This article is Part 6 in a series about The Grail Romances of the Middle Ages and the Individuation Process by Lans Smith
This magnificent poem is permeated with the imagery of the archetypal feminine, here incarnated by a woman simply called “Morgan the Goddess”.
Morgan’s emissary is the Green Knight, a giant who bursts into Camelot, all clad in green, with an ax in one hand, and a holly bob in the other. He challenges Arthur’s knights to chop his head off, with the promise that he will return the favor a year hence, at the Green Chapel. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge and chops the Green Knight’s head off. It bounces over the floor, kicked around by the knights like a soccer ball, until the Green Knight retrieves it, gets on his horse, and turns the head towards Gawain to say: “Next year, at the Green Chapel!” as he rides out of the hall, sparks flying from his horse’s hooves.
Decapitation vividly represents the power of life to survive death. We cut John Barleycorn’s head off in the fall, and the corn comes back in the spring. Nature is ruled by the “Jolly Green Giant,” whose color is a symbol of both life and death. Decapitation is also a central motif in alchemy, representing death and rebirth.
Gawain then leaves the court on Halloween, and rides southwards, nearly slain by the sleet when he sleeps in his armor. He finally arrives at a marvelous castle, sitting in a grove of shimmering oaks, on Christmas Eve, and is welcomed inside.
At dinner, his host makes a deal: “You sleep in for the next three days, before your date at the Green Chapel on New Year’s, and I’ll go hunting. I’ll give you what I catch, and if you should catch anything here in the castle, you’ll give it to me.”
And so a hunt goes on during the next three days—both inside and out. The Lord of the castle brings home a stag, a boar, and a fox, which he gives to Gawain. In exchange, Gawain gives him two kisses on the cheek for the first two days. He’s gotten these kisses from the Lady of the Castle, who appears each morning at his bedside, she’s wearing a transparent nightgown, with jeweled brocade.
Gawain tries to pretend he’s asleep, but she tickles him under the cheek to wake him up.
On the third day, a bit frustrated, she offers him more: “Take all my body,” she says, but Gawain demurs. Instead, he takes a green girdle she gives him, wrapping it around his thigh the morning he leaves for the Green Chapel. The girdle protects its wearer from any harm—like having your head cut off.
As it turns out, the Lord of the Castle is the Green Knight Gawain meets at the Chapel, where he must bend down on his knees to receive the blow from the axe which decapitated the Green Knight in Arthur’s court the year before. The Green Knight strikes twice, missing both times because Gawain flinches. On the third swing, the axe grazes Gawain’s neck, punishment for his having kept the green girdle.
Gawain leaps up, happier than he had ever been since the day he was born. Then he confesses his sins, to the vast amusement of the Green Knight—who, after all, is pagan, a supernatural consort of the Morgan the Goddess.
Her symbols include the three animals of the hunt: the stag is an archaic symbol of death and rebirth, because it molts its antlers every year; the wild boar has long been associated with the archetypal feminine, from the boar that kills Adonis, to the boar that Baba Yaga rides in Russian folktales; and we know that foxes are feminine because of Steve Martin’s skit on Saturday Night Live!
All are what I call gynetypes—archetypal symbols of the divine feminine. So too is the Green Chapel, which is a mossy mound, deep in a valley, resembling a Neolithic barrow—the womb and tomb of the Great Goddess.
In your journal recall a dream in which animals appeared and reflect upon what they meant to you at the time.
Evans Lansing ("Lans") Smith, Ph.D., received a B.A. in English from Williams College, an M.A. in Creative Writing from Antioch International (London and Dublin), and a Ph.D. in Literature from The Claremont Graduate School. He traveled with the late Joseph Campbell.More Posts by Lans Smith