To Bertilak's house we go
When Gawain rides over the river and through the woods into "contrayes straunge" to find the Green Knight, Bertilak, much of his journey takes place in winter. I don't think it is supposed to be funny. But there is some miserable comedy in the thirty-first section, which is basically a montage of Gawain suffering. I think of this when the weather is terrible and I have to go out in it, and I also think of it at Christmas, because Gawain accepts the Green Knight's challenge at Christmas, and it is about a year later that they meet again. So the following section occurs not long before Christmas.
Many a cliff he climbed in countries strange;
Far removed from his friends, as a stranger, he rides;
At each shore or other water where he passed,
He found a foe before him, but a marvel it was,
And so foul and so fell that it behooved him to fight.
So many marvels in the mountains he found,
It is too difficult to tell of a tenth of them.
Sometimes with dragons he fights, and with wolves also,
Sometimes with wild men that dwelled in the rocks,
Both with bulls and bears and boars other times,
And giants that attacked him from the high rocks;
Had he not been brave and enduring and served the Lord,
Doubtless he would've been killed full often.
For war troubled him not so much, that winter was worse,
When the cold, clear water from the clouds shed,
And froze before it might fall to the pale earth;
Nearly slain with the sleet he slept in his irons
More nights than enough in naked rocks,
There-as clattering from the crest the cold streams rained,
And hung high over his head in hard icicles.
Over the land rides this knight til Christmas Eve,
The knight well that time
Made his complaint to Mary,
That she might advise him where to ride,
And guide him to some dwelling.
I remember my professor pointing out that one word on its own line: alone. Poor Gawain! Sleeping in his armor under icicles (very sensibly spelled in the Middle English poem as "isseikkles") with sleet pouring down on him, thinking, "I am so uncomfortable I would rather be fighting dragons, wolves, bulls, bears, boars, and giants right now," and pleading with the Virgin Mary to find him some kind of shelter. It's funny, and it fulfills the necessary criteria of a Christmas story: there is snow, the hope of warmth, he is definitely alone on his quest (even when he reaches shelter, he is very much on his own whether or not he realizes it), he is in near-constant danger, and there is a nonzero level of supernatural involvement in this story - the Green Knight survives the removal of his head, after all. And this Christmas story has a moral, which I think is not to be arrogant and vapid. But I have mostly forgotten that part. What I remember is lonely Gawain lost in a glittering, icy landscape, regretting every decision he's ever made. I giggle, but I also find it poignant and rather beautiful, and a good reminder that not everyone enjoys the holiday season; for some it is a time of bleak loneliness.
Image: Theodor Kittelsen's Til den groenne ridder ("To the Green Knight")
Text: The text is from a photocopy I have of the Middle English Pearl-poet's version of Gawain and the Green Knight. I do not know what edition it is, so I cannot properly credit it.