Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 3

Once the voice has quietly spoken, every knight must ride alone
On the quest appointed him into the unknown:
One to seek the healing waters, one the Dark Tower to assail,
One to find the Lost Princess, one to find the Grail.

Through the wood of Evil Counsel, through the Desert of Dismay,
Past the Pools of Pestilence he must find the Way.
Hemmed between the Haunted Marshes and the Mountains of the Dead,
To the Valley of Regret and the Bridge of Dread.

— W. H. Auden, “Song of the Quest”

Gawain postpones his journey as long as he possibly can, for he can imagine no happy ending to the Quest laid upon him: to find the Green Chapel and receive from the Green Knight the promised reciprocation.

In this section of the poem, the passing of the year is marked by the calendar of the Church. It is on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (September 29) that Gawain thinks he should leave Camelot and begin his search. But he does not leave; he tarries. A month later, on All Saints’ Day (November 1) he realizes that he may tarry no longer, and on the next day he sets out.

That next day, as it happens, is the Feast of All Souls. The brilliant, eccentric, maverick scholar Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy believed that the creation of All Souls’ Day was a great revolution in Western culture, because it added to the existing cult of the saints — those holy ones who intercede for us at the throne of God — a salutary reminder of all of us, all the souls, who are on our pilgrimage and need one another’s prayers. All Souls’ Day reminds us that everyone still on the way, whether in this world or in Purgatory, needs the prayers of the faithful. It marks, Rosenstock-Huessy said, “the universal democracy of sinners under judgment.” And that, as we shall see later, is a democracy that matters very much to this poem.

In any case, once Gawain is on his way time ceases to be marked by the sacred calendar: instead, the poet describes for us an increasingly wintry landscape: bare trees and swirling winds in the wild wood, a wilderness — and in the Middle Ages “wilderness” was a word to conjure fear — in which the knight cannot confidently make his way. He does not know where to look he does not know what he is looking for.

Now through England’s realm he rides and rides,
Sir Gawain, God’s servant, on his grim quest,
passing long dark nights unloved and alone,
foraging to feed, finding little to call food,
with no friend but his horse through forests and hills
and only our Lord in heaven to hear him.

Finally he pauses to pray: “Father, hear me, / and Lady Mary, our mother most mild.” What he wants above all is a place “where mass may be heard, / and matins in the morning.” He ends his prayer and crosses himself three times. It is Christmas Eve.

To be continued…