Sunday, 25 October 2009


The gay parade of gobstopper-coloured
cars rolls slowly past the dais.

The man we now call Mister President,
smiles and takes off his ray-bans,

in a rare and generous gesture,
before retiring into Government House,

which we are still learning to call
the Presidential Palace.

Soldiers march in furious solemnity,
their guns bruising their bony young shoulders.

On the horizon a cloud of locusts
approaches, with its own

political agenda.

Come To Me Singing

Come to me singing:
the buds will open to you
the birds sing with you
& all the sky ringing.

Come to me dancing:
the breeze will play round you
with sunlight all crowned you,
day beauty enhancing.

Come when you will,
I’ll open the catch to you,
lift up the latch to you
silent & still.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009


wistful mazurka
white wrists arched
over the piano keys

sun-heavy garden
bees in the flowers
burdened with sweetness
not their own

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Deductive Syllogism

Aristotle believed and taught that the best means of orienting ourselves in the world was through thinking.

He did not reject Plato’s teaching of the world of Forms and Archetypes, but he had some trenchant criticisms to make of it. (E.g. How would the form donkey relate to the form horse? How would either of these relate to the form animal?)

Aristotle taught that there are two kinds of knowledge: that which is arrived at deductively ( i.e. from conditioned to cause; such as footprints in the sand, indicating that someone has walked on it ) and that which is arrived at inductively ( i.e. from consideration of particulars we arrive at the universal; such as if all the carrots you have ever seen are orange, this indicates that all carrots are orange.)

BUT! Can we really be sure that we have seen enough carrots to make the judgment that all carrots are always orange? In other words, inductive thinking is inferior because we can never be sure that we have enumerated all the cases.)

Aristotle gave us the categories which enable us to carry out the processes of thought. These are:
i) substance, ii) quality, iii) quantity, iv) relation, v) place, vi) time, vii) posture,
viii) possession, ix) action, x) passivity

If we have a hallucination or see a mirage, these things are present, but if we ascribe extra-mental reality to them, ( i.e. if we think they are real) it is our judgment that is at fault.

Aristotle and his students worked out a grammar of thinking called logic as a means of testing the reality of statements.

The deductive syllogism is a series of three statements connected in theme. The first statement is the Major Premiss. The second statement is the Minor Premiss. The third statement, the Conclusion, is the only statement that can be made as a logical deduction from the two previous statements.

There are four kinds of statement in logic: the Universal Affirmative (A) the Universal Negative (E) the Particular Affirmative (I) and the Particular Negative (O). These make up the Mood of a syllogism. (See below.)

 Valid Moods

The medieval scholars who developed formal logic used names with which they were familiar to apply to the Valid Moods for each figure.

A Mood is identified by the nature of each statement, whether they are Universal Affirmative, Universal Negative, Particular Affirmative and Particular Negative.

Universal Affirmative = A
Universal negative = E
Particular Affirmative = I
Particular Negative = O

All tortoises have shells. (All tortoises in the universe have shells.)                                  A
No fish ride bicycles. (No fish ever in the entire world ride bicycles.)                  E
This bus is red. (Other buses may be other colours, but this one is red.)                        I
This man is not a postman. (Other men may be postmen, but not this one.)                   O

Particular affirmatives might be indicated by e.g. Some, as in “Some women are ballerinas”; “Some guitarists are left-handed”.

There are three figures in logic. (Some logicians have found a fourth figure, though this has not been universally accepted.)

Fig. 1=             M – P             
                        S – M
                        S – P
The valid moods for Fig. 1 are:- BARBARA, DARII, CELARENT, FERIO

In Fig. 1 the Major Premiss is always Universal (an A or an E type) the Minor Premiss is always affirmative. (An A or an I type.)

Fig. 2=             P – M
                        S – M
                        S – P
The valid moods for Fig. 2 are:- BAROCO, CAMESTRES, CESARE, FESTINO

In Fig. 2 the Major Premiss is always Universal, (an A or an E type) and one premiss is always negative. (An E or an O type).

Fig. 3=             M – P
                        M – S
                        S – P
The valid moods for Fig. 3 are:- BOCADO, DARAPTI, DATISI, DISAMIS,         FELAPTON, FERISON

In Fig. 3 the Middle Term is the subject in both premises. The Minor Premiss is always affirmative, (A or I) and the Conclusion is always particular (I or O).


Fig. 1

All neap tides are ebb tides. (Major Premiss) Universal Affirmative.                       A
This is a neap tide. (Minor Premiss) Particular Affirmative.                         I
:. This is an ebb tide. (Conclusion) Particular Affirmative.                                       I

Fig. 2

All soldiers learn to shoot. (Major Premiss) Universal Affirmative.              A
No milkmen learn to shoot. (Minor Premiss) Universal Negative.                            E
:. No milkmen are soldiers. (Conclusion) Universal Negative.                                  E

Fig. 3

All trumpets are made of brass. (Major Premiss) Universal Affirmative.                 A
All trumpets are musical instruments. (Minor Premiss) Universal Affirmative.       A
:. Some musical instruments are made of brass. (Conclusion) Particular Affirmative.                                                                                                                    I

Analysing the Syllogism

We start with the Conclusion.
As in grammar, we identify the Subject  (S) and the Predicate. (P)
 - Here the resemblance to grammar ends! -

In the Minor Premiss, we try to identify where the Subject (S) occurs.
What is left is the Middle Term (M).

In the Major Premiss, we identify where the Middle Term and the Predicate occur.             
For example, in Fig. 1“This” is the Subject.
In Fig. 2 “soldiers” is the Predicate
In Fig. 3 “trumpets” is the Middle Term.

If the mood does not fit the figure, the syllogism is no good.

