Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A thought on Christianity and Paganism

(To listen to this post as a podcast episode, click here.)

Happy New Year and Happy February, friends! I hope you’re having a fantastic start to 2023!

Just a little mid-winter thought for February:

As some of you know, I love wintertime and tend to spend a lot of the winter season thinking about Gawain and the Green Knight. To me, the Green Knight was always more than just an antagonist-turned-protagonist for Gawain in that famous winter poem. He was a teacher, a warrior. A spirit. He forces Gawain out on a wild quest to test his mettle yet also teaches him the meaning of honor. He makes as if to kill Gawain, yet one year later, sends him home with a blessing. It always fascinated me. It also intrigued me that he was literally green and sends Gawain into the wilderness to learn his lesson– both signs that the Green Knight represents Nature and Celtic pagan themes. Yet he also teaches Gawain honor as a Christian knight, sending him out into the wild knowing he is a fairly new Christian and that he has no one but his horse and Mother Mary in his shield to protect him.

I think the Green Knight can be seen in both a Christian and a pagan light– and, in fact, should be seen in both. As a pagan who also celebrates Christmas and other Christian holidays, I love thinking of him during the winter, especially around the New Year. He seems to embody both faiths in different ways. (And again, this is just my personal opinion. Everyone views him and the story differently! 🙂 )

As we know, the Green Knight disguises himself as a simple host, allowing Gawain to stay in his manor until New Year’s Day as he heals from his ruthless journey. The “exchange of winnings” game commences, and the host’s wife makes sexual advances toward Gawain during each of the three days he stays there. Of course, this is all a test created by the Green Knight, himself, and his wife (or so he calls her), aiming to see if Gawain will give in to sinful behavior on this holy quest. (And to see if a magical green silk belt rumored to keep its wearer safe from harm will tempt Gawain to cheat out of his quest.) Finally, Gawain sets out to meet the Green Knight in the Green Chapel, ready to bow his head before the Knight’s axe. But he wears the belt. And when the Green Knight asks him where he got it, Gawain lies about it. (A failed last chance given by the GK for Gawain to come clean about what it is and the fact that he got it during a rather scandalous moment with someone else’s wife.)

From Wondrium Mythology, YouTube video discussing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

However, after two “misses” with the axe, the GK puts it down and reveals that he was the host, all along. Of course, Gawain is overcome with shame, admits everything and apologizes profusely. He’s so mortified that he feels unable to ever return home to Camelot. But the Green Knight says that this apology and admission of shame is enough. He explains that the entire quest was all a test to see if Gawain truly understood the meaning of honor– for only then, could he ever truly be a worthy knight. The GK sends Gawain home with a warm-hearted farewell and the green belt, as a symbol of his lesson learned. (Even though Gawain is guilt-ridden the entire journey home.) Luckily, Arthur and Guinevere are simply so pleased that he’s back alive, that they have everyone wear green belts in his honor.

To me, the Green Knight had two motives for this test. One was as he said, to test Gawain’s honor. The other, in my opinion, was to test Gawain’s bravery on the journey there and to measure his respect of things he doesn’t understand. The honor aspect seems to embody Christian morals while the bravery and respect-of-another-being aspects seem to embody pagan ideals.

Art by Egor Gafidov

On the Christian side, honor comes in with the “exchange of winnings” game and Gawain’s truthfulness (or lack thereof) about the gifts he received in the GK’s house. Of course, had he declined to take the green belt from the wife, he would have passed the test. Even if he hadn’t, had he simply come clean and been truthful to the GK, he still would have passed. In this way, to me, the GK appears as a Christian figure. His “game” with the axe, and Gawain’s end of the bargain, represent death and ascension to Heaven. The idea of coming clean could represent the confessing of ones sins, which Gawain didn’t do. He also was planning to cheat his way out of the game by wearing the belt, which can represent cheating ones way through life. A Christian knight would have been expected to live a life of purity– not to say that it should be lived without pleasure or desire, but that the knight’s intentions was expected to always be out of pure heart and noble cause. A life of lies and selfish gain (not to mention the whole sexual-intimacy-out-of-wedlock thing, which would have been hugely dishonorable at the time) would have been no life for a knight of King Arthur’s.

