Crossing Magical Boundaries: Warriors, Tests, and Mysterious Mounds in The Four Branches of the Mabinogi and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi seems to have significantly influenced either directly or indirectly the development of one of the most famous works of Middle English poetry of the Fourteenth Century, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". Many elements of the work by the Pearl poet seem to reflect or react to characters, environments, or themes presented nearly three centuries earlier in one of the earliest and finest examples of medieval Welsh prose. While this paper may lack the depth of research necessary to provide convincing historical evidence, I hope that by establishing a strong interpretive framework based upon close textual analysis, some of my most basic assertions may earn a certain level of validity.
Both works draw their literary vitality from a fundamental premise of fusion. The Mabinogi itself is an eclectic “fusion of a mass of different tales, themes, and traditions” (Jarman 192). “Sir Gawain”, in addition to deriving the core of its plot from “ancient Irish and Welsh sources”, may have learned or borrowed from the Celtic concept of pastiche (Cawley xv). Both authors are adept at forging bonds between diverse, disparate, even paradoxical elements. The form each work assumes is remarkably different. The Mabinogi is colored by a sense of narrative efficiency, resulting in “restraint and economy” of description and characterization (Jarman 199). The Pearl poet, however, seems to delight in pausing to extend certain physical or psychological descriptions. Placing such stylistic concerns aside, the marriage of non-native and/or ancient components is achieved in both cases with a high degree of skill. A central question remains, though. To what extent does this underlying connection to the past possess metaphoric or interpretive currency? It would be an exercise in speculation to claim unequivocally that the Pearl poet consciously evokes or pays homage to “the mythic ritual elements” inherent in The Four Branches of the Mabinogi “in order to contribute to the meaning of the poem” (Moorman 106). I would submit, nevertheless, that if one examines the striking parallels between “Sir Gawain” and the Mabinogi within a specific narrative thread, a meaningful and enriching connective dialogue exists.
Some expository remarks regarding the history and development of the Mabinogi may prove useful (if not informative), before launching into an examination of its possible impact on the Pearl poet. Written early in the latter half of the Eleventh Century, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (Pedair Ceinc y Mabinogi) contains, as its full title implies, four separate but interconnected tales. (Jones ix). These stories were collected and preserved, along with seven other tales by the same author, in two known manuscripts: The White Book of Rydderch (Llyfyr Gwyn Rydderch: 1300-1325), and The Red Book of Hergest (Llyfyr Coch Hergest: 1375-1425). Ironically, the more familiar but erroneous title Mabinogion is a relatively modern invention. Lady Charlotte Guest attributes her title to the entire collection of stories in her Nineteenth Century translation of The Red Book of Hergest (Jones xi).
“Next to the Greeks and Romans, the Welsh, it has been claimed, have one of the oldest extant literatures in the whole of Western Europe”, dating from the Sixth Century A.D. to the present (Jarman 11). A vast wealth of historical, religious, and literary knowledge was preserved orally “for centuries by a professional class of poets and story-tellers known as cyfarwyddiaid” (Jarman 189). This highly sophisticated oral tradition informs and enriches the Mabinogi. As Matthew Arnold states, “ Each branch represents a collection of more or less related lore”; each episode is thus less isolated and more accessible to a medieval audience (4). Because of the scope and complexity of the various subtexts present in the Mabinogi, there has been some controversial debate about the work being the creation of a single author. Though it is generally agreed at present that the written work has a single creative nucleus, the question, “how much is a product of his own creative ability and imagination, and how much comes from external sources?”, remains (Jarman 193). Rather than an act of isolated genius, creativity is presented in a collaborative, albeit convoluted, context. The author seems to be engaged in a creative synthesis of oral traditions. Matthew Arnold describes the image of “the medieval storyteller...pillaging an antiquity of which he does not fully possess the secret” (54). Though Arnold claims that this is a uniquely Celtic phenomenon, I would suggest that the Pearl poet is engaged in a similar endeavor, consciously or unconsciously relating or gesturing toward buried literary and cultural knowledge which includes the Mabinogi.
Let us consider the first section of the first branch of the Mabinogi, “Pwyll Prince of Dyfed”, in conjunction with “Sir Gawain”. The Pearl poet seems to echo or draw inspiration from specific details in this narrative thread. Similar yet distinct characters, events and environments resurface (or are recovered) in the Middle English poem. At this point, a brief summary of the details of this particular adventure of Pwyll might facilitate or expedite our discussion.
