Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Boar Hunt

At this time of year, I always think about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because the tale opens and closes with references to Christmastide. It also features a boar hunt, the second of three hunts that Sir Gawain’s host at Haut Desart, Sir Bertilak engages in while, back at the castle, Sir Gawain is pursued by the lady of Haut Desart.

Livre de la chasse
France, Paris, ca. 1406–1407
Morgan Library MS M.1044 fol. 64r

This image from The Morgan Library’s ms. of Gaston Phoebus’ Le Livre de la chasse/The Book of the Hunt (MS M. 1044 (fol. 64r) shows that the lymerer and his lymer, the huntsman with a dog who flushes the boar into the open, have forced the boar into the open.The boar, exhausted by the hounds, is attempting to flee, but one noble hunter (notice the clothing and the horses) has a spear at the ready, another a sword, and there’s also a standing hunter ready with a crossbow.

It’s quite similar in many respects to the boar hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The boar hunt takes place on the 30th of December, and starts about line 1412.

Schalkez to schote at hym schowen to þenne,
Haled to hym of her arewez, hitten hym oft;
Bot þe poyntez payred at þe pyþ þat pyȝt in his scheldez,
And þe barbez of his browe bite non wolde—
Þaȝ þe schauen schaft schyndered in pecez,
Þe hede hypped aȝayn were-so-euer hit hitte.
Bot quen þe dynteȝ hym dered of her dryȝe strokez,
Þen, braynwod for bate, on burnez he rasez,
Hurtez hem ful heterly þer he forþ hyȝez,
And mony arȝed þerat, and on lyte droȝen.
Bot þe lorde on a lyȝt horce launces hym after,
As burne bolde vpon bent his bugle he blowez,
He rechated, and rode þurȝ ronez ful þyk,
Suande þis wylde swyn til þe sunne schafted.
Þis day wyþ þis ilk dede þay dryuen on þis wyse,
Whyle oure luflych lede lys in his bedde,
Gawayn grayþely at home, in gerez ful ryche

of hewe (ll. 1454–1471).

Here’s Jesse Weston’s prose translation:

Then the men made ready their arrows and shot at him, but the points were turned on his thick hide, and the barbs would not bite upon him, for the shafts shivered in pieces, and the head but leapt again wherever it hit.

But when the boar felt the stroke of the arrows he waxed mad with rage, and turned on the hunters and tore many, so that, affrighted, they fled before him. But the lord on a swift steed pursued him, blowing his bugle; as a gallant knight he rode through the woodland chasing the boar till the sun grew low.

So did the hunters this day, while Sir Gawain lay in his bed lapped in rich gear.

In the case of SGGK, after spending all day chasing the boar, the boar makes for a hole, by a mound and a large rock, where he turns and faces the hunters and dogs who are on foot, across a stream from him.

Til þe knyȝt com hymself, kachande his blonk,
Syȝ hym byde at þe bay, his burnez bysyde;
He lyȝtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour,
Braydez out a bryȝt bront and bigly forþ strydez,
Foundez fast þurȝ þe forþ þer þe felle bydez.
Þe wylde watz war of þe wyȝe wiþ weppen in honde,
Hef hyȝly þe here, so hetterly he fnast
Þat fele ferde for þe freke, lest felle hym þe worre.
Þe swyn settez hym out on þe segge euen,
Þat þe burne and þe bor were boþe vpon hepeȝ
In þe wyȝtest of þe water; þe worre hade þat oþer,
For þe mon merkkez hym wel, as þay mette fyrst,
Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen,
Hit hym vp to þe hult, þat þe hert schyndered,
And he ȝarrande hym ȝelde, and ȝedoun þe water

ful tyt (ll. 1581–96).

The lord rides up, dismounts, wades into the stream, with his sword, and stabs the boar, in the chest and through the heart with his sword (thus providing a porcine instance of the Celtic motif of death at the ford).

