The Opposition Of Nature And Culture In The Legend Of Sig Gawain


The proposed study deals with the relationships between the Welsh Celts and the English Christians. It is described in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight through the prism of symbolism of the opposition between nature and civilization. Through the researches of postcolonial and feministic discourse elements in the poem, it becomes clear as follows. The main conflict of the narrative is very difficult. It overcomes a plain opposition between the two struggling principles. The study of the narrative’s symbolism allows the following assumption. The green color and all elements of the story connected with the Green Knight and his land represent the Celtic cultural and legendary heritage the English Christians faced with in the medieval age. Thus, the main motif of the poem appears as a conflict of the Christian and Celtic cultures told through the prism of the former one’s representative. Through the analysis of both academic studies and the work’s text, it becomes clear as follows. The problematics of the poem is more difficult than the plain description of the opposition between nature and civilization. Therefore, the main point of the story appears as an offer of some way to compromise among these principles. In the same way, the poem tells about the parallels between the Celts and the Christians. It demonstrates an inability of the English Christianity to overcome either nature or paganism that preceded civilization and Christianity. Therefore, the legend of Sir Gawain proposes a way for two opposing worlds coexisting.

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The culture of ancient Celts flourished in the times that preceded the total Christianization of Western Europe. The conflict of pagan and Christian worlds provoked the elimination of a great range of cultural elements of the previous epoch. It could not coexist with the new worldview based on the belief in one God and His Church with the relevant morality and other details. That is the reason why most of sources revealing the peculiarities of Celtic myths and legends may be divided into two major groups. They include those ones remained despite of dominance of Christianity and the ones reinterpreted by Christian authors, in accordance with the new mentality. The first group includes the sources that belong mostly to the Welsh and Irish Celts still treating their customs and traditions and combining them with the Christianity. The focus of such texts and folktales is concentrated on the prehistoric times when the world of Celts only appeared. The pagan worldview is oriented on the eternal past of myths. Meanwhile Christianity concentrates its attention on the history pending for the Doomsday. Thus, in contrast to the first category, the legends reinterpreted by the Christians reflected a lot of events taking place during this reinterpretation. To such events, the clash of the Celtic paganism and Christianity belongs. In this context, Christianity is mostly associated with progress and civilization. Meanwhile paganism represents the obscurity of prehistoric nature that waited for the enlightening influence of Christianity. It brought to the pagan people (such as Celts) not only the Word of God, but as well the Roman and Greek cultures adapted to the needs of the new world religion. The legend of Sir Gawain that belongs to the Arthurian cycle and is well-known under the title Sir Gawain and the Green Knight serves as such example. The opposition between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight symbolically represents difficult and competing relationships between the Christian civilization and the Celtic pagan world. This conflict is based on the inseparableness of a pagan natural element (symbolized in the poem by green color) from the baptized Celtic lands.

Literature Review

At first, it is important to research and express the main features that allow  identifying the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a narrative with genuine Celtic elements. According to Elisabeth Alewine (1980), the symbolism of the work is based on the Celtic traditions. It operates with such undoubtedly Celtic motives and symbols as “the Other World journey, the battle-belt/lace, the pentangle/sun symbol, and the color green” (ii). The constant parallels of its plot with the Ulster Cycle bring Alewine to the following conclusion. There are definitely Celtic roots in the poem. In this way, the researcher considers that the text is an English interpretation of  traditional legends of the Welsh Celts (1980, ii).

Such authors as Arner and Lander underline the colonialist specifics of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For example, while analyzing the text, Arner concludes that pagan and uncivilized Wales demonstrated in it  needs both Christianity and civilization. Therefore, the legend justifies the English colonization of Wales. The Welsh Celts appear in the narrative as the incarnations of evil. Moreover, the final of the poem shows that the root of the problem was the remaining influence of the pagan culture personified by Morgan Le Fay. He, in fact, created the Green Knight and provoked all the events described. Arner claims:

as the models of ideology employed in British cultural studies attest, a text does not simply reflect the political climate in which it is composed but intervenes in the political terrain and participates in the production of the social formation.

Wales appears as an evil place. Therefore, the only one way to save it from the influence of bad powers (opposing to England and Christianity) is to colonize and civilize it in order to subdue any Celtic heritage by the Christian complex worldview. Such people as Lady Bertilak and other Welshes have to lose their Celtic identity in order to become good through the prism of English conquerors, as Arner considers.

Lander’s position is very different from that of Arner. The reason is that she supposes that the poem does not glorify or judge either England or the Welsh people as “the poem’s linguistic and rhetorical sophistication displaces any possibility of moral determinacy”. In this way, Lord Bertilak and other people of Hautdesert are not good or bad in comparison with the knights of King Arthur, but they are just different. The Welsh Celts, who live in a distance from the civilization and still follow their pagan religion, need to elaborate their own approach to life in contrast to the English Christians. They have to follow their unchangeable moral code. In fact, Lander tries to show the difference between the people of Lord Bertilak (the Welsh Celts) and the individuals of King Arthur (the English Christians). It looks  as the opposition between dynamic and stable moral codes. Lander considers that “the inhabitants of Hautdesert can be seen to have a moral agency of their own, which animates their intelligent and ironic deconstruction of Camelot’s chivalric codes and of the rhetoric of medieval romance” (2007, 41). In this way, she tries to see Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as the text, which indirectly protects the positive image of the Celts.

