The Green Knight Code

Well, I finished re-reading The Da Vinci Code. Then I drank some beer in an attempt to kill the brain cells where awareness of it is stored, but that failed. Then I read a well-written mystery novel and had a nap, and now I feel a little better.

From the moment of its publication, people have been writing refutations of the “facts” presented in the book, so, at least for the moment, I will confine my comments to the general category of “random stuff that irritated me.” Today’s topic is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), an Arthurian romance from the fourteenth century and one of the glories of the so-called Alliterative Revival (I say “so-called” because it was really more of a survival than a revival). Brown mentions SGGK twice. Both mentions are brief, but annoying.

I’ll deal with the second reference first. In the exciting and suspenseful database-search scene (chapter 95), a computer, having been fed the search terms “knight,” “London,” “Pope” and “tomb” within a 100-word proximity of the terms “grail,” “rose,” “sangreal” or “chalice” (p. 381), spits out the title, “Grail Allegory in Medieval Literature: A Treatise on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” As far as the plot is concerned, this result is irrelevant–“Not many mythological green giants buried in London,” as the librarian says (389)–so one has to assume it’s an attempt by the author to tie SGGK to the grail/bloodline of Jesus/sacred feminine fantasy he’s been weaving.

There’s something a bit odd about the title though. Certainly, the poem can be read as an allegory (of the Christian variety),and like many medieval grail stories, it is a quest romance. But it is not a grail romance. There’s no grail: the word isn’t even mentioned. Granted, it is one of the premises of The Da Vinci Code that references to Mary Magdalene and her descendants had to be hidden in allegory (or “symbology”), but it must be hidden very well indeed in SGGK. Not only is there no mention of Mary Magdalene or her bloodline, there is no reference to the grail which symbolizes the bloodline. If the grail exists in the poem at all, it is through allegory. So something (I have no idea what) represents the grail allegorically, and the grail allegorically represents Mary’s womb. The Gawain-poet was one sneaky, clever dude.

In the first reference to SGGK, Brown makes the connection between the poem and Mary Magdalene even more explicit.  Langdon tells Sophie,

“The Grail story is everywhere, but it is hidden. When the Church outlawed speaking of the shunned Mary Magdalene, her story and importance had to be passed on through more discreet channels…channels that supported metaphor and symbolism.” [ellipsis in original]

“Of course. The arts.”

“….Some of today’s most enduring art, literature, and music secretly tell the history of Mary Magdalene and Jesus.”

Langdon quickly told her about works by Da Vinci, Botticelli, Poussin, Bernini, Mozart, and Victor Hugo that all whispered of the quest to restore the banished sacred feminine. Enduring legends like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur, and Sleeping Beauty were Grail allegories….(p. 281)

So SGGK definitely has something to do with the grail, Mary and Jesus and the sacred feminine. It’s hard to see what, though. Let’s take a look at the sacred feminine’s representatives in the poem. There’s Morgan le Fay. In some modern Arthurian tales, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Morgan is presented in a favorable light. SGGK, however, is not a modern tale. When she first appears, she is described as old and unattractive: her eyes are bleary, her skin wrinkled, her chin black, her body short and thick and her buttocks swollen and broad (ll. 947-969). When her identity is revealed, she is called a “goddess,” (l. 2452), but she seems more like a typical sorceress. She has transformed an ordinary knight into the Green Knight and sent him to Arthur’s court in order to frighten Guinevere, hopefully to death.

The other prominent woman in the poem is the wife of the Green Knight (or Sir Bertilak as he’s known when not enchanted). On her husband’s orders (and according to Morgan’s plans, presumably) she visits Gawain in his room on three successive mornings and attempts to seduce him. When the seduction fails, she tempts him to accept a green girdle which will supposedly protect him from harm. Gawain and Bertilak have agreed to exchange whatever they acquire during Gawain’s stay (Bertilak spends each day out hunting a different animal). Gawain fails to give the girdle to Bertilak. As a punishment for this minor failing, the Green Knight gives Gawain a slight nick with his axe (rather than beheading him or seriously injuring him as he would have done if Gawain had succumbed to the seduction).