Pwyll rules Dyfed, one of the principalities, or cantrefs, of Wales. One day, while hunting with his dogs, Pwyll witnesses a pack of magical otherworldly dogs kill a stag. Pwyll drives this pack away and has his own dogs claim the stag. Unbeknownst to Pwyll, the owner of the magical dogs, a mysterious figure, has witnessed this transgression of law and discourteous deed. The man approaches Pwyll and accuses him of the crime. Pwyll offers to make amends. The man finally introduces himself as Arawn, King of Annwn (the Celtic Underworld). Arawn proposes a plan which would allow Pwyll to redeem himself. The two kings will exchange places and rule in each other’s stead for exactly one year. Arawn will take on the semblance of Pwyll and Pwyll will be magically disguised as Arawn. At the end of this year Pwyll will encounter and defeat Arawn’s chief adversary, King Hafgan, by exchanging blows. Hafgan can only be killed by a single deadly blow; more than one and he is instantly rejuvenated. Arawn counsels Pwyll to heed his advice, and Pwyll agrees to the exchange. One year passes and Pwyll spends his time hunting and carousing. He remains chaste, though he sleeps next to Arawn’s Queen each night. Pwyll meets Hafgan at a ford at the end of the year. He defeats Hafgan by obeying Arawn’s instructions. Pwyll and Arawn return to their respective kingdoms. Pwyll learns Dyfed has prospered in his absence, and Arawn learns of Pwyll’s chastity from his wife. An alliance is formed between Dyfed and Annwn; gifts and trade goods are exchanged. Finally, Pwyll is given the title King of Annwn.
The characters presented in “Sir Gawain” would seem to have Celtic counterparts or predecessors. Allowing for some variation or even outright discrepancies, it is clear that, like the Welsh, the English characters are not merely “medieval personages; they belong to the mythological world” (Arnold 54). Just as the Mabinogi itself dips into the legacy of ancient Celtic mythology to shape and enrich its characters, the Pearl poet forges links to a Welsh cultural and literary heritage through Gawain, the Green Knight (Bertilak de Hautdesert), and his wife.
As heroes, Pwyll and Gawain are figures of high social status. Both men possess considerable moral authority, exemplifying the best aspects of their societies. Gawain, the most virtuous knight in Camelot, “wat for gode knowen and, as golde pured,/ Voyded of vche vylany, wyth vertue ennourned/ In mote” (Gawain 633-35). Likewise Pwyll, by inhabiting the role of King of Dyfed, assumes a position of moral and even physical superiority to his subjects. As John Darrah states, “Kings in early times...were essentially religious figures: priest-kings or sacred kings...Kings were chosen specifically for virility and they were disposed of when it was lost” (41). In fact, after his marriage Pwyll meets with the citizens of Dyfed and they demand that he produce an heir because, as they state, “Thou wilt not last forever” (Mabinogi 15).
Despite each man’s prowess, Pwyll and Gawain are not perfect; they are good but essentially fallible. Their decline in stature is immediate and apparent. Pwyll’s transgression of Celtic law, his lapse of judgement, is one of the first significant events in the tale. It provides narrative energy and focus for the opening thread of the Mabinogi, if not for the entire work itself. Similarly, in Gawain’s case, his inability to defeat or destroy the Green Knight with a single blow while championing Arthur, sets the scene for his year end discovery and disgrace.
Each character’s journey into a magical realm seems to underscore these initial suggestions of weakness or inadequacy. In each work the reader is invited to witness the actions of a “transformed mortal...in the land of the perfected” (Ford 23). In “Sir Gawain”this perfection takes the form of both extreme good, the court of the mysterious host, and extreme evil, the wild countryside and the Green Chapel. Gawain’s powers, while significant and even admired and celebrated by the Pearl poet, are not supreme. Fearing for his life, Gawain accepts the green garter of his host’s wife as a protective talisman and lies to his host. This sin born out of desperation is ironically both rewarded and a source of great pain to Gawain. The Green Knight celebrates Gawain as “the most perfect of princes who walk upon earth”, though he is ultimately susceptible to vice (Gawain 2363). Gawain, however, maligns his weakness and pledges to wear the green garter so that “quen pryde schal me pryk for prowes of armes,/ þe loke to þis luf-lace shal leþe my hert” (2437-8). This irony is extended upon Gawain’s return to Camelot. A distinction is made between Gawain’s personal reaction to and the public perception of his adventures. The green garter is simultaneously presented as a badge of honor and an emblem of shame. Thus, respect for Gawain’s authority as a moral force within his society is qualified or diminished most significantly on the personal level.
