Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Magic

1

Those standing studied him and sidled towards him With all the world’s wonder as to what he would do. For astonishing sights they had seen, but such a one never; Therefore a phantom from Fairyland the folk there deemed him. So even the doughty were daunted and dared not reply.

The narrator describes the moment the Green Knight makes his appearance at King Arthur’s court. His huge size and completely green appearance can only be attributed to magic, specifically Fairy magic. Fairyland exists as another world that can sometimes be entered by humans but poses great dangers for mortals. Fairies make up part of Britain’s pre-Christian pagan religion and worldview. As Christians, these Britons do not disbelieve in Fairyland and its magic but rather reject Fairyland and its inhabitants as evil. Therefore, the Green Knight must be something dangerous, and all view his presence in their court as disturbing and wrong.

2

Merrily in the morning by a mountain he rode Into a wondrously wild wooded cleft, With high hills on each side overpeering a forest Of huge hoary oaks, a hundred together. The hazel and the hawthorn were intertwined With rough ragged moss trailing everywhere[.]

The narrator describes Gawain’s ride north into the wilderness. Although most living in Britain in the 1300s followed the Christian faith, many continued to believe in Celtic pagan concepts such as fairies and Fairyland. Since such magical things were not Christian in nature, they would be considered evil. Following this line of thinking, pagan worship of natural elements such as the sun would make a wilderness—dangerous in any case—an obvious place to encounter such evil. Oak, hazel, and hawthorn were all plants associated with the Celtic pagan concept of Fairyland. Readers may wonder if Gawain stumbled into a land controlled by fairies, if not into Fairyland itself.

3

Then he went to the barrow, which he walked around, inspecting, Wondering what in the world it might be. . . . ‘O God, is the Chapel Green This mound?’ said the noble knight. ‘At such might Satan be seen Saying matins at midnight.’

After Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel to meet the Green Knight, he sees a grass-covered barrow instead of a building as he expected. Barrows, or ancient burial mounds, exist throughout the British and Irish countryside. Barrows have a strong association with paganism because they were erected by pre-Christian Celts. Many legends claim that they are entryways to Fairyland. Here, Gawain, a Christian, associates the mound with Satan because he considers the pre-Christian pagan beliefs evil. Gawain might reasonably believe that the Green Knight exists as a creature of pagan and thus evil magic.

4

‘Bertilak of the High Desert I am called here in this land. Through the might of Morgan the Fay, who remains in my house, Through the wiles of her witchcraft, a lore well learned— Many of the magical arts of Merlin she acquired[.]’

The Green Knight reveals his true identity and explains he came to be the Green Knight through the magic of Morgan le Fay, with “fay” being another word for “fairy.” Morgan le Fay, a famous witch, learned her craft from none other than Merlin, a wizard and one of King Arthur’s advisors. However, unlike Merlin, she sometimes uses her craft for evil. Witchcraft was considered a skill given by Satan. In this text, the Celtic pagan concept of Fairy conflates with the more universal idea of witchcraft: Both involve magic and the non-Christian.

5

‘She bewitched me in this weird way to bewilder your wits, And to grieve Guinevere and goad her to death With ghastly fear of that ghost’s ghoulish speaking With his head in his hand before the high table.’

Sir Bertilak, as the Green Knight, explains that the witch Morgan le Fay transformed him. She orchestrated the scene to disturb Camelot, particularly Guinevere, whom she dislikes. Morgan le Fay takes on differing roles in the various Arthurian legends. In all of them, she exists as a powerful witch. Most legends also identify her as King Arthur’s older half-sister. Although many tell of her hatred of the court and sometimes of Arthur himself, Morgan rescues the mortally wounded Arthur and takes him to Avalon, where he can rest and heal before rising again someday. Thus Morgan gives Arthur immortality—if only as legend.