“Wood-Woses: Tolkien’s Wild Men and the Green Knight” by Ethan Campbell

In his poem, ‘The Son of Lancelot’, Charles Williams imagines a year when ‘Quinquagesima’ Sunday, the last before Lent, coincides with the pagan Lupercalia (15 February). This year, Ash Wednesday falls on the Feast of St. Valentine. And, by good hap, courtly love and penitence are both featured together in Dr. Ethan Campbell’s fascinating exploration of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and what J.R.R. Tolkien makes of what and whom he finds there.

David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor

J.R.R. Tolkien drew liberally from medieval English sources in constructing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so much so that it’s possible to teach a broad survey of medieval English literature using only his source texts. I have done this myself at The King’s College in New York City, with a course titled (somewhat uncreatively) “Tolkien’s Medieval English Sources.” The reading list featured dozens of works in Old and Middle English, dating from about AD 680 (“Caedmon’s Hymn”) to 1470 (Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur).

The clearest Tolkien sources date back to the early centuries of English literature, from poems written in Old English dialects. For example, the kingdom of Rohan parallels the kingdoms of Denmark and Geatland in Beowulf, down to the name of its king, Théoden, the Old English word for “king.” The hymn “Where Is the Horse and the Rider?” which the Riders of Rohan sing at sunset in The Two Towers is a direct translation from the Old English elegy The Wanderer. Théoden’s speech at the Pelennor fields, “Arise, arise, riders of Théoden,” echoes the great historical poem The Battle of Maldon (where unlike the Riders of Rohan, every last English warrior dies). And Gollum and Bilbo’s “Riddles in the Dark” share the spirit of the clever, often bawdy Anglo-Saxon riddles compiled in the 10th-century Exeter Book.

Equally significant, however, if less obvious, is Tolkien’s debt to the later period of Middle English, which began in the 12th century.  Tolkien was a great admirer of Geoffrey Chaucer, especially his epic love story Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1385). And as the new essay collection The Inklings and King Arthur details, he also loved the romances of Arthur’s knights, from Perceval to Launcelot to Tristrem, as well as Layamon’s Brut (ca. 1215), a Middle English rendering of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History of the Kings of Britain, which prominently features Arthur’s reign.

But of all the works of Middle English and Arthurian literature, Tolkien’s clear favorite was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late 14th-century poem by an anonymous author known simply as the Gawain-poet. Tolkien was, along with his University of Leeds colleague E.V. Gordon, one of the first scholars to edit Sir Gawain, in 1925, making this classic poem accessible to a new generation of readers. When asked to deliver a lecture in memory of the medievalist W.P. Ker in 1953, Tolkien presented an interpretation of Sir Gawain with a focus on its Christian dynamics, a speech later printed in the collection The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Tolkien also attempted a modern English translation of Sir Gawain, along with a more religious poem by the same author, the heavenly dream vision Pearl.

If you aren’t familiar with the basic story of Gawain, Tolkien’s translation is a good place to start. He not only translates accurately from line to line but also tries to capture the poem’s meter, called “alliterative long line,” a form derived from Old English poetry which was archaic even in the 1300s. A number of contemporary scholars, including Marie Borroff and the team of Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, have also produced excellent word-for-word translations, or you might choose a rendition that takes more poetic license, from an acclaimed poet like W.S. Merwin or Simon Armitage, with modern and Middle English on facing pages.

The story, in brief: Camelot has been celebrating Christmas for fifteen days (more than the usual twelve), and King Arthur is itching for new entertainment. On cue, a large green-skinned man in green armor, with a sprig of holly in one hand and a green axe in the other, rides into the hall and challenges the knights of the Round Table to a test—take one swing at him with his giant axe, and one year later, he will deliver a blow in return. Suspecting magic, no one takes him up on the offer until, shamed, the king himself volunteers. Then, doubly shamed on behalf of his comrades, Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts the challenge. Gawain beheads the Green Knight with one swing of the axe, and lo, he does turn out to be a magical creature.  The Knight picks up his disembodied head and tells Gawain to find him a year later, at “the Grene Chapel … on New Yeres morn” (lines 451-53).

