Posted by: Jon | 10/12/2009

Ways of Seeing: Gawain and the Green Man

Once upon a time, in the ancient Halls of Chivalry, there served a young and valiant knight named Gawain. He lived in the Lands of Nature and undertook Heroic Quests and Deeds on behalf of other people less fortunate than himself. (Mostly this entailed rescuing damsels in distress and slaying dragons that were roaming around terrorising people). 

Anyway, to cut a long story short, it turned out that some of the less fortunate people had better luck in their lives once the dragons had been slain and they became more greedy.  Gawain, (who was very Trusting as well as Valiant), tended to believe them when they told him there were other dreadful creatures in the Lands of Nature that still needed taking out. (When what he didn’t realise was that the greedy people were helping themselves all the time).

So while Gawain was away in the forest sorting out the other dreadful creatures, the greedy people privatised the Halls of Chivalry and threw Decadent Parties with the rescued damsels (who turned out to be not so Innocent after all). They gave the Halls a makeover, removing the old sign from above the door and installing a new one with Halls of FUNN written up in big illuminated letters. When Gawain returned with the last of the boars and the dodos they’d requested for their next Big Event, understandably he felt a bit put out. But the greedy people reassured him it was only an acronym, Functional Understanding was Not Necessary, and just to get on with the Chivalrous Jobs they’d left for him to do. Meanwhile, they made arrangements for the poor people to fence off all the new lands Gawain had vanquished for them, and went back to enjoying their Degenerate Ways.


One fine Feasting Day, the purpose of which was no longer clear (because there were so many nowadays), Gawain was sitting at his table in the corner by the Gents (because they’d thrown out the old round one for more modern arrangements). He was nursing a bit of a tension headache (because it was very noisy and he felt left out on the fringe of things), when suddenly, at Five to Midnight, the doors flew open and in strode a Fearsome Giant dressed from head to toe in green combat gear and camouflage face paint. (At least, that’s what Gawain thought until he looked more closely and saw it was his natural terrifying appearance).

The greedy people all froze in the middle of whatever they were doing, (the details of which you’ll find in the unexpurgated version), and the DJ turned off the music (if you could call it that). The Green Man announced in a Thunderous Voice that he was the Lord of Nature. He roared out that the neighbours had been complaining of the noise (without seeming to appreciate the irony of it), and he was fed up with having his Lands Desecrated. He wanted to know who was responsible. The greedy people and their damsels quickly adjusted their expressions (to appear more demure) and pointed sternly to where Gawain was sitting quietly in the corner.

The Green Man turned his piercing gaze to the table behind the pillar and fixed Gawain with a Frightful Glare. “You!” he bellowed. “I’ve seen you sneaking about my forest reading your poems out loud and picking my endangered bluebells and other species! Don’t think I haven’t noticed your so-called Noble Undertakings and your Heroic Conquests of Nature. You think you know better than me, do you? We’ll see about that!”

Gawain felt quite affronted because he’d actually been Riding Out Quite Boldly at the time and he never Sneaked About anywhere. And after a bit of wrestling with his conscience (and some egging-on by the greedy people), it finished up that he accepted the Green Man’s challenge to have a bash at cutting off his head. The deal went something like this. If the Green Man survived, he would take a turn at Gawain’s head the same time next year. (The idea being of course to give Gawain opportunity to mend his Errant Manners). So Gawain took hold of the axe the Green Man had thoughtfully brought along for him and, with one mighty blow, smote off his head, (although still a bit reluctantly because instinct told him there was something suspect about the whole Valiant Deed). Then the Green Man picked up his head from where it rolled onto the dance floor and muttered ominously from somewhere near his elbow, “See you next year, pal” and Gawain made a note in his diary.

After that, Gawain stopped going on so many Noble Quests for the Greedy People (in Capitals themselves now because they’d become better established and recovered their Pride and Conceit again). He mooched about thinking things over in the forest and had an accidental (but honourable) love affair which he ended after he discovered that she was someone else’s less than honourable wife. (Although they hadn’t gone all the way – he’d only read her Romantic Poetry and given her an occasional peck on the cheek. Definitely no tongues or anything like that.)

And when the year was over, after one or two delays with the wrong kind of tangled thickets and a few more Ordeals with troublesome monsters, he showed up for his appointment, slightly dishevelled but nonetheless on time. He was surprised when the Green Man greeted him kindly and told him that he’d passed the Test of Virtue (because it turned out the Dishonourable Lady had actually been the Green Man’s wife all the time). The Green Man was very sorry he had to go through with this palaver, but he needed to encourage the others and he’d always believed that when it came to it Gawain would Acquit Himself Well.

So Gawain laid his head upon the block and the Green Man tested the axe blade with his fingers. He took a couple of practice swings and Gawain felt the sharp edge come to rest gently on his neck. (For some reason, it brought to mind the guillotines that sliced the fingers off the little girls who made the bargain party frocks he’d brought back for the damsels on his Quests. He remembered too late how he’d meant to shut that monster down, but that’s quite another story). Then the Green Man let out a terrifying roar and Gawain screwed his eyes up tight as the blade whistled down through the air – to remove a nick of flesh right next to the jugular. Oh, please, no more rehearsals, thought Gawain to himself. But the Green Man said that was it, all over, and he’d been a very brave boy. And now he wanted him to go back to the Greedy People and show them the scar and explain about it to them so they would stop messing with his Lands.

Gawain thanked him politely for the valuable lesson and went back to outline the probabilities to the Greedy People. Unfortunately, they’d arranged for new technology to do his old job whilst he’d been away and, between organising that and their all-night raves, they didn’t have much time for him now and it all ended a bit inconclusively. Although Gawain did his best, eventually they made him retire from his New Mission (because they’d spotted a gap for a Chivalrous Heritage Visitor Centre) and he died a sad and lonely old man. Of course, they all breathed a sigh of relief that they could forget about him and his silly old war stories about what he’d done for them on his make-believe escapades. Now they could get started properly on their latest scheme to replace the Lord of Nature with a new robotic version. And they all carried on with their usual smug intentions to live happily ever after.

(From ‘Silent Memoir’)


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