Who Is The Green Man?
Episode 4: The Big Question - WHO IS THE GREEN MAN?
written by Keythe Farley
Let me tell you a story. It’s an old story from the Knights of the Round Table. It’s got all the ingredients that make up a tasty tale: adventure, temptation, deception and reconciliation. It’s the perfect story for the beginning of spring, I think, as it features as its central character a mystical Green Knight.
It’s New Years’ Eve and the folks at the round table are partying, like you do, when King Arthur starts getting bored and calls for someone to step up and unwind him a ripping good yarn. After a bit of hemming and hawing among the court, one of the guests, a knight clad all in green steps forward and declares, “Listen up! I challenge any man here to strike me with my axe. I won’t resist, but I will insist that that man must promise to come and see me at my chapel a year from now to receive a blow from me.”
A buzz goes around the room, as you might imagine, and, eventually, one of the knights-- a dude named Gawain-- steps forward and volunteers for the job.
The Green Knight bears his neck and Gawain takes a huge swing and lops off his head with one swift stroke. The head rolls across the floor and comes to rest at Queen Gwynevere's feet. To everyone’s surprise, the Green Knight’s headless torso strides across the room, lifts his own head off the floor, gives the queen a wink and turns to Gawain. “See you next year, pal.” And the Green Knight struts out of the room with his own head under his arm.
Best. Party. Ever.
That year passed slowly, but Gawain is a man of his word-- he’s a knight, after all-- chivalry and purity are his stock and trade-- so he sets off to find the chapel of the Green Knight.
Along the way he comes upon a magnificent castle. The inhabitants: a virile lord, his super-hot lady and a grisled old woman welcome Gawain like the medieval rockstar that he is, inform him that the Green Knight’s chapel is just up the road and invite him to rest and ready himself in their care.
Gawain has an excellent night’s sleep and in the morning, the lord of the castle heads off on a hunt and proposes to Gawain that he’ll offer him any game he comes back with in exchange for something from him. Gawain agrees, but no sooner is the lord out of sight, but his wife starts flirting with him. Gawain’s chivalry has him in a bind here. He certainly can’t fool around with the lady of the house, but he’s also honor bound to be a good guest and not upset his hosts. After a bit of parrying without thrusting, Gawain devises a plan: he accepts the lady’s offer of a kiss, but later he gives this kiss as his gift to the returning lord in exchange for the deer he’s hunted. He doesn’t say who he got the kiss from, and the lord doesn’t press him on it. All is well.
The next day the flirting gets more intense. Gawain agrees to take two kisses from the lady and offers them to the lord on his return in exchange for a wild boar.
Day three the lady is all over Gawain. She’s chasing him around the house and tearing off her clothes. He’s doing his best to resist, but sometimes one's best isn’t good enough. At one point the lady strips off her gold and green girdle and begs Gawain to wear it when he goes to see the Green Knight in the morning. She promises it will protect him from harm. He agrees to take it AND three kisses from her. Gawain dutifully gives the lord the three kisses and gets a fox in return, but he keeps the lady’s sash a secret.
The next morning Gawain ties the lady’s green and gold undergarments around his waist and heads off to meet the Green Knight at his chapel.
Gawain comes into a clearing and sees the Green Knight sharpening his axe next to a pile of dirt. Not exactly the chapel Gawain had expected to find.
Dutifully, Gawain removes his armor and bares his neck to the Green Knight. The Green Knight takes a huge swing but pulls back at the last minute. Gawain flinches and the Knight taunts him like a school bully.
The second blow is exactly the same except this time Gawain doesn’t flinch at all. The Green Knight says something to the effect of, “I was just testing to see if you were as big a chicken as I heard.”
This hits Gawain where he lives and he orders the Knight to do his worst. He’s a man of principle, after all. A man of his word. A man of faith and chivalry-- and bravery. “Give me the chop I deserve!”
The Green Knight rears back and swings the axe, but only lands a glancing blow on Gawain before he reveals himself to be the lord of the castle in disguise, magically transformed by the old hag who is really King Arthur’s sorceress sister Morgana Le Fay in disguise. She was just having some fun testing Arthur’s men and scaring the proverbial pants off of Queen Gweniviere with the whole severed head business.
The Green Knight, or Bertilak de Hautdesert as he’s known to his friends, confesses that he had to wound Gawain because he lied about his wife’s sash. It’s only fair, right? Gawain begs forgiveness for being a filthy liar, but Lord de Hautdesert has to confess that his wife is pretty tempting and that Gawain showed remarkable restraint. He proclaims Gawain the most honest man in the land and sends him back to Camelot with a minor flesh wound and a great story to tell.
It’s said that from that point on, all the members of the Round Table wore green sashes to honor Gawain and the Green Knight.
As we head into the season of Spring, where the light overtakes the darkness and the earth starts to come back to life, I think this story of the Green Knight and his female allies gives us a lot to think about, but I want to focus on the idea of balance.
The Knights of the Round Table were some seriously uptight dudes with strict codes of faith, morals and ethics. Is it any wonder their New Year’s Eve party was turning into a dud? A bunch of guys standing around worrying about whether they’re partying correctly or not. To be fair, I don’t think it’s wise to completely hate on these guys-- it’s hard to argue against honor, courage and justice-- but it is possible that, in their quest for perfection, they're missing out on a fair amount of wildness.
