4.5. The Fiend of the Green Chapel

The description which is given by Gawain's guide of the fiend who inhabits the Green Chapel is not consonant with the descriptions of either the Green Knight or Bertilak.  Everywhere else in the poem the Green Knight is presented almost as an example of knighthood, (apart from his greenness of course).  The guide speaks of the inhabitant of the Green Chapel as a fiend who loves to kill anyone who comes near him, even priests, and has been doing so for a long time.  John Burrow expressed this very clearly


The odd thing here is the way the Green Knight is presented as an ancient and well-known local hazard

  --J A BurrowA Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, p.119

and goes on to suggest the Green Knight as described by the guide should be identified with “Death”.  Surely a simpler explanation is that the guide knows nothing of the quest of Sir Gawain (Sir Gawain had said nothing of about the nature of his mission whilst at Hautdesert and only insisted that he must be at the Green Chapel on New Year's day), and rather than describing the Green Knight, he is recounting a local legend of a fiend in human shape who inhabits this wild valley so close to Hautdesert.  Moreover the guide makes no mention of the greenness of the fiend.  When this discrepancy has attracted any attention, it has generally been passed over as an attempt to further test the knighthood of Gawain by offering him an escape from danger.

James Winny [WINNY92] in his gloss on line 2106 “For he is a mon methles, and mercy non vses”, notes that “This description of the Green Knight is markedly unlike the exuberantly playful figure who demands a Christmas game of Arthur.”  One might quibble about the use of the term “exuberantly playful” - certainly this was not the impression received by Arthur's knights - but the point is taken that the description given by the guide does not fit the Green Knight.  Elsewhere in the poem the Green Knight is described in terms generally applicable to a typical knight and he even says “Þat I passe as in pes”.


Ȝe may be siker bi this braunch þat I bere here
Þat I passe as in pes and no plyȝt seche;
For had I founded in fere, in feȝtyng wyse,
I haue a hauberghe at home and a helme boþe,
A schelde and a sharpe spere, schinande bryȝt,
Ande oþer weppenes to welde, I wene wel, als;
Bot for I wolde no were, my wedez ar softer.
Bot if þou be so bold as alle burnez tellen,
Þou wyl grant me godly þe gomen þat I ask

  --Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (265-273)

The description of the the inhabitant of the Green Chapel given by the guide provided by Bertilak, to direct Sir Gawain on New Year's morning is an almost complete contradiction of all that we know of either the Green Knight at Arthur's court, or of Bertilak either at home at Hautdesert or in green shape at the chapel or Arthur's court.  The guide's description is not just a passing reference, he refers to the “Chapel Grene” by name and gives a lengthy description of its inhabitant and a history of his activities in the past.  The Green Chapel has been there a long time, and so has its occupant.


Þer wonez a wyghe in þat waste, þe worst upon erþe,
For he is stiffe and sturne, and to strike louies,
And more he is þan any mon upon myddelerde,
And his body bigger þen þe best fowre
Þat ar in Arþurez hous, Hestor, oþer oþer.
He cheuez þat chaunce at þe Chapel Grene,
Þer passes none bi þat place so proude in his armes
Þat he ne dyngez hym to deþe with dynt of his honde;
For he is a mon methles, and mercy non vses.
For be hit chorle oþer chaplayn þat bi þe chapel rydes,
Monk oþer masseprest, oþer any mon elles,
Hym þynk as queme hym to quelle as quyk go hymseluen.

  --Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2098-2109)

This is not a description of the Green Knight who says


Lif I deliuer had bene, a boffet paraunter
I couþe wroþeloker haf waret, to þe haf wroȝt anger.
Fyrst I mansed þe muryly with a mynt one

  --Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2343-2345)

nor is it of a man who has acted only once, and that at the “Þurȝ myþt of Morgne la Faye (2446)” who


'Ho wayned be vpon þis wyse to your wynne halle
For to assay þe surquidré, ȝif hit soth were

  --Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2456-2457)

Contrast the guide's description with that of the “beuer-hwed” Bertilak as he greets Sir Gawain on his arrival at Hautdesert


Þenne þe lorde of þe lede lotez fro his chambre
For to mete wyth menske þe mon on þe flor.
He sayde, 'Ȝe ar welcum to welde, as yow lykez,
Þat here is; al is yowre awen to haue at yowre wylle
               And welde.' 
          'Graunt mercy', quoþ Gawayn;
          'Þer Kryst hit yow forȝelde.'
          As frekez þat semed fayn
          Ayþer oþer in armez con felde.
Gawan glyȝt on þe gome þat godly hym gret,
And þuȝt hit a bolde burne þat þe burȝ aȝte,
A hoge haþel for þe nonez and of hyghe eldee;
Brode, bryȝt watz his berde and al beuer-hwed,
Sturne, stif on þe stryþþe on stalworth schonkez,
Felle face as þe fyre, and fre of his speche;

  --Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (833-847)

nor is it a description of the green challenger at king Arthur's court - except possibly in his size


Þer halles in at þe halle dor an aglich mayster,
On þe most on þe molde on mesure hyghe;
Fro þe swyre to þe swange so sware and so þik,
And his lyndes and his lymes so long and so grete,
Half-etayn in erde I hope þat he were,
Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene,
And þat the myriest in his muckel þat myȝt ride;
For of bak and of brest al were his bodi sturne,
Both his wombe and his wast were worthily smale,
And alle his fetures folȝande in forme, þat he hade,
               Ful clene.
          For wonder of his hwe men hade,
          Set in his semblaunt sene;
          He ferde as freke were fade,
          And oueral enker-grene.

  --Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (136-150)

It seems to me that although the guide is aware of the Green Chapel and the local legend of its inhabitant, he is completely unaware of the nature of the task facing Gawain, and is simply trying to divert him from an encounter with the local fiend said to live in that wild valley.  We should look for a candidate for the role of the Gawain-Poet who is familiar with such a valley and legend.

James Cottrell was a member of a family with headquarters at Whalley, which was connected to Lancaster and other family estates at Catterall and Heton in Lonsdale by the very old (certainly pre-fourteenth century) route across Bowland Forest, which, at its wildest point, climbs up Fiendsdale.  At the foot of Fiendsdale is a very old stopping place, Langden Castle, part chapel, part prison, part resting place on the old road from Whalley to Lancaster.  The stopping place was in existence in the fourteenth century, and was within a mile or two of the lost Brennand chapel mentioned by John Lyndelay in de Statu Blagborneshire [WHITAKER72] in the mid-fourteenth century.  Above Langden Castle is the rocky outcrop of the (natural) Holden Castle, and the Green Well above that.  The local legend of Fiendsdale (and local legend there must have been to merit the name,) the old chapel-cum-prison and the lost Brennand chapel fulfil the role of images used by the James Cottrell to portray the fiend and the Green Chapel as described by the guide of Sir Gawain.