Another interesting approach based on emphasizing of oppositions as well as the postcolonial one is a feministic concept. It is important that while the postcolonial researches interpret texts through the prism of struggle among states or cultures, the feministic one deals with the contrast between genders. At the same time, through the postcolonial point of view, the Celts represent the natural world civilized by aggressive Christians. Females play the same role in a feminist masculine discourse where males display rationality and civilization. Thus, the feministic approach may help to explain some aspects of the opposition between the Celts and the English Christians. Among the most profound researchers is Geraldine Heng, who claims that the poem actually glorifies women. The reason is that the most powerful characters are represented by females (such as Lady Bertilak seducing Gawain and Morgan Le Fay creating the Green Knight). Thus, she underlines that “the founding fiction of the poem turns on the inexplicable design of a woman, the infamous Morgan Le Fay” (Heng 1991, 501). In this way, Morgan Le Fay appears as the character being the closest one to the poem’s author (Heng 1991, 501). In Mill’s interpretation, the males from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appear as weak creatures contrasted to the females whose power is unlimited (Mills 1970, 636). It can be noted that both characters (i.e. Gawain and the Green Knight) were conquered by the will of central female characters. This detail is important because females mostly displaying nature and conquered cultures in colonial and masculine discourses of chauvinism appear in this text as the dominant characters. They dominate in their relationships with Gawain showing England and Christianity and Bertilak being a male ruler of the lands in Wales.

In this way, the researchers have different opinions concerning the poem. However, their main point lies in identifying of opposition as a main drive of the narrative. All the features of the text are based on the interrelations between such opposing principles as feminine and masculine genders, Christianity and Celtic paganism, England and Wales, and so on. At the same time, it is clear that none principle can totally win its opponent. Thus, the understanding of the poem’s main conflict through the prism of a constant struggle between two opposing principles is correct. The reason is that most of the scholars share this position.


The Specifics of the Poem’s Conflict

While examining the text, it seems that the main motif of the poem is a conflict between two principles represented by the Christian world of Sir Gawain and the pagan uncivilized lands of Lord Bertilak. Besides, it is important to underline that the contrast of the story is much more difficult than a simple opposition. For example, it is possible to contrast King Arthur’s and Lord Bertilak’s Halls to the forests the Green Knight appears from. In this way, it displays a contrast between civilization and wild nature. However, it is clear that every hall is a result of the natural transformation provided by people in order to satisfy social needs. The relationships between civilization and nature represented by this example are as difficult as those between the opposing principles of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Using the same metaphor, it is possible to show the following thing. Both Halls paradoxically belong to the world of nature as they are surrounded by forests. That is the reason why the savage Green Knight meets no obstacles on his way to King Arthur’s Hall. In the case of plain interpretation through the prism of opposition, the pagan knight could not enter the Christian King’s Hall and demonstrate his power there, especially on Christmas. The Celtic heritage is displayed by nature and the green color (as mentioned before). Therefore, one of the main hidden motives of the poem is the constant participation of the Celtic culture in the Christian societies based on the Celtic transformations.

The Green Knight’s Symbolism

The most illustrative character representing the Celts in the poem is the Green Knight. It is important to underline that Lord Bertilak became this hero unwillingly because of Morgan Le Fay’s witchcraft. In this way, these both characters should be treated as different ones. The Green Knight is a Christian interpretation of spirit of Celtic culture. First, he is “completely emerald green” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 1992, line 150). This passage means his close connection with the Celts. His power is proportional to Gawain’s weakness related to nature. Therefore, the Green Knight displays natural surroundings. At the same time, he is not a savage, but a knight. This detail is so important that the knight’s title always follows his name. Furthermore, the Green Knight, despite his close connection with nature, does not live just in the forest but in the Green Chapel. In this way, the poem demonstrates some parallelism between the world of nature (the Welsh Celts) and the civilization (the English Christians). The work is using the character that belongs to the Celts, but lives as the knight similar to King Arthur’s ones. Both details mentioned make the Green Knight a rather complicated character. The main motif of the poem is not just the description of two opposing principles but the advice of a compromise.

Green Color as a Celtic Element

The motif of the green color is also important in relation to the poem’s feminine characters. Lady Bertilak (the wife of the Welsh lord) attempted to seduce Sir Gawain who speaks about Adam, Samson, and David cheated by women in the Bible. Then the hero claims: “since these were ruined by their wiles, it would be a great gain to love women and not trust them, if a man knew how” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 1992, lines 2420-2421). This passage demonstrates that Gawain seeks for a compromise between males and females, but cannot find it. It is also important that the green sash of Lady Bertilak symbolizes the weakness of Sir Gawain and his defeat in struggle against his nature. He wears it because cannot withstand Lady Bertilak’s efforts. This sash has become the reason of his weakness in a struggle with the Green Knight. Therefore, it represents the natural element of every person (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 1992, lines 2420-2421). At the same time, according to the researches, the green sash also serves as a symbol of theinseparable Celtic heritage of Wales and England. It is clear through the poem’s final when all Knights of the Round Table decide to wear the same belt to underline their imperfect essences. I In other words, they are not totally Christians but also Celts a little bit.


The main conflict of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight involves the pagan Celts who lived in Wales and the Christians from England. The Celtic culture demonstrated in the poem is compared with the Christian one. The author provides many parallels. Thus, instead of the plain opposition between the radical nature of pagans and the radical civilization of Christians, it is relevant to understand the following thing. The poem seeks for a compromise between two closely interrelated worlds. The work ends with the acceptance by the Knights of King Arthur that each of them has some connection with the Celtic world represented by the green sashes they started to wear. In this way, the poem demonstrates the opposition between nature and civilization as a result of the unreasonable conflict between two conflicting parties that should accept each other.

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