The Wilderness in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”
The contradiction between nature and culture is one of the most popular themes of the world literature. The interpretations of these two matters are always various and depend primarily on the social position concerning the issue. Nevertheless, the problem itself is always topical. There are certain obvious reasons for that. Firstly, each separate human being includes both natural and cultural elements, and in some difficult situations, these aspects of the same personality may come into a conflict. The same process is observed in more general field when society tries to transform the nature, while each member of this society partly belongs to that oppressed natural world. The legends represent a number of ideal types of people who can resolve a situation that may be too difficult for an average person. Those people are heroes, and the ways they find to solve their problems represent the common approach to those issues. Thus, the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table are those heroic characters who represent the common ideal views of the Medieval England. In this respect, the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight demonstrates the solution of contradiction between culture and nature. One of the main motives of this text is the place of the wilderness within the context of the Medieval Knights’ culture. All people, even the Christian knights, cannot deny their natural essence totally. For this reason, the wilderness represented in the text by the Green Knight and the green sash has the meaning of necessary and inseparable weakness that does not allow a person to become ideal.
At the first glance, the author of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” bases the text on the obvious oppositions. Thus, for example, the civilization represented by King Arthur’s and Lord Bertilak’s Halls opposes to the wild forests the Green Knight comes from. Certainly, the forest is a phenomenon of the natural world, when a hall is the result of the transformation of nature in accordance with social purposes. Besides, the interrelations between nature and culture in the text are much more difficult. It is clear that both Halls are surrounded by forests, and to some degree, they paradoxically belong to the world of nature. That is why the Green Knights may enter the Hall of King Arthur so freely. The Knights of the Round Table try to escape the influence of nature in order to live according to their ethical and religious norms, as Sir Gawain demonstrates during his journey. Besides, the conclusion of the romance shows that no one can deny own nature and it is important to accept a necessary natural part. For this reason, the Knights accepted the green sashes as the symbol of that minimum, which keeps even the most chivalric person among the mortal people.
Another interesting detail concerning the specifics of the interrelations between natural and cultural world is that the Green Knight, who represents the wilderness of the forest, also belongs to the social group of the Knights. In this aspect, the detail that Lord Bertilak and the Green Knight are the same person has no matter because the Green Knight is not Lord Bertilak’s social mask, but the result of Morgan’s witchcraft. That is why, it is important to interpret these two characters as two different persons. In such a way, the Green Knight represents the nature: he is immortal, “Completely emerald green” (Gawain, line 150), he lives in the forest, and his power depends on Sir Gawain’s weaknesses connected with the influences of the nature. At the same time, the Green Knight is a knight (and the Knights of the Round Table consider him to be socially equal to them), and he lives in the Green Chapel, not just in the forest. The author mentions that the Green Knight was very big, but “every part of his body [was] equally elegant in shape” (Gawain, lines 145-146). Such contradictory describing of the symbolic character, which represents nature, brings some difficulties to the correct understanding of the text through the prism of nature and culture relations. Thus, the theme shows the discrepancy of those connections that exist between society and nature. The ambiguous essence of the Green Knight, who is a knight and a personification of grass at the same time, illustrates that the author’s position was to find a compromise. Another good piece of evidence is the mentioned green sash all the Knights started to wear in order to demonstrate that each of them also has natural weaknesses as well as Sir Gawain.
In the context of the medieval culture, the society followed the patriarchal values, when the female point of view mostly had no social and cultural acceptance. That is why, women represent the wilderness as well as the greenness does. There are two main women in the text. The first of them is the main King Arthur’s counterpart, his sister Morgan. Another one is Lord Bertilak’s wife, who tries to seduce Sir Gawain. Thus, here are some illustrative parallels. For example, when Lord Bertilak (he represents the social world when he is not the Green Knight) hunts for deer, boar and fox, his wife “hunts” for her guest, Sir Gawain. It is clear that hunting is the activity against the nature. When the wife of Bertilak tries to seduce Sir Gawain, she appeals to his natural weaknesses in order to reduce his social and rational elements of personality (Gawain, lines 2420-2421). Thus, when the Lord hunts in the forest, his wife represents the wilderness and opposes the chivalric and Christian principles of her guest. The interrelation between Lord Bertilak and his wife, as well as between King Arthur (represented in the game by Sir Gawain) and Morgan (represented in the game by the Green Knight), is the opposition in which each rival reflects their counterpart.
As for Morgan, it was she who transformed Lord Bertilak into the Green Knight. In fact, one may interpret that as a situation parallel to the case of Sir Gawain and the wife of Bertilak, but with the culture’s defeat. It is clear that women in this text represent the chaotic natural force when men are the defenders of social and cultural values including the code of Knights. A good piece of evidence for this assumption are Sir Gawain’s words at the end of the poem when he understands that the cause of his shame is the wife of Bertilak. Sir Gawain mentions Adam, Samson, and David – the heroes cheated by women from the Old Testament. He concludes: “since these were ruined by their wiles, it would be a great gain to love women and not trust them, if a man knew how” (Gawain, lines 2420-2421). Such understanding of all women as the source of evil is exaggerated to illustrate Gawain’s current state of mind because the author does not share such point of view. It is clear through Queen Guinevere, who does not represent evil or any threat because her husband, King Arthur, governs her. Thus, the Medieval point of view is that women without the dominance of men are dangerous, as well as the nature without its transformation by the culture. That is why the wilderness and destructive women are on the same side in the poem.
In such a way, the place of the wilderness in the poem is ambiguous. The wilderness does not mean either good or bad thing but its interpretation depends on the context. According to the main point of view expressed through the poem, the social values have to govern the nature, but not deny it. Thus, Sir Gawain’s green sash symbolizes the part of his natural essence (the wilderness) which he or other knights cannot separate from themselves.