Gawain, the Green Knight - and the wyldrenesse of wyrale

  Posted: 05.10.21 at 08:00 by Mark Gorton

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September brought the release in the UK of a movie called The Green Knight. It should have been on cinema screens last year, but the pandemic intervened. You can see the trailer at the top of this page.

Sadly it doesn't appear to have been scheduled in our local picture houses, but is available to live stream on Amazon Prime.

Though shot mostly in Ireland, the old poem on which The Green Knight is based - one of our literature's oldest and greatest stories - has strong connections with Wirral.

Put it this way, Gawain's adventures would have put Wirral on the map of Britain had maps of Britain existed at the time.

Cast your minds back more than 600 years to an age when an unknown poet wrote of young Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Probably a resident of East Cheshire or West Staffordshire, this storyteller was well enough travelled, or well enough informed, to send the hero of his story on a quest that took him to the Wirral peninsula.

The penmanship of the manuscript is matched by its illustrations

In a nutshell, this is what happens.

It's Christmas at Camelot, where King Arthur, his wife, Guinevere, and the Knights of the Round Table are feasting and making merry.

The party is well and truly pooped by an extraordinary gatecrasher - a green giant of a man wielding a massive axe.

He introduces himself as the Green Knight and reveals he has come to Camelot with a challenge.

“One of you can strike off my head with my axe," he says. “There is one condition. In a year’s time my opponent must seek me out and submit to a similar blow from me and, as I will do now, show no fear.”

Another page from the Gawain manuscript - thanks to the British Library

The knights are both bamboozled and intimidated. Although the bargain seems one-sided, the Green Giant might well be not as crazy as he seems and capable of God knows what sorcery.

It is Gawain who steps forward to accept the challenge. The Green Knight hands over his axe and kneels before the youngster. Gawain swipes and decapitates him – only for the green creature to rise to his feet and reattach his head. He departs with a reminder of the deal that has been struck.

“Meet me at the Green Chapel next Christmas,” he says, “or be forever regarded as a coward.”

The word ‘coward’ is not part of a knight’s vocabulary, and the following year Gawain, on his faithful horse Gringolet, sets off on his quest to find the Chapel - a quest that must surely end in his death at the hands of the Green Knight.

On his tough journey Gawain fights off monsters and wild animals, before taking shelter in a castle. Here, a very beautiful - and very married - countess tests his moral resolve and code of honour as she tempts him to be intimate. She also gives him a gift – a magical green sash that, she says, protects its wearer from any injury, even an apparently fatal one.

Simon Armitage's translation of Gawain is a great read

The countess and her husband know the location of the Green Chapel and direct Gawain to it. As he prepares to leave them he looks at the green sash. It is another temptation he must resist, but just before he sets out to meet his fate his courage buckles. He puts on the sash and hides it beneath his armour.

At the eerie Green Chapel Gawain kneels at the feet of the Green Knight. As the heavy blade is raised, Gawain flinches. Three times the giant makes to strike, but all he does is inflict a small wound with the third swipe, a nick on Gawain's neck from which a little blood flows.

The Green Knight spares him.

But Gawain is mortified. He flinched despite the sash, and wearing it broke all his rules. It made him a liar, a coward and a fraud. He would rather be dead.

The Green Giant thinks otherwise. Gawain resisted temptation by the countess and kept his side of an apparently fatal and unfair bargain. It was not wrong to try to cheat death because life is sacred. Gawain is still as pure as the snow now falling around them.

The new movie's depiction of the Green Knight

And so the story ends.

Gawain and the Green Knight is one of our earliest surviving examples of written fiction and has been translated from its middle English by great poets like Jessie Weston, Ian Serraillier and Simon Armitage.

Apart from being a wonderful tale well told, the poem is relevant to us because of the route Gawain takes to the Green Chapel. This extract is taken from Bernard O’Donahue’s version of the poem.

“The islands round Anglesey he held to his left, crossing the fords along the high headlands by the Holy Head, till he returned to the shore by the wilds of the Wirral, where very few live loved either by God or men of goodwill…At times he fought dragons, sometimes wolves, or trolls of the forest that skulked in the crags. He fought wild bulls and bears and boars as well, and giants who stalked him from the fells above.”

All this and more takes place in the 'wyldrenesse of wyrale'.

The Green Knight has been described as 'strange and peculiarly powerful'

If you would like to read this little masterpiece why not buy a copy from Linghams Booksellers in Heswall? There are some excellent translations, including those by Ian Serraillier and Simon Armitage.

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