted (1154-57). Everyone gets into the act of killing the deer which leads one to surmise that the stag cult is not the main trope of the hunting passages. Though plainly symbolic of what is going on in Gawain's bedroom with the temptations of Lady Bercilak, of the three hunts in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (the stag, the boar, and the fox), the second stands out as ritualized sacrifice. The boar is associated with the king, and is chiefly the animal of the mother goddess of some of the Anglo Saxon tribes, and as such, it is, along with the pig, a "form of the grain-spirit and the animal primarily associated with harvest and fertility and reproduction" (Chaney 121, 125-26). The boar is also representative of a combination of the agrarian Com King and Cemunnos, the animal god. The boar hunt is much different from either the deer hunt or the fox hunt, which are less dramatic and, while ritualized, do not have the same intensity as the boar hunt. For instance, unlike the deer and fox hunts, in the boar hunt the totem symbol of the king is reserved for the king to sacrifice: the beaters chase the boar until he is backed up to the river and turns at bay, and all the hunters but Bercilak back away, giving the Baron, the avatar of Cemunnos, the honor of sacrificing the boar. ( 143 71596) In folklore the fox has been characterized as smart, cunning, and difficult to catch, and as a symbol of Sir Gawain himself, the Gawain poet's fox is no 32

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exception. But, in the end, Gawain makes his only mistake in the game, and the fox is run to ground and killed. During this hunt it is in the bedroom that the actual ritual takes place. Lady Bercilak hunts the fox (Gawain) with a skill and cunning to match that of the fox itself, and finally brings Gawain to a defeat with the gift of the green girdle that is supposed to keep him from all harm in the Green Chapel. The fox, "swerves then swift again, I and dauntless darts astray; I in grief and in great pain I to the wood he turns away" (Tolkein 89). The Gawain poet, with consummate artistry, has woven the tales of the hunts with the story of Lady Bercilak's attempted seduction of Gawain, and in the third hunt this motif is particularly clear. The fox dodges, Gawain, dodges; the fox slips through a thicket, Gawain slips through a thicket; the dogs finally corner and kill it, and Lady Bercilak finally comers Gawain with a gift he cannot, for his life, refuse. There are several levels to these sacrificial hunts, and much has been made in the Gawain criticism of the implied comparison between Sir Gawain and the deer, the boar and the fox. The boar sacrifice, however, is the true kingly sacrifice, and the deer and the fox sacrifices are more on the level of the symbology of Gawain as hero, rather than Gawain as king. The companion piece to the three hunts is the Temptation Game, where Lady Bercilak plays the part of High Priestess 33

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CHAPTER 7 THE TEMPTATION GAME Sir Gawain has quite a reputation for the ladies, and most of the Gawain tales revolve around his affaires d'amore. The Celtic story "Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle" is the most representative of these tales, and ties in with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. After Gawain frees the bachlach from his enchantment, the Carl introduces him to his wife, and, as is typical of Gawain, he becomes enamored of her beauty (J. Matthews Arthur 114). The Carl tells Gawain to kiss his lady, and then, with the excuse that "because you have done all that I asked of you without question," gives Gawain his daughter in place of his wife, and gives them his bed blessing (115). In "The Knight ofthe Sword," Gawain finds himself in much the same situation, and in this story there are aspects that the Gawain poet echoes. When Gawain is introduced to the daughter of the house, his host tells him that he is sure "she will be delighted to converse with so great and courteous a knight" (145), a statement that supports Gawain's reputation for having "aBe prys and prowes and pured thewes Apendes to hys persoun" (913-914). However, when the lady comes to his bed, and he starts to lose control, she teBs him that the sword hanging on the wall is enchanted, and "[i]f anyone does anything in this room that is not absolutely honest and true to the highest moral code, it leaps forth of its own volition and runs him through." When he gives way to his passion, the sword does take some skin 34

