In many mediaeval romances, the “holiday” of Christmas features strongly in the story line – particularly, as is usual, if there is an “adventure” which takes place. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is no different; certainly, the festive season provides a backdrop to the story which, helped by its religious significance, works in placing Gawain’s personal struggle right at its heart.
As is normal in such works, the Gawain-poet begins his story by placing Sir Gawain in the histories of Britain (the British Books or Brut), but then he immediately brings his audience right into the story by placing it in a contemporary context they will understand, the pleasures of the Christmas period:
Ƥis kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledez of ƥe best –
Rekenly of ƥe Rounde Table all ƥo rich breƥer –
With rych revel oriʒt and rechles merƥes
Or, as translated:
This king lay at Camelot upon Christmas time,
With many of his lovely lords, lads of the best,
A right royal brethren of the Round Table,
With rich revel alright and reckless mirth.
The poet places us in a setting of joy, frivolity, and human celebration. Yet the purpose of doing so is to play one of the Gawain-poet’s great tricks: to settle the audience in pleasure and enjoyment and then twist them with the arrival of something horrific. In this case the Green Knight, a curious blend of holly-bearing bonhomie and axe-wielding monster, not unlike Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present, a giant, jovial being who nonetheless bears a message for the world.
The Green Knight in fact appears at the end of the holiday, upon New Year, adding further symbolism of birth and renewal to the story. Following Gawain’s “execution” of the Green Knight as part of a ghoulish reciprocal beheading game, his challenger then picks up his severed head and tells our hero to seek him out in a year’s time to be executed himself. The poet has taken us from joy to despair and now plays with our hero – and ourselves - as he must bide a year before Christmas comes again, knowing full well he will never survive.
The passing of the seasons...
As the year passes with its seasons “suing one after other”, the time comes for Gawain to begin his journey at Michaelmas. He is a penitent now, upon a journey for his sins. He travels through the land of Logres, he rides along the coast of North Wales and crosses over to the Wirral and then he disappears into lands unknown until Christmas comes again and he is desperate to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Bi contray caryez ƥis knyʒt tyl Krystmasse Even,
Ƥe knyʒt wel ƥat tyde
To Mary made his mone
Ƥat ho hym red to ryde
And wysse hym to sum wone.
This knight crossed the country until Christmas Eve
And so this knight he cried
And to Mary did he moan,
To help him reach and ride
And guide him to someone.
Here again, the Christmas spirit descends. After a terrible journey through snow, ice, loneliness and near starvation, Gawain comes to a castle which welcomes him as an honoured guest. The place is full of visitors staying for the festive holiday; our hero has entered a welcome place where he is dressed in the finest clothes and treated as one of the family.
Yet we know something is afoot. Again, the selflessness of Christ and his humble birth is in stark contrast to the dark deeds going on at the castle. While Christmas is celebrated by all who are there, Gawain is compelled to enter into a three-day bargain with his host, Bertilak of Hautdesert, whereby whilst the lord is out hunting, his wife turns seductress and Gawain is the prey.
Christmas moves into New Year...
In the end, of course, Gawain survives his time at Hautdesert before then travelling on to meet his nemesis at the Green Chapel. Christmas is now behind us; the story turns on New Year when to his tryst he must be true. He must meet the Green Knight again; our narrator now takes us from the neo-gothic splendour of Hautdesert to “nobot an olde cave or a crevisse of an olde cragge” – he has lifted us once more only to drop our spirits again. From the warm bosom of Christ to the gaping maw of the Devil’s mouth.
In this dark place, facing the blade of the Green Knight’s axe, our hero eventually survives with a mere scratch upon his neck to return home to Camelot. In so doing, while Christmas talks of the enduring spirit of Christ in man, New Year reminds us of renewal. Gawain is a changed man, his vanity tested by blunt folk of the north, and his lesson must be shared by the court to which he returns.
In this way, the Gawain-poet asks us to reflect upon our vanity and to seek an inner goodness in ourselves once more. If New Year is for renewal, Christmas remains as our compass.
Publishing in 2018...
I hope you have enjoyed this brief article. 2018 is the year this edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (illustrated throughout with my own linocut prints) becomes reality, thanks to your help and every other pledger. If you know of others who would enjoy their own limited collector’s first edition, please do pass on this update to them. And don't forget, you can also upgrade your own pledge too should you wish.
I wish you, your family, and those you love, a very Happy Christmas.
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