Wilderness, Faerie, and Character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

French Arthurian romances, like those of Chrétien de Troyes, often gloss over particulars of geography. Other romances involving Sir Gawain, in particular, follow suit; contrary to this, fitt II of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) highlights specific geography of Northern England. Certainly, scholars elaborated on “þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale” before (see Elliott and Rudd), and yet, the particular line and the word itself demands further elaboration alongside how the wilderness, augmented by faerie, interweaves with the poem’s two titular characters.

The Gawain Poet (henceforth simply, poet) initially describes the forest in abnormal clarity and then muddles over the rest of the details, including perilous events that befall Sir Gawain. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) features the line “In þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale” from SGGK (ln 701) in definition 1b of “wilderness.” This example supports the following, historical (c1400), definition of wilderness as “a wild or uncultivated region or tract of land, uninhabited, or inhabited only by wild animals; ‘a tract of solitude and savageness’” (OED). The denotation of “wilderness” deserves examination because of the poet’s irregular geographic specificity and inclusion of faerie elements–the Green Knight himself–within said location. Indeed, the poet names actual places, particularly those in the North of England like Wirral and Cheshire, but also Wales and the Isles of Anglesey with all their accompanying topographical detail (see ln 695-705).

The OED and the glossary in SGGK both define “wilderness” or its equivalents, “wasteland” and “forest” as “uninhabited,” “deserted” (242, 245). And yet, however abstract in the poem, faerie spectacles and creatures, inhabit the wilderness of Wirral; “uninhabited” merely signifies “uninhabited” by specific types of living beings. Though, Gawain encounters inhabitants of the uninhabited (see ln 719-735), including the Green Knight, who do not satisfy this condition of the word. “Wilderness,” as a noun, labels and encompasses an area, but does not assume habitation by faerie creatures; neither does the basal meaning–free of symbolic suggestion–of “wasteland” or “forest.” The OED defines “wilderness” as uninhabited but qualifies it as perhaps “inhabited only by wild animals.” Extending wild to encompass faerie, though, fits with the poem.

Further inlaying the wild with faerie, the poet substitutes “wyldernesse” with “wasteland” in fitt IV to reference the wilderness of Wirral. Noting SGGK as a Ricardian work, critic Roger Caillois’ commentary on fantasy in the “Middle Ages,” proves useful. Caillois described the period as “steeped in the supernatural” noting the excessive “continuity between people’s beliefs and their certainties about another invisible world ruled by the gods and daemons” (quoted in Durix 14). Following this logic, reality fused with faerie in this period. The wild, too, conflated with faerie allowing various descriptions to affix to the forest of Wirral, making it mystical and contradictory (uninhabited and inhabited) place, but real nonetheless. The principle faerie aspect of SGGK, namely the Green Knight himself and the beheading game he controls, makes the tale. To use a Tolkienian term, they function as a type of “arresting strangeness,” drawing the reader and protagonist Gawain into the depths of the wilderness. Upon passing into the wilderness, Gawain encounters faerie elements of lesser import but still worthy of brief commentary: considering the poet’s comment on the “wild” beasts Gawain fights on his way [(“Hit were tore for to telle of the tenthe dole” (ln 719)] the Green Knight deserves focus as the titular faerie being and not the accessory creatures like the noted “wormes,” “wolves,” and “wodwos” (ln 720-721). The Green Knight is both the wild and faerie. The creatures are both wild and faerie, but as the poet does not dwell on them, this paper will not either.

The Green Knight, denied of a solid, identifying name until the final fitt, uses a color to define himself, and does not disclose the location of his chapel, again, favoring color to constitute tangibility. Faerie demands tangibility–to venture forth in a world against or partially unhinged from reality instantiates a suspension of disbelief that gives way to some degree of control, but faerie’s “arresting strangeness” supersedes all actions. Green, as a symbolic representation, qualifies him as a knight and serves as the only clue to his incomplete identity. The Green Knight links with and personifies his environment. He is of both wilderness and faerie because both belong to and define him. The Green Knight announces himself to Gawain as such, saying, “‘Bertilak de Hautdesert I hat in this londe,’” (ln 2445). The prepositional phrase in his actual name (Bertilak of the high desert) and the adjectival qualifier in his pseudonym (the Green Knight) tie him to his environment: here wild bridges with faerie and makes him, as a character, more tangible. Again, Bertilak, as a wild man is from and of the wilderness. He also parades into King Arthur’s court to initiate a beheading game as a faerie spectacle. Both of his names combine to complete his identity as intertwined with his environment. Roots in actual geography allows for an ideal suspension of disbelief, so the Green Knight and his faerie elements (e.g. his green skin and aura, girth, and invincibility) augment the setting by imbuing it with faerie.

