4.20. Holly and Peace

When the Green Knight enters the hall at Camelot he carries in one hand a bunch of holly and in the other an axe.  Most critics have associated the holly with a peaceful intent.


Bot in his on hande he hade a holyn bobbe
(Þat is grattest in grene when greuez ar bare)
And an axe in his oþer, …

  --Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (206-208)

Savage [SAVAGE56] (p.15) has noted that in the novel Scarsdale (Sir J. Kay-Shuttleworth, London, 1860, p.60-62), centred on the Whalley area, “An emissary was sent out to the workmen from the beleaguered mill, and on his journey he carried a holly-bob as a sign of his peaceful intention, that he might not be stoned or shot.”.  Savage concluded that the use of holly as a symbol of peaceful intentions had a five century existence in the area.  Interestingly, a little further south, Mr. Thornton in Elizabeth Gaskell's “North and South” (1854-5, ch.22) meets his rebellious workmen without any holly, and stones fly.[22]

James Cottrell certainly had strong family connections in the Scarsdale-Whalley area, and it is possible, as Savage claims, that this use of a holly-bob was an old local tradition.

[22] In “Mary Barton” (1848, ch.23), by the same author, a child in danger of death is referred to as a “pearl of price” although the complete Pearl did not appear until 1864 – could it be that Gaskell had read some of the published snippets of the work of the Gawain-Poet in Warton's “The History of English Poetry?  Or is the pearl of price a long-lived local custom?”.