We can imagine Tolkien being powerfully drawn to every aspect of this story so far—medieval knights, codes of honor and shame, beheading, magic, a mysterious creature from the world of “fantoum and fayryȝe” (240). In his 1953 lecture, however, Tolkien actually claims not to be much interested in these preliminary elements. The real story, he argues, lies in what happens next, as Gawain faces temptation—first, his fear of death, which grows with each passing holiday; then a sexual temptation from the married lady of a castle where he reposes the following Christmas; and finally, a temptation to break the rules of a gentlemanly exchange game with his host in order to keep a magical talisman, a green girdle, which supposedly can protect him. (I’m skimming over huge chunks of the plot—please do read it for yourself!)

You may disagree with Tolkien’s view on which part of the story is most interesting, but it’s certainly true that once Gawain leaves the confines of Camelot, the poem provides intriguing material for a reader searching for the medieval sources of Tolkien’s fiction.

In his quest for the Green Chapel, Gawain travels through northern Wales and northwest England, specifically “the wyldrenesse of Wyrale” (701), the Wirral peninsula, near the modern-day city of Liverpool. In this wilderness, the poet tells us, Gawain has further adventures, fighting not just against the winter elements, but also against wild creatures, all of them alliterating on the letter “w”: “wormez” (dragons), “wolues” (wolves), and “wodwos that woned in the knarrez” (721)—“wodwos” who lived among the rocks.

But what exactly are “wodwos”? No one is certain, though etymology gives us clues. The word is apparently plural, and compound—the word “wos” might mean simply creatures or men, and “wod” probably means either “wood” (from the Old English “wudu”) or “mad, insane” (from the Old English “wod”). They are wild men, insane men, creatures of the woods. The word proliferated in the late 14th century, often to describe the hairy wild men that became popular in late-medieval artwork and heraldry. When translators at Oxford University produced the first edition of the Wycliffite Bible in the 1380s, they used the word “wodewosis” in passages like Isaiah 13:21 and Jeremiah 50:39, but revised it later to “heeri beestis” or “wielde men.”

C.S. Lewis makes a reference to “Wooses” in his remarkable description of Aslan’s execution in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a scene filled with evil creatures:

But such people! Ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants; and other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book—Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins. (165)

This is the type of passage Lewis lovers relish, but which causes Tolkien-loving purists (and Tolkien himself, when he read drafts of the novel as an Inkling) to grit their teeth. Lewis pulls in creatures from every corner of ancient and medieval Western mythology—Greek, Roman, Arabic, Celtic, Saxon. It’s a literary mash-up, an evil all-star team. Of course, Lewis knows full well what he is doing, and he has a reason for it—Aslan the universal figure of salvation is opposed by universal evil, however it manifests itself in stories throughout history and around the globe. But by including Wooses on the list, Lewis misses an opportunity that Tolkien exploits more fully—the chance to explore the complexity of these medieval English wild men as human beings, with a capacity for both good and evil. (To be fair, Lewis explores humanity’s complex nature in other areas of Narnia, just not here.)

In his translation of the Gawain poem, Tolkien calls the wodwos “wood-trolls that wandered in the crags.”  This might lead us to think he has in mind one of the varieties of trolls he describes in The Hobbit or LOTR, such as the stone trolls, who live the woods and turn to stone in daylight, or the cave trolls who attack the Fellowship in the caverns of Moria. But in fact, Tolkien brings them into his epic in a much more direct way, through a group of characters in The Return of the King he calls “Woses,” or “Wild Men of the Woods” (813).

These Woses, also known as the Drúedain, are described by the horse lord Elfhelm as “living few and secretly, wild and wary as beasts.” Elfhelm and the other Rohirrim are clearly frightened of them, since “they use poisoned arrows, it is said, and they are woodcrafty beyond compare.” When they speak, it is with a “deep and guttural” voice, “in a halting fashion, and uncouth words were mingled with it” (814). When their leader Ghân-buri-Ghân enters the scene, he parleys with Éomer, debating whether his band of Woses can help the riders on their journey to Minas Tirith. Their conversation is testy—Ghân refuses to merely take orders, and he constantly asserts himself in crude speech against Éomer’s seeming condescension. “Let Ghân-buri-Ghân finish!” he shouts when Éomer cuts him off. When the horse lords offer him riches and friendship, he scoffs, “Dead men are not friends to living men,” then asks only that if the kingdom of Rohan survives the war with Sauron, “then leave Wild Men alone in the woods and do not hunt them like beasts any more” (815).