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from his flank, and Gawain is angry because his prowess as a lover is frustrated, so he tries again, and this time is wounded slightly on the neck (J. Matthews, Gawain 14 7), a wound that resonates with the Beheading Game in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Perhaps it is the memory of this encounter that keeps Gawain from taking Lady Bercilak up on her offer. A third Arthurian story, "The Wedding of Gawain and Ragnall," explores the topic of sovereignty in that the answer to the riddle of what all women love best is to have their own way. On one level this is a light jest on the order of "Women, God love 'em," but on another it involves the Goddess of Sovereignty, and it is not until Gawain acknowledges this sovereignty that Ragnall transforms permanently from a hag to a beautiful woman. This entire superb sequence reads like a treatise on the medieval concept of courtesy and chivalric love, as well as another ritual test for Gawain. Lady Bercilak makes Gawain prisoner in his own bed for the three mornings her husband is hunting, and while he hunts outside, Lady Bercilak, with infinite courtesy, hunts inside. This ritual tests Gawain's ability to balance the role of the guest of the Hospitable Host with his reputation as a lover. The Gawain poet likens this ritual to a fencing match: "Thus thay meled of much what til mydmorn paste, The freke ferde with defence and feted ful fayre" ( 1280-1281 ). At the end of the first bout, Gawain has fought through to a stalemate, but the Lady has the last words. It is likely that it is the thought that he has an obligation to Baron Bercilak to exchange his winnings that keeps Gawain honest (and chaste), and he is obviously relieved 35

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that she is going to let him pass the first test so easily (1302-1304). By the end of the third bout, however, he has been worn down, and comes close to a discourtesy by turning her down with finality. Lady Bercilak asks him outright if there is another woman in his life, to which he replies: '"Be Sayn Jon,' And smethely con he smyle, 'In fayth I welde right non Ne non wil welde the while"' (1787-1790), by which he may mean that there is no other woman in his life right now, and since he is going to have his head cut off, there is not likely to be in the future. The hunt and the temptation rituals have a form that emphasize their place in the Otherworld. The Gawain poet has warped time from its linear, sequential habit into a form that gives a picture ofboth rituals happening at the same moment, something that can only happen in the Otherworld. It is also clear from the timing ofthe death ofthe fox and the acceptance ofLady Bercilak's gift of a magical girdle, that Baron and Lady Bercilak are in collusion with the game of forfeits, and probably with the whole ritual of the Beheading Game-indeed, it is fair to say that, in spite of Bercilak' s claim that it was the witch Morgan, they set up the whole game to begin with. Gawain wins the bedroom game by not giving into Lady Bercilak's blandishments, but loses the game of forfeits in the last battle. Lady Bercilak tells him that the green girdle will keep his head on his shoulders (18511854), and, in desperation, he believes her and accepts her gift. It is difficult to tell from the Gawain text just what the point of this game is; it may be that only the bravest and most worthy knight can be successful (C. 36

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Matthews 124), or it may be simply a way for the Gawain poet to prove the worth of his candidate for most puissant knight of the Round Table. Whatever the Gawain poet's intention it is clear that Gawain does not lose the game of forfeits by taking the girdle, but by withholding it from Baron Bercilak at the exchange of winnings. Lady Bercilak, like the Virgin Mary, is another aspect of the Earth Goddess, and it is in that guise that she tests Gawain with the bedroom game, and it is in this context that he loses, having lost faith in the Goddess to defend and protect him, and instead putting his faith in a supposedly magical implement. On the other hand, the talisman does prove to be effective, since the sacrifice is made symbolically at the last minute and Gawain does not lose his head. 37

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CHAPTER 8 END-GAME The surrogate's year of pampered idyllic existence ends with the inevitable sacrifice of the solar king, but Gawain is ready for the final challenge He has been tested in the Otherworld, and to his mind has passed every test; besides he has a new talisman to protect him from the axe of the Green Knight. To balance the arming ritual, Sir Gawain is dressed for his coming ordeal. Though he lets his attendants dress him in warm clothes, he puts on the red and gold Sun King armor himself and is careful to include his talisman from Lady Bercilak (2026-2042). The green girdle of protection represents the final stage in Gawain's journey from mythic hero to human knight. Gawain is now not as perfect as he was at the beginning of his journey, and he is putting his trust in a talisman instead of in the Goddess. With as much confidence as he can muster, he rides out with his guide to the Green Chapel. As Gawain makes his way toward the Green Chapel, the Gawain poet returns to the images of wild Nature, putting him firmly into the Otherworld again, and creating an atmosphere of lowering menace with no shelter, broken boulders and mist and rain obscuring the sun and making the landscape dark. (2077-2083). This atmosphere is appropriate to the sacrifice ofthe Sun King, since at the Winter Solstice the sun has reached its most southerly point, and will appear to reverse and return for the summer half of the year. The guide Baron Bercilak provides to 38