Equating wild with faerie reinforces the setting of SGGK. Faerie isolates individuals by pushing them to the limit of their imaginations and forcing them to question reality. Readers question faerie just as Gawain questions his identity. Gawain undergoes a kind of voyage of the soul as he enters into the wild. He, courtesy of his chivalric loyalty, undertakes a wholly unfamiliar task in beheading the Green Knight and then acquiescing to his game (ln 495). Gawain’s whole self thereafter seems enmeshed in an uninhabited place both physically and mentally. The poet continually reinforces Gawain’s solitude throughout the poem, making him a geographic isolate despite the realistic Northern English backdrop. The poet’s description of Gawain on the way into Wirral, specifically of him wandering hopelessly alone (ln 695, 735, 749) connects with the OED’s sub-definition of wilderness as “a tract of solitude and savageness” and circles back to the concluding encounter with the Green Knight (see ln 2245).

The nature of the beheading game and the physical environment itself deprive Gawain of companionship (except for God), making him vulnerable to self-doubt. The Green Knight and his wife question Gawain’s identity: the wife accuses his courteous reputation when he politely refuses her (ln 1293), and then in a parallel line, the Green Knight frankly declares, “Thou art no Gawayn” (ln 2270). Gawain’s name becomes a topic of conversation, which calls his reputation into question, and Gawain must reconcile that as an un-inhabitant, fully alone in faerie infused wild. Furthermore, when the beheading game reaches its denouement and Gawain enters the Green Chapel, the Green Knight states: “Iwysse, thou art welcom, wyye, to my place/…And we ar in this valay verayly oure one” (ln 2240, 2245). The Green Knight welcomes Gawain to “my [his] place,” again claiming ownership over his domain while emphasizing their state of solitude. Gawain acted and faced the Green Knight alone save for the presence of a girdle courtesy of Bertilak’s wife.

Gawain, as a literary character acts as the quintessential knight with his perfect courtesy, but the many poets that wrote him into existence presumably based off of the ideal qualities of real knights. Gawain inside a real geographic location though makes no sense, but placing him in Wirral, a real forest/wilderness, imbues said place with story, faerie. This placement also characterizes Gawain as a fanciful character against the backdrop of reality. The poet forefronts faerie elements and location around Gawain. The Green Knight and his embodiment of nature first deprives Gawain of his companions, makes him question his identity, and then forces Gawain to carry a burden of his redefinition as a product of his environment. He carries with him a badge, the girdle. He carries with him a new-formed identity. His roots extend into the soil and enforce his bones. He survives the beheading game as no longer a forgotten, isolated inhabitant of an uninhabited land, but as a character not so dissimilar from the Green Knight in terms of his geographic links.


Works Cited

Battles, Paul. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Peterborough: Broadview, 2012. Print.

Caillois, Roger. Anthologie Du Fantastique. Paris: Gallimard, 1977. 9-10. Print.

Durix, Jean-Pierre. “The Status of ‘Fantasy’ in Maori Literature in English: The Case of Witi Ihimaera.” European Journal of English Studies. Vol. 2. N.p.: n.p., 1998. 11. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

Elliott, Ralph W. V. The Gawain Country: Essays on the Topography of Middle English Alliterative Poetry. Leeds: U of Leeds, School of English, 1984. Print.

Rudd, Gillian. “‘The Wilderness of Wirral’ in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’” Arthuriana 23.1 (2013): 52-65. JSTOR. Web. 7 Mar. 2017.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. 139. Print.

“wild, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 12 March 2017.

“wilderness, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 6 March 2017.

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