If Ghân speaks true, he and his Wild Men have suffered injustice at the hands of the people of Rohan, who apparently view them as less than human. If the hobbit Merry’s frightened reaction to them is any indication, this seems plausible. The Woses have every right to hold a grudge, yet they are willing to hear out Rohan’s leaders, negotiate with them, and strive for peace.

They stand in contrast to another group Tolkien also describes as “wild men”—the Dunlendings in The Two Towers. These are a different people but similar enough to the Woses that Tolkien uses deliberately parallel language. These “wild hillmen” (515) were also victims of injustice five hundred years earlier, when, according to a brief history lesson from the Rohan rider Gamling, “the lords of Gondor gave the Mark to Eorl the Young and made alliance with him” (524), displacing the wild men. Half a millennium later, they still shout “Death to the Strawheads!” and “Death to the robbers of the North!” and yearn for Rohan’s downfall.


As the wizard Saruman prepares for his invasion, he stirs up these ethnic resentments, arms the Dunlendings, and looses them to pillage towns on the Rohan frontier. This scene is depicted briefly in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Two Towers, with a horde of angry, hairy men shouting “Murderers!” as they run to attack. In the novel, they join the orc army at the Battle of Helm’s Deep, where “the wild men of the Dunland fells” and “the hugest Orcs” gather on the front lines before the Hornburg gates (521).

Unfortunately, the LOTR film trilogy captures only the dark side of the Wild Men in Tolkien’s universe, and leaves the Woses of Ghân-buri-Ghân on the cutting room floor. But these “good” Woses—the ones who choose peace and cooperation rather than vengeance—turn out to be tremendously significant. The companies of Rohirrim are each “guided by a wild woodman” on the road to Minas Tirith (815), and their advance guard launches sneak attacks on the orcs lying in wait ahead. The Woses thus play a major role in the liberation of the city, clearing the way for the cavalry. Two nearly identical people groups, with similar histories of oppression, produce completely opposite outcomes. The wildness of the Wild Men, it seems, is not necessarily a curse—it frightens outsiders, and it can corrupt and degrade, but it is also a source of great strength that can be used for good.

Tolkien makes one more literary reference in his description of the Wild Men, which further underlines their complex humanity. When Merry meets the “short-legged and fat-armed, thick and stumpy” Woses, they remind him of “the Púkel-men of Dunharrow” (813), large standing stones carved into crude man-like shapes (777). The word “Púkel” derives from the Old English “pucel,” or “puca,” meaning goblin or devil. The word developed over the centuries into the Middle English “pucke,” and eventually the proper name “Puck,” the mischievous fairy sprite made famous by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The connection between the Woses and Puck is clearly intentional on Tolkien’s part, and the two mythical figures share qualities that are similarly ambiguous. In Shakespeare, Puck is a “shrewd and knavish sprite,” the “merry wanderer of the night” who “frights the maidens of the villagery,” makes “the breathless huswife churn” butter to no avail, and leads astray “night wanderers, laughing at their harm” (2.1.33-45)—a dangerous household imp one would do well to drive away. At the same time, Puck is a playful spirit, interested mainly in entertainment, and he does a great amount of good, for instance by bringing the play’s lovers together, then joining his fairy king Oberon in blessing the house on their wedding night:

“Not a mouse / Shall disturb this hallowed house. / I am sent with broom before / To sweep the dust behind the door” (5.1.404-407).

He is both home-wrecker and housekeeper; like the Woses, he is frightening but potentially helpful, powerful but unpredictable. Ironically, he is one of the most “human” characters in the play.

Which brings us back to Sir Gawain. When Gawain confronts the three “w” creatures—worms (dragons), wolves, and wodwos (721)—they subtly foreshadow the more serious conflict in which he is about to engage. He will confront a dragon, the traditional Christian symbol of spiritual evil, in the sorceress Morgan le Fay; a wolf, traditionally a symbol of hypocrisy and deceit (from John 10:1-16, the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” passage), in the temptress Lady Bertilak; and towering over them all, a Wood-Wose—the Green Knight himself.

