Book of Hours, 1475-1500
A New Book
“Post!” Thalia declares, trundling into my study with a package from the post office. I know what it is. My internet friend, Stephen Badman has sent me a copy of his latest book. Oddly, every one of his books is called Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark. Not until one looks closely does one realize there are four volumes of it, except for the one he named Odds and Sods.
We open the packaging revealing the crisp black-and-white illustration of the book’s cover. I peruse the table of contents, my eyes immediately falling upon the title, The Green Knight. Glimmers of an Arthurian sage arise.
“Can I read you a story?”
“It’s not bedtime,” Thalia responds.
“Oh, let’s be wild and abandoned.”
Thalia giggles and crawls into my lap.
A young princess, under the onerous control of a stepmother, tells her father before he leaves on a long trip—surrendering his daughter to the queen’s wiles—that he should tell the Green Knight to come fetch her, the Green Knight being another name for Death.
The king, in his travels, becomes lost and, finding himself in the presence of the Green Knight, delivers his daughter’s message.
The Green Knight explains he is not the Green Knight his daughter was thinking of, but if she will leave her bedroom window open, he will come to visit her.
This she does after her father’s return and the Green Knight travels to her in the form of a bird, taking back his human shape when he arrives. He and the princess fall in love.
“Like,” says Thalia.
He visits her often, arousing the stepmother’s suspicion. Secretively, she props two poisoned knives in the window sill. The Green Knight gashes himself on the knives and flies off.
He loses so much blood he cannot make it home and rests at a home on a large estate. Hearing of a mysterious visitor on the estate, the princess finds her lover dying of poison.
Sitting under a tree weeping, she overhears two ravens talking, one telling the other how the princess could save the Green Knight with the fat boiled out of the snake that guards the pot of gold buried beneath the very tree under which she weeps. This she does with the help of a servant.
Recovered, the Green Knight takes a proposal of marriage to the king and queen. The king and queen agree, the king because he knew their history and the queen in order to get rid of the daughter from court.
“Like.” Thalia smiles.
However, The Green Knight lays his own trap. He tells his wife to borrow a skirt and shawl from her stepmother. When the stepmother sends servants to get the clothing back, they return from the knight’s castle with such glowing reports that the queen is moved to jealousy.
She and the king travel to visit the princess and the knight. The knight tells his wife, when offered a drink of wine by her step-mother to let a drop fall on the dog that is always at her feet. This she does and the dog dies at once.
The queen is arrested, confesses, and is killed. The remaining company lives happily ever after.
Thalia looks at me sharply.
“Sorry about the dog,” I say.
Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2017 The Green Knight – Part Two
14th century manuscript, British Museum Collection
“Well, the teller did violate one of the basic rules.” Augustus puts down my copy of Folk and Fairy Tales from Denmark. I know what is coming.
“Which is?” I prompt.
“It does not matter the art form—fairy tale, science fiction, movies—you can kill off half the world’s population in your storyline, but the family dog needs to escape.”
I knew it. “Thalia had something of the same reaction, but what about this Green Knight? He does not appear to be King Arthur’s Green Knight.”
“Yes and no.” Augustus relights his pipe and settles deeper into his comfy chair. “I suspect, as do some scholars, both the English and the Danish Green Knights are related to the Green Man.”
“The Green Man,” I say. “The one with leaves growing out of his face or out of his mouth? I thought he was merely an architectural motif in churches.
“More universal than that and yet elusive. He appears in the sculptures and carvings of many cultures going back to the Mesopotamians. It’s been suggested he was a vegetation god, but no one has put a formal name to him.”
“Nor,” I suggest, “does he have fairy tales about him.”
“Not unless our Green Knights are his tales. I have read a different version of this Danish Green Knight in which he has herds of wild oxen, boars, elk, and deer. Herdsmen are dressed as huntsmen, and the castle is covered in vines. The knight, of course, dresses in green. I think I’d call him a Green Man.”
“I am uncertain.” I draw steadily on my pipe. “Why would the Green Knight be another name for Death if he is a manifestation of growth?”
