Saturday, May 24, 2014

Trees, the Green Knight, and the Perilous Realm

During our discussion in class, we touched upon the humanity of the Green Man. While wild and incomprehensible, he carefully adheres to the rules of the game between himself and Gawain, issues moral tests regarding [what are the moral tests?], and politely invites Gawain to his home at the end of the tale. The discussion suggested these behaviors as evidence (along with Treebeard and the other Ents) that Tolkien imbued trees with a noble and civilized quality. They are not simply wild, dumb vegetation, but have sentient personalities, civil behavior, and their own interests, often at odds with the brutish ways of mankind.

While all of the above is certainly valid, while reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, something else struck me about the Knight’s rules: That nobody but he seems to know them. First, the Knight rides indoors on horseback into Arthur’s court, proposing a game which ends with him galloping off with his head literally in his hands—as if that was a perfectly acceptable outcome. Even Arthur is shocked, and we’ve all heard the stories of the marvels he has witnessed. Additionally, when Gawain asks the perfectly reasonable question about where to meet him for their duel in a year’s time, the Knight gives an address of “The Green Chapel,” which seemingly no one else in Britain has ever heard of. The Knight gives a series of tests aligning to Christian values, true, but doesn’t see fit to notify Gawain. Once he finally finds out, Gawain is embarrassed and confused, especially after “failing” a test by flinching from a blow from what is extensively described as a truly terrifying axe. Sure, there are rules to his games that are perhaps visible after the fact—but is it truly a civilized game if only one player knows all of the rules?

I would suggest that these games, and the Green Knight himself, are not so much “civilized” as they are fey. During the first few discussions regarding Faerie, we read many stories of Faeries as the Perilous Realm, a world with its own rules to which the humans who stumble in are often unaware, generally to their great peril. I particularly recall “Smith of Wooton-Major”, in which the titular character, while certainly an elf-friend complete with a star on his brow, wanders about Faerie unaware of the rules of the realm, and often unable to engage in the events around him. He assumes he has full passage, but is later shown otherwise when he is informed that he could be punished just for being in the forest. The overwhelming sense of confusion that Smith feels seems also to be present in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Gawain wanders confusedly about England searching for the Green Chapel, and the strictures of the game he plays are left unexplained to him, and yet still enforced.

What might it mean if the Green Man, who is associated with trees, is then associated with Faerie? Tolkien provides a very thorough examination of Faerie and fantasy in “On Faerie Stories,” eventually concluding that fantasy (and, by extension, the secondary world of the fae) serves three very important purposes to humanity: Recovery of a clear view of the world by comparison with the Perilous Realm, Escape from the ugliness of modern life, and Consolation that all will have a joyful end. If fantasy and the imaginary realm it takes place in are vitally important to the human spirit, it would be worth examining if the same might hold true for the Green Man/Trees-As-A-Whole as well.

Tolkien quite obviously holds trees in high regard. Again and again he mentions a poplar tree outside of his window, constantly under attack by his less-appreciative neighbors and scarred by a previous botched pruning (Letter 241), often describes the trees he sees around him in his letters, and refers to them as in constant danger of attack by the modern world. Tolkien also considers Faerie to be under attack by those who relegate it to children’s fare, or to idle escapism. It’s evident that he derived a great deal of joy from looking at them at the very least.

For trees to be linked more closely to the Perilous Realm would give them an even deeper significance—that they are essential to humankind’s present and essential in man’s development, just as the act of Fantasy and the land of Faerie. Could a forest provide the same sense of Recovery, Escape, and Consolation? Just as figurative language is linked with and essential to humanity itself, are trees also fundamental to human living? It appears that, to Tolkien at least, this is true. Trees and humans (or hobbits) achieve great goals together when a tree’s ancient strength can be moved to action by the other creature, as when Merry, Pippin, and the Ents attack Isengard. The passages related to Ents also reinforce the concept of linkage between men and  trees—the men require the trees to build their homes and fires, but take too much and the forest will turn against you. A well-tended forest such as Lothlorien (letter 339) where elves and trees live in harmony is a beautiful and healing place, where the characters recover from the loss of Gandalf and prepare to embark on the next portion of the journey. The white tree flowers in Gondor after long neglect as the land finally turns towards its happy ending.

To me at least, it does seem as if a healthy relationship between trees and men (or elves, or hobbits, or dwarves) can provide these benefits that Faerie offers as well. While it might be a stretch to say that the three chief benefits are provided by the Green Knight (though certainly, Gawain’s perspective has been greatly widened and changed by the experience in a “recovery” sort of sense), the forest and wild country he seems to embody certainly does. It is not only the “civilization” of the Green Knight that underscores the significance of the natural world, but also his inscrutable “fey” qualities.