Though less subtle, Pwyll’s adventures in Annwn reinforce his imperfection as well. Pwyll seems to be lacking in almost every respect when compared to the “greatest..fairest...most comely...most gracious” citizens of Annwn (Mabinogi 5). Pwyll is utterly dependent upon his hosts, who seem capable of fulfilling his every need. The most obvious example of this dependency is the battle with Hafgan at year’s end. John Darrah points out that “these periodic events are... a well-known feature of paganism”, where “annual kings were...selected as winners in single combat” (63). However, Pwyll vanquishes Hafgan and “receives the subjection of his people” only
by depending on the advice of Arawn, whom he champions, and delivering a single deadly blow (Darrah 63). Unlike Gawain’s blow, Pwyll’s attack is effective, but only because “the result was foreordained” by Arawn. Pwyll’s strength is not “the sole requirement for success” (Darrah 52). To a great extent Pwyll’s victories are not his own. This fact is reinforced by his return to Dyfed. He discovers that Arawn was a better ruler of Dyfed in his absence. “ ‘Lord’, said they, ‘never was thy discernment so marked; never wast thou so lovable a man thyself; never wast thou so free in spending thy goods; never was thy rule better than during this year’” (Mabinogi 7). Ironically, though Arawn is presented as a morally superior and more powerful leader, the first small section of the Mabinogi end with Pwyll being named King of Annwn. Rather than question his worthiness, as Gawain might, Pwyll accepts the title without comment and he and his kingdom prosper. It certainly seems as though “sovereignty bestows her favors, albeit capriciously, upon those that seek kingship” (Ford 27).
The Pearl poet seems to echo, expand, and revise this thematic precedent which Patrick Ford calls “a purely Celtic phenomenon” (27). Where Pwyll’s tale seems concerned foremost with establishing political sovereignty, the Pearl poet foregrounds issues that deal with individual psychological sovereignty. Perhaps this is one reason why Gawain, a knight, rather than Arthur, the King, answers the challenge of the Green Knight. Gawain’s morality and will are sorely tested, and though he fails, he is judged among the best of all humankind. Yet to Gawain, his moral failure is incompatible with his sense of absolute personal (admittedly religious) sovereignty. As long as his will remains susceptible to temptations , no matter how capricious, the struggle for personal sovereignty will never end. Gawain is ultimately forced to accept this conditional sovereignty. He is imperfect, but he is spared. He wears the green garter as a painful reminder and admission of his own inner limitations. “‘Gawain is indeed the hero, but he unfreezes no life processes (he himself is almost frozen as a matter of fact), revives no god, cures no king’” (Utley 91). Gawain is the hero despite and/or because of his fallibility, an inescapable part of the human condition. The conditional nature of individual sovereignty is expanded to include the scope of Gawain’s society, each member donning a green garter, unaware of its original significance. Though prosperity like Pwyll’s is possible in Gawain’s world, it is colored by guilt and a sense of the finite, of inevitable closure, of all too human limitations.
Drawing from this discussion of color, it would seem appropriate to turn our consideration at this point to another pivotal pair of characters: the Green Knight and Arawn. Instead of propped up literary obstacles designed to enhance the stature and prowess of the hero, Arawn and the Green Knight are fully rendered characters who emerge in complex, even paradoxical or duplicitous relations with the hero of each work. The most direct connection between the Mabinogi and “Sir Gawain” may, in fact, exist between these two. It has been suggested by A.H. Krappe that “the Green Knight was a Celtic Lord of Hades” (Utley 89). Likewise, Mother Angela Carson associates a “king of the Celtic Other World, that mysterious realm entered only occasionally and at great risk by mortals,” as the traditional lover of Morgan le Fay (Moorman 107). It may be possible to view the Green Knight as a convoluted mythological composite with origins in Welsh culture and literature. This does not, however, make the task of unraveling the interpretive significance of each character any easier. Arawn, like the Green Knight, “appears to have ‘the unlimited energy of symbol,’ but it would be hazzardous to try and pigeon hole him” (Cawley xviii).
