Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas at Camelot, a Yuletide story

Over six hundred years ago, in the reign of Richard II, an anonymous poet creates a tale of Arthurian adventure and romance, its hero the courteous Sir Gawain, one wintry Yuletide.

King Arthur and his court feasting   © British Library  

"Christmas time.  The king is home at Camelot
Among his many lords, all splendid men --
All trusted brothers of the Round Table
Ready for court revels and carefree pleasures.
Knights in great numbers at the tournament sports
Jousted with much joy, as gentle knights
Will do, then rode to the court for the carol dances.
The festival lasted fifteen days long
With all the meat and mirth the men could manage.
Such clamour and merriment were amazing to hear:
By day a joyful noise -- dancing at night --
A happiness that rang through rooms and halls
With lords and ladies disporting themselves as they pleased.
So in delight they lived and danced there together:
The knights of highest renown under Christ himself,
The loveliest ladies that ever on earth drew breath,
The most handsome king that ever ruled court,
The best and noblest of people -- all in their prime in that hall."

So this anonymous fourteenth century poet sets the scene at Camelot, and into all the merriment arrives the forbidding stranger, a giant horseman:

"There hove into the hall a hideous figure,
Square built and bulky, thickset from neck to thigh --
The heaviest horseman in the world, the tallest as well;
…the mightiest of men
And, astride his horse, a handsome knight as well.
…But the hue of his every feature
Stunned them: as could be seen,
Not only was this creature
Colossal -- he was bright Green --"  [as was his horse!]

"The arrival of the Green Knight" 
 This manuscript illustration (?from Froissart) shows his axe but not his evergreen holly bough

"Such a horseman had never crossed their tracks:
To them he looked as bright
As summer lightning that cracks
The sky -- and no man might withstand his dreadful axe."

The stranger proceeds to issue a daunting challenge to Arthur's knights:  an exchange of blows with his mighty axe,  and he will  take the first blow himself,  bare necked:

"...if any hold himself bold enough,
Has the stomach to strike one stroke for another,
I'll give him the gift of this beautiful battle-axe."

 Sir Gawain, King Arthur's nephew, takes up the challenge:
"I am to make this cut at you come what may,
And a twelvemonth from now I'll take another one
From you, with whatever weapon you choose, to pay it back."

Gawain duly strikes and the Green Knight's head rolls along the floor.  But this headless green apparition picks it up, remounts and holds his head aloft before the horrified company :

Original illustration to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,  
Cotton Nero A. X manuscript © British Library

"And turns it to face the nobles at the table.  It lifts its eyelids, gives them a long stare,
Then slowly opens its mouth from which these words come forth,
Be prepared to come as you promised, Gawain,
Seek me faithfully until you find me, sir
As you have pledged in the presence of these noble knights."

This prelude to Gawain's quest is the traditional 'Champion's Bargain'.  This poem exists in a single manuscript of the late 1300s from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton;  and the story continues with Sir Gawain honourably setting out alone one year later, to search the icy wilderness of the Wirral for the home of his challenger. Braving robber knights,  fierce beasts and wild men ("wodewose") through the depths of winter, he prays to the Virgin Mary for help, and miraculously the castle of Sir Bercilak appears, where he finds rest from his travels. The hero's three 'Temptations' follow.

For three days Sir Gawain is to be entertained by Sir Bercilak's wife while her husband is out hunting, and agrees to exchange any 'trophies' with his host each evening.   Each hunt pictures the contemporary    customs in exciting detail as "the bugle sounds ricocheted round the woods".

The Boar and Bear Hunt  tapestry,  S. Netherlands, c. 1425-1430 © V& A Museum
"he rides through bush and briar, chasing the doughty boar"

While his host is out in the wild forest, hunting the deer, then the boar and lastly the fox, safe inside the castle each day Gawain is waylaid in his bedchamber by his hostess in courtly love contests.  The first two evenings he honourably returns the Lady's kisses  - first one and then two - to Sir Bercilak as agreed.   But on the third day, he succumbs to accept a special green girdle which she assures will protect him from the Green Knight's axe stroke.

The Lady 'beards' Sir Gawain in his chamber,  Cotton Nero A.X ms. © British Library

That last evening Gawain only gives to Sir Bercilak his wife's three kisses, but not the magic girdle, before he must face the Green Knight's deathly challenge on New Year's Day.

This unique English narrative poem mingles both Christian and pagan legend and symbols in the European folk tradition of Green Men, as found in carvings in medieval churches and chapels, notably the numerous versions in the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland.

Gargoyle sprouting green leaves  (and see  

This is another familiar version with a mane of greenery found in a carved roof boss at Pershore.

  Green Man carving, Pershore Abbey, Worcester

There are similarities to the wild men of the woods - the wodewose, hairy and leafy- which were popular characters of misrule in medieval court entertainments. 

Decorative Wild men and women tapestry,  Swiss c. 1430-70  © V & A Museum

These pagan figures from myth and folktale become conflated with the ancient Spirit of Winter, or Old Father Christmas, who introduces the Christmas mummers' plays, with staff and holly bough (like the Green Knight. 
By the later nineteenth century this Spirit of Winter becomes linked with St. Nicholas (or Santa Claus), still mingling pagan and Christian seasonal rituals.

The 'Spirit of Christmas Present'   from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" , 
illustration by John Leech 1834

The last part of Gawain's adventure is the 'Testing of the Champion',  a narrative of reward and retribution. Arrived at a desolate cave, a chapel more suited for the Devil, the Green Knight swings his huge axe at Gawain, who flinches, but the Green Knight stays his blade and calls Gawain coward.  Now Sir Gawain stands unflinching, "Though once my head is off, I cannot put it back".
A second time the Green Knight holds back his axe and Gawain angrily challenges him to make his full stroke.  But with this third blow, the Green Knight just nicks Gawain's neck, drawing blood.  This he explains, was because Gawain withheld the green girdle - for through enchantment the Green Knight is Sir Bercilak himself.
Returning to King Arthur's court,  Gawain wears the girdle with remorse as a reminder of his weakness; but because he steadfastly paid his debt to the Green Knight,  the Round Table adopts the green baldric as badge of honour:
"He who wore it would be honoured evermore
As it is recounted in the best books of old romance."

This centuries-old Christmas tale has been the subject of many interpretations (some link it with the founding of the Order of the Garter), much critical research and debate, and various translations. One thing is clear all through, it is the work of a master storyteller in creating mood and heightening drama.  For what does Sir Gawain hear as he reaches the sinister Green Chapel, and climax of his quest --

"Way off, beyond the brook, a weird sound.
It clattered against the cliffs as if to shatter them:
A sound like a scythe being ground against a stone.
There it goes again -- a whirring, like mill-water
In a race.  It clanged and ran out, rushing
Towards him. 'By God, this horrible instrument is meant
To honour me alone; it is for me he hones his blade!"

Like the best winter's tales, this unknown poet  keeps his listeners and readers on the edge of their seats!
"These marvellous things took place in the age of Arthur
As the books of Britain, Brutus' isle, all tell."

Christmas Greetings to my readers

[All the poem's quoted passages are from the verse translation by Keith Harrison, © The Folio Society 1983.]

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