When the strangely green being enters the hall, his hue is so extreme and is so thoroughly described with so many decorations and layers that he seems to be of different breed than the men at court, made of nature like a tree or the seasons themselves. Yet his being is also beyond nature. It is supernatural – he can pick up his severed head after it’s been chopped off and still speak through that disembodied head to deliver instructions for the next part of the game. The supernatural properties of green things continue throughout Gawain’s trial, like the green girdle. But the supernatural world does not supersede the natural world. In fact, it seems to be allied with the natural world, to make that natural world more powerful.
Morgan La Faye and the Green Knight’s magic is tied to the seasons and a cycle of natural regeneration that allows the Green Knight to heal after his beheading, for example. And when Morgan Le Faye appears it is to highlight nature rather than wizardry – Gawain meets her alongside Bertilak’s young and beautiful wife and the contrast in the pair shows him very obviously the path of life from youth to decline. Gawain’s quest is similarly ordered by the seasons, which freeze and warm him, tempering the pace of his journey. They also mark an internal journey for Gawain, from innocence in the safe rituals of a knight at court to the pursuit of real heroism outside the court limits.
The poem sets this combined natural/supernatural power, which orders and defines men’s lives through a cycle of growth, death, and rebirth, against the more artificial world of Camelot. In doing so, it suggests that the Arthurian chivalric code exists in a kind of vacuum, separated from the real nature of things. The green girdle that originally seemed to offer a defense against the magic of the Green Knight, changes in significance by the end of the poem, when Gawain realizes that it as a symbol of his own failings, of the inherent failings of human nature that no chivalric code can overcome. In embracing the green girdle, Gawain embraces that natural world, the natural facts of human nature, and in doing so tempers and makes less rigid the strict artificial structures of Arthurian chivalry.
The Natural and the Supernatural ThemeTracker
The Natural and the Supernatural Quotes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant,
or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.
But handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse,
for despite the bulk and brawn of his body
his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.
In fact in all features he was finely formed
Some stood and stared then stepped a little closer,
drawn near to the knight to know his next move;
they'd seen some sights, but this was something special,
a miracle or magic, or so they imagined.
Yet several of the lords were like statues in their seats,
left speechless and rigid, not risking a response.
The hall fell hushed, as if all who were present
had slipped into sleep or some trancelike state.
The handsome head tumbles onto the earth
and the king's men kick it as it clatters past.
Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,
yet the man doesn't shudder or stagger or sink
but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs
and rummages around, reaches at their feet
and cops hold of his head and hoists it high
and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,
steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle
still gripping his head by a handful of hair.
And Gawain had been glad to begin the game
but don't be so shocked should the plot turn pear-shaped
for men might be merry when addled with mead
but each year, short lived, is unlike the last
and rarely resolves in the style it arrived.
So the festival finishes and a new year follows
in eternal sequence, season by season.
He trails through bleak terrain.
His mood and manner change
at every twist or turn
towards that chosen church.
He rides the path and prays,
dismayed by his misdeeds,
and signs Christ's cross and says,
"be near me in my need."
No sooner had he signed himself three times
than he became aware, in those woods, of high walls
in a moat, on a mound, bordered by the boughs
of thick-trunked timber which trimmed the water.
The most commanding castle a knight ever kept,
As the cry went up the wild creatures quaked.
The deer in the dale, quivering with dread
hurtled to high ground, but were headed off
by the ring of beaters who bawled and roared.
The stags of the herd with their high-branched heads
and the broad-horned bucks were allowed to pass by,
for the lord of the land had laid down a law
that man should not maim the male in close season
Then the heads and necks of the hinds were hewn off,
and the choice meat of the flanks chopped away from the chine,
and a fee for the crows was cast into the copse.
Then each side was skewered, stabbed through the ribs
and heaved up high, hung by its hocks,
and every person was paid with appropriate portions.
for when tales of truthful knights are told
in both title and text the topic they describe
is how lords have laid down their lives for love,
endured for many days love's dreadful ordeal
then vented their feelings with avenging valor
by bringing great bliss to a lady's bedroom –
and you the most notable of all noble knights,
whose fame goes before him ... yes, how can it follow
that twice I have taken this seat at your side
yet you have not spoken the smallest syllable
which belongs to love or anything like it.
Now night passes and the New Year draws near,
drawing off darkness as our Deity decrees.
But wild-looking weather was about in the world:
clouds decanted their cold rain earthwards,
the nithering north needled man's very nature;
creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet.
Where he wonders and watches – it looks a wild place:
no sign of a settlement anywhere to be seen
but heady heights to both halves of the valley
and set with saber-toothed stones of such sharpness
no cloud in the sky could escape unscathed.
"Call yourself good Sir Gawain?" he goaded,
"who faced down every foe in the field of battle
but now flinches with fear at the foretaste of harm.
Never have I known such a namby-pamby knight.
Did I budge or even blink when you aimed the axe,
or carp or quibble in King Arthur's castle?
But no wonder if a fool should fall for a female
and be wiped of his wits by womanly guile –
it's the way of the world. Adam fell for a woman
and Solomon for several, and as for Samson,
Delilah was his downfall, and afterwards David
was bamboozled by Bathsheba and bore the grief.