For instance:-

All lobsters are red.                                                   A
All communists are red.                                             A
:. All communists are lobsters.                                  A

Conclusion: “All communists” = Subject.
“are lobsters” = Predicate

Minor Premiss “All communists” =  Subject
“are red” = Middle Term

Major Premiss “All lobsters” = Predicate
“are red” =  Middle Term

Fig =    P – M
            S – M
            S – P

So this is Fig. 2           


The mood is AAA (BARBARA) and NOT a valid mood for Fig. 2. So the syllogism is no good.

Consider this:-

God is that than which no greater can be thought.

But that than which no greater can be thought must exist, not only mentally, in idea, but extra-mentally.

:. God must exist, not only mentally, in idea, but extra-mentally.

This was a proof given by St. Anselm in the 11th Century for the existence of God. Does it work out?

Lewis Carrol, the author of Alice in Wonderland, turned the deductive syllogism into a board game, and tried to explain it to the 11year-old Alice Liddell, who promptly fell asleep.

With the basics as you have them, can you work out how this might be turned into a board game with counters of different colours, etc? (N.B. There might be some money in this!)


I tugged those boliauns all day
in the sea air off the lough,
and my hands were raw, too sore
to barrow out the weeds to burn
and so I let them lie, smudged
and stringy with the pulling.

That evening, Paul let the cows
into the field. They plodded, trusting;
great belly sacks slung
on a rugged geometry, down
to the shore hedge.

Next afternoon, the vet came
with a long, hollow knife for the bloat.
A cow lay rolling  her bulging eyes
to show the dark-veined whites,
her guts blown like a galleon sail,
a fallen zeppelin with a crazy idol’s head.

Paul said the vet swore blind
it wasn’t ragwort poisoning,

but there was the knife
and the bursting eyes’ distress.
I felt their reproach all through,
like asthma.

Durer's Melencolia I

Albrecht Dürer lived from 1471 – 1528; a time of change and upheaval in the cultural and spiritual life of Europe. He was born in Nuremberg, and travelled widely in Europe, becoming one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, and one who first developed the self-portrait as a meaningful artistic study.

His engraving Melencolia I is one of his best known works, but there seems to be no real consensus about the interpretation of the subject matter. At all events, it is an evocative picture, richly suggestive in its composition and subject matter. It is generally thought to belong to a series that includes The Knight, Death and the Devil; The Prodigal Son and St. Jerome. However, its title, Melencolia I, seems to argue that there should be three other engravings on the theme of the three other humours, Sanguinity, Choler and Phlegma. No such engravings exist, as far as we know, and one would be hard put to it to ascribe with any certainty the humours mentioned to the other three named works. The chemist and author John Read sees Melencolia I as full of alchemical symbolism, and the art historian Erwin Panofsky calls it a “spiritual self-portrait”. Others again see the influence of Plato’s Hippias Major (a dialogue on the nature of beauty) and of the Renaissance mathematician Luca Pacioli’s De Divina Proportia (a study of mathematical and artistic proportion); works which Dürer is known to have studied. I have no wish to contradict any of these commentators, but I should like to offer another alternative reading of the work.

To try to come a little closer to the picture, we might consider one particular aspect of the cultural life of the time, namely the field of education.

During the Renaissance, the subjects taught at school were those that had been taught since the Middle Ages: the Trivium: Grammar, Rhetoric and Dialectics (later replaced by Logic) and the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Music, Astronomy and Geometry. These were known collectively as the Seven Lively Arts. It is true that Grammar, Arithmetic and so on can be thought of today as dry, abstract things, but once upon a time we told stories about them, and even had an idea of how they looked. They were visualised like this:

Grammar is the oldest. She is a hag who had come into the world at the time of Osiris. She lived far from the haunts of men until she was discovered by Hermes. She carries a sharp knife to perform surgery on the lips and teeth of those who could not otherwise speak properly. Her planet is the Moon.

Rhetoric is a beautiful, majestic woman of mature years, dressed in a highly colourful robe. Her planet is Venus.

Dialectics is a pale woman of severe aspect, dressed all in black. She holds a serpent in her hand, ready to sting with the venom of sleepiness those not attuned to head-knowledge. Mercury is her planet.

Arithmetic is a beautiful and stately figure. Rays of light radiate from her brow and ray back, emerging from unity and returning to unity. She belongs to the Sun.

Astronomy appears in a fiery ball of light. She is a maiden in a robe decorated all over with diamonds. She wears a crown of stars, and in her hands is a book made of various metals in which the progress and paths of the stars are described. Her planet is Saturn.

Music comes announced by a symphony, and is accompanied by the Three Graces, who go before her, singing as they go. She is harmonious and well-balanced, and her planet is Mars.

Last of all comes Geometry: a woman of sturdy limbs, who holds a pair of compasses in one hand and a sphere in the other. Her task is to describe and explain the world of Nature to the Gods. She belongs to the planet Jupiter.

A story in which they each take a small but important part is told in the Anticlaudianus of Alanus ab Insulis, the 12th century scholar, better known, perhaps, for his contribution to the School of Chartres. This was a spiritual movement that, among other things, tried to reconcile in an organic way the teachings of Plato, with its insistence on things in the material world being representations of spiritual truths, and the work of Aristotle, which held thinking to be of prime importance in the spiritual life of humanity. The teachings of the School of Chartres were encapsulated in artistic form in the great cathedral of Chartres. For them, philosophy was a vivid and colourful drama of the spirit. To illustrate this a little, here in a simplified form is the story of The Perfect Man, from the Anticlaudianus of Alanus ab Insulis.

The Perfect Man

The Goddess Natura was at the side of God at the Creation. Her garment was a robe of great beauty, and represented on it were all the creatures in nature. Only one part of her robe was torn and grimy, the part representing the human being.

