Essay: When Is a Myth Not a Myth? — Classifying 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' -

Essay: When Is a Myth Not a Myth? — Classifying ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’


“And now, Gawain: think.
Danger is yours to overcome
And this game brings you
Danger. Can this game be won?”
— Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The word “myth” tends to be used in conjunction with the words “legend” and “folklore,” with few people noting the different meanings among them. To be fair, even in scholarly circles, the terms’ definitions are a source of debate, given how all three share common themes and engage in similar issues, so it is small wonder that these words are thrown about with frivolity. A myth has five characteristics, all of which must be contained within a story in order to be classified as such:

(1) It is a religious story . . .and will therefore involve the existence and activities of a supernatural being. (. . .)

(2) It will seek to explain at least some aspect of the origin or manner of things . . .

(3) It is not an isolated tale but connects up in some significant way with other similar stories . . .

(4) Its authorship is communally shared . . . and it came into existence through oral tradition . . .

(5) It is believed to be essentially true by those in the society for whom it is one part of a cultural mythology. (Kohler).

Upon reading this list, one may be reminded of various stories that are commonly called myths but are not technically so. The tales of Robin Hood and many Arthurian ones, for example, are actually legends, for—besides not meeting all the guidelines above—they are regarded as historic, if not entirely accurate. Legends usually have a specific time period in which they are set, and certain facets have factual basis, albeit the stories being greatly exaggerated and embellished (Gill). The great Arthurian romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, hovers somewhere in the middle between myth and legend, since its mythic features correspond equally with legendary qualities. Its classification has been the source of much ire among scholars, some as illustrious as C.S. Lewis and George Lyman Kittredge. Many essays are written on the Celtic influences in Gawain, and the appearances of pagan beliefs, but folklorist Carl Lindahl argues in his essay, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Myth in Its Time,” that such writings ignore the time period in which the poem was created. By placing Gawain into its proper historical context, he concludes that it is indeed a myth, albeit medieval rather than ancient. A straightforward identification of the definitions of a myth stated above would indicate that the poem is not a myth, and yet an argument can in fact be made for each of the points in Gawain‘s favor. Thus, Landahl is technically correct: In broad terms, Gawain is a legend or folklore, but it can also be classified as a myth.

Landahl’s essay begins with a short commentary on the failures of Arthurian academics to properly analyze Gawain. He states: “My goal here is to recontextualize the poem in the English West Midlands and in the late fourteenth century, and to examine how it expresses the mythic, ritual, and legendary culture of the group that first experienced it” (249). Note how “mythic” and “legendary” are categorized together, an acknowledgment of Gawain‘s possible identification as both. The crux of Landahl’s argument is to essentially redefine “myth” in order to place the poem in the appropriate historical context, “a means of validating social structures and customs” (253). The mythic nature of Gawain lies not in the ancient past but in the fourteenth century, thus making it at the time, a “living myth,” hence the essay’s title. Its use of real folklore, genuine rituals, and the supernatural define Gawain as a medieval myth, not an ancient one, Landahl concludes.

Let us therefore examine the essay in regards to the text itself. The mythic culture of Gawain revolves around the eponymous figure of the Green Knight, which invites interpretations of the poem representing fertility and nature. The evidence supporting the Green Knight as a Green Man, a personification of spring, is in the various carvings found on European cathedrals. This idea of Gawain being a spring-themed story was heralded by John Speirs, whose posits Lanhahl dismisses as lacking support. He points out that there is no evidence of any ancient themes present in Gawain, specifically in regards to the beheading “game” (Landahl 249-250).

The text itself expresses no surprise at the Green Knight’s challenge during the Yuletide feast, nor does anyone at the court of Camelot—at least not in terms of there being a challenge at all. “For-thy I crave in this court a Crystemas gomen,” the Green Knight decrees. “For hit is Yol and Newe Yer, and here ar yep mony . . .” (Dunn and Byrnes 385). “Gomen” here means “sport” or “game,” which suggests that this is a common tradition. Indeed, King Arthur had been expecting some form of entertainment since the beginning of the meal:

And also another maner meved him eke

That he thurgh nobelay had nomen: he wolde never ete

Upon such a dere day er hymn devised were

Of sum adventurus thyng an uncouthe tale . . .

Other sum segg hm bisoght of sum siker knyght

To joyne wyth hym in justying . . .

This was the kynges countenance . . . (Dunn and Byrnes 379-80)

Arthur apparently would do this every year, as was his wont. Now as to whether or not this custom originated with Arthur himself or another legendary figure is a point of consideration. In any case, Landahl uses the festivities as proof of Gawain‘s mythic featuring of rituals.

