Feast of St. John, apostle & evangelist
The Gospels of Luke and Matthew reveal the mystery of Christmas in the form of a story. But there are other powerful tales that reveal the same mystery in fanciful, but truthful, ways. One tale that has always touched me deeply during the Christmas season -- for it can only be fully appreciated during the Twelve Days — is the medieval tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Here is how I discovered it, and why I return to every Christmastide.
Kelly and I returned to Britain for the Twelve Days of Christmas in 1988. We were now “specialty tour operators” leading small groups in storytelling tours of England, Wales, and Ireland. We always chose small family-owned lodgings for our programs. “Old Gwernyfed Manor” in Wales was one of these gems.
We arrived at 4:00 pm New Year’s Eve, after driving along darkened byways of the Welsh countryside. On arrival, Roger and Dawn Beetham, the young innkeepers of the 500 year old manor house, welcomed us with Christmas lights, good cheer, and a medieval banquet.
Roger with his red hair and red beard reminded me of Sir Bertilak in the tale of the Green Knight. His wife, Dawn, matched the beauty of Sir Bertilak’s Lady in the same tale. I wondered... Was our storytelling company were entering an enchanted castle as Sir Gawain did in Christmastide?
Afterwards, our friend and tour co-leader, Joan Bodger, told the tale of "Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell” followed by storytelling from myself and others in our company.
Joan, an older feminist storyteller, frequently described herself as the "Winter Hag", and therefore told of Dame Ragnell with gusto as no other storyteller I have ever heard. Again, I wondered... Was Joan not like the old hag in the tale of the Green Knighr? Was she not Morgan The Fay in disguise? Perhaps this New Year’s Eve revelry would be a Spell, an Enchantment?
Now, a most interesting twist occured near midnight after we had staged a play about King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the Lords and Ladies of Camelot. Joan took a pair of deer antlers displayed on the gallery wall and began a processional dance — leading the rest of us through the manorhouse's wooden doors to the courtyard outside. We stopped being actors in a play, and pranced about in a dance.
Two stone lions guarded the entrance gate, the yule fire blazed in the gallery room, and — in the coutyard between the fire and the beasts — twenty of us danced with the horned stag in the dark Welsh night. Stars studded the crisp clear sky above.
(A side note: I never returned to the Welsh hills at Christmastide because of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which took a toll on me during those dark days of winter. But Joan continued her storytelling tours for many more winters, while Kelly and I brought our tours over the years to Old Gwernyfed during the longer daylight hours of late Spring or early Autumn. Roger and Dawn have closed Old Gweryfed, but the manorhouse still stands in the shadow of the Black Mountain in Wales.)
However, I still rejoin that winter dance every year in my imagination and my art. One of my favorite stories, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” took on great meaning for me that night. And now, every winter, in the festive days between Christmas and New Year, I journey with Sir Gawain across the bleak winter landscape in search of the many-named Sir Bertilak... Green Man... Green Knight.
What is this tale of enchantment? Listen here to the very best telling in modern English. It is only a 6 minute excerpt, but a delightful introduction to King Arthur, Queen Guinnevere, and Sir Gawain at a Christmas feast in Camelot long ago. Once you link t0 the web page, click on the soundfile to listen:
(A very fube translation from Middle English to Modern English is: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A New Verse Translation, by Simon Armitage. This is the same translation used in the soundfile above.)
If you have listened to the soundfile above, you will know that it is set at Christmastide in Camelot. Very early in the story, the mysterious Green Knight bursts into the festivities and offers a life-or-death challenge to the whole court. And every year, as Christmas and the New Year comes around again in my life, I sense a challenge to evaluate my life’s journey as I say good-bye to the old and greet the new.
Of course, I would rather just enjoy these holidays: Good food and drink, parties with friends and families, and always the exchange of gifts. Rather than sing the tender old religious carols, I find it easier to be merry and jolly with the new Christmas songs and jingles. In truth, I would rather go on a “holiday party binge” for twelve days and nights, not thinking of what might challenge me in the New Year. And for people like me, Sir Gawain and his worthy opponent, the Green Knight, is the perfect healing tonic.
What I like about Gawain is that he is the only person at the Christmas party in Camelot who accepts the Green Knight’s challenge and plays the perilous “Beheading Game”. Everyone else at Camelot prefers to ignore the challange and continue to party. They watch as the Green Knight is beheaded by Gawain’s sword, but then shockingly places his severed head back on his shoulders before riding out of Camelot. The head speaks, reminding Gawain that in a year and a day the Green Knight will “exchange gifts” again with Gawain, when he delivers a blow with his axe on Gawain’s neck.
Well, I have already told too much of the tale. You can read or listen to the story in its four separate sections, one for each of four nights, between Christmas and New Year. The originl poem was probably meant to be recited aloud, and is divided into “Fits” or Chapters, or Acts I to IV. What emerges f0r me is Gawain’s fear and uncertainty towards the coming new year as he prepares to play the Beheading Game again… knowing that he, Gawain, will not survive it.
Reading the story poem aloud, I am always reminded that New Year is not about trite “resolutions” that we might foolishly make. For our decisions to do one thing, or avoid another thing, leaves us with the illusion that we author our own destiny. No, we are challenged to play, like it or not, a Beheading Game. What the New Year really gives us is only another year — another round of four seasons — in which we will have to make moral decisions again and again with our lives.
At Old Gweryfed Manor years ago, I discovered a terruble beauty in the revels of Christmastide as I danced with the antlered stag. And so every time the wheel turns and I approach a new year, I take comfort in the “hope and joy” of Gospel Christmas stories. But I also gain "courage and courtesy" in the fantastic revelry of Sir Gawain and his spiritual mentor, the Green Knight. They both entertain and teach me about the perils and the joys of the coming New Year.
Your comments are always welcome. Email me here.