Lord Bertilak, Gawain’s host at Castle Hautdesert, is a man of “the wod” (1106), and he spends each day of the Christmas season hunting deer, boar, and fox, as part of his exchange game with Gawain. We may not be surprised to discover, then, that the Green Knight is Bertilak’s alter ego, assisted by Morgan’s magic. The Knight is an even wilder man of the forest, with his green skin and woodsman’s axe, a relative of the “Green Man” figure carved into medieval cathedrals, with grass or leaves for hair (an ancestor of the modern Jolly Green Giant).  His Green Chapel turns out to be a wooded hill with a “creuisse [crevice] of an old cragge” (2183), the same word Tolkien uses to describe the wodwos “wandering in the crags.” The word the Gawain-poet himself uses to describe the wodwos’ environs, “knarrez,” also appears in his description of the Green Chapel—“knokled knarrez with knorned stonez” (2166), which Tolkien translates as “notched knuckled crags with gnarled boulders.” The language itself tells us we should expect to find wodwos here, and soon the Green Knight is towering over us.

Gawain is understandably frightened when he encounters the Green Knight on his home turf. Unless the green girdle can somehow save him, he expects the Knight to murder him in cold blood as the conclusion to their perverse beheading game. As he dismounts and ties up his horse, Gawain imagines the kind of priest who must preside over this type of rocky outdoor chapel: “Here myȝt aboute mydnyȝt / The Dele [devil] his matynnes telle!” (2187-88). He continues (in Tolkien’s translation):

“This oratory looks evil. With herbs overgrown
it fits well that fellow transformed into green
to follow here his devotions in the Devil’s fashion. …
This is a chapel of mischance, the church most accursed
that ever I entered. Evil betide it!” (2190-92, 2195-96)

He expects the devil himself to enter this grotesque church and conduct a satanic mass at midnight, a service which will end with his own death. What actually happens, though, is the complete opposite. The Knight appears, gives Gawain a scare by swinging his axe three times, but in the end gives him only a light nick on the neck, penance for having cheated at the exchange game and kept the green girdle. Instead of the ultimate penalty, Gawain receives a figurative slap on the wrist.

The Green Knight then follows up with something even more striking—rather than a “devil’s devotion,” he performs one of the most important Christian rituals. He grants Gawain absolution:

“Thou has confessed thee so clean and acknowledged thine errors,
and hast the penance plain to see from the point of my blade,
that I hold thee purged of that debt, made as pure and as clean
as hadst thou done no ill deed since the day thou wert born.” (2391-94)

The Knight doesn’t just forgive him for the personal slight—he washes him clean from all sins against anyone, every day of his life. Gawain expects a devil, but what he gets is a Christian priest who administers grace. He expects the Knight to kill him for his sin, but instead the Knight forgives his sin, with a gruff, Puck-like spirit.

Tolkien, in his 1953 lecture, calls the Knight’s words here “mock-religious terms” (96), and views the scene as something of a parody of actual Christian penance. He argues that the poem operates on multiple “planes,” with Gawain’s absolution from a real priest for real sins (which takes place earlier at Bertilak’s castle) claiming higher status than the Green Knight’s forgiveness for cheating at a parlor game. This view has much to recommend it, and many scholars have followed Tolkien’s lead in sharing it. But in my experience as a teacher, most modern readers actually do experience Gawain’s fault as a serious matter—his life is on the line, after all!—and the Green Knight’s decision to spare Gawain’s life certainly feels more significant than the intangible absolution performed in a church.

In the poet’s day, priests were typically the only people allowed to administer church-sanctioned absolutions, but the Green Knight boldly echoes the language of the sacramental ritual in his speech. In my forthcoming book The Gawain-Poet and the 14th-Century English Anticlerical Tradition, I suggest that the poet wants his audience to think about the priesthood and the sacraments in this moment, and to use the Green Knight as a means of doing so. The conflicted emotions Gawain experiences in this moment—expecting the devil and death but finding forgiveness and new life—are similar to the feelings many 14th-century Christians had about the priesthood in general. On the one hand, priests performed an essential religious duty, and were viewed as God’s conduits for salvation; on the other hand, they could be hypocrites and capable of tremendous evil.