Since Christmas and New Year were already being celebrated by this time, their respective ceremonies would have similarly been inducted into tradition. Green is a prevalent color, most likely due to evergreens being the only sign of nature visible in a winter-barren world. Besides decorations, there are carols that are sung and dances performed. Camelot was not entirely devoid of women, and courtships were commonplace enough for gifts to be exchanged: “And sythen riche forth runnen to reches hondeselle, / Yeghed yeres giftes on high, yelde hem bi hond, / Debated busyly aboute tho giftes” (Dunn and Byrnes 379). Evidence suggests kissing contests were also involved, hence the mention of winners and losers. Readers, past and future, could identify with these types of parties, as they are not much altered in the passing of time. The difference lies in the intent: modern merrymaking during the holidays is now an established practice, regardless of any religious connotations. King Arthur’s court would have been celebrating Jesus’ birth for Christmas, to be sure, but New Year’s was a different matter.

Given their mention in works of the other poets at the time, rituals related to the dawning of a new year were “calculated to lift the veil between the natural world and the other world” (Landahl 258). Although Landahl had disregarded Steir’s claim of a nature-themed connection between Gawain and the ancient past, that is not to say nature was not important for late fourteenth-century festivities. Whether the Green Knight is actually a Green Man is unknown, but it is true that men dressed up as monsters and visited royalty in wintertime. This instantly would be marked favorably in terms of Landahl’s argument, but he forces a step back in order to examine the meaning of all this. He calls attention to Gawain‘s contemporaries, all of which feature winter games and feasting, and all of which are now considered to be pure fabrication. “Why should we label Gawain ‘ritual’ or ‘mythic’ rather than ‘fictional’ or ‘literary’ in nature?” Landahl asks (259).

He follows up this rhetorical question with an analysis of the narrator’s presentation of the tale. In short, even the narrator is unsure about the validity of the story. Recall the one of the conventions of myth: “It is believed to be essentially true” (Kohler). It is possible that the Gawain-poet is employing a trope commonly used in modern detective fiction, in which denying the truth only affirms its credibility. The mystery of the tale’s integrity also serves to foreshadow the mysterious events that are to follow. On the other hand, this could be taken as proof against Gawain‘s mythic status, since it is not generally believed to be a true story or even to simply explain something, as per point (2) of the myth conventions. Landahl insists on the realm of possibility, however, and attempts to justify the poet’s ambiguity. At the very least, the Green Knight represents the tradition of the costumed men who traveled around visiting nobles. It is because we do not know exactly who or what he is that leads to its potential reality (Landahl 260). Many a mysterious horseman has interrupted the court at Camelot in other Arthurian works, and the Green Knight is only one in a long line of such figures. The Green Knight, then, affirms the mythic convention of the involvement of the supernatural, since the poet insists that he is not human, but nor are his origins explained to Arthur and his knights. Landahl sums up this entire first act: “Both by accentuating the realism of the courtly games and by casting doubts on the status of the intruder, Gawain creates a place where magic is possible” (261). The Green Knight is unique among Arthur’s myriad of partycrashers, as his appearance both affirms and subverts tradition. The court is not surprised at his presence, since such figures were expected during festivities, or even at the strange conditions of the game he proposes. It is his display of supernatural powers that moves him “beyond the ritual frame and into a realm of holiday magic” (Landahl 262). New Year’s, after all, was a time for the merging of the real and the unreal, between reality and fantasy.

All of this has the aspects of a legend, certainly in the figure of the Green Knight, but Landahl’s argument continues past the first act. He suggests that myths feature the answers to questions, rather than leaving them open for interpretation. The fourth act reveals the Green Knight to be indeed human, albeit supernaturally altered. His arrival at Camelot was meant to be a sort of prank for King Arthur, a game set up by his half-sister, Morgan le Faye. There, then, is the connection between a game and magic, hence the uncertainty of the narrator: The Green Knight was human but supernatural in appearance; his challenge was a game but magically fixed. The gift that Gawain receives also exists in ambivalent space: a girdle that apparently protects its wearer but is only later proven to be a mere token of mortality. Gawain only survives due to the Green Knight’s mercy, and the girdle becomes a symbol of weakness. He disobeyed the rules of the ritual that the host of the distant castle had set up, and was thusly punished.

Landahl offers no lengthy closing arguments. He merely reiterates the importance of the New Year’s rituals. They are a vital plot point in Gawain and were an important part of fourteenth-century culture. Having them be featured in the poem gave them validity, in which “magic [grew] organically from the audience’s experience of seasonal and social rituals enacted in their time” (Landahl 263). Modern scholars were trying to find “an ancient story within a medieval one, striving to peel away layers of Christianity to expose a pure core of pagan belief” (Landahl 251). In the fourteenth century, any pagan stories were automatically myths, since only Christians stories could possibly be true. As time passed, however, Christianity lost its national status as universal truth, and myths were no longer necessarily false (Gill); whether one is or not is neither here nor there in the world of academia—it only matters to those for whom the story was originally intended. Indeed, some pagan beliefs in Gawain still persist today. As such, the poem’s mythic context resides in the fourteenth century, where it is not a “timeless, pagan Celtic construct but rather a synthesis of fourteenth-century folk beliefs and ritual patterns” (Landahl 252). Since Gawain was born from and refers to actual practices, it can be considered mythic, and Landahl concludes as such.