The gods of the world came together to discuss the creation of a new and perfect human being. The world of nature could supply the body, but a new soul would be necessary for such a being. However, only God could provide a new soul.

The seven Virtues, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Courage, Faith, Hope and Love, decided among themselves who should make the long journey through the planetary spheres to ask for this new human soul. It was agreed among them that Prudence should be the one to undertake this journey.

The Seven Lively Arts worked together to provide a vehicle in which Prudence should travel. Grammar made the shafts, and Rhetoric decorated them with bright colours and designs. Dialectics fashioned the axles, and Music, Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy each provided a wheel.

The chariot was to be drawn by five horses, each horse one of the outer five senses. And so Prudence started on her long voyage through the starry spaces and the planetary spheres towards the Godhead.

On the way, the five horses began to fail. One by one they fell asleep and would not be awakened. Only Hearing remained wakeful, and alone drew the chariot onwards. Prudence found her strength and courage failing, and fainted, but Faith came to her aid and revived her. Together they made the rest of the journey.

They made their request, to which God acceded. He commanded nous, the Holy Spirit, to produce the Idea of the new human soul. When this was done, God created the soul from the Idea that the Holy Spirit had formed.

Prudence and Faith now returned to the world with the soul of the new human being. The Four Elements provided a body for this pristine new being, and Music, Arithmetic and Harmony brought the soul and the body together.

Seeing this new creation, spirits of vengeance, the Furies, began a ferocious attack, but the seven Virtues protected the Human Being, who was now free to live in the world, and to reign over the new Golden Age.

Melencolia I

Now, think of Dürer's "Melencolia I". The seated figure is clearly a picture of Geometry. Note the compasses in her hand, and the sphere on the left of the picture. Notice also the magic square on the wall. Each planet has its own particular magic square, and this one is for Jupiter, Geometry's planet. Then, there is the large geometrically formed block, the so-called "Dürer Solid". It somehow seems to clutter the scene in its weightiness, and yet it is not rough rock, but carefully formed. There are carpentry tools lying on the floor, - and what is carpentry if not a version of practical geometry?  Outside, the world is darkening, in spite of the rainbow and comet in the background and the “black bat night” of Melancholy unfurls her banner.

Why then is Geometry no longer describing and explaining the world to the Gods? The putto, or cherub to the left of the central figure, with nothing to report, looks listless and glum as Geometry sits motionlessly watching, her eyes burning into the distance. The ladder seems to lead nowhere; the bell is still; the sands of time trickle through the hourglass.

The melancholy temperament occurs when the physical, the material, weighs on the soul, threatening to overwhelm it. That seems to be what is happening in this picture. The Dürer Solid form, the wood and carpentry tools lying about, and the ladder almost overwhelm the composition. The scales on the wall remind us again of the weight of things, while also hinting at the direction in which science is moving. Only that which can be weighed and measured will be accorded any reality. Meanwhile the dog - symbolic of the active soul from the days of Socrates until the Grail writers of the 13th century - lies inert. What has become of the Golden Age?

Dürer himself was one who was well able to describe, if not to explain, the world to his fellow man. We have only to think of his plant and animal studies, especially his study of the rhinoceros – a creature that he never saw, but was able to reconstruct almost perfectly, from a description given him by another! The artist himself looks out at us from his self-portraits, and we see there something of a melancholy calm, and a questioning look. He was well aware of the intellectual life of his time and highly sensitive to the changes in the spiritual life that led to the Reformation. The Human Being comes increasingly to the fore as the Gods appear to withdraw their influence. Questions arise about the role of the Human Being. About eighty years after Dürer, Shakespeare’s characters, speak of “this muddy vesture of decay” or “this quintessence of dust” in reference to the human body. What has become, here, of the Perfect Man? The Earth is either a “goodly frame” or on the other hand, “a sterile promontory”; while the heavens, “this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire” can be described in the same breath as “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours”.

This view of the world is surely what inspires Melencolia I. Dürer was among the first to see the onset of materialism and to understand the price that we pay for it. The Seven Lively Arts have lost their liveliness. By the time Shakespeare goes to school, Dialectics is replaced by Logic, and which is Logic’s planet? Mercury, planet of communication, can be seen as busily active in Dialectics, the rigorous pursuit, through question and answer, of truth. Logic, on the other hand, relies entirely on the morality of those who use it, whether it is employed in the pursuit of truth or not. At this moment in History, 1514, date of Melencolia I, the connection with the cosmos is fading, and human beings begin to experience themselves as more and more distant from the Gods.

Those exalted female beings, the Seven Lively Arts, make up the “sevenfold feminine” which, in Goethe’s words, “leads us on high”. What might appear to us now as mundane academic subjects were once experienced as living beings of a soul nature that can lead us to higher realms of consciousness. Goethe was able to appreciate their qualities, and this appreciation enlivened his scientific studies. However, as Rudolf Steiner once mentioned, “these ladies have become rather thin”. 

It is some five centuries since Dürer pointed the way that things were going. The materialistic view of the world is wearily familiar to us. Nevertheless, we can all have a passion, for instance, for music, or become very enthusiastic about the study of astronomy, or, indeed, any of these so-called lively arts, and ‘enthusiasm’ once meant possession by a God. It was the study of geometry that first warmed Rudolf Steiner’s heart with the hope that it is indeed possible to share spiritual truths with others in an objective, scientific way. The Goetheanistic approach to science is gathering interest in more and more places. There is modest reason to be hopeful that, in the words of Christopher Fry’s character Meadows in his play A Sleep of Prisoners:

                        “…The frozen misery
                        Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
                        The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
                        The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.”

