When the Green Knight bursts into Arthur’s hall in Fitt 1 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it is not his enormous stature, statuesque figure, or attractive visage that astounds the onlookers – it is his colour. As the anonymous author writes: “for long there was only staring at the man, / for everyone marvelled what it could mean / that a knight… might take such a colour” (232-34). The Knight’s greenness is not arbitrary; rather, the colour choice is intentional, for both practical and symbolic reasons. Indeed, as Pietr Sadowski notes, “textual evidence from Sir Gawain with regard to the colour green is too overwhelming in its effect to be dismissed as mere descriptive ornament, or simply as an authorial attempt to ‘impress’ the reader through an unusual and uncanny association of a human figure with a nonhuman colour” (80-81). To that end, this paper will take an ecocritical lens to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and suggest that the Green Knight’s greenness, coupled with his antagonistic positioning, represents contemporary tensions between nature and humanity.
Upon the Green Knight’s first appearance, the author indulges in a lengthy description of both the Knight and his equally emerald horse:
Most attractive was this man attired in green,
With the hair of his head matching his horse.
Fine outspreading locks cover his shoulders;
A great beard hangs down over his chest like a bush,
That like the splendid hair that falls from his head
was clipped all around above his elbows,
So that his upper arms were hidden, in the fashion
Of a royal capados that covers the neck.
That great horse’s mane was much the same,
well curled and combed, with numerous knots. (179-88)
From the outset, then, the Green Knight is equated with the natural world; aside from the obvious equation of his beard to a bush (182), the images of ‘clipping’, ‘curling’, and ‘combing’ reference man’s attempts to ‘tame’ nature. Here enters a core tenet of ecocriticism, as articulated by Sarah Stanbury: “a key term in ecocriticism… implies human accountability; since all things are physically interrelated, humans are at least partially responsible for [the environment], even if they cannot see the etiology that links cause and effect” (1). The Green Knight, then, is the embodiment of that physical interrelation; his corporeality is an inextricable unification of the oft-disparate human and natural worlds. His green hue (147) and clothing juxtapose his human features, which are described as “most attractive” (179). He also rides his horse “without shoes” (160), presumably in representation of a Marlow-esque oneness with nature, and his hair and the horse’s mane are described as similar. Viz., the Knight’s body is a corporeal site for the consolidation of nature and humanity. He is terrifying in his combination of physical perfection and otherworldliness, which is itself representative of a harnessing of, and consequently recognition of, the power of nature.
This unification is further represented in the items he brandishes: “in one hand he carried a holly-branch / that is brilliantly green when forests are bare, / and an axe in the other, monstrously huge; / a cruel battle-axe to tell of in words, if one could” (206-09). In one hand, then, he carries a specimen of the natural world – the branch – and in the other a tool for removing that world – the axe. That is to say, the Green Knight possesses articles of both the natural and manmade worlds, and this dual wielding symbolizes the interrelation of his corporeal body. It also represents his immense power, in that he can – much like nature itself – create and destroy.
Later, the author describes nature itself as unified: “high slopes on each side and woods at their base / of massive grey oaks, hundreds growing together; / Hazel and hawthorn were densely entangled, / Thickly festooned with coarse shaggy moss” [emphasis added] (743-46). Not only does this present nature as a powerful, unthreatened force, but it mirrors the pentangle which adorns Gawain’s shield. Indeed, the pentangle, a “figure consisting of five points / where each line overlaps and locks into another / and the whole design is continuous” (628-30), is so revered that the author endeavours to explain its symbolism at length “even if it should delay [the story]” (624). To that end, he goes into great detail describing the five points: “each one [is] linked to the others in an endless design, / based upon five points that was never unfinished, / not uniting in one line nor separating either; / without ending anywhere at any point I can find, / no matter where the line began or ran to an end” (657-61). This language of unending unification mirrors that aforementioned, of nature’s everlasting vibrancy. Nature itself, then, is the embodiment of the symbolic pentangle.
This unflinching unity contrasts Gawain, who, despite being dubbed the most noble and handsome knight God has ever made (869), cannot help but shy from laceration when faced with the promised deathblow from the Green Knight’s axe. However, after his initial cowardice, when he does endeavour to accept the blow, he is described as “still as a stone, or the stump of a tree / anchored in rocky ground by hundreds of roots” (2293-94). The images of nature here are equated to the virtue of self-sacrifice that Gawain’s human nature initially prohibited. In realizing the pinnacle of his nobility, then, Gawain has transcended the trappings of humanity, and ascended to the plane of nature inhabited solely, until that moment, by the Green Knight himself.
Further evidence of flawed humanity comes in Arthur’s overreaction to the Green Knight’s first appearance, which is representative of an inherent human opposition to nature. While it is true that the Green Knight is arrogant – “this giant bursts in and rides through the hall, / approaching the high dais, disdainful of peril, / greeting none, but haughtily looking over their heads” (221-23) – to embellish his presumptuousness with deadly intent, as Arthur does, is symptomatic of a fearful, accusatory predisposition. Indeed, the Green Knight speaks explicitly of his peaceful resolve, announcing to the crowd that “you may assured by this branch that I carry / that I approach you in peace, seeking no battle” (265-66). Despite this, Arthur retaliates with a mistaken challenge: “if you seek, courteous knight / a combat without armour / you will not lack a fight” (276-78). This reaction demonstrates a default position of combativeness that the Green Knight, in his unification of the human and natural spheres, has eclipsed.
Lois Bragg asserts “there can be little doubt but that the Green Knight is some sort of personification of Nature… [he is] as disinterested… as unpredictable, and as elusive as Nature herself” (485). Through both this depiction and the reactions of the other characters to that depiction, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight functions as an example of ecocriticism, whose primary interests “lie in ways that texts represent relationships of domination and subjection between humans and nonhuman life” (Stanbury 2). The Green Knight’s unification of nature and humanity, symbolized by his corporeal combination of the two, represents not only an unthreatened nature and a skittish humanity, but the reification of knightly aspiration, as embodied by the revered pentangle.
Besserman, Lawrence. “The Idea of the Green Knight.” ELH, vol. 53, no. 2, 1986, pp. 219–239. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2873255.
Bragg, Lois. “’Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and the Illusion of Clarity.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 86, no. 4, 1985, pp. 482– 488. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43343692.
Sadowski, Pietr. The Knight on His Quest: Symbolic Patterns of Transition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1996. Print.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. James Winney. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1992. Print.
Stanbury, Sarah. “Ecochaucer: Green Ethics and Medieval Nature.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 39, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1–16. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25094270.
Varichon, Anne. Couleurs: Pigments et teintures dans les mains des peoples. Paris: Sieul, 2000. Print.
WRITTEN JULY 21ST, 2017 FOR ENGLISH 714: THE ROMANCES.