Both characters are associated with, or serve as an intermediary for, the supernatural. Perhaps it is this fundamental connection to magic, a power beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals, which allows them to stand above the hero and, to a great extent, dictate the outcome of events. Arawn’s magical knowledge is his own. His magic is essentially deceptive in nature, concealing or obscuring in order to obtain some hidden objective. Arawn is able to alter Pwyll’s appearance and take on a new shape himself. His magical illusions allow him to lead a dual existence. Arawn’s secret knowledge also gives him the key to defeating the magical powers of Hafgan, his chief rival in Annwn. Clearly, without magic Arawn would be unable to orchestrate Pwyll’s punishment in the same manner.
It is important to note that in the Green Knight’s case, he is an agent rather than the source of powerful magic. “Thur my t of Morgne la Faye, þat in my hous lenges,/ And koyntyse of clergye, bi craftes wel lerned-” (Gawain 2446-7). The Green Knight fluctuates between two shapes, two identities, but only through the magical assistance of Morgan. She dictates his dual existence. Like Arawn, who sets his plan into motion and then fades into the narrative background until the conclusion, Morgan allows the Green Knight to make challenges and fight in her stead.
Whether as Bertilak or the Green Knight, he is not an unquestioning automaton, a simple puppet of Morgan, however. His goals are specific, terrorize Guinevere and test the pride of Arthur’s knights, but he seems to have the latitude to pursue these goals according to his own discretion (Gawain 2456-61). He admits, for instance, to Gawain, “Now know I wel þy cosses and þy costes als,/ And þe wowynge of my wyf. I wro t it myseluen” (2360-1). The exchange of gifts was apparently part of this plan as well. It is entirely possible, therefore, that as the Green Knight, he helped also to shape the exact nature of the challenge issued at Camelot, the exchange of blows.
The Green Knight is thus neither completely autonomous nor completely contrived. His relationship with Gawain may be more complex and convoluted than Arawn and Pwyll, but the symbolic depth of his motives and appearance seem to draw inspiration from a Celtic tradition. Color possesses a symbolic currency and is a relatively simple method of enriching otherwise inactive or uninteresting characters. In many Arthurian romances that involve a challenge, “the most obvious visual feature of the defender is his colour...usually red or black” (Darrah 50-1). The Pearl poet seems to borrow from this practice only to break from it in choosing green. This chromatic precedent seems to be set in the Mabinogi. “The almost complete absence of white knights in unexpected, because a similar combat in the Mabinogion, in which the defender whose name Hafgan is said to mean Summer-White [in Welsh: haf-summer, gwyn-white] has been interpreted as an annual conflict between winter and summer” (Darrah 50). Though the color choice itself aligns Gawain’s opponent more squarely with the growth and fecundity of the natural world, the Green Knight does seem to resonate symbolic concerns similar to Hafgan. Instead of a direct parallel between the Green Knight and Arawn, perhaps the Green Knight represents a composite or synthesis of Arawn and Hafgan. In either event, his conflict with Gawain moves beyond “an orthodox kind of knightly contest” and enters the realm of “ritual” (Cawley xvii-iii). Such abstract or symbolic considerations can often ignore or grossly undervalue more pragmatic or literal interpretations. This is what Francis Lee Utley cautions when she states that green is also “merely the proper color for a hunter, instead of a lingering memory of a Celtic otherworld. Perhaps this would work as well for Robin Hood and Bertilak de Hautdesert” (89). If not overstated, however, acknowledging and understanding symbolic overlap can be a powerful, but by no means absolute, interpretive tool.
