It’s New Year’s Day. There are innumerable myths around the world that have to do with the changing of the season, the winter solstice and the emergence of the new year from the old. One of the oldest stories shows up not only in myths, but in contemporary religions practiced all over the globe. In that myth, a hero must travel into a hostile place — a wilderness — and slay the Old Year (symbolized in any number of ways) in order to bring on renewal and the new year. That action of an old god or ruler being slain in order to bring on the new year is a fundamental pattern, and serves as the central drama even in the Christian religion. In the past week, I’ve been writing about my annual re-reading of the 14th-Century alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (CLICK HERE and HERE.) The climactic scene of the poem takes place on New Year’s Day, and the anonymous poet who wrote the poem performed an impressive feat of blending mythic traditions about the changing of the year with the stories of the Christian virtues attributed to knights like Gawain.
It’s worth taking a moment to put the end of the 14th Century into context. Although it was more than 700 years ago, it was not a time completely buried in an unrecognizable, ancient past. In 1400, simultaneously with his brother “Gawain” poet a couple of hundred miles to the north, Geoffrey Chaucer was finishing The Canterbury Tales at court in London. About forty years later, Gutenberg would devise moveable type, and just another 10 years or so after that, Caxton would begin printing books by that method in English.
Meanwhile, nearly a hundred years before Chaucer and Gawain, Dante had composed his Divina Commedia, followed not long afterwards by Boccaccio’s Decameron, and during that time there were universities established in Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Prague and Heidelberg. It was not the dark ages. The year 1400 was on its way to becoming the Renaissance, and ultimately the modern world.
Despite all these motions toward the emerging modern world, somewhere in the far north of Britain, our poet was writing verse steeped in the literature of the ancient world — Homer and Virgil and ancient legends — employing an alliterative poetic form that was more similar to the sagas and traditional oral recitation of centuries past than it was to the contemporary trends in London and Florence and Ravenna. Not only was his poetic manner antique, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight took its subject matter from a fascinating mix of ancient legends and medieval Christian theology.
On the one hand –in the prevailing Christian theology of the day — he had a long tradition of chivalric romances: tales of knights on sacred quests, which had been associated for hundreds of years with the probably pre-Christian King Arthur and his legendary Round Table. On the other, there was a long mythic tradition — probably originating in Irish/Celtic tales — of the old sun god being slain by the new sun god. In a poem that would only take you a couple of hours, at most, to read, if it weren’t in an odd version of Middle English, the poet wove these traditions and some other ancient themes into an amazing and wonderful story.
In Gawain, we get two ritual “deaths.” First, the mysterious and ominous Green Knight rides into Camelot on New Year’s Day and challenges anyone to trade axe-blows with him. The incredibly pure and valiant Sir Gawain accepts this deal, having carefully calculated something along the following lines: “This guy will hand me his four foot-long axe and give me first shot, and he gets the second blow. Well, he’s not going to hurt me much after my swing, is he?” So, with a single blow, Sir G. decapitates the dude, as he had planned. Immediately demonstrating that there’s more here than meets the eye, the now-headless Green Knight picks up his head by the hair, and that head then advises Gawain that he’ll see him in exactly one year to give him his axe-blow. Gawain had not expected that.
The second ritual “death” occurs near the end of the poem, when Gawain has finally found someone to guide him to the secret Green Chapel where the Green Knight ordered him to appear to receive his turn. There’s a great moment here, when the guide — a retainer at the nearby castle of Bercilak, where Gawain’s been partying for the past three days — tells Gawain, “Uh, there’s the Green Chapel. I’m not going any closer because the dude who lives there is one mean customer. I advise you to also hightail it, and I promise I won’t tell anyone you scooted away.”
Gawain, however, is stuck. He’s made this vow in front of Arthur and Guenevere and all the knights at Camelot and, as the epitome of knightly and Christian honor and virtue, he’s got to keep his date with the Green Knight. Plus, Gawain has a Secret Weapon. Back at Bercilak’s place, the Queen — Mrs. Bercilak — gave Gawain a magic belt (the belt is green) which would protect him from any blow, and you can bet that Gawain is wearing it at that moment.