The Labors of December

We often think of December as the entry to winter and to Christmas. In the middle ages, typically, winter featured much more dramatically than Christmas. The calendar pages in Books of Hours for December most often feature an image of hog butchering, a boar roast, or a boar hunt (sometimes they feature an image of St. John boiling in oil, or the baking of bread) as December labors of the month.

showing a boar being butchered

Morgan library MS M.399, f. 13v Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1515

This wintery scene on the right of hog-butchering is the work of Simon Bening, from the Da Costa Hours (Belgium, Bruges, c. 1515) now in The Morgan Library. (MS M.399, f. 13v). You’ll notice that the landscape is snowy. The people are also dressed much more warmly. They appear to be bleeding out the hog. The boar was an important food source, though largely for the wealthy, especially the domesticated boar. While the head was regarded as a trophy, nothing was wasted, and all was used.

There’s a famous depiction of a boar hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and a ceremonial feast after, featuring the boar, and of course there’s the still popular medieval Christmas “The Boar’s Head Carol” about the Christmas tide feast featuring the boar’s head as the ceremonial center piece, carried into the hall in a triumphant procession.



Nowel nayted onewe

60. Wyle Nw Ȝer watz so ȝep þat hit watz nwe cummen,

61. Þat day doubble on þe dece watz þe douþ serued.

62. Fro þe kyng watz cummen wiþ knyȝtes into þe halle,

63. Þe chauntre of þe chapel cheued to an ende,

64. Loude crye watz þer kest of clerkez and oþer,

65. Nowel nayted onewe, neuened ful ofte;

66. And syþen riche forþ runnen to reche hondeselle,

67. Ȝeȝed ȝeres-ȝiftes on hiȝ, ȝelde hem bi hond,

68. Debated busyly aboute þo giftes;

69. Ladies laȝed ful loude, þoȝ þay lost haden,

70. And he þat wan watz not wroþe, þat may ȝe wel trawe.

71. Alle þis mirþe þay maden to þe mete tyme;

This is the New Year’s day passage from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It features a mass, and then knights and others entering the hall, and there’s an exchange of gifts, including hondeselle, which most editors suggest refers to the “Christmas boxes” from lords and knights to their subordinates, and then the ȝeres-ȝiftes, the gifts exchanged between equals. There appears to be some sort of a guessing game, along the lines of “handy-dandy, prickly-prandy” involved, wherein the ladies attempt to guess the nature of the gifts, and pay a forfeit in the form of a kiss, given the “Ladies laȝed ful loude, þoȝ þay lost haden, / And he þat wan watz not wroþe, þat may ȝe wel trawe ” reference.

Happy New Year, one and all; may 2011 be full of warmth and goodness and safety for you and yours.

Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse


37. Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse
38. Wiþ mony luflych lorde, ledeȝ of þe best,
39. Rekenly of þe Rounde Table alle þo rich breþer,

40. Wiþ rych reuel oryȝt and rechles merþes.
41. Þer tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony,
42. Justed ful jolile þise gentyle kniȝtes,
43. Syþen kayred to þe court caroles to make.

44. For þer þe fest watz ilyche ful fiften dayes,
45. Wiþ alle þe mete and þe mirþe þat men couþe avyse;
46. Such glaum ande gle glorious to here,
47. Dere dyn vpon day, daunsyng on nyȝtes,

48. Al watz hap vpon heȝe in hallez and chambrez
49. Wiþ lordeȝ and ladies, as leuest him þoȝt.
50. Wiþ all þe wele of þe worlde þay woned þer samen,

51. Þe most kyd knyȝtez vnder Krystes seluen,
52. And þe louelokkest ladies þat euer lif haden,
53. And he þe comlokest kyng þat þe court haldes;
54. For al watz þis fayre folk in her first age,

55. on sille,

56. Þe hapnest vnder heuen,
57. Kyng hyȝest mon of wylle;
58. Hit were now gret nye to neuen
59. So hardy a here on hille.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Medieval Fairies as Other

MacAllister Stone has been posting a series about the roles of the other in spec fic. You can find Part I Magical Negroes, expendable queers, and other well-worn tropes here, Part II here, and Part III, or, The Magical Other here. Part IV is likely to appear some day in the future, but I wanted to pick up on two observations MacAllister makes that particularly intrigued me because they deal with the role of fairies as the other in medieval literature. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot.

First, MacAllister defines Other as

a term to describe the phenomenon of the outsider, particularly in fiction, who represents some kind of threat to the community—but often, also serves as the agent for the community’s salvation/redemption.