There is no doubt, however, that a grave spiritual crisis confronts us. The summer edition of New View is largely devoted to this theme. In A Sleep of Prisoners, Meadows goes on to say that, in our time, “wrong/ Comes up to face us everywhere, /Never to leave us till we take/ The longest stride of soul men ever took.”

Yet, Goethe once described the essence of duty as “loving that which we have to do.” We all certainly have to do with the Seven Lively Arts, one way or another. Perhaps if we could bring some fresh warmth of heart to them, truly learn to love them anew as the gifts of mighty beings of soul, we might begin to put some flesh once again on the bones of the poor “thin ladies”, and thereby maybe equip ourselves for that “longest stride of soul”.

What does that mean in practice? I believe that it means something like this: that Grammar is no longer perceived as simply parsing and clause analysis, or the pedantic jostling of syntax, but the life force in the living and continually evolving being of language. Rhetoric need not be a matter of slogans, clichés and sound bites, but can find herself again in the beauty and truth of poetry. Logic should no longer be the amoral mechanism of electric switch-like syllogistic exercises, or quasi-mathematical processes, but achieve that moral quality needed to be part of the highest aspirations of humankind. Astronomy might reveal to us not only the beauty of the cosmos, but also its form and meaning. Arithmetic could be no longer a matter of the manipulation of figures, often taking place outside the manipulator’s consciousness, on calculators and the like. She could once more be the study of the luminous rainbow qualities of numbers, for ever emanating from and returning to the single brilliance of the One. Music would continue to delight us as it always has, but she could be exalted from the darker rhythms of the will so that we could begin to hear again the hidden music in the world around and above us. Geometry could be perceived once more as the interplay of spiritual beings; the metamorphoses of line, point and plane; expanding our inner world to infinity. All our areas of study could come to new life once we realise with enthusiasm what they truly are.

What a liberation this could mean from the dull, mechanistic world view that is presented to us in our culture from so many sides! Dürer’s melancholy Geometry might then have something new to report to the Gods.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Michael Scot's recipe for making gold

Michael Scot was born towards the end of the 12th century, and became renowned during the 13th century as a scholar, linguist, classicist and alchemist on Continental Europe. In Scotland, the country of his birth, he was thought of as a warlock, and many are the tales of Michael, being taught by the devil, drinking a broth made from a serpent's head and receiving occult wisdom, cleaving the Eildon Hills in three, putting a kerb of basalt to the River Tweed, riding on a demonic horse to Rome to discover the date of Easter, and finally, at his death, having his heart rescued by a dove from the talons of a raven, thus signifying that he had attained eternal rest in Heaven, and escaped the chamber of fire and ice that was prepared for him in the nether regions.

In fact, his true biography is as interesting as any folk tale. He studied medicine and it is said that he discovered a cure for leprosy.He was tutor to the strange character, the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II, and tried to influence him for the good in the government of the country; he translated many works of philosophy and alchemy; he foretold (accurately) where Friedrich would die and foresaw his own death, from a piece of falling masonry. He was proved right in that, too. He wrote a number of prophecies, for which Dante, in The Divine Comedy,  ascribed him a place in hell, with his head on back to front (forever looking backward, as befits those who prophecy the future). James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd put him into a work of fiction, as have many other Scottish writers.

But look at the recipe below, and make of it what you will. I would caution you, however to consider these questions: how much urine from a young badger is needed? How young should the young badger be? How much blood from a ruddy man should you take? How ruddy is ruddy? Where does one find the rest of these ingredients? And at the end, have you, in fact, just got gold-coloured lead?

Medibabaz the Saracen of Africa used to change lead into gold in the following manner:
Take lead and melt it thrice with caustic, red arsenic, sublimate of vitriol, sugar of alum, and with that red tuchia of India which is found on the shore of the Red Sea, and let the whole be again and again quenched in the juice of the Portulaca marina, the wild cucumber, a solution of sal ammoniac, and the urine of a young badger. Let all these ingredients then, when well mixed, be set on the fire, with the addition of some common salt, and well boiled until they be reduced to one third of their original bulk, when you must proceed to distil them with care. Then take the marchasite of gold, prepared talc, roots of coral, some carcha-root, which is an herb very like the Portulaca marina; alum of cumae something red and saltish, Roman alum and vitriol, and let the latter be made red; sugar of alum, Cyprus earth, some of the red Barbary earth, for that gives a good colour; Cumaean earth of the red sort, African tuchia, which is a stone of variegated colours and being melted with copper changeth it into gold; Cumaean salt; pure red arsenic, the blood of a ruddy man, red tartar, gumma of Barbary, which is red and worketh wonders in this art; salt of Sardinia. Let all these be beaten together in a brazen mortar, then sifted finely and made into a paste with the above water. Dry this paste and again rub it fine on the marble slab. Then take the lead you have prepared as directed above, and melt it together with the powder, adding some red alum and some more of the various salts. This alum is found about Aleppo and in Armenia, and will give your metal a good colour. When you have so done, you shall see the lead changed into the finest gold, as good as what comes from Arabia.
This have I, Michael Scot, often put to the proof and ever found it to be true.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Gawain & the Green Knight

Ever since I first read it, I've loved the tale of Gawain's journey to the Green Chapel, to uphold both his own honour, and that of the Round Table.

But the more I read it, the more I see in this story. First of all, the story takes place in the space of just over a year, but this passage of time represents not just the passing of the seasons. Something in Gawain changes in this period. At first, he is the young hero who wishes to bring a speedy and conclusive finish to the adventure that has arrived at Camelot, but by the end, he has learned something about himself.