Unfortunately for Gawain, he shouldn’t be wearing that belt. Another one of the ancient legends our poet has woven into the story involves a game that Gawain and Bercilak have been playing for the past 3 days. Bercilak went out hunting every day, promising to bring back to Gawain everything he got during the hunt, while Gawain would hand over to Bercilak whatever spoils Gawain manages to secure while lounging around the castle. By the rules of their game, Gawain should’ve handed over that magic belt, instead of keeping it for the obvious advantage it provides him as he rides toward his axe-date with the Green Knight. We can sense that there’s trouble ahead.
It turns out that the “Green Chapel” is just a grass-covered mound in a remote mountain valley. Gawain rides down to it and climbs up on it. There’s no one in sight, but there is this somewhat disturbing sound of someone grinding something. A very LOUD grinding sound. In another wonderful moment that rings perfectly true to human nature, Gawain shouts out something like, “OK! Gawain is here to keep his New Year’s Day meeting as he agreed. I command anyone who’s here to meet me,” with the suggestion that if said person doesn’t show up, and pronto, he’ll consider his part of the bargain kept and he’ll be out of there like a shot with his head still on his shoulders.
The grinding sound stops.
A voice says, “Hold on! And you will quickly have all that I promised!” And here comes the ol’ Green Knight, about eight feet tall, carrying an axe whose edge (obviously just-sharpened) is about FOUR FEET LONG.
We don’t get a lot of interior monologue in Middle English verse romance, although there is some. Here, we don’t, and the poet leaves us to imagine what Gawain is thinking. We have to imagine that his confidence in the efficacy of a magic belt against a four foot-long axe wielded by an 8-foot tall giant is waning. However, a deal’s a deal, and Gawain takes off his helmet, kneels down and stretches out his neck to receive the blow.
First, the Green Knight makes a couple of convincing feints at a swing, which cause Gawain to shrink away, giving the giant a chance to berate Gawain for cowardice. Then, on the third swing, the big axe descends, just barely nicking the side of Gawain’s neck. As soon as Gawain sees the blood on the snow-covered ground, and realizes that he must be alive to see it (this business of seeing drops of blood on the snow is, itself, a tradition in earlier questing-knight stories, especially Parzival’s), he leaps up, slaps on his helmet, draws his sword, and cries out, “Cease your blows, sir, and offer me no more!” That is a fabulous moment, in which we can see human nature in a perfectly recognizable form, no different then than today.
The giant merely laughs. He informs Gawain that the whole thing has been a trick, designed to reveal that the supposed glory and virtue of Arthur’s much-vaunted Round Table was a sham, and that even its most glorious and renowned knight — Gawain — would sacrifice his own honor to save his neck. He, the Green Knight, is none other than the very Bercilak who’s been Gawain’s host for the previous three days. That green belt Gawain is wearing was a trick that Bercilak designed, with his wife’s participation, to lure Gawain into breaking his own agreement with Bercilak, and would no more have protected him from an axe-blow than from a flea bite.
At this point, Gawain has some apologizing to do: to Bercilak, for breaking the rules of the game and, ultimately, to Arthur and the knights back at Camelot, for having violated his own high standards of honorable behavior.
BUT, what WE have, as a result is a fabulous story that weaves together that ancient legend of slaying the old god in the wilderness and the romantic tales of Christian knights. Gawain resolves to become more humble in light of his own limitations, and takes the green belt from under his armor and wraps it around him in plain sight as a symbol of the renewal of his dedication to his principles. Once he returns to Camelot (to everyone’s surprise, since they assumed his end under the giant’s axe was a foregone conclusion), ALL the knights adopt the wearing of the green belt as a symbol of humility. In mythopoetic terms (and this might take a week of instruction at current university credit-hour rates), the old Gawain has been slain, and a new, more dedicated and virtuous Gawain is reborn.
The old god is slain, if only symbolically, the world is renewed, and the earth turns toward Spring. Keep it in mind next year when you pick up your axe and head into the woods to cut down the Christmas tree. You’re following some extremely old footprints.
Have a happy New Year.
I acknowledge debts of translation and interpretation to A. C. Cawley, editor of the Everyman’s Library edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the noted scholar and my onetime professor, E. T. Donaldson.
© Brad Nixon 2011, 2017
Here are my other posts about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
Silent Night, Green Knight Dec. 13, 2009
A 14th-Century Christmas Dec. 24, 2010
The Knight in Winter Dec. 26, 2010
Another Visit with the Green Knight Dec. 10, 2012
When Worlds Collide Jan. 6, 2012
New Year’s Knight Dec. 31 2015
Sir Gawain vs. the Poets Jan. 1, 2017