The best example of medieval fairy other I know of is the c. 1400 Middle English anonymous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight rides into King Arthur’s hall on New Year’s day, while the court is at table. He rides a horse that, while elaborately caprisoned and saddled, is entirely green, as is the equally expensively garbed and very large knight. The knight has green hair, green skin, and green clothes, bears a giant axe in one hand, and a holly bob in the other, and is shockingly uncanny, and other.

Indeed, the courtiers recognize the Green Knight for what he is, immediately:

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene
He ferde as freke were fade (ll. 147-49).

[Cawley translates line as 149 “He behaved like an elvish man” (Everyman 1962, 56). Vantuono has “He acted like an elvish knight” (12 l. 149). Tolkien’s translation reads “as a fay-man fell he passed” (1982, 23). Garbáty glosses “were fade” as “were fey”-“He fared as man (that) were fey” (Garbáty 1984, p. 260).]

The courtiers identify the Green Knight, quite correctly, as an otherworld intruder, clued in to his origins in part by his color. Keep in mind that other than being large and very green, the Green Knight is in no way monstrous; he is in fact quite a handsome figure. Having identified the intruder as what Professor Carnicelli called “a big green fairy,” they then begin to contemplate the meaning of his arrival “For vch mon had meruayle quat hit mene myȝt / Þat a haþel and a horse myȝt such a hwe lach, / As growe grene as þe gres” (ll. 233-35).

Al studied þat þer stod, and stalked hym nerre
Wyþ al þe wonder of þe worlde what he worch schulde.
For fele sellyez had þay sen, bot such neuer are;
Forþi for fantoum and fayryȝ e þe folk þere hit demed (SGGK ll. 232-240).

To the courtiers and serving folk, waiting in the hall, the Green Knight is not just clearly other, he’s fairy other. They’re not an unsophisticated audience, either; they’ve seen other sellys, other marvels, but he is very very different, and quite clearly a magical creature; “for fantoum and fayryȝ e þe folk þere hit demed” (SGGK l. 240).

Britiish Library MS. Cotton Nero A. x, fol.90v. Used with permission

They are cautious and silent, wary of risking the dangers of speech with something so different. Consequently, they’re not terribly surprised when the Green Knight issues his bizarre challenge and invites any of the knights to take the axe he carries and strike off his head, in return for the promise to allow the Green Knight to return the favor a year and a day later. Nonetheless, when Gawain takes him up on the challenge, and the Green Knight picks up his severed head where the courtiers have been kicking it around under the table, and rides off, they’re pretty sure that Gawain is for it when he has his rendezvous to receive the Green Knight’s return blow in a year and a day at the mysterious Green Chapel. The court watches on All Souls Day the following November 1 as Gawain departs in search of the Green Knight and the Green Chapel. They lament that Gawain is to be “Hadet wyþ an aluisch mon, for angardez pryde” (l. 681 ).

The courtiers have good reason to assume the worse; not only because the Green Knight can happily survive decapitation, but because, well, he’s a fairy. Fairies and otherworld folk in general are dangerous in the extreme, prone to kidnap mortals simply because the mortals were in the wrong place at the right time, like Hereudis in Sir Orfeo. She falls asleep under an ympe tree, a grafted fruit tree, in her own orchard around noon, and sees the fairy king and his knights. The king tells her:

“Loke, dame, tomorwe þatow be
Riȝt here vnder þis ympe-tre,
& þan þou schalt wiþ ous go
& liue wiþ ous euermo;
& ȝif þou makest ous ylet,
Whar þou be, þou worst yfet,
& totore þine limes al {f.300vb}
Þat noþing help þe no schal;
& þei þou best so totorn
Ȝete þou worst wiþ ous yborn” (Sir Orfeo ll. 165-74).

Notice that the king explicitly threatens her; if she does not make the assigned rendezvous, and go with the king to the fairy otherworld, she’s to be torn limb from and still be taken by the fairies. Despite the best efforts of Orfeo, and his hundred knights, the next day Heurodis is taken from them by the fairies. Despondent, Orfeo resigns his crown, turning his reign over to his steward, and exiles himself as a wanderer with a harp in the wilderness. In his exile he manages to see the fairies engaged in fairy pursuits, including a group of women hawking, with Heurodis a silent member of the party. He follows them “in at a roche,” into the otherworld. There, in the otherworld, he sees a chamber of horrors, filled with other mortals taken by the fairies.

