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  • Michael Smith

Nobut an old Cave – the power and meaning of the Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Gib Hill Barrow Derbyshire
Gib Hill in Derbyshire - an inspiration for the Green Chapel?

One of the most dramatic moments in the Middle English alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is when Sir Gawain finally meets his nemesis at the Green Chapel. What makes this episode so remarkable is the portrayal of the Green Chapel itself, and how it impacts on the hero.

Sir Gawain the devout

If one considers that the Gawain-poet (also known as the Pearl-poet) wrote at least three other texts of a profoundly religious nature (Pearl, Patience, Cleanness), his presentation of the Green Chapel is the antithesis of religious experience.

Gawain himself is positioned by the poet as devout, frequently praying to Mary for guidance and bearing her face on the inside of his shield.

We also see him as flawed; he is damned by his own powers of semi-flirtatious 'luf-talking' (resulting in his temptation by Lady Bertilak), and condemned by his knightly class (proud in accepting the irrational beheading challenge).

When the day dawns for him to make his appointment at the Green Chapel, it is cold, snowing bitterly and friendless to mankind. Even his guide, in the end, refuses to accompany Gawain to the Chapel itself.

Sir Gawain and the Green Chapel - not what he expects

So it is that Gawain eventually follows the bank of a fast-flowing stream to enter a snow-covered valley where nothing like a chapel is visible except for a barrow. In the words of the poet,

Ƿenne he houed and wythhylde his hors at þat tyde
And ofte changed his cher þe chapel to seche.
He seʒ non suche in no syde – and selly hym þoʒt –
Saue, a lyttel on a launde, a lawe as hit were,
A balʒ berʒ bi a bonke þe brymme bysyde,
Bi a forʒ of a flode þat ferked þare;

Green Chapel illumination from Sir Gawain and Green Knight
The Green Chapel as envisaged by the English illuminator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

(Then he stopped and reined in his horse, and looked this way and that to see if he could see the chapel. He sees none such on no side - which seemed very strange to him - except, a little distance away, something on the plain, a barrow as it were; a smooth and rounded mound beside the water’s edge, by a channel of the stream which passed there.)

A barrow (or lowe/lawe) might seem an acceptable part of the landscape to us but to Gawain it is a dangerous place. He is expecting a building of devotion, a hermitage perhaps, but not a barrow.

The poet contrasts the cold and snow by describing the stream as “boiling”. Gawain ties his horse’s reins to the branch of a tree and walks up to the Chapel. What are we to expect?

Another green world...

The description is like no chapel we have ever heard of, and neither is it familiar to our hero. As the poet says,

Hit hade a hole in þe ende and on ayþer syde,
And ouergrowen with gresse in glodes aywhere,
And al watʒ holʒ inwith, nobot an olde caue
Or a crevisse of an olde cragge – couþe hit noʒt deme
With spelle.

(It had a hole at one end, and one on each side, and was all overgrown everywhere with patches of grass, and was all hollow within, nothing but an old cave, or a crevice of an old crag – he could not find the words to describe it.)

This chapel is the antithesis of Christian devotion yet we know it is the chapel. For Gawain this is a place not of wonder, but of horror. Nought but an old cave, overgrown and devoid of any churchly icons and painting. As Gawain himself says next,

“We! Lorde,” quoþ þe gentyle knyʒt,
“Wheþer þis be þe Grene Chapelle?
Here myʒt aboute mydnyʒt
Ƿe Dele his matynnes telle!”

(“Oh, Lord,” said the gentle knight, “is this the Green Chapel? It seems more like a place where the Devil would sing matins at midnight!”)

The power of these words is immense. This is a place not of hope, but of hopelessness. This is how the poet intended us to envisage the meaning of the chapel. Gawain tells his audience what in all likelihood they felt themselves: the devil lives here.

A landscape of horror

Sir Gawain in Green Chapel
Sir Gawain meets his nemesis in the Green Chapel

The Gawain-poet understood both geography and landscape. In the stanza which follows he describes the Green Knight disappearing down a hole and reappearing at the bottom of the valley. It is thought this description refers to the distinctive karst landscape on the edge of the Staffordshire Roaches as they fall into Dovedale.

Many have identified Lud’s Church in Staffordshire (below) as the “crevisse of an olde cragge” the poet describes. Certainly, this place which is thought once to have witnessed Wycliffite services in the Middle Ages and beyond, exudes a frightening and threatening menace.

Lud's Church Roaches Staffordshire
The astonishing Lud's Church near Flash, Staffordshire

But the poet is clear, the Green Chapel is distinctive within its landscape and not merely a natural feature. It seems, indeed, supernatural. It also has an entrance and two others on either side – it is not just a crevice.

Although some academics have suggested that a 'lawe' can mean a large mound or hill (indeed the poet himself places Bertilak's castle on a 'lawe'), the context of the chapel within the poem is suggestive of something more intimate. The poem's own illuminator (see above), now thought to be nearly contemporary with the author himself, shows it as a hole in the ground - the entrance to hell.

He seems at once to be evoking the appearance of mounds such as Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey or even the (relatively) nearby Gib Hill and its close neighbour, the equally mysterious Arbor Lowe in Derbyshire with its entrances on either side.

Perhaps the Green Chapel was a natural formation which resembled a barrow. At Wetton Mill in the Manifold valley in Dovedale is strange cave-like formation standing alone and whose roof has now collapsed due to acid rain.

Wetton Mill Cave Manifold Valley
Interior of cave at Wetton Mill

This hollow cave seems to have had other exits which now appear filled in by the gradual passage of time. It is also near to a river, shallow enough for the Green Knight to hop over using his axe.

Perhaps the poet was inspired by all these places when he was writing his masterpiece. Come what may, this was a frightening landscape far from God.

In the brevity of those four words, “nobot an olde cave”, we are reminded of the power of minimalism. Dank, dark and devoid of all icons, the very antithesis of medieval church architecture, this lonely barrow set in its snow-covered vale, may well have seemed indeed the place where the Devil sang his deviant matins. It was a terrible place.

Michael Smith, author, translator, printmaker


Read Michael Smith's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Gawain and Green Knight book

Michael Smith's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is available through all the usual outlets.

Signed and personally dedicated hardbound copies of the book, as well as limited copies of the book's original illustrations and other linocut prints (such as the one above) are available directly from Mythical Britain.


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