But once the GK reveals himself and explains his holiday “game” to Gawain, who is ashamed, the GK is merciful and kind, and gives him the belt to remind him of his lesson, inspiring him to do right always. This to me seems like the kind of lesson Christ would teach his followers; the kind that God might teach those who once had Him in their heart but lost themselves and made mistakes. He seems like He would send them off with a lesson learned and a reminder that He is always there to guide them. The Green Knight does the same here for Gawain.

On a more general note, the idea of faith seems really prevalent in this story. Gawain mentions many, many times throughout the whole first half that he’s not afraid of what awaits him simply because he knows God is with him on this journey. He has faith that God will save him from death’s icy blow and that things will work out in the end. (At least that’s how he feels at first.) And it’s true; he did survive and he did return home, and all the better for it. But his faith begins to dwindle as New Year’s Day grows closer, which leads him to make the mistake of turning to the green belt for safety and lying his way through a challenge of honor. This, I find to be very human and something probably all of us would have done. But to be the kind of worthy knight the Green Knight expected– and that even Arthur expected of his men–would have required more than that. It would have required the highest levels of courage and honor. So the whole moment of the GK explaining that if Gawain had steeled his heart, things would have been a lot easier, seems very much like a lesson in faith. Not just in oneself but in God.

Art by Julek Heller

On the pagan side of things, the entire idea of the Green Knight’s “game” can be argued to have derived from the lore of the Green Man. In modern pagan and Wiccan culture, the Green Man has been associated with Pan, the Greek god of mischief, and the Celtic figure of the Horned God, amongst others. In modern pagan practices, the Horned One has become more and more popular as a spirit able to be worked with and honored during springtime. But in ancient times, he was known by the Celtic peoples as Cernunnos; the wild fertility god of nature and abundance, celebrated playfully in the spring but feared in the winter. He was thought to come knocking on the hall door of great warriors on Yule Night or New Year’s Eve, inviting only the best warriors out on a dangerous, frigid-cold adventure to test their mettle. Whether we call him Cernunnos or the Green Man, he made it his mission to find the greatest men in the land and prepare them to be the best they could be; to be brave at all costs, stronger than the northern winds, smarter than the fae creatures lurking in the shadows of dark mountains and frozen lakes. And respectful of heart. All qualities typically expected of a pre-Christian Celtic warrior.

Art by Jacob Turner on DeviantArt

Similarly to the Green Knight, Cernunnos is also seen in various forms. He’s a teacher; a gentle caretaker of all forest creatures, teaching them the ways of the wood and of Nature, herself. He is also a god of the hunt. Since he knows the forests so well, he was often called upon by the Celtic peoples to aid them in hunts, especially during the winter when food was scarce. He was also said to be a wild creature, himself, and sometimes appeared not at all in the form of a human body but an animal’s. Most often, he is thought to appear as a stag (or a human man with a stag’s antlers), though he was often thought to have also taken the form of a serpent or other horned creature. (This is why I imagine A24’s The Green Knight film depicted the GK as an earthly creature, made entirely out of tree bark and greenery, with two edges of tree bark sort of crowning his head, like antlers.)

All of these variations of his character could have easily inspired the character of the Green Knight who was also, at once, a teacher, hunter and shape-shifter. Dark and terrifying in the beginning, when he first appears at Arthur’s court (a Cernunnos-figure calling the great warrior to a quest), he later takes on the guise of a rowdy but humble host. (A nod to Cernunnos’ shapeshifting gifts.) During this, he even spends his part of the exchange of winnings game going on a hunt each day (another nod to Cernunnos as a god of the hunt). Then, at the Green Chapel, he once again resumes his role as a terrifying god-like creature until Gawain learns his lesson. Then he falls into his final (and seemingly truest) form; the gentle teacher. (A parallel to Cernunnos as wisdom-keeper and Father of the Forests.) Then of course, there’s his last quality that’s perhaps the most popular one today; fertility. As well as he is known today as a god of the forest, he is also known as a god of Divine Masculine energy and fertility. How ironic that desire and fertility were the Green Knight’s main idea for catching Gawain off guard at the house and testing the trueness of his heart.