The description of his shield tells us more about him: the five-pointed star, each of whose points stands for something five-fold. As Leonardo's Vitruvian Man reminds us, five is the number of the Human Being. There is something deeply spiritual at stake here. But the star is the side that Gawain shows the world. The picture of Madonna and Child, on the inside of the shield, is what he keeps turned to his heart. This picture is often thought of as simply a representation, rather sentimental, of an event long ago in Palestine. Perhaps we could also think of it as representing The Divine Sophia holding the Christ; spiritual potential waiting to be born in human beings. This is the aspect of the central image of Christmas that perhaps has been forgotten over the years.

Arthur's court is composed of twelve knights, Arthur himself and Guinevere. The cosmic picture of the twelve knights, each representing a House of the Zodiac, and King and Queen as Sun and Moon is another pointer to the story's esoteric content. Also present is Bishop Baldwin, representing higher powers beyond the Zodiac circle.

Gawain sets off at Michaelmas, the time of new initiatives and beginnings. At each threshold in the world of Nature, he has an enemy to overcome. Here, we are being directed to the inner steps that Gawain is taking, overcoming the obstacles in his own nature. He finds himself in the neighbourhood of Bertilak's castle on Christmas Eve. He is welcomed to the castle in St. Peter's name, which indicates to Gawain that he is, spiritually speaking, in safe hands. There are games, a meal of fish dishes and Midnight Mass. Then comes Bertilak's strange proposal: that he should share with Gawain the best of what he gains in the hunt, and Gawain should share with him the best of what he receives in the castle.

Bertilak's first two hunts are described in great detail. They show Bertilak as almost a force of nature in his strength and determination. First he hunts a stag, then a boar. On the third day, he brings home a fox, which he considers poor game indeed. Discussion of the significance of these creatures is for another time.

Gawain's great struggle in this story, is not with enemies, but with himself. Bertilak's wife tries very hard, three mornings in succession, to seduce him. Gawain has to master his sexuality, in the face of such extreme temptation, but do it in a way that does not insult the lady. This he manages, but only just. He does, however, accept her gift of a green girdle, which, she says, will keep him from harm. This he accepts, on the understanding that he will make no mention of it to Bertilak, thereby breaking the terms of the agreement with his host.

When Gawain finally confronts the Green Knight again, he has to receive the blow that he gave the Green Knight the previous year. At first he flinches from the axe. The Green Knight reproves him, and Gawain has to overcome his instinctive reactions; to master his own will. Then, when the Green Knight raises the axe again, he pauses. Gawain, in fear and anger, shouts at the Green Knight to hurry up and get on with it. Again, the Green Knight gently reminds Gawain that he made no such fuss a year ago. Gawain now has to gain mastery over his feelings. The third time, the axe descends, but only to graze Gawain's neck. Now that a few drops of his blood have been shed, Gawain can legitimately rise and defend himself. But now the Green Knight reveals himself as Bertilak, and the whole adventure as the invention of Morgan le Fay, Arthur's half-sister, and one who often in the tales of the Round Table, challenges its honour and integrity.

So Gawain has had to overcome his youthful zeal in favour of more measured responses; he has had to overcome aspects of his nature that hold him back from realising his true potential; he has had to master his will, his feeling and thinking; he has finally, to recognize the ways in which Nature can reflect to him his own nature. At the end, he gains the respect of Bertilak, Arthur and the Court of the Round Table, but he is left with a picture of himself that humbles him.

After this adventure, Gawain is ready to become the accompanying hero to Parzival in the Grail story.