Before leaving our discussion of character to deal with geographical and environmental influences within and between these works, a final, albeit smaller, character pairing should be examined. The wives of both Arawn and Bertilak play a crucial role in establishing a motif “common to international and popular traditions...in this instance, the motif of the chaste friend” (Ford 24). Though Bertilak’s wife plays the role of seductress and Arawn’s wife is sexually passive, their actions serve to underscore the irony of each man’s abstinence. Gawain and Pwyll manage to resist sexual temptation, but are shown to be fallible in other respects. Nevertheless, each man’s chastity is a source of surprise and celebration. Even Arawn’s wife, who was unaware of the magical exchange at the time, praises Pwyll in retrospect. “‘By my confession to God,’ said she, ‘strong hold hast thou on a comrade, for warding off fleshly temptation and for keeping faith with thee’” (Mabinogi 7). Arawn is shocked and pleasantly surprised by Pwyll’s chastity. He had instructed Pwyll to behave so that no “other man that has ever followed me shall know that thou are not I”, fully expecting Pwyll to enjoy the comforts of his wife (Mabinogi 4). It seems “it is not the matter of chastity that interests the author, it is the ironic consequences of it” (Ford 24). Pwyll is thus ultimately rewarded for his ironic behavior. Similarly, Gawain’s code of behavior is presented as both noble and laughable when faced with the tenacious advances of Bertilak’s wife. Though Gawain resists her physically, he accepts her green garter as a secret gift to protect him from harm. Bertliak’s wife is thus intimately connected to Gawain’s ultimate ironic punishment and rescue. Both wives, though nameless, enrich the human character but qualify or diminish the authority of the hero. As Patrick Ford suggests, “The characters come to life in consequence of the author’s attention to the irony of the situation and his humorous treatment of it” (24).
The transition from character to environment might seem, at first, to be a significant and abrupt one. In many ways however, the world or worlds described in each work take on discernible personalities so that the land itself is projected almost as a distinct character. The Mabinogi and “Sir Gawain” place a world in contrast with (but not necessarily in opposition to) the supposed reality and civilization of the hero. Each place houses challenges dangerous, deceptive, or unknown. Pwyll and Gawain, Arawn and the Green Knight are able to travel from one realm to the other and back with varying degrees of difficulty. While physical geographical boundaries can be established and maintained, the literary boundaries between Dyfed and Annwn, Camelot and the realm of the Green Knight, are in flux, difficult to discern, and, in some cases, insubstantial. Perhaps by surveying the literary landscape more closely, it may be possible to discover points at which these worlds intersect and where they remain distinct.
Dyfed and Camelot are both thriving prosperous kingdoms. Each serves as a testament to the existing social, political, economic, and religious order. Though they fulfill different roles, the hero in each work is an established figure within this order. They derive their power, their very identities, from their place within this order. With broad strokes, each author provides the reader with a microcosm of medieval civilization. In Dyfed and Camelot “the manners and customs are those of the court” (Jarman 192). Pwyll and Arawn display knowledge of proper protocol between members of nobility in Celtic society when they meet initially. Likewise, Gawain and the Green Knight conduct themselves during the challenge in Camelot with the proper respect and decorum dictated by chivalric codes.
In order to present Pwyll and Gawain with the opportunity to grow, to understand or appreciate the civilized world in which they live, Dyfed and Camelot are not allowed to exist in isolation. A magical world, which provides glimpses of chaos and utopia, intrudes. Annwn and the realm of the Green Knight simultaneously threaten, contrast, and define their less magical counterparts.
The path to each magical world is hidden within the wilderness. Pwyll is guided to Annwn by Arawn, and his journey is brief and uneventful. Gawain, on the other hand, departs Camelot alone in search of the Green Chapel. In fact, he is forced to wander across the harsh winter landscape with no knowledge of the specific location of the Green Chapel, let alone how to get there. His journey is arduous and disheartening, and his eventual arrival in the vicinity of the Green Chapel is the result of Providence rather than advance planning. The events of Gawain’s journey underscore a fact that is equally true in the Mabinogi: environment has a significant impact on limiting, determining, defining the power exercised by each hero. Gawain and Pwyll find themselves in courts that “may very well be superior in grace” to their own (Moorman 109). Both men are respected and even revered but are also ironically subordinated. In forcing their heroes to traverse the wilderness (guided or unguided), each author seem to accentuate “the idea that the primitive and sometimes brutal forces of nature make know their demands to all men, even those who take shelter behind the civilized comforts of court life” (Moorman 109).