In other words, they were deeply flawed human beings.

Tolkien captures well this dual nature, this double-edged potential of humanity, in many of his characters. Gollum is perhaps the most melodramatic example, one who swings wildly from darkness to light and accidentally saves the world while trying to destroy it. But anyone who comes into contact with the Ring and its corruption shows him or herself to have a two-sided nature—Bilbo, Boromir, Galadriel, Saruman, Théoden, Denethor, even Frodo himself—and their final outcomes, in a moral sense, are an open question until the very end. The Woses are simply another example of this long-running theme, but a unique example in that we get to see tangibly the two divergent directions these Wild Men can go.

Granted, there are creatures in Middle Earth who appear to be pure evil—the orcs, the Balrog, Shelob, etc.—but Tolkien takes care to emphasize that no human characters, including hobbits, are ever beyond redemption. If they act evil at times, it is because they have been deceived. When Sam witnesses his first “battle of Men against Men” in The Two Towers (646), he sees one of the enemy Southrons cut down by arrows from Faramir’s party. His response is a model of innocence, approved by Tolkien—he is scared and repulsed at first, then moved to empathy, as he imagines the man’s history and wonders “if he was really evil at heart, or what lies and threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would really rather have stayed there in peace.” When a person dies, no matter his or her background or past actions, it is a tragedy, and a fellow human’s proper response is sadness.

Like every person in Middle Earth—like every person on the actual Earth—Tolkien’s Wild Men share a complicated, contradictory nature, constantly at war with itself. They are wild, but they may choose to fight for good or evil; they look like devils but contain a spark of the divine; and their ending no one but the great Storyteller can know.

Works Cited:

Armitage, Simon, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Norton, 2007.

Borroff, Marie, trans. The Gawain Poet: Complete Works. New York: Norton, 2011.

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 1950. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Merwin, W.S., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Middle English Dictionary. Ed. Hans Kurath, Sherman McAllister Kuhn, et. al. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1956-2001. Available online.

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron. Revised edition. Liverpool UP, 2014.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Available online at Folger Digital Texts.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 3 vols. 1954. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Tolkien, J.R.R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Del Rey, 1975.

Ethan Campbell (MFA, PhD) is an Associate Professor of English and Literature at The King’s College in New York City, where he coordinates the English major and teaches courses on writing, Shakespeare, and the history of the English language.

You can find his academic work in journals like Fifteenth-Century StudiesChristianity and LiteratureMythlore, and Academic Questions. Besides teaching undergraduate students, he has written popularly on faith-based addiction recovery programs. You can find him on the amazingly appropriate twitter handle, @ProfGawain.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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42 Responses to “Wood-Woses: Tolkien’s Wild Men and the Green Knight” by Ethan Campbell

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    What I said last week to Dale and Brenton, may be said as heartily to Ethan and Brenton: thank you both for the excellent illustrations! The Gawain manuscript! Tolkien’s own cover design (if I recall correctly) for The Two Towers! And what a collection of covers for different editions of Tolkien’s Middle English translations! And Stanley Tucci’s Puck – with what I can’t help thinking tiny faun- or satyr-like horns! (Presumably Paul Engelen’s idea as makeup designer?) Another nice bit of complexity, for if the Wycliffite translators began with the word “wodewosis” in Isaiah 13:21 and Jeremiah 50:39 the King James ones ended up with “satyrs” in the former and the Douay-Rheims ones with “fauns” in the latter! (And double-checking the date(s?) for Lupercalia, I ended up at Bill Thayer’s transcription of William M. Green’s “The Lupercalia in the Fifth Century” (Jan. 1931), where Green says, at Gelasius’s description of who is worshipped, “One thinks at once of his identification with Pan or Faunus, and of the statue set up in the Lupercal, nude except for the goat-skin about his loins, just as the Luperci appeared in the festival.Such creatures — Panes, fauns, silvans, werewolves, and a myriad of others — abound in the folk lore of all ages, and we may be sure were a part of the superstitions of the fifth century.”)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ethan Campbell says:

      You’ll notice in that Gawain manuscript illustration that the artist didn’t read the poem very carefully … the Green Knight isn’t actually green! (Though his horse is.) You might think, after all the descriptions of the Knight’s lovely green locks, the artist would at least make his hair green, but nope, he’s blond.