Gawain and the Green Knight – the tale
At Camelot, the twelve days of Christmas were always celebrated with much feasting, merriment and telling of tales, such as the stories of the Trojan ancestors of the Britons; Brutus, Corineus and the rest. Those homeless warriors gathered on the island of Malta, where Brutus prayed to the Goddess Diana to show him where was a land his people could make their own. Diana appeared to Brutus, and told of an island in the North, between Ireland and Gaul, where none lived but giants. This place they could make theirs. And so it was: they sailed to the island and overcame the giants they found there, so that the island became the land of the people of Brutus, the British.
Arthur watched his court from the shadows. He had heard these old tales before, but it was his unswerving custom on feast days and holidays not to sit down to eat until he had heard of a new adventure, or that someone brought an adventure to Camelot by way of a petition for justice, a challenge, or news of monstrous attack. So far this Christmas, none had come, and so Arthur forsook his seat at the feast table, and waited.
All at once, a strange, eerie atmosphere descended on the feast hall. Everyone fell silent in fearful expectation.
Then, the great doors of the hall swung slowly open, by no human action, and a giant of a man entered, riding a huge horse.
The company were relieved to see that the mighty stranger carried a branch of holly, for that was the sign of peace, but the great double-headed axe in his other hand was less comforting to see. But these things were the least strange about the visitor: he was green. Clothes, boots and accoutrements were all of different shades of green, but so was his skin, and the hair of his head that hung over his shoulders like a cloak. His beard was a darker green, and hung like a bush over his breast. The horse, too, was of this shade, apart from the gold wire plaited among his mane.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the newcomer was his eyes, which were no shade of green, but a luminous red.
“I bring a challenge to the knights of the Table Round,” boomed the voice of the visitor: “Is there a man here who dare give me a blow with this axe?”
A low muttering and whispering arose and died away among the company.
“But if there is such a man here,” the Green Knight continued, “he must be willing to receive a like blow from me a year and a day hence.”
Now silence fell on the company. None dared to step forward to make this adventure his own. Arthur, watching from the dimness of the corner, felt shame sting him like a thousand tiny insects. No man stood forward, and so he must himself undertake the adventure.
“Here stand I, Arthur of the Britons,” he cried, breaking the spell of silence that held the company in thrall. “I will give the blow. Give me the axe!”
But Gawain now found his voice: “Nay Uncle! This adventure is mine!”
Arthur looked the young man steadily in the eye, and saw that he was resolute.
“We may yet make a short tale of it,” Gawain said with a slight smile.
The Green Knight handed the axe to Gawain, and dismounted from his great steed. He knelt, and bared his neck. Gawain swung the axe, and struck off the giant’s head, which rolled round the room like a green comet. The ladies drew back their skirts in horror as it passed, the men kicked at it.
“This was a short adventure,” said Gawain, but what was this? The headless man arose and strode to where his head lay among the rushes on the floor. He lifted it, and held it at the level of his heart. The head then spoke, and as it spoke, the red eyes were fixed on Queen Guinevere. So piercing was that gaze, that had Lancelot been there, he could not have forborne to spring to her side in protection. But Lancelot was not there, and Arthur was at the far end of the hall.
“Now Gawain, you have promised to be willing to receive the same blow from me a year and a day hence! I hereby bind you to that promise. Look for me at the Green Chapel a year and a day from this!”
So saying, the Green Knight leaped into the saddle, and turned his horse’s head to the doors. As he left, those doors swung slowly shut.
As soon as the doors were closed, the strange, magical atmosphere that had fallen on the assembly lifted. Conversation began. Had these things really happened that they had witnessed? Was it not a strange dream that all had dreamed at once?
For answer, Arthur stooped and picked up the great axe that the Green Knight had left behind him, as though in proof of the truth of the visit.
“This axe shall hang above my seat at the Table Round,” Arthur announced, “until the adventure is all accomplished and told.”
                        *                                  *                                  *
Christmas passed, and the greenery that bedecked the hall at Camelot was taken down. Winter now held no more promise of joy. Candlemas came and went, and the days began to lengthen, and the ice and frost to recede. Spring came, and the drab days of Lent gave way to Easter and the promise of new life was fulfilled in the fields and the byres. Summer came, and harvest time, and Lammas came and went, and the trees were growing golden as Michaelmas approached.
Arthur sought out Gawain, who was standing at the ramparts, gazing at the treetops that showed so many colours.
“You will be thinking of your adventure,” said Arthur gently.
“Indeed, my Uncle, I have thought of little else since the day it began,” Gawain answered.
“It lies in your power to refuse it,” Arthur said.
“Not so, Uncle. I gave my promise. And that promise was not made just on my honour alone, but on the honour of the Table Round, and therefore I cannot refuse it!”
Arthur turned his head away to hide the tear that rimmed his eye.
“Of all my knights, Gawain, I would not lose you,” he said, “but it is, as you say, not for your honour alone, but for the honour of the Table Round that you undertake this adventure, and we are not our own masters that take our seats there, but servants of all mankind. Therefore we must honour all our promises.”
Thus, Gawain began to make ready. He had no inkling where the Green Chapel lay, but felt in his bones that the adventure would find him out, and guessed that his way lay due north. He gathered his equipment, and saddled his horse Gringuljet of the Red ears. He took his sword and lifted his shield. This shield had two sides; the side that he showed to the world was painted red, and blazoned with the five-pointed star in gold. Each of the five points of the star stood for a fivefold thing: the five fingers and toes of each hand and foot, the five senses, the five joys of Mary – Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension and Assumption – the five wounds of Christ and the five knightly virtues – to be ever cleanly, to be chivalrous, to be generous, to be comradely, and to be compassionate. These were all symbolized in the five-pointed star, or the endless knot as it was also called. The inside of the shield, the side he had closest to his heart, was painted with a representation of the Mother of God and the Christ-child.
The knights of the Council of the Table Round all came to see Gawain’s departure, and the song numbered these among them: Sir Dodinal, Sir Eric, Sir Urien, Sir Lucan, Sir Ywain, Sir Lionel, Sir Bors, Sir Bedivere, Sir Mador, The Duke of Clarence and Sir Lancelot. The priest and confessor to Camelot, Bishop Baldwin, was also there, and Arthur and Guinevere gave Gawain their blessing.
                        *                                  *                                  *
