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.”
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.
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 Studies, Christianity and Literature, Mythlore, 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.