  2. joviator says:

    I feel a kinship with Sir Gawain when reading the financial page of the newspaper, and “encounter bulls, and bears, and ofttimes boars.”


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      When a public footpath led me into a field where the farmer had the amusing idea to place what on closer inspection (though not too close) proved steers, I was more like Monty Python’s Sir Robin

      When danger reared its ugly head
      He bravely turned his tail and fled

      than Sir Gawain in the wilds (though gone so far I got out on the further side), but among the beasts of the financial page I am quite bewildered.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Ethan Campbell says:

      Yes, three more creatures Gawain encounters on that journey across Wales … and we haven’t even mentioned the “etaynez,” whatever they were (I’m sure Tolkien knew their whole history).

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Much the same as or quite different from the “Ettins” of Narnia, I wonder?

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I heard an interesting paper not long ago by Jan Kees Vermeij in Thijs Porck’s Leiden University graduate seminar on Tolkien and his mediaeval sources about Tolkien’s comments on Beowulf and whether ‘Eotenas’ refers to ‘Jutes’ or could be referring to ‘giants’ in a certain section! (Hope it gets published somewhere in some form…)


        • Ethan Campbell says:

          Exactly the same … no doubt Lewis had these lines from Sir Gawain in mind when he wrote that passage. I just don’t know what kind of creature an ettin is supposed to be —
          usually translated “giant” or “ogre” or something like that. Not to be confused with “ent,” by the way, the Old English word for giant — specifically an ancient race of giants who left stone works behind (“enta geweorc”). Tolkien took that word and ran with it as well, of course.


      • joviator says:

        Pretty sure etaynez are French monsters with gigantic noses that need wooden supports to hold them up.


  3. dalejamesnelson says:

    Great to see a posting on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I recommend in Brian Stone’s translation. Probably I’m reflecting my ignorance, but so far I retain the idea that, aside from those with various scholarly interests and needs, you’ve really got the Matter of Britain (or let’s say the Matter of Logres) in your hands if you know Malory’s Morte, and Sir Gawain, well. Malory has the great stories, and the Gawain-poet has a marvelous poetic rendition of aristocratic, courteous knighthood, the trials of the Christian life, the spaciousness of nature in medieval Britain, and the eeriness of the Other World, set within the context of the Church Year. The three days of hunting are likely to please readers today more than Malory’s accounts of tournaments, while Gawain’s three mornings of sexual temptation are rather good examples of how a Christian author may evoke both the sweet allure of illicit eroticism while being careful about soiling the reader’s imagination with impurity. One picks up the poem for yet another reading always with happy anticipation.

    Dale Nelson

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ethan Campbell says:

      Yes, Brian Stone is good, too — and he’s translated all four of the Gawain/Pearl poems, though they’re out of print now.

      And I agree that reading Gawain and Malory gives you a great overview of Arthurian literature as a whole — especially Malory, whose work is actually meant to be a compendium of everything that came before. Since both come pretty late in the genre’s history, though, I would also supplement them with an early chronicle history, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, and perhaps an early French poet, like Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Would it be too fanciful to think of Malory as somewhere between The Silmarillion and LotR in narrative detail and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as more like LotR or the Unfinished Tales versions of ‘Silmarillion’ material in richness and subtlety – or, in fact, vice versa: Tolkien learning from Gawain as well as recent fiction? Dale’s observations about the treatment of eroticism got me comparing Tolkien’s skill in handling one of the central features of Narn i Hîn Húrin in Unfinished Tales.

        Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also seems a fine companion, counterpoint, complement to Malory in it subtle treatment of Sir Gawain who as character had undergone a lot of ‘degradation’ (if that’s not a bad way of putting it) by the time Malory got to work.