Though the specific locality is never itself named, it is no accident that Gawain travels bring him to Wales before his discovery of Bertilak’s court and the Green Chapel. “...he ne ed ful neigh into þe Norþe Walez/... Wonde þer bot lyt/ Þat auþer God oþer gome wyth goud hert louied” (Gawain 697,701-2). Wales is depicted as a wild, pagan, fierce environment filled with foes. Bertilak’s castle stands as an oasis amidst the chaos of its surroundings. Matthew Arnold makes a temperamental distinction between Celtic and Anglo Saxon literatures that would seem to explain this symbolic division between the court and the Welsh wilderness. To Arnold, Celtic works are “undecipherable, anarchical, and turbulent by nature”, expressing a desire for freedom and overly prone to the sentimental, where the Anglo Saxon literary temperament is disciplined, stable, and “steadily obedient within certain limits” (86). Rather than replace one arbitrary absolute interpretive and cultural distinction with another, I would suggest that the Pearl poet draws upon a precedent of symbolic fusion established, in part, by the Mabinogi.
Dyfed in general and the mound at Arberth (Gorsedd Arberth) in specific are literal and metaphoric gateways to the mysteries of the Otherworld. Pwyll’s kingdom, Dyfed, seems to overlap or intersect with Annwn. Arawn and Pwyll even hunt the same game in the forest on Glen Cuch, for example. Because much Arthurian legend and myth has its origins in Welsh literature, it is no surprise to discover that “there is a web of links between that part of the country [Dyfed] and significant pagan activities and with deities important in the Arthurian story” (Darrah 197). Merlin’s mother, in fact, was a princess of Dyfed (Darrah 197). Because of this proximity, the forces of the Otherworld often came into conflict with Arthur and his knights in the early Welsh tales (Darrah viii). Dyfed is thus presented as a flashpoint for potential challenge or exchange.
Wales is used by the Pearl poet to represent a similar link to the unknown. He extends the dangerous and magical qualities to the entire Welsh countryside, but as Dyfed was a single province of Wales itself, Wales was in turn a smaller principality ruled by the king of England in the Fourteenth Century. Clearly, though, Gawain has traveled well beyond the scope of Camelot’s influence, riding “fer floten fro his frendez”, upon his arrival in the “contrayez straunge” of Wales (Gawain 713-14). Wales, like Dyfed, is an intermediary for the mundane and the magical.
Though it is not described in full until the second tale in the Pwyll branch, the Gorsedd Arberth provides a compelling and influential metaphor for the first tale as well as “Sir Gawain”. A gorsedd is a place of assembly or throne-mound (Darrah 40). Pwyll held his court at Arberth in Dyfed. The gorsedd Arberth was said to possess magical properties. “‘Lord,’ said one of the court, ‘it is the peculiarity of the mound that whatever high-born man sits upon it will not go thence without one of two things: wounds or blows, or else his seeing a wonder’” (Mabinogi 8). Intrigued, Pwyll sits atop the gorsedd and witnesses a strange event, and thus begins then second tale. It is important to note that in the first tale, Pwyll has just departed from Arberth to hunt in the forest of Glen Cuch when he witnesses the magical hounds of Arawn. In both cases, the tales begin by presenting the hero and the reader with two narrative paths (destinies): violence or wonder. The two are not mutually exclusive, however. Pwyll encounters Arawn and the wonders of Annwn, but is forced to meet Hafgan in single combat. The Gorsedd Arberth is thus a bridge to the unknown, allowing possible insight into future events, but the result, ironically, of sitting atop Gorsedd Arberth is equally unknown. It is Pwyll’s curiosity, his desire to expand the limits of his knowledge, which drives him away from court. “‘...as to the wonder, I should be glad to see that. I will go...to the mound, to sit’” (Mabinogi 8). Gorsedd Arberth is thus a narrative and symbolic vehicle designed to initiate or promote discovery of the unknown.