Let us return to the beginning of the text for further verification. Landahl’s focus was on the ritualistic and religious supernatural, which only follows perhaps two or three of the prescribed conventions of myth. That Gawain is a religious story brooks no arguments, given the supernatural character of the Green Knight himself, but to be more specific in regards to a religion, the Christian chivalry of Gawain is best exemplified in the form of his shield. Upon its surface is a pentangle, apparently designed by the Biblical King Solomon. As a five-pointed star, it has “fivefold signification: the five wits, the five fingers, and the five wounds of Christ, the five joys of Mary, and the five virtues” (Dunn and Byrnes 376). To further enforce the importance of these plethora of knightly virtues, “[a]t this cause the knyght comlyche hade / In the more half of his schelde hir ymage depaynted, / That when he blusched therto, his helde never payred” (Dunn and Byrnes 397), “hir” in this case being the Virgin Mary, always looking out for him. The more negative aspects of Christianity are displayed when Gawain visits Bertilak’s castle, which Gawain expects to be full of wild men but is surprised to find a court similar to that of Camelot, if less luxurious. He had gone expecting to be morality and civilization personified, but they are doing quite well without any assistance from his ideals. It is there that in the end, he weakens his resolve and accepts the girdle from Bertilak’s wife without telling him and is punished accordingly in the fight with the Green Knight. Sin has consequences, even in the realm of magic.

The second convention of myth dictates the explanation of some aspect of the universe, whether truly international or more local. At first glance, Gawain does not seem to adhere to this stipulation: all that is contained within are rituals that have already existed. This is the crux of Landahl’s argument, however; he states the ritualistic practices themselves are the mythic elements. They are not ancient but rather, enhance their importance. Magic may exist, the Gawain-poet says, and these rituals help close the gap between reality and fantasy, hence the festivities. It is not a perfect explanation, to be sure, but still a qualification by technicality. The same may go for point (3), as the number and description of rituals involved in Gawain suggest at least some form of connection with other stories. Gawain‘s contemporaries are mostly proven to be legends or folklore, so the poem is unique indeed to have retained its validity. Also, as part of the Arthurian tales, it certainly has joined the ranks of classical tradition, if not actual canon. In all Arthurian stories, there is a mix of the Christian religion and the unique supernatural, right up to King Arthur himself. That Gawain could be considered an isolated tale is almost laughable.

The difficulty of official myth declaration lies in the authorship. It is true that the author is unknown, but scholars have a relatively solid belief that Gawain was written by the same person who wrote The Pearl. There is no suggestion of any collaborators, nor does the poet ever indicate Gawain is meant to be a compilation of stories. Landahl’s argument hits the ground here but manages to keep running, once again due to the rituals described. Reading and writing were not universal skills, so whatever traditions existed had to be passed down orally. Mythic origins usually, if not always, have their origins based in oral tradition, and the festivities and other rituals told in Gawain were from that time, if not slightly earlier, thus indicating the importance of communal sharing. Also, King Arthur, Camelot, and his knights were not invented by the Gawain-poet, so the entire story of the poem cannot be truly attributed to one single person.

Lastly, Gawain does indeed indicate that certain aspects, if not all, were believed to be true. The rituals are almost certainly historically accurate, and Arthurian tales have always enjoyed that wonderful space between reality and fantasy. To be fair on all counts, vicious scrutiny may give allowance for the poem to be mere folklore, but there are enough mythic elements and unique qualities that would allow Gawain to retain its mythic status. More specifically, it is a living myth, as it “draw[s] upon the immediate environment of their telling and function as a kind of narrative glue to bind the observable physical and social worlds to an unseen supernatural system” (Landahl 252). The Green Knight is the “narrative glue” within the story itself, being the connection between the supernatural and the human. Gawain validates social structures and norms via its telling of then-present rituals, giving the implication that tradition supersedes belief. Overall, then, it seems that Landahl’s assessment is correct: Gawain is a myth—or, as he put it: “Gawain [is] the most magically suggestive, the most mythic poetic statement to survive the English Middle Ages” (263).

Works Cited

  • Dunn and Byrnes, eds. Middle English Literature. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990. Print.
  • Gill, N.S. “Myths and Legends – Differences Between Mythology and Legends”. About, Inc., n.d. Web. 7 December 2012.
  • Kohler, Peter. “What is a myth?” About, Inc., n.d. Web. 7 December 2012.
  • Landahl, Carl. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Myth in Its Time”. Telling Tales: Medieval Narratives and the Folk Tradition. Ed. Francesca Candade Sautman, Diana Conchado, and Giuseppe Carlo Di Scipio. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. 249-268. Print.



Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of those texts that I do remembering reading—though mostly because I was enamored with the way you’re supposed to pronounce “Gawain”! This was written for my Middle English Literature – Later 14th Century college class in 2012.

“evergreen” by Luca Biada is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

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