Art by Montjart on DeviantArt

And then there’s the man vs. nature trope that is so very prevalent in this story. So prevalent, that Nature feels like a character in itself. For much of the story, Gawain sees no other humans. Only animals and giants and snowstorms and dangerous mountain passes. Perhaps the Green Knight wanted to see if Gawain would not only survive the journey to the Chapel but to see if he would work with Nature to get there. To see if he wouldn’t slay giants or dragons but work with them to find his way to the Chapel. And of course, there’s the idea of respect.

Art by Sean Counley,

When I first read this in high school, my first thought was that the GK wanted to teach Gawain, who scorned the pagan faith and feared “unholy” creatures, that holding respect for all creatures was a quality expected of a true knight, even if Arthur never taught such a thing. The scene that brings this idea to mind the most is when Gawain finally appears at the Green Chapel and realizes it’s not a chapel at all, but a chasm. A mossy, green chasm in the side of a mountain that belongs not to man but to the Otherworld. Gawain’s first reaction is that this place “belongs to Satan”. He says, “For certain, this is a soulless spot, a ghostly cathedral overgrown with grass, the kind of kirk where that camouflaged man might deal in devilment and all things dark. My five senses inform me that Satan himself has tricked me into this tryst, intending to destroy me. This is a haunted house –may it go to hell. I never came across a church so cursed.” And then, the GK starts to sharpen his axe. And Gawain can see nothing, only dark mossy shadows, as he hears the grinding of the axe’s blade on stone. It scares the bejesus out of him (and it did the same to me when I first read it…but I don’t blame the GK for purposely scaring him just a little after those comments.)

Art by GoblinHood on DeviantArt

Perhaps this was yet another failure of Gawain’s in the Green Knight’s opinion; the failure to recognize his chapel as a different sort of chapel and one that deserves the same amount of respect as a Christian one. Perhaps the green belt is also given to Gawain to take home in hopes of serving as a reminder that good and mercy and honor can also come from the Old Ways. (You would think Gawain would know that being from a pagan family. But he did have an evil witch for a mother and a poor excuse for a man for a father, and wacko brothers…so I guess I get it.) Perhaps this theory can even be supported by the fact that in many versions, Morgan le Fey reveals herself as the GK’s “wife”, and says that she, too, was using magic all along to disguise herself. What reason did she have to do such a thing unless she hoped for Gawain to find good in the Old Ways, too? As a witch/priestess and follower of pre-Christian faith, I’m sure she would have wanted to ensure that Arthur’s knights knew of the good that can come from pagan folk. Perhaps she knew all along that Gawain would be sent home with a blessing from the Green Knight.

Art by John Howe for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

ANYWAY, that was much longer of a rambling thought than I expected to write, but I just think all the multiple dimensions to this story are fascinating. I’m sure I missed some Christian parallels, or even some pagan ones, so if any come to mind for you, feel free to let me know in the comments! I’d love to know your thoughts.

All in all, there are several ways to look at this epic poem and I feel like each one is equally relevant and valid. It’s so much more complex than a simple adventure poem. Not to mention how beautiful and shimmering and visceral and dark the language can be. Simon Armitage’s translation is my favorite version, so if you ever end up reading it anytime soon, I highly recommend his verse! I think he captures not only the beauty and wretchedness of the story but the multifaceted views the story can take. I took away from his version that he allows you to view it from a Christian lens as well as a pagan. And that makes the story all the more rich, wild and inspirational. ❤

Published by arthuriananerd

Arthurian enthusiast, podcaster of "Of Swords and Magic". Writer, actor, tea-fanatic, kitchen witch. Instagram: @ofswordsandmagic.podcast or @lj_bertini

6 thoughts on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A thought on Christianity and Paganism

  1. Terrific ideas and contemplations on this story. I read it all with fascination. Thanks for including the artwork and their sources. Very classy.


    Liked by 1 person

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