The way was hard at the waning of the year. Gawain found that at every riverbank, every forest edge, at the foot of each hill there was an enemy to conquer. Each threshold in the world of Nature was guarded by something that Gawain had to meet and overcome.
Everywhere he asked for directions to the Green Chapel, but none knew of it, and the year was wasting. Gawain was due to meet the Green Knight again on New Year’s morn. By his own reckoning, it was now Christmas Eve, and nowhere in sight was there a place where he could celebrate Christmas, this being most likely his last Christmas on Earth.
He shipped off his shield, and set it up on a rock with the holy image outwards, and knelt to pray. On opening his eyes, he saw, a little way off, a ring of shining oak trees, and in their midst, a castle. Praising his good fortune, he rode to the castle, and called for entry.
“Welcome in the name of St. Peter,” called a porter from the gate. “You are right welcome at this Christmastide!”
The drawbridge slowly lowered itself, and Gawain rode his red-eared horse Gringuljet forward into the castle. The lord of the castle came forth; a big, bluff, hearty man, who welcomed Gawain right cordially.
“Come and be our Christmas guest,” he cried. All are welcome at our table at this tide, and a knight such as yourself more than most. My name is Bertilak. Tell me, sir, who are you?”
“Gawain is my name, of the Table Round,” came the reply. Bertilak’s eyes widened in astonishment and joy.
“Sir Gawain? Nay, we are more honoured by your presence than we can say! A hundred thousand welcomes! Make this humble castle your home for as long as you wish, and join us to celebrate Christmas!”
All the comforts that the castle could afford were lavished on Gawain. He had a hot bath and clean, rich robes were sent for him. He was shown to a deep chair by a fire burning bright, and Bertilak asked him many a question about Camelot and the Table Round.
A bell was heard summoning the company to the chapel. Gawain gladly joined the worshippers, but a surprise awaited him there. Among the ladies was one so passing fair that she made Guinevere look plain and ordinary by comparison. Next to this lady of such surpassing beauty was an old woman who was as ugly as the younger was comely. It was as much as Gawain could do to keep his mind on things of the spirit, when things of the body were so bravely shown nearby.
After Midnight Mass came a meal of fish; the best the nearby rivers and lakes could yield: salmon and trout of the finest. And after the meal there were games in the hall, where Gawain showed himself a worthy competitor. All was merriment and jollity in keeping with the season, and Gawain, for a moment, was able to forget the grim destiny that awaited him at the hands of the Green Knight.
                        *                                  *                                  *
On the Feast of St. Stephen, Bertilak came to Gawain and made an offer that Gawain found strange.
“Tomorrow, I shall go hunting. I shall give you the best of what I win at the hunt, and you, in return, will give me the best of what you win here in the castle. Is it agreed?”
“Shall I give you what is already yours?” Gawain asked, “for this is your house. What is there in this house that is not yours by right?”
“Come, it is Christmas, a time of giving. Let us keep to this plan of mine,” insisted Bertilak, and Gawain, though puzzled, agreed, for after all, what harm could come of it?
The next day, Bertilak set out to hunt with his company. They soon put up a stag, and Bertilak gave chase, crashing through the forest in pursuit, and always at the head of the hunt, setting a punishing pace for his men. Up hill and down into the dingles with their wintry thorns he rode, the stag leading them fleetly, over streams, splashing through ponds and mire, heading for where the trees were too thick to penetrate, but Bertilak was too nimble in pursuit, and headed the magnificent beast into a glade where it turned and faced them with lowered antlers.
Bertilak slew the stag, and they gralloched it where it lay, as was the custom in those times. Each man received what was his rightful cut of the meat, and the dogs took their share, too, of the guts and offal. Even the ravens, when the place was clear, flew down for their share, the hause-bone.
While the hunt was at its height, Gawain lay in bed. Suddenly, he heard the latch of his chamber lift, and footsteps moving almost soundlessly towards his bed. The bed-curtain was pulled aside, and there was the beautiful lady, who sat on the edge of the bed.
“What an honour for our castle to have Gawain for a guest,” said the lady, and Gawain smelled the sweetness of her breath as she spoke, and marvelled at the clear, pale skin and the deep, dark eyes.
“How great an honour it would be for a lady to have you as her champion,” she whispered; “what lady would not grant the sweetest favours to such a knight!”
How beautiful she was! How Gawain longed to take her in his arms and grant her wish! And yet, soon, he was to stand before the Judgment Seat of God. Could he stand there with such a thing on his conscience? But would not God forgive him the few hours spent in bliss with this lovely lady?
Of course, Gawain knew that he must refuse the lady, but he had to do so without giving her any insult. He must be courteous to the end, and overcome the strongest enemy; his own nature.
At last, after Gawain had struggled to turn the lady’s entreaties with the gift of his wit, she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
“I see you are too strong for me, Gawain,” she said, and tiptoed from the room, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
Bertilak returned, and Gawain greeted him with a brotherly kiss.
“A haunch of venison for our guest,” announced Bertilak, and servants brought in Bertilak’s gift to Gawain.
“Tomorrow, let us try the same game again,” Bertilak said, and Gawain, still mystified by the poor part of the bargain that Bertilak would receive from this arrangement, nevertheless agreed.
The following day, Bertilak set out to hunt, and the party startled a great boar, that crashed off through the undergrowth with Bertilak in close pursuit. The boar was a seasoned denizen of the forest, and knew how to plunge and turn from the path to shake off its hunters. Bertilak was an old hunter himself, and knew the tricks of boar-hunting. He expected every twist of the path of his quarry, and was close behind the creature, his spear ready to stick the beast.
The boar made a giant leap into the midst of a river, turning to face his foes. Bertilak dismounted, and, drawing his sword, plunged in after it, and slew the creature there in the river, with the icy water foaming all around him, and then, by main force, dragged the carcase to the bank.
As Bertilak was galloping after his prey, Gawain lay in his bed, and again heard the lifting of the latch, and the quiet footsteps across the floor, and the twitching aside of the bed-curtain. There, once again, was the lady, looking, if anything, even more beautiful than before. Once again, she made Gawain the rich offer of her sweet charms, and once again, Gawain had the great struggle to refuse the lady with charm and courtesy, and to work against the grain of his manly nature to do so.
At last, she leaned forward and kissed Gawain twice.
“You fight too cleverly for me,” she said, and left the room.
Bertilak’s return was marked by much laughter and noise, and he strode into the hall bearing a flitch of bacon from the carcase of the boar. Gawain greeted Bertilak with a brotherly kiss on each cheek, and once again accepted the gift with gratitude.
“Let us try our luck again tomorrow,” said Bertilak, and, though he still could not understand how this could be of any profit other than to himself, Gawain agreed.
