Wild West Yorkshire, Sunday 5 December 2010
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THE GREEN MAN on the jetty of the 15th century Gatehouse at Bolton Percy near York is carved in oak, now heavily weathered, but I've drawn him from a fibre-glass cast, made for a restoration appeal. The Green Man is evidently associated with growth and fertility. With his grapevine crown, the Bolton Percy Green Man seems to be a version Bacchus, the god of wine, but in Gawain and the Green Knight the green giant who rides into King Arthur's court carries a bush of holly as a club.
In the story Gawain seems to represent summer, the Green Knight the promise of regrowth at the mid-winter solstice. The two foes have a date for an exchange of blows at the end of twelve months but the story seems to make more sense if they battle it out every six months; at midsummer and midwinter. Gawain would always triumph in midsummer, the Green Knight in midwinter. When the Green Knight is beheaded by Sir Gawain at Arthur's court he calmly picks up his head and leaves, ready to burst into action at the return bout.
In The White Goddess, Robert Graves suggests that the Green Knight is the Holly Knight, Sir Gawain the Oak Knight of Celtic mythology who fight every first of May. He suggests that in Christian tradition St. John the Baptist, who lost his head on St. John's Day, 24 June, took over the role of the Oak Knight, while Jesus was associated with the midwinter festival.
When mocked as King of the Jews (Matthew 27, verse 28), Jesus is made to wear a robe of scarlet. Scarlet dye was obtained from the female scale insect Kermes, Kermes illicis, a distant relative of the cochineal insect, which resembles a holly berry and is found on the evergreen Kermes Oak, Quercus coccifera, of Palestine, also known as the Scarlet-Oak or Holly-Oak. The word crimson comes from the Arabic word for the kermes insect, qirmiz.
Richard Bell, illustrator
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