  1. The linking of the Green Night and Faerie, and from there to the trees, is very interesting and perceptive. I've never encountered it before, but it seems to very much "work" with Tolkien's worldview. Perhaps the next thing to think about is the dark side of this connection, the wild danger of faerie, the menace of Mirkwood and the Old Forest. Might we see mirror (or corrupted?) versions of the three purposes of Faerie in the "evil" counterparts to Lothlorien, etc.?

    Along those same lines, do the well tended forests exude the same danger that we find in even the more benign encounters with Faerie? The Ents are in some sense dangerous and Lothlorien too is somewhat menacing before its beauty is revealed. Much like the Green Knight, there's an order here, even a Christian order, but one which is profoundly not human (/hobbit).

  2. I think that perhaps this idea of linking Faerie to the forests comes from the idea of mythologies coming from and being strongly attached to the land. To a certain extent, Tolkien was creating a mythology specifically for England because he felt that a proper English set of myths did not exist (he discounted Arthur). Faery is included within Tolkien’s mythology in several places already mentioned (Lothlorien, Mirkwood, etc.) and therefore needs to be rooted in the primary reality. I think that this is achieved by blending the mysterious aspects of the forests and trees of England with the danger and perilousness of Faery. This allows the secondary reality to be based in the primary reality and create a window through which the primary reality can be understood.

    By making the trees and the forests of Middle Earth connect Faery to the actual landscape of England, I think that Tolkien is bringing his own mythology within the general past of England. The story of Gawain and the Green Knight comes from the historical past of England, and therefore the idea of trees and forests being connected to a Perilous Realm is rooted deeply in the past. I think that Tolkien wanted to create a strong bond between Faery and both the historical past and physical landscape of England.

  3. I think you’re adjoining the ideas of fey with trees is an interesting lens with which to approach both stories. However I’m not sure if using the Green Knight as the lens of approach was the most fruitful. From Tolkien’s owns statements about trees and fairies I would agree with you, but there are some sharp differences between the story of the Green Knight and the story of the ents and the forests in general in Tolkien’s works.
    The most significant for me being that the Green Knight recovers from the harm that is done to him. His head is cut off but he just regrows it. The ents and forests of Tolkien are different. Sauron cuts great swaths of the great forest. The ents are disappearing either from violence or age or just turning into trees themselves, while trees are animating more. How would the trees turning human while the ents, the closest embodiment to the green knight we see in the lord of the rings, fit that into your interpretation? I couldn’t quite grasp how I would tie it in, but if you have a thought I would love to hear it. Back to the original point, as you mention Tolkien believes that the idea of fey being turned simply into children’s tales is killing fey, and perhaps it is, but the Green Knight can’t die. In many ways the people of fey often can’t die, but trees and forests die. Can trees really provide the same kind of escape as the perilous realm if they too are mortal?


  4. I think you are right to look for more than just ‘civilized’ behavior in a comparison of the Green Knight and Tolkien’s ents (or individually with Treebeard) and that the behavior can be characterized by its placement in fey. Yet, I think these two notions are more intertwined than they at first seem. The world of faerie is certainly different from the human ‘civilized’ world. It is a perilous realm that is both mystical and dangerous to the humans that enter it: it is dangerous for both Gawain in the Green Knight’s test and Merry and Pippin when entering into Fangorn. Yet, as you say, the world of fey has rules that are its own and are not taken from human ideas about ‘civilization’.

    In class we discussed the civilization that the Ents had, given their custom to meet in council, spend a long time deliberating, and then act immediately (and some might say wildly) after making their decision. Treebeard prevents himself from moving on Isengard without holding an Entmoot first, deferring to the systems in place in order to make a decision. These acts, though they are performed in a fashion alien to human society, have a distinct order, and are therefore ‘civilized’.

    As you note, The Green Knight plays by the rules he himself develops and keeps hidden from Gawain. Yet, the nature of the game he is playing demands the concealment of the rules: to test virtue the tested must not know that they are being tested. Aren’t we capable of feigning virtue for long enough to pass a test that will save our life?

    The world of faerie certainly plays by its own rules, rules that are mystical and perilous to humans that enter into that world. However, I don’t think this means they don’t have civilized rules: its just that the players, the humans that enter into the game, are not able to / don’t go through enough effort to learn them.