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.
Sir Gawain, The Green Knight and the Otherworld Journey
It was around the 5th century that a synod was called to bring Britain’s Celtic Christian Church into line with Rome. In Britain the church owed as much to Druidry (and by inference, paganism) as it did to Christianity. Rome was not pleased with our Isles and many hitherto honoured Gods and Goddesses were either Canonised – like Bridget – or, became the butt-end of nasty folklore, such as Wayland, Freya and Cerridwen. Much the same happened to our sacred sites. The most popular sprouted churches. The less popular, sprouted scary legends.
The oral traditions suffered much the same fate as god/desses and sacred sites and, though scribed in Medieval times, they were given a 5th/6th century back-drop. The tales were, of course, much older than either of these times and were probably of Druidic origin. (Perhaps coming from an age before Druids were called Druids – though this is pure speculation.) The Arthuriad, the Matter of Britain, was part of those oral traditions. It is possible that the Arthur of the 5th/6th century was no more than an inspired creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth, as some people claim. Maybe all that so-called history was just a re-telling of bardic tales, a modernisation of old stories, as authors such as Mary Stewart, Parke Godwin, Marion Bradley and Guy Gavriel Kay have done in our age.
Of course Arthur could have been a tribal leader or Roman soldier who lived in, or around, the 5/6th centuries. Who become the Ard-Ri (High King) of our Isles. Who did heroic deeds. Who married a Queen, had a sorceress sister and was advised by a wizard. He may even be the one who built Tintagel. And maybe not.
The rest of this article by Kate Westwood, which was published in White Dragon at Samhain 1997, can be read on the White Dragon website.
“Save Seven, None Returned” : Arthur, Kinship and Kingship