It’s not really looking very good for the sacred feminine–one hag and one seductress. Gawain’s speech in which he gives examples of men who have been brought to sorrow through the wiles of women doesn’t help the case much either (he mentions Adam, Solomon, Samson and David). He concludes that men would be better off if they could love women well, but not believe them (ll. 2407-2428).

To be fair though, there is one unambiguously positive female in SGGK. And her name is Mary. And she is associated with the pentagram, which, as all readers of The Da Vinci Code know, represents Venus and the sacred feminine. Gawain bears a pentangle on his shield. He wears the pentangle because, as an endless knot, it represents the perfection he aspires to as a knight. The five points also have symbolic significance. Gawain is said to be faultless in his five senses; he never fails with his five fingers; he puts his trust in the five wounds of Christ; in battle, he receives strength from contemplating the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in her son; he has five virtues (generosity, fellowship, purity, courtesy and pity). He is so devoted to the Virgin Mary that he has her picture painted on the inside of his shield (ll. 619-670).

So, there you go: SGGK does encourage devotion to Mary. Wait, that’s the wrong Mary, isn’t it? As with his references to the Holy Grail and the bloodline of Jesus, the Gawain-poet kept his theological unorthodoxy very well hidden indeed.



Andrew, Malcom and Ronald Waldron, eds. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Rev. ed. Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies. Exeter: U of Exeter Press, 1987. My apologies to Ronald Waldron, whose name got cut off the scan above.

Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. New York: Anchor-Random, 2003.

10 Responses to The Green Knight Code

  1. L.Long says:

    The only thing I found strange with the Da Vinci Code is the fuss that the xtians made over it.
    What is so hard to grasp?
    It is a FICTIONAL NOVEL using known sub-plots to make a controversial treasure hunt story. Of course most of the story is BS because the sub-plot material is BS.
    The best part of the novel was the reaction of the xtians! They were hilarious in their carrying on about the ‘miss-use’ of their myth!

    • Eve says:

      It is, of course, a novel, but he does begin with what he claims is a statement of “FACT” in which he claims that the Priory of Sion is real and was founded in 1099 and that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” He’s also tried to have it both ways on his website and in interviews, repeating that he did oodles of research and that the background information is true, then backtracking to “it’s just a novel” when his numerous inaccuracies are pointed out.

      I admit one of the things that really annoyed me about the book was that it forced me to mentally defend Christianity and Roman Catholicism when he misrepresented them (I’ll probably cover this in more detail in another post). For instance, in the quote above, he says that the Church outlawed mention of Mary Magdalene. It’s true they misrepresented her and identified her wrongly as a whore, but, as far as I know, she was always a popular (and officially recognized and sanctioned) saint. As a repentant sinner, she was a more relatable saint than the super-perfect Virgin Mary, for instance.

      However, when it comes to Brown (or Baigent et al.) against fire-and-brimstone Christians, I have real difficulty choosing sides. In addition, as far as I’m concerned, misrepresenting Christianity and Catholicism is a far more trivial sin than misrepresenting medieval literature. Or making Shakespeare a mason when freemasonry hadn’t been invented yet.

  2. Pacal says:

    I have always loved Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, mainly for the wonderful character of the Green Knight. The Character has so many folkloric / pagan elements in him and further the character seems to both represent life and death. Green can be associated with death as in a green corpse and yet green is also, obviously, associated with fertility and life. I further rather liked the placement of the Green Knight as in some way a demon trapped between heaven and hell. Not evil but not quite good.

    In my opinion the best scene is the Green Knight showing up at King Arthur’s court and doing some real crazy shit at the beggining of the work. It would be a great scene to film, assuming it hasn’t been filmed already.