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Gawain, takes him to the very edge of the Green Knight's demesne and then warns him about the "wyghe in that waste, the worst upon erthe" (2097), which is something Gawain already knows. As one more test, the guide offers to keep the secret if Gawain chooses to go elsewhere, but Gawain is committed to going on and passes this test, making it plain that if he turned back at this point, even if no one else knew, he would be a coward-the accusation the Green Knight threw at Arthur at the beginning of the Beheading Game. (2127-2135). Too late to tum back, and seemingly forgetting the Otherworld talisman he wears, Gawain alone once more, invokes "Goddes wylie I am ful bayn, And to hym I hafme tone" (2157-2158), and rides down the path to the Green Chapel. All rites of passage, Christian or pagan, involve a transformation many of them through death to rebirth. From a Christian, and his own, perspective, Gawain is about to be martyred; from a pre-Christian perspective, he is about to be transformed and a new person revealed. There is a definite Christian gloss to this scene. Gawain finds what he thinks must be the Green Chapel, and his first impression is that it is a place where "myght aboute mydnyght I The Dele his matynnes telle" (2187 -2188), but would have been plain to the Gawain poet's largely Celtic audience that the Green Knight carries Otherworldly mythic characteristics that have nothing to do with the Christian devil. As a clearly psychological ploy, the Green Knight is whetting his axe, and at first does not 39

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respond to Gawain's call, but when he does appear, his first words are reminiscent of Baron Bercilak's welcome at Hautdesert: "Gawayn," quoth that grene gome, "God thee mot loke! 1-wysse, thou art welcom, wyghe, to my place, And thou has tymed thi travayl as trewe mon schulde; And thou knowes the convenuntes kest uus bytwene." (2039-2042) Still, Gawain fails to recognize the two figures as the same person, perhaps because the Green Knight's appearance is overwhelmingly reminiscent of the master of beasts, or Cemunnos, which Gawain has only seen in his guise as the Green Knight (C. Matthews 124). The Green Knight, for the third time, runs through the rules of the Beheading Game, and prepares to cut off Gawain's head. Gawain's transformation is almost complete, but he delays it by flinching under the Green Knight's first stroke (2259-2267). The Green Knight withdraws the axe and taunts Gawain for "Such cowardise," and tells him that it is the Green Knight that is the nobler of the two contestants. Gawain responds that it is false nobility in that when his head is on the ground he cannot pick it up and put it on again (2273-2283). The Green Knight, looking fiercer than before, starts another stroke, but pulls back just before he completes it. The third time is the charm, however, and the Green Knight draws blood, but does no more damage than a nick in the neck (2309-2314). With that symbolic stroke, the Green Knight considers the Beheading Game complete in that Gawain earned, and was given, his forfeit. The completion of this ritual notquite-beheading also ends the ritual of the symbolic sacrifice of the solar king. The 40

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Invincible Sun has died and been reborn, and the sun will shine on Camelot once more. Although the Gawain poet might have ended his tale at the Green Chapel, he brings Sir Gawain back to Arthur's court in order to make a truly Christian point: At his homecoming Gawain is no longer a mythic Arthurian knight, but a Christian knight who has learned the Christian lessons of shame and humility, neither of which are found in any of the Celtic or Anglo Saxon stories on which the Gawain poet based his tale. By the time Gawain returns to Arthur's court the wound on his neck has healed, but Lady Bercilak's girdle is worn as "In tokeyng he was tane in tech of a faute" (2488). Because he is shamed, in telling his story to the Court he keeps his fault and the Christian moral of the story to the last, in a form of confession. The court laughs at his newly found Christian scruples, but they also take the badge of the green girdle to represent Arthur's court from that day on, and it is from that day that Arthur's court becomes Christian and leaves its Celtic and Anglo Saxon mythology behind. 41