Where these first two tales of the Mabinogi begin at or near the mound at Arberth and move quickly away from it, the Pearl poet orchestrates Gawain’s trial to culminate atop a mound, the Green Chapel. In many ways, the Green Chapel seems to be an homage to and a revision of the Mabinogi’s Gorsedd Arberth. Without a doubt, the Green Chapel is a site filled with the potential for violence and wonder. Wild and overgrown, its description seems to consciously invoke a pagan past. It is not a place for stately assemblies; it is a place for ritual sacrifice. “...a lyttel on a launde, a lawe as hit were,/ A bal ber bi a bonke to brymme bysyde,/...Hit hade a hole on þe end and on ayþer syde,/ And ouergrowen with gresse in glodes aywhere,/ And al wat hol inwith, nobot an olde caue/ On a creuisse of an olde cragge- he couþe hit no t deme/ With spelle...Here my t aboute mydny t/ Þe Dele his matynnes telle!” (2171-2,80-4 ,87-8). While valleys, islands, and even fords (as in the case of Pwyll and Hafgan) were popular sites for challenges and single combat, “hills, tombs, or vaults...captured the pagan imagination as being significant for cult purposes and the element of the ‘challenge’” (Darrah 47). The Green Chapel is an excellent example of the continued resonance of this motif. Where the Gorsedd Arberth is located in Dyfed and Pwyll’s connection to Annwn and its people is strengthened and celebrated, the Green Chapel is rooted firmly outside the borders of Camelot. When Gawain returns hastily to Arthur’s court, he separates himself from the Green Chapel, the site of his disgrace, enlightenment, and redemption. In choosing to leave, Gawain is also unable to pursue his growing friendship with Bertilak de Hautdesert. The Green Chapel, as a literal and symbolic source of discoveries filled with promise and pain, cannot coexist materially with Camelot; the two are physically but not conceptually incompatible. Gawain and the Green Knight can exist in either realm, but not at the same time. This might seem like a blatantly obvious statement of fact until we consider that Pwyll and Arawn, admittedly through magical deception, do manage to exist in both worlds simultaneously. The Green Chapel thus assists the Pearl poet in creating a more fixed, well-partitioned, sense of geography.
It may then be possible to see how “Sir Gawain” may have developed from past Welsh literary traditions given form in the Mabinogi and yet diverge to the point where the influence is, at least initially, obscured. Each author is able to take his literary tradition and heritage and reorder, reshape it with a high degree of skill. “Sir Gawain” builds on and away from the Mabinogi and countless other Arthurian sources, just as the Mabinogi itself is a creative synthesis of past oral traditions. Because authors continue, as John Darrah states, “to tell their tales after the pagan significance of the original myth had been forgotten,...a recognizable residue of remembered paganism is less likely to be found” (ix). Thus the Pearl poet may invoke pagan images used also in the Mabinogi without being aware of their original significance. Thomas Parry, in describing the Mabinogi, attributes this same mixture of ancient and more recent religious, historical, and mythological characters and places to either ignorance or a casual attitude toward narrative accuracy on the part of the author (72). While it is possible that neither author was aware of the history contained within every symbol invoked, this should not lead, necessarily, to the conclusion that either author was casual or sloppy in the process of creation. I would submit that each poet attempts to meld literary traditions consciously “in order to ease the task of distinguishing the native from the non-native” (Ford 19).
In the Mabinogi, the author seems to understand how pagan and Christian worlds can coexist and even enrich one another, while at the same time express a painful awareness that these same elements are sources of great cultural friction and conflict. Issues of community and alliance are celebrated but not allowed to dominate the narrative. In fact, by the fourth branch, the magical alliance between Dyfed and Annwn is virtually superfluous to the work. (Note, thus far we have discussed only a small fraction of the Mabinogi in relation to “Sir Gawain” in order to establish some of the more obvious links. I believe it is possible to expand the basic themes I have articulated to the entire Mabinogi as well, but that is the subject for another paper.) The author of the Mabinogi seems to anticipate the coming dominance of Christian culture and imagery.
While writing from a decidedly Christian perspective, however, the Pearl poet retains a high degree of interpretive complexity by attaching Sir Gawain (consciously or unconsciously) to a vast and ancient mythological and historical substructure. “The poem is no simple rule book, but a rich and varied commentary on life” (Moorman 111). Where the Mabinogi promotes assimilation between characters and worlds, “Sir Gawain” places these same elements more directly in conflict with one another. The Green Knight and the world he inhabits are ultimately formed from the machinations of Morgan le Fay, an open adversary to Arthur.
In both works, though, each author seems “acutely aware that right and wrong may be matters of degree and are not always easily distinguishable” and that “the ultimate lessons to be learned are as applicable in the mundane world...as they are in the timeless realms of story set on the boundaries of the Otherworld” (Bollard 70). It may be possible to assert that the connection, the dialogue, the interplay between worlds, between these two works of literature, fosters multiple, intertwined, and more complex meanings valuable in either context.
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