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Mark Olly is a Cheshire writer and archaeologist who runs the Celtic Warrington Project Archaeological Unit. You can read about Mark's work in the 'Celtic Warrington & Other Mysteries' volumes.

 

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT
by
Mark Olly

 
The Green Knight's Challenge
 
Gawain & the Green Knight
 
"(Gawain) never came home without the Quest he had gone to seek. He was the best of walkers and the best of riders. He was Arthur's nephew, his sister's son, and his first companion." 'Culhwch and Olwen'. Put into present day geography, the specific Cheshire/Staffordshire tale of 'Gawain And The Green Knight' goes something like this: Arthur's court assembles for the Christmas feast when a loud thunder clap announces a monstrous green figure who rides through the door on a green horse wielding a mighty axe. This Celtic Christmas feast would have been on Jesus' original birth date of March 28th, just after the Spring Equinox (the festival of Alban or Eilin) at the end of the month of 'Cutios' (the time of winds), our March/April. Mocking the court, the Green Knight offers to play a 'Christmas game' with anyone who dares - he takes the blow of his own axe from any man present, then has the opportunity to return it. Perhaps detecting that other-worldly forces are at work, no one comes forward to take up the challenge until Arthur himself rises, then Gawain (Welsh 'Gwalchmai' the 'Hawk Of May') accepts the challenge and strikes a single blow severing the Green Knight's head and saving Arthur and Guinevere from danger. The giant then picks up his severed head which speaks telling Gawain that he expects to return the blow in one year's time at the Green Chapel. Setting his head back on his shoulders, the Green Knight then rides away having united his 'soul' to his body (the Celts believing that the soul resides in the head).
   
Gawain's Journey
 Gawain
Here the story becomes vitally geographic. The year passes and Gawain sets out (from Wales) to keep his word, not knowing where he should go, and wanders (possibly via Anglesey) to the 'Wilderness of Wirrall' (Wirral) where he faces danger from trolls and the harsh weather. This part of the story takes place in the month of 'Ogronios' (the time of ice) in February/March, one year after the original Celtic Christmas. Half dead from cold and fatigue he arrives at the castle of Sir Bercilak (somewhere in the Mersey Valley ?), who offers him hospitality and introduces him to his beautiful wife who is accompanied by a hideous old woman, both obvious aspects of the triple Celtic goddess, the 'mother' and 'crone' aspects (only the 'maid' Guinevere is missing). As noted the triple goddess can be represented by the River Mersey. Sir Bercilak declares that the Green Chapel is "a mere few hours ride away" (down the Mersey/Goyt Valley) and says he is going hunting (possibly the forests of Delamere or north Cheshire). Gawain prefers rest so Sir Bercilak proposes an exchange of winnings, he will give Sir Gawain any spoils from the days hunting in exchange for anything his guest has won during the same period.
 
Gawain's Test

 
Arthurian shieldSir Bercilak departs and his 'wife' does her best to seduce Gawain who only concedes a kiss which is all he has for Sir Bercilak on his return. This happens for the next two days during which Gawain concedes two, then three kisses before revealing to Lady Bercilak that he has little chance of surviving his quest. Lady Bercilak gives Gawain a green sash which protects the wearer from all harm and he does not include this in his days winnings on the return of Sir Bercilak. Next morning Gawain sets off for the Green Chapel (Ludchurch on the Staffordshire Roaches ?) and arrives to find the Green Knight sharpening his axe. As agreed Gawain kneels in the snow but his adversary twice faints until the angry Gawain bids him strike once and for all. This third blow only nicks Gawain's neck who jumps up declaring honour satisfied and calling the Green knight to defend himself. The giant laughs and reveals that he is actually Sir Bercilak turned into the giant by "Morgane the goddess" who is the hideous 'old woman' back at the castle. The intention of Morgane (winter) was to frighten Guinevere (spring) and test the strength of Arthur's knights. Morgane (Morrighan) is the dark and savage goddess of winter, Guinevere (The Flower Bride) once represented spring and the unfolding of life. Both goddesses are polarised in permanent opposition.
 

 

 

 

 
Three 'Green Chapels'
 
Sir Gawain has come through with honour in tact except for accepting the green sash for which he received the nick in his neck from the Green Knight's axe. He returns to Camelot and tells his story at which point all the knights decide to wear green sashes in honour of Sir Gawain's success. In his extensive study 'Gawain: Knight Of The Goddess', John Matthews lists three actual sites which have been identified as the end destination of Gawain - the 'Green Chapel'. The first is the most unusual Bridestones Bronze Age chambered tomb in north Staffordshire suggested by Bertram Cosgrave in 1948, the second a cave at Wetton Mill north east Staffordshire known locally as 'Thurshole' (meaning 'FIEND'S HOUSE') identified in 1940 by Mable Day and R.E. Kaske and the third an open cavern feature on the Staffordshire Roaches known as 'Ludchurch' or 'Lud's church' favoured by recent researchers R.W.V. Elliott and Doug Pickford.
 
Ludchurch
  
LudchurchThe 'simulacra' or 'natural sculpture' of a 'red rock knight's face' still faces that of a 'green, mossy man' either side of the rock crevice at the entrance to the gorge at Ludchurch, which is undoubtedly 'The Chapel In The Green' visualised by the Staffordshire Monk. Gawain is said to wear a red surcoat over his armour and performs so well in tournaments that he becomes known as 'The Knight Of The (red) Surcoat'. The connection of divine figures to Bridestone, Thurshole and Ludchurch is immediately apparent with 'BRIGIT' ('BRIDE') of the Saxons, 'THOR' of the Norsemen and 'LUD' of the Celts, the latter being the most likely site for the end of Sir Gawain's journey given the evidence.
    .

 
ARTICLE ADAPTED FROM: CELTIC WARRINGTON & OTHER MYSTERIES -
VOLUME TWO: EAST TO SOUTH. MARK OLLY. CHURNET VALLEY BOOKS,
43 Bath Street, Leek, Staffs. (01538) 399033.

 
 
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