As if on cue, a WIld Man shows up with a lesson to teach. He pulls the old, “HIt me with your best shot. I promise I won’t hit you back.” stunt. He hasn’t wronged anyone. Hasn’t broken a law. Is it even okay to hit him in the first place?
Gawain is the perfect foil for this gambit. He’s just vain enough to believe that A) he can take this guy out with one swing of his axe and B) that even if he can’t, he’s going straight to heaven anyway because he’s so righteous and pure. When the Green Knight’s head is lopped off, note that it rolls to the foot of the Queen and gives it a wink. We might think that this is a gesture of disrespect, but it’s quite the opposite. Remember, The Green Knight is in cahoots with the women in this story, and he, and they have a grand plan to transform the Knights of the Round Table, even if Guinevere hasn’t been properly informed of this fact.
Gawain has to live with his impending doom for a year, but ultimately he knows he has no choice but to submit himself to the Green Knight. His word is his bond, after all. So he sets off to the Green Knight's chapel completely unaware that he’s really heading off to school.
And what does our Gawain learn at school? First, he learns certain qualities he may not fully comprehend.. He receives the gift of three wild animals: a deer, a boar and a fox. It’s important to recognize that hunting each of these animals requires a very different approach. To hunt a deer, one must be stealthy. To hunt a boar, one must be fierce. To catch a fox, one must be cunning. These are traits the lord of this house possesses, and he offers them as gifts to this chivalrous knight who is more concerned with purity, honesty and faith than strength, stealth and cunning.
In the next lesson, Gawain must learn to face the paradoxes of his code of honor. He knows he mustn’t fool around with the lady of the house, but he’s also honor bound not to displease her. What to do? Gawain lands upon what we might call The Lie That’s Not Quite a Lie. For example, the phrase, “I smoked pot once and I didn’t like it and I didn’t inhale.” can be a perfectly true statement that refers only to that one specific time, but not the thousands of others where inhaling and enjoyment most definitely took place. Gawain solves his dilemma by finding the grey area whereby he can satisfy his hostess and not entirely confess to it by offering her kisses back to the Green Knight in exchange for game. As long as the Knight doesn’t ask where they came from, he’s off the hook.
It’s clever. It’s devious. It works.
But lying is a slippery slope. One kiss turns to two, then three and by the end of the third day, Gawain has convinced himself that wearing lady’s underwear will keep him safe from harm.
There are also big lessons about the deep and boundless passion of women, and the exchanging of kisses from the lady, through Gawain to the lord brings the spice of polyamory into the mix.
By the end of the third day, Gawain, the pure and chivalrous knight of the Round Table is essentially making out with almost everyone in the house and he’s wearing women’s underwear as if his life depended on it.
Best. Party. Ever.
In the cold light of morning, however, he’s having second thoughts. When he comes upon the Green Knight, he’s quaking in his girdle. His surety of a paradise that awaits him in the afterlife has been shaken-- perhaps by the guilt of his behaviour over the past three days, perhaps it’s that pile of dirt that makes up the Green Knight’s “chapel”. Could it be a grave that’s been freshly dug?
At this point, there’s no doubt that Gawain deserves the humiliation that’s coming to him. He’s spent his life believing himself to be above others, and, more importantly, above nature itself, but he’s passed the last three days smooching with the lord and his wife, and telling a fair number of LIttle White Lies to save his hide. The Green Knight punishes Gawain for lying about the girdle, but the punishment is relatively light. He extends to the smooching and fibbing Gawain, a mercy that was never shown to him as a guest of the Knights of the Round Table. He even praises Gawain as the most honest of men.
Gawain returns to Camelot wounded but resurrected: he’s faced his own mortality, and, most importantly a new vision of life that incorporates the strength, sensuality, cunning and stealth of the natural world into the upright and sometimes uptight world of civilization. The Green Knight appears as a disruptive force, but he and his ladies ultimately invite us to learn to balance human law with the laws of the natural world.
As the natural world moves toward balance on the first day of spring, when the light of day and the dark of night are equal, we would do well to take one more look at the places in our own lives where we, like Gawain, might be a little out of balance.
Where are you too rigid? Too uptight? Too bound by rules? Can you loosen up a little?
Where are you too loose? Too flaky? Too willing to believe your own lies? Can you be a bit more thoughtful and precise?
If you’ve followed this podcast since January you know we started the year by dreaming up plans, then we looked in February for habits and relationships and attachments that can be released because they no longer serve us. Now that it’s March-- the month with the same name as the order to get moving-- we have a plan in place, we’re light on our feet and we’re ready to reconcile the wilder gifts of the Green Knight and his ladies, with the upright code of the Knights of the Round Table.
In that spirit, let’s go after what we want like the Green Knight does. May we know when to approach quietly, when we need to fight hard and when to use our cunning to get what we want.
Let us learn, as Gawain does, to accept the wounds we inflict on ourselves, and take responsibility for our mistakes.
Let’s be intentional and flexible.
Let’s play by the rules, and always be ready to rethink them.
As we get ready to March into spring, let us do it in honor of the Green Knight as well as the Knights (and Ladies) of the Round Table.
Let us see clearly a way to move forward as balanced individuals wearing a green sash around our waist.