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.