The next morning, as Bertilak was at the hunt, the lady again entered Gawain’s chamber, this time in a gown cut low at the back, so that the smooth skin of her body was revealed. Her entreaties were now of such a yearning that it was as much as Gawain could do to prevent himself drawing her into his arms and assuaging the desire that rilled through his veins like a river in spate. However, at last, she rose, kissing him three times.
“You are indeed a worthy opponent, Gawain,” she said, “but let me at least give you a gift!”
“Your hospitality in this castle is gift enough for me, lady,” Gawain said, but she pressed her finger to his lips.
“This green girdle,” she said, untying it from about her waist, “has magical properties. It will keep the wearer safe from harm. I beg you to accept it!”
Gawain, mindful of the fate that grew ever closer day by day, took the girdle, and thanked her.
“But please,” she warned, “not a word to my husband!”
Gawain agreed to be silent about this gift, and tied it on under his robes.
When Bertilak returned, Gawain greeted him with three brotherly kisses, but Bertilak told him that all he had won in the hunt was a fox.
“Vermin that it is, it is his that wants it,” Bertilak said, and flung the fox into a corner of the hall.
“Well, Sir Gawain, shall we keep to our bargain again tomorrow?” Bertilak asked as he sat, pouring himself a glass of wine.
“Alas, my time here must come to an end,” said Gawain: “I have a most important tryst at a place that I have yet to find, and I must be there by New Year’s morn.”
“What place is this?”
“The Green Chapel.”
“Why,” said Bertilak, laughing, “that lies no more than half a day’s ride from here. One of my servants can take you in the morning!”
                        *                                  *                                  *
The day dawned cold, with icy winds playing around the castle battlements. Gawain made ready to meet the Green Knight, tying on the green girdle that the lady had given him. At least, he thought, he could make his peace with God in the Green Chapel. It was not great comfort, but it was all that he had.
A young squire led him, shivering as much with fear as with cold as he did so.
“My advice to you, Sir Knight, is to flee. Turn and go home now! This is an evil place, and nothing but danger awaits you. Turn and go. Go now while you still can!”
Gawain curtly told the squire to keep his advice to himself, but in vain. The squire prattled to himself of his fear, and the unwisdom of continuing. Gawain was fearful enough for himself, without the squire adding to his anxieties.
Their path took them along the bank of a river. A cold and desolate place it was, and ice gathered at the river’s edge.
“Your path lies just a little further that way,” the squire said through his chattering teeth, and turned his horse’s head and galloped away.
Gawain was left alone in the grey dawn and the cold. From the far bank of the river he heard a sound like s shrill keening in sorrow for the dead. It was the noise of an axe being sharpened. Gawain rode a little further, and came to where the Green Chapel stood. To Gawain’s horror, it was no Christian chapel, but an old domelike construction from the time before the Gospel had reached the shores of Britain.
A movement caught his attention, and there, on the far bank, was the Green Knight as on the day Gawain had first seen him, but riding no horse and bearing no holly garland. He was running, carrying a long-handled Danish axe, which he used to vault over the river, his long green hair flying behind as he leaped. He landed and stood opposite Gawain.
“I see you have kept your bargain,” said the Green Knight.
“As you see.”
“Are you ready to receive the blow that you gave me a year and a day since?”
“I am here for that purpose.”
“Very well. Then you must kneel before me.”
Gawain knelt. The Green Knight raised the axe, and, just as it was about to fall, Gawain flinched aside to avoid the blow.
“Ah, now, you must not flinch,” the Green Knight warned; “I did not flinch; neither must you.”
Gawain knelt again, and drove his fingers deep through the hoar frost to the roots of the grass beneath, to hold himself steady. Once again the Green Knight raised the axe. He paused.
“Come then, strike if you must!” Gawain shouted angrily.
“Nay, not so, Sir Knight! I showed no anger! You must bear your neck patiently.”
Again, Gawain took a firm grip of the grass roots, determined not to let his feelings show, but to receive the blow in calm.
Once again the Green Knight raised the axe, and brought it down –
The blade did no more than to graze Gawain’s neck. Some drops of his blood fell into the frosty ground, and with the shedding of his blood, Gawain was no longer obliged to anything the Green Knight demanded. He sprang to his feet, drawing his sword, ready to sell his life dearly.
But a change was coming over the Green Knight. His green colour was fading; he was shrinking, shrinking to a size of human proportions, though still a big man for all that. Gawain could hardly believe his eyes. There before him stood Bertilak.
“You have done well, Gawain of the Table Round,” he was saying through his laughter.
“What is the reading of this riddle,” demanded Gawain.
“First, you must know that this adventure was the notion of the old lady that you saw in the chapel at my castle. She is Morgan le Fay, and it was she who wished to test the honour and integrity of the Table Round. If Arthur’s knights are to work for the good of the land of Britain, they must be worthy of that task. You have shown that the knights of the Round Table are worthy men indeed.
“We made a bargain. You were to give me the best of what you won in the castle, while I was to give you the best of what I won in the hunt. On the first day, you greeted me with a kiss, which was the best of what you gained in the castle, and I gave you a haunch of venison. Just so. The second day, you greeted me with kisses twain, which was what you gained that day, and I gave you the flitch of bacon. But on the third day, ah. You greeted me with three kisses, but you said nothing of the green girdle. For that I gave you the punishment that you feel on your neck now.”
Gawain felt shame pricking his brow and the backs of his hands. It was true. He had not remained true to the bargain as it was agreed! He had kept silent about the girdle at the lady’s request!
“Do not reproach yourself, Gawain,” Bertilak said, “I doubt there is a man in Christendom who could do what you have done in this adventure. You are indeed a worthy knight!”
“Ah, but reproach myself I do!” said Gawain; “I did not keep to the bargain, and I am all unworthy.”
“Not so, neither, but a man worthiest to sit at the Table Round. Go back to Camelot, Gawain, and tell how the adventure played itself out.”
Gawain turned his horse’s head, and sadly made his way southwards to Camelot.
When he arrived, he told the whole tale of the adventure, leaving nothing out, especially what he perceived to be his greatest failing, keeping dumb about the green girdle.
“Nay,” said Arthur, “Bertilak was right. No man could have done what you did, Gawain, and no man here dare reproach you for remaining silent about the green girdle. The adventure is yours, and the honour of the Round Table is upheld, though my sister Morgan will give us other tests in the future, which we must meet with the courage and steadfastness that you have shown. From henceforth, all knights of the Table Round shall wear a green baldrick to their shields in honour of the adventure, and in honour of you. Honi soit qui mal y pense! Evil to him who evil thinks.”
And thus the adventure was ended.