Gather a handful of pagans or storytellers round a hearth around Yule and thoughts are likely to turn to that most enigmatic and powerful of initiatory myths – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, linking as it does a story of the Yule season with the characters of Arthur’s court in a story of chivalry, magic, temptation, transformation and self-discovery. The story is, no doubt, well known to both magicians and storytellers and cannot be easily summarised – all the more so as the very richness of the story, and in particular its best-known version, are such that any number of interpretations are possible.
Sir Gawain the Green KnightThe story starts with the invasion of King Arthur’s court at New Year by the terrifying and mysterious figure of the Green Knight who lays down a challenge to the assembled court, the challenge being that a volunteer must strike off the Green Knight’s head with his axe but must present himself for a return blow a year hence. Only Gawain has the courage to meet the challenge and he strikes off the Green Knight’s head with a single blow, only to have the Green Knight pick up his head, mount his horse and ride out of the court.
At the beginning of the following winter, therefore, Gawain rides from Arthur’s court to keep the appointment; he rides for some weeks through the dying winter landscape until, just before Christmas, he emerges from the desolate, frozen and still forest and comes upon a castle in the wasteland. There he is welcomed by Sir Bertilak and his wife and entertained until the morning of the appointment, his host having assured him that the place set for the meeting, the Green Chapel, is close by.
The rest of this article by Rowan, which was published in White Dragon at Samhain 1995, can be read on the White Dragon website.