        I think Geoffrey and Chrétien would both be good ‘next steps’ to see how various things known from Malory looked at their considerably earlier stages. (The change in the place of Percival with the invention of Galahad is an example which Charles Williams thought about a lot in working out his approach to a retelling.)


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’m repeatedly bewildered by what Penguin lets get out of print… And I find I knew next to nothing about Brian Stone except how much I enjoyed his translations!:



  4. I have learned a lot from this for which I am grateful. I particularly appreciated the reflections on Puck and of the Pukel men. I have a great affection for a place near my home in Worcestershire, England that is rather wonderfully called Puck’s Hill. I first discovered it a few years ago when on a Frodo/Bilbo like walk in my Shire. The views were so delightful and the sense of peace so complete that I felt that I had been invited to stop and eat my sandwiches there. It was only later in the day that I checked my map and learnt of the name. This was no goblin haunt but a gentle place prepared for the pleasure of all who might pass that way.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had so many surprises and delights as I went along, and meeting Ghân-buri-Ghân and his people is vivid among them. But I don’t remember ever catching or making the connection, comparison and contrast, with the Dunlendings, or anyone discussing it! And then the subtle parallels you delicately make between the “wodwos” Gawain fights and the Green Knight, and so suggest between the “wodwos” and the Dunlendings especially on the one hand, and Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Green Knight on the other – so anyway it has struck me as I savo(u)r this essay! Wow – thank you very much! Nice ‘eucatastrophic’ turns when the fearful Elfhelm and the other Rohirrim find such allies, and Gawain the complex care and charity of the Green Knight!


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It is interesting to think that the third volume of The Lord of the Rings with the the Dunlendings and Ghân-buri-Ghân and William Golding’s The Inheritors both appeared in 1955.


  7. Steve says:

    The wild men led by Ghân-buri-Ghân resemble nothing so much as the Bushmen of southern Africa, sometimes also called San because in one of their many languages that is their term for themselves. The description of their speech sounds like outsiders’ descriptions of the Bushmen’s speech, and they have been badly treated by the governments of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana to this day, and Ghân-buri-Ghân’s plea almost exactly reflects the Bushmen’s plea. They also use poisoned arrows for hunting.

    Incidentally there is a bird in our garden that constantly calls “Ghân-buri-Ghân”. I’ve never seen it, but only heard it, and that perhaps reflects the character of the wild men — seldom seen, but sometimes heard.


  8. hannahdemiranda3 says:

    Thanks for this great post, giving so much wonderful insight by tracing the development of all those creatures and their names, e.g. Shakespeare’s Puck to the Old English “pucel,” or “puca,”
    This great insight “Two nearly identical people groups, with similar histories of oppression, produce completely opposite outcomes. The wildness of the Wild Men, it seems, is not necessarily a curse—it frightens outsiders, and it can corrupt and degrade, but it is also a source of great strength that can be used for good.” reminded me of a C.S. Lewis quote from Mere Christianity: “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before………and……….. with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly …. or a hellish creature. (p. 92).”


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  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Finally embarked on Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1984 reprint of 1970 Paladin ed.), I have encountered the astonishing 1545 engraving ‘The Pope as Antichrist’ (or ‘as Satan-Antichrist’ or ‘as a Wild Man’) by Melchior Lorch (or Lorck, Lorich, Lorichs, Lürig). Cohn refers to Richard Bernheimer’s Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment, and Demonology (Harvard UP, 1952). But I cannot immediately find any conveniently detailed online discussion of the engraving, that might give an idea of whether the association of (gigantic) “Wildeman” and Pope is traditional or fortuitous. Cohn credits the Courtauld Institute of Art for his plate, while the English Wikipedia article, “Mechior Lorck” links to a reproduction of one in Berlin:


    and the Danish one to a reproduction of one in Den Kongelige Kobberstiksamling:


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  14. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’m pleased to report that we just received our copy of Lembas 184 (September 2018), which includes a handsome print version of this article (though without the delightful illustrations) in the latest installment of its English-language supplement, stapled into the issue, but separately paginated (it occupies pp. 189-94).

    Many thanks to the editor of both journal and supplement, Renée Vink!

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