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CHAPTER 9 HOMECOMING Because the Celtic cultures were pre-literate, the myths and rituals of their cultures were transmitted by word of mouth, i.e., stories and tales of gods and heroes, and with the advent of Christianity in Britain, many of these were suppressed or altered to fit into the Christian mold. Be that as it may, there were still bards and troubadours who told the ancient stories of the heroes and gods, which by this time had become garbled over the centuries of Christian influence. Since the Gawain poet lived close to the Welsh border, he must have heard many of these stories and used them in crafting Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. If the Gawain poet knew these stories, so did his audience, and they would have appreciated some of the finer points of the tale that a modem, reading, audience, does not see. There is no doubt that the Gawain poet was Christian and lived in a Christian court, but there is also no doubt that the pre-Christian stories of mythic figures in the form of heroes, gods and goddesses, and stories of largely unintelligible, at least to modem audiences, ritualized activity were told, especially along the Welsh border where the population was more Celtic than Norman French. In following the five strange paths through the Otherworld wilderness, Sir Gawain has come full circle and arrived where he started: at the Court of King Arthur. He has been subjected to five rite-of-passage rituals that have taught him 42

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some of the nature of the five paths of the pentagram, which represent courage, steadfastness, loyalty, intelligence, and spirituality. Rites of passage of this nature are deeply rooted in the circle of death and rebirth. These rituals also mark the rite of passage, "by which, through the processes of separation, regeneration, and the return on a higher level, both the individual and the community are assured their victory over the forces of chaos (Doty 234). The Celtic and Anglo Saxon peoples, like every society saw their mythology as basic to their culture, and integrated that mythology into their lives using ritual so that ritualized myth was, and still is, a matter of transformation for their lives and their society. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be read as an attempt to bring the Celtic and Anglo Saxon mythology into line with the new imposition of Christianity onto the pre-Christian peoples. So it seems that the paths through the woods are not quite as difficult to follow as some have made them seem. There are at least five paths related to the Gawain poet's trope of the endless knot of the pentangle that are intelligible as mythic representations when one looks for the Celtic and Anglo Saxon mythology that was transmitted into the 13th century through a series of ritual activities. These magical rituals of transformation revolved around the Winter and Summer solar kings that relate to the Beheading Game, a game of forfiets ; the ritual of arms and arming which forms a chrysalis for the seeker; the trial of the Otherworld wilderness where faith in the unseen is tested; the test of the Hospitable Host where knightly courtesy is given trial; and the final passage of courage and responsibility 43

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at the Green Chapel, all of which have Celtic and Anglo Saxon mythic sources This exploration of the Gawain poet's woods is certainly not complete in these pages, but should give a number of starting points for further research and scholarly conjecture, which is, after all just another path through the woods. 44

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BIBLIOGRAPHY Anderson, William. Green Man: The Archetype of our Oneness with the Earth. London: Harper Collins, 1990. Bassford, Kathleen. The Green Man. First published 1978, Reprinted 1996. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Brewer, Elisabeth. From Cuchulainn to Gawain. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1973. Burrow, J .A. A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1966. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books, 1949. Capellanus, Andreas, John Jay Parry, trans. The Art of Courtly Love. New York: Columbia UP, 1960. Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1988. Dillon, Miles, and Nora Chadwick. The Celtic Realms: The History and the Culture of the Celtic Peoples from Pre-History to the Norman Invasion New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003. Doel, Fran and Geoff Doel. The Green Man in Britain. Stroud: Tempus, 2002. Doty, William G. Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals 2"d ed Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000. Dunn, Charles W., and Edward T. Byrnes, eds. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Middle English Literature. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990. Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. The Witches' God : Lord of the Dance. London: Hale, 1989. Forrest, John. The History of Morris Dancing, 1458-1750. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 45

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Fox, Denton, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Collection of Critical Essays Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 1 vol. Abridged ed. New York: Collier Books, 1963. Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Noonday Press-Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. Herm, Gerhard The Celts: The People Who Came out of the Darkness. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976. Jones, Terry, Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher, Juliette Dor. Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, 2003. Kittredge, George Lyman. A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1960. Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow, eds. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Marsden, John The Illustrated Bede. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1996. Matthews, Caitlin. Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain: King and Goddess in the Mabinogion. London: Arkana-Penguin, 1989. Matthews, John. Gawain Knight of the Goddess: Restoring an Archetype. London: HarperCollins, 1990. The Book of Arthur: Lost Tales from the Round Table Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 2002. Milner, Dan. The Bonnie Bunch of Roses. New York: Oak Publications, 1983. Tolkien, J.R.R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo. New York: Ballantine Books, 197 5. 46

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Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. Weston, Jesse L. From Ritual to Romance. 1920. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1997. 47