Augustus contemplates before going on. “In both Danish tales they refer to the green mounds—the graves that is—in the churchyard, and if the Green Man is a vegetation god, then he would lord over birth, death, and rebirth.”
I shake my head. “The Arthurian Green Knight and my Green Knight bear little resemblance to have a common origin. My knight turns into a bird to visit his love. Arthur’s goes around challenging fellow knights to cut off his head.”
Augustus smiles. “That’s actually an interesting detail in that the Green Man motif is just of his head.”
I remain unconvinced and change the inquiry. “What about the snake guarding the pot of gold?”
“In the other version I read there is no pot of gold, rather nine baby adders under a rock. The princess cooks them into three servings of soup.”
I tap out my pipe. “The White Snake jumps to mind. A servant eats a bit of the snake to acquire the language of beast and birds.”
“Fairy-tale snakes,” I muse. “I bet we could find a lot of them.”
“We never do find out what happened to the snake’s pot of gold, do we?”
“I’m not sure about your version of this tale. Not only do they kill the family dog, but also lose track of an entire pot of gold. Wasteful.”
“I’m certain a leprechaun took it,” I assure him.
Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2017 The Green Knight
Hans Sebald Beham, 1543
Snakes and Birds
“Let’s move on to fairy-tale birds,” I suggest, refilling my pipe, even though I can hardly see Augustus through the smoky haze we have created. “There are two references to birds in my tale. I am particularly struck by the two ravens, who, indirectly, tell the princess how to heal . . .”
“Huginn and Muninn,” Augustus almost shouts.
“Personal friends of your?”
Augustus laughs. “Personal favorites. These are the two birds that sit on the shoulders of Odin telling him all they have seen and heard during their daily flight across the world.
“Huginn translates as ‘thought.’ Muninn is a little more difficult, but probably translates as ‘mind’ or ‘memory.’ They are the instruments of Odin’s shamanism.”
“Tell me your thoughts about shamanism.” I stare at Augustus through the tobacco fog.
“The essence of shamanism is the trance. The purpose of the trance is to seek healing, answers, or knowledge. The shaman in his trance reaches out with his thought and mind to that realm, dimension, beyond our normal experience.”
“So, when Huginn and Muninn fly off, Odin is really sending out his thought and mind to gain knowledge, representing the trance?”
“That is how I understand it.” Augustus nods.
“It does explain the raven’s insight into how to cure the knight, and I have run across these two birds before, in a ballad at least.”
I roll my eyes and relight my pipe, saying, “The Green Knight also appears as a bird to visit the princess. I recognize that motif from Earl of Mars’ Daughter.”
“Not only that,” says Augustus, “it also shows up in Aarne-Thompson-Uther’s story classification scheme as ‘The Bird Husband’ and ‘The Prince as Bird.’ I wonder if the origin is Celtic.”
“Why do you say that?”
“In The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, part of the Ulster Cycle, there is a bird lover who births the tragic hero of the tale. That is the earliest reference to this motif that I know of.”
“Nordic birds, Celtic birds, how much do our fairy tales draw from the mythologies?”
“I feel they are intertwined. I don’t imagine the mythologies sprung upon their culture’s scenes fully formed with no predecessor. My guess is they grew from simpler forms. I’ll bet my nickel the fairy tales came first.”
“One more item,” I say, “on which I want to pick your brain. The poisoned knives, where do they fit in?”
“In the other version I mentioned, it was a poisoned scissors. However, when we think of fairy-tale poisoning, it is Snow White’s apple that everyone will point to. This is a highly popular tale, putting poison front and center. In truth, there is little poisoning in the fairy tales. Potions, spells, magical devices are rampant, but not so much the common poisoning.”
There is a pause in the conversation and I decide to make an appeal for my story. “Shades of the Green Man, a Celtic love bird, shamanistic ravens, poisoned knives, and a snake with a pot of gold, what more could you want in a tale?”
“They shouldn’t have killed the dog.”