Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

A Literary Detective Walking Weekend

The Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Literary Detective Walking Weekend is based on the search for the location of the Green Chapel in this exceptional fourteenth century poem.

[About Sir Gawain and the Green Knight]

Researchers have found three possible sites for the Green Chapel in the Peak District in Staffordshire.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, will be to walk and explore the area using textual and physical evidence to locate and evaluate the possible sites.

This weekend is ideal for walking, writing, photography, and recharging energy - as well as literary detective work.

Sir Gawain, by Howard Pyle from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903)

Sir Gawain

The richly symbolic narrative of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight consists of a journey and a test. In the same spirit, we will undertake a journey, and test the possible sites for the Green Chapel.

The (anonymous) author’s use of rare topographical and dialect words have enabled researchers, (see Brewer & Gibson: A Companion to the Gawain Poet (1997) to locate the landscape of the Green Chapel in the Peak District. For example, topographical terms used in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appear in local place-names such as Knar, Knotbury and Flash. There is also an Axe Edge Green.

The three most probable sites for the Green Chapel are:

  • ‘Thor’s Cave’, six miles east of Leek, above the river Manifold, also called 'Thorshole' meaning 'Fiend's House' ('Thor' is Norse)
  • ‘Wetton Mill Cave’, about a mile north of ‘Thor’s Cave’ in the same valley, and
  • ‘Lud’s Church’, an open cavern on the Staffordshire Roaches, north of Leek ('Lud' is Celtic)

Following directions in lines 2144-48, Sir Gawain descends into a valley, surveying a scene of natural wilderness with high banks above and cascading stream below and reaching skyward a group of ‘ruze knocked knarrez with knorned stonez’ (line 2166).

The Text
(Gawain saw nothing) but high hills, and steep, on both sides
And rough, knuckled crags with rugged stones;
The skies grazed off the jutting rocks, it seemed to him. (lines 2165-67)

Except, a little way off, across a lawn, a mound as it were,
A smooth barrow on the side of a slope next to the water,
By the channel of a stream that forked there,
The brook blubbered in it as if it were boiling. (lines 2171-74)

It (the cave) had a hole at the end and on each side,
And overgrown with grass in patches everywhere,
And it was entirely hollow inside, nothing but an old cave,
Or a crevice of an old crag, he could not say which it was. (lines 2180-84)

Then from that high hill he (Gawain) heard, in a hard rock
Beyond the brook, in a hillside, an exceedingly loud noise.
(lines 2199-2200)

And then he (the Green Knight) comes around a crag, and
comes out of a hole,
Whirling out of a corner with a fell weapon. (lines 2221-22)

The Evidence
Sir Gawain discerns a half cave, half crevice, hollow inside with tufts of grass clinging to its rocky sides. This could be an ancient burial mound, which might appropriately be called a ‘chapel’. Sir Gawain himself would have to do some detective work to find his way through the landscape unless the Chapel was a well-known local feature.

Just as Bertilak’s castle is only two miles from the Green Chapel (line 1078), Swythamley Grange is only two miles from Lud’s Church.

Swythamley sits on an elevation overlooking the Leek valley south towards Dieulacres Abbey and east towards the rocky escarpment known as The Roaches. Once known as ‘Knight’s law’, a name that recalls the poet’s word ‘lawe’ to describe its setting in line 765, it is surrounded by a forest, known in the Middle Ages as the High Forest, where hunting used to occur.

Against the Lud’s Church site there is no nearby stream or brook.

Thor’s Cave, however, is near to a stream (river Manifold) and close to Swythamley. It appears as a ‘smooth barrow’ and its location ‘on the side of a slope next to the water’(2172).

It has openings at two ends and is hollow inside. However, it is mid-way between a proper cave and a crevice. Lud’s Church has entrances at either end and is more of a gorge or open crevice.

Scholars have noted the resemblance between the Green Chapel and female genitalia, drawing parallels between the landscape features of ravine, mound and openings to vulva, mons pubis and other body orifices. This echoes the themes of seduction in the text and makes the Green Chapel, with Morgan le Fay being the instigator of the Green Knight’s game, a site of feminine power.

According to the modern antiquarian, Julian Cope, ‘Lud’s Church’ is a natural temple that used to have a strange idol, a white figurehead known locally as Lady Lud, or Lewd Lud, on the rocks out of reach of visitors. He also links Lud’s Church with the Bridestones, or Brigit’s stones, an enormous chambered and wrecked megalithic tomb to the east of Congleton.

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