sir_gawain_and_the_green_knight_by_goblinhood-d5yfyazThe story begins in Camelot, the home of Arthur and his knights, suggestive of the  heavenly home of all human souls and the place which the soul leaves in order to  journey into the  material world.  Also the place to which it returns.  The round table evokes an infinity with no beginning and no end and therefore a place beyond time and space, an eternal realm where  all souls are equal in dignity, and are at-one.

One way of looking at the Gawain figure is as the human soul, drawn away from its heavenly home by the challenge of its natural desires, represented by the Green Knight, whose colour evokes the natural world and whose decapitated but still living head and body suggest the recurring cycles of death and regeneration which characterise nature.   Even while there is apparent loss of life above a hardened winter soil, there is always life stirring in seed and root below in preparation for new growth to emerge in spring.

The Knight’s challenge draws the soul into a different kind of existence, away from
the peace and unity of its home to a place of passion,  division and strife.
The entry of the Green Knight into Camelot suggests that the seeds of natural desire  are present even in the soul’s supernatural home, (and are therefore in some way essential to what it is to be a human).  Essential too, is the soul’s exploration of this in a territory foreign to itself – the material world.  It is only through a confrontation with nature and matter that it discovers what it is in essence, which is spirit.

sirgawain16Gawain’s journey takes him through wildernesses, and forests inhabited by savages and robbers.  Forests are often interpreted as matter itself, a place where the soul tends to loose sight of its heavenly origin in the darkness and density. But the soul can never be destroyed as it carries the seed of immortal life within its depths,  and Gawain survives and battles on to his reward –  what appears to be rest and enjoyment in Bertilak’s castle.  But these are really only further trials awaiting the soul that has proved worthy, and are all the more insidious as they have the appearance of innocence.

On his way to meet the Green Knight Gawain takes his shield with the five pointed star.  A pentogram is often suggestive of defence and guardianship, as well as of the victory of the human soul over the foursquare manifested world of nature.

He is tested three times both by the Knight and his Lady. Three is a familiar number in fairy tale and myth; objects, events and people often come in threes, it is a number symbolic of completion, accomplishment, solidity and law.  Once Gawain has been tested three times, the exercise is complete, and he is either proved or not – that is the law.  Perhaps too, the divine trinity underlies the tests, suggesting that they are God-ordained.

Gawain carries the green girdle home with him – he has yet to attain to full mastery over his own nature, the girdle serving as a reminder of this.

The story takes place in the darkest, coldest part of the year when frost and snow has hardened the ground, a hardening suggestive of the material world, but also a time when new life (the Green Knight arrives on New Year’s Day) is stirring deep in the earth.  Gawain must look beyond his earthly, material nature and dig deep into his soul to find the divine life that will help him overcome his trials and master his lower nature.

Bertilak  is a shapeshifter; at one moment the fearsome Green Knight, at another the cheery host, and nothing is quite what it seems with him.  He is able to withstand decapitation, and appears now as a friend, now as an adversary. The name Bertilak can be translated as “bright lake” and water is an apt symbol for him – ever-

changing, elusive to the grasp.  He is the natural and cryptic forces behind the physical world, which are unstable and can be dangerous to the unwary soul.  The hero has to wrest something stable and transcendent from within in order to deal with them, rather as Arthur draws Excalibur, the bright sword of intellect from the constantly shifting waters of the Lady of the Lake.

The green girdle of Bertilak’s wife encircles the generative life of nature, in which  the sexual appetite and procreation constantly brings forth new life, generation after generation, in a never-ending round.

The name Gawain has a possible association with Gwalchmai, the traditional hero of Welsh legend.  “Gwalch” means falcon or hawk of May.  The hawk is a solar bird, indicating that the Soul’s origins are heavenly and that it has the potential to cast light wherever it places its consciousness.

The deer (temperance),  the boar (fortitude),  and the fox (prudence), are virtues related to man’s triple nature of heart, will and mind respectively; all need to be developed by the soul on its path to perfection, all are the rewards of a soul striving for the good.

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