. . . Of folk þat were þider ybrouȝt
& þouȝt dede, & nare nouȝt.
Sum stode wiþouten hade {f.302ra}
& sum non armes nade
. . .
& sum lay wode, ybounde,
& sum armed on hors sete
& sum astrangled as þai ete
& sum were in water adreynt
. . .
Wiues þer lay on childbedde,
Sum ded, & sum awedde;
& wonder fele þer lay bisides
Riȝt as þai slepe her vndertides.
Eche was þus in þis warld ynome,
Wiþ fairi þider ycome.
(ll. 389-92; 94-97; 99-404).

These are mortals taken in various liminal states. They were not quite dead, nor quite alive, not quite sactified, not quite unfit. These are explicitly, despite the assertions of some, not dead people; they are, the poet tells us, “folk þat were þider ybrouȝt / & þouȝt dede, & nare nouȝt” (ll. 389-90). They are maimed, and wounded, headless, armless, some bound and mad, some armed on horseback, some strangled, some drowned, or burned. There are examples of special liminal cases, too, like wives taken in childbed, as well as those, like Heurodis, taken as they slept in the heat of the day.

Keep in mind that these fairies are the same fairies that, when Heurodis first sees them,

“Al on snowe-white stedes;
As white as milke were her wedes,
Y no seiȝe neuer ȝete bifore
So fair creatours ycore (ll. 145-48).

The fairies who abduct Heurodis are no more monstrous than the Green Knight is, yet they still threaten Heurodis, and take mortals at will. Indeed, their strikingly beautiful appearance marks them as other just as much as the Green Knight’s color does. The actions of the fairies, however motivated, or rule-based they may be, appear arbitrary and unmotivated to the mortals of the communities where the fairies intrude. Fairies are capricious, unknowable, and, given the threats made to Heurodis, and the Green Knight’s ability to suffer decapitation in good cheer, quite possibly malicious in intent. Certainly they are “other,” with all its connotations of dangerous, incomprehensible, and alien. Both the fairies who kidnap Heurodis, and the Green Knight fit MacAllister Stone’s definition of other: they are outsiders, and they represent a threat to the community.

I’m going to skip forward about fifteen hundred years in my next post, to look at a fairy otherworld intrusion in nineteenth century Tipperary, Ireland, in 1895, and the burning of Bridget Cleary. My third post is about Bridget Cleary, too, in the context of fairies, sex, death and the other.

In the meantime, here are some links for the curious:

Gawain and Gough

In a 1990 seminar Derek Pearsall made a passing reference to the Gough Map, in a discussion of the journey Gawain makes across the realm of Logres, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The Gough Map is the oldest surviving road map of Great Britain, dating from around 1360. It’s roughly oblong in shape, made of two pieces of vellem, and is half map and half sketch. Not much is known about its provenance; the map was given to the Bodleian library in 1809 by its owner, Richard Gough. The dating is based on the inks and materials used to make the map, and on the place names.

691. Now rideȝ þis renk þurȝ þe ryalme of Logres,
692. Sir Gauan, on Godeȝ halue, þaȝ hym no gomen þoȝt.
693. Oft leudleȝ alone he lengez on nyȝtez
694. Þer he fonde noȝt hym byfore þe fare þat he lyked.
695. Hade he no fere bot his fole bi fryþez and dounez,
696. Ne no gome bot God bi gate wyþ to karp,
697. Til þat he neȝed ful neghe into þe Norþe Walez.
698. Alle þe iles of Anglesay on lyft half he haldez,
699. And farez; ouer þe fordez by þe forlondez,
700. Ouer at þe Holy Hede, til he hade eft bonk
701. In þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale; wonde þer bot lyte
702. Þat auþer God oþer gome wyþ goud hert louied.
703. And ay he frayned, as he ferde, at frekez þat he met,
704. If þay hade herde any karp of a knyȝt grene,
705. In any grounde þeraboute, of þe grene chapel;
706. And al nykked hym wyþ nay, þat neuer in her lyue
707. Þay seȝe neuer no segge þat watz of suche hwez

Thanks to the exceedingly excellent S. Worthen, I know about the exceedingly excellent interactive version of the Gough map.

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