    AS for The Da-Vinci Code; what a piece of tripe. It was throughly boring and badly written. THe history in it was a tissue of nonsense. Also yes it had me defending both Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church, from its numerous falsifications / errors.

    Oh and I agree Brown wants it both ways regarding the “facts” in his novel.

    I also thought that the scene in which an “Historian” gives a capsule histoty of Christianity in the movie version of the novel was one huge case of fail. The distortions and out and out lies were legion.

    The ending (book and novel) was particularily silly if Jesus had descendents in the present day they would number in the millions.

    • Eve says:

      There’s a movie version called Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, starring Sean Connery as the Green Knight. I saw a small part of it once (as much as I could stomach). As I recall the Green Knight was…sparkly, like a crappy vampire. Oh, and Miles O’Keeffe is Sir Gawain (“How much O’Keeffe?” “Miles O’Keeffe”). There are also characters named Fortinbras and Oswald, leading me to wonder if Sir Gawain meanders through Hamlet before making it to Bertilak’s castle.

      One of my favorite bits about the poem is that the poet spends the better part of a stanza (and the stanzas are of unequal length but generally fairly long) trying to describe just how big the GK is before dropping in the fact that he’s green in last line of the bob and wheel (the short rhymed lines at the end of each stanza–ll. 130-150).

      • Pacal says:

        Your right that is a cool bit of writing, esspecially since writer is so wonderfully unsure about how big the Green Knight is. Given that the Green Knight is supernatural / demonic that makes “sense”.

        It is pity that in the work Sir Gawain is just such a bore, in my opinion, compared to the Green Knight. I just found Sir Gawain such a one dimensional cipher. I found the same thing in so many of these Medieval Grail / Arthurian tales. The “good” “virtous” guys, like Sir Percival and several others are such bores. Give me a villian or a seriously flawed hero, like Arthur or Sir Lancelot in those tales over the “truly good” in those tales any day. They remind me of those truly annoying kids in certain movies, (You know the mop topped “cute” ingenu.); those living arguements for infanticide.

        In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, there were places where I wanted to drop Sir Gawain off a cliff. I guess attitudes about what a Hero should be liked have changed.

  3. Eve says:

    Villains are always more fun than heroes, not that the GK is a villain exactly. Gawain doesn’t bother me that much. The poet has some fun with his reputation for being perfectly chivalrous and virtuous. When he arrives at Bertilak’s court, everyone says, “Ooooh, Sir Gawain! Now we’ll really learn about courtesy and chivalry!” And, when he’s being seduced by a woman he has the hots for, not only does he have to avoid the seduction, he also has to do it politely.

    And, of course, he’s not quite perfect: he takes the girdle and keeps it a secret. He also flinches the first time the GK pretends to drop the axe. His flaw is minor, and no one takes it seriously except Gawain. Despite his brief anti-feminist rant where he says basically, “Lots of other men have fallen victim to feminine wiles, so I really shouldn’t be blamed,” he’s filled with self-blame at the end of the poem.

    Galahad, especially as portrayed by Malory, is the Arthurian character that I find irredeemably insufferable.

  4. Pacal says:

    I agree with you about Sir Galahad in Malory. What a annoying, cloying abomination that character is. While reading Malory describing Sir Galahad’s “virtous” doings I kept thinking about inserting this comment from Monty Python and the Holy Grail; “And then the oral sex!”.

  5. Ken says:

    “Not many mythological green giants buried in London,” as the librarian says (389)

    I just realized how much Dan Brown’s books remind me of the Riddler’s appearances in the Batman TV series. Either Brown or Batman could easily run with the above.

    “Green – that could mean a park.”

    “But which park? London has hundreds.”

    “Yes, but the giant is buried – or hidden!”

    “Holy symbology, Robert! Hyde Park

    “Exactly, chum. And mythological must mean that our next clue is hidden in the entablature of the Grand Entrance, designed in the Greek style by Decimus Burton and John Henning Junior!”

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    […]The Green Knight Code « Skeptical Humanities[…]…

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