From Manannán to Bercilak: The Green Knight and the Gaelic Otherworld-god-in-disguise


The nature and origin of the Green Knight, from the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, have been popular subjects of scholarly speculation for centuries. Some scholars have tried to identify him as a representation of one of a number of historical fourteenth century individuals. [1] Others have stressed his divine nature; he has been understood as a tree-god by some scholars, a more general vegetation-god, a storm-god, a sun-god, and even the devil himself. George Lyman Kittredge, for his part, suggested that the Green Knight might be an example of the "Demon of Vegetation" or the "wild man." These various interpretations are powerful, exotic, and recurrent, veritable hydra’s heads of speculation (though they multiply with or without decapitation). The pristine mythic significance and/or historic identity of the Green Knight are subjects as irresistible as they are inconclusive and irreconcilable. [2] When scholars have linked SGGK and Celtic literature and then extrapolated the mythological origins of the Green Knight, the results have often been both bold and disconcertingly tenuous:

Other details from Bricriu’s Feast make it apparent that the shape-shifter was a sky-god; as the dark-mantled wielder of a noisy axe, he personified the storm; as the light-bringer, who left his revolving home at night for a journey to the east and returned in the morning, he was manifestly the sun. [3]

That the Green Knight has Celtic sources and analogues is a long-standing, and still widely accepted theory. [4] But the preceding interpretation, which is part of an analysis that connects the Green Knight with Cu Roí, is just the kind that C. S. Lewis so strongly and convincingly objected to in his paper "The Anthropological Approach." As Lewis pointed out, the deep (and deeply speculative) mythological or anthropological origins of the Green Knight as a "sky-god" or "storm-god" give us little real insight into his role in the poem. Lewis overstated his case, however, when he claimed that "there has been nothing really like him in fiction before or since". [5] Actually, there are a number of characters like the Green Knight in medieval Celtic literature. They are "like" him on two levels: they have similar characteristics, and they have similar functions in the tales, though they are not, of course, identical with him. >

The closest analogues to, and possible archetypes for, the Green Knight are found in medieval Irish and Scottish tales which are best referred to as Gaelic rather than Celtic. These Gaelic Otherworld gods are similar to the Green Knight in that they sometimes appear to be aristocratic and at other times bizarre and even rude; they are often associated with the colours green and gold. They manifest supernatural power, including power over life and death, reanimation, and sometimes even the ability to reattach severed human heads. They shift shapes, and perform eerie tricks, and are associated (via their spouses) with sexual temptation. But like the Green Knight, at the end of the stories they are revealed to be very different from what they at first appeared; at the end of these tales, when the Otherworld god is identified, it is also discovered that he has tested the hero and instructed him in wisdom and humility.

The Otherworld god is a role or function, rather than an identity, however. The closest parallel for "identity", as distinct from "role", for the Green Knight in medieval Gaelic literature is Manannán mac Lir, the sometime god of the Irish Sea and lord of the Otherworld, who appears most often as a beneficent Otherworld-god-in-disguise. In some tales, especially the earlier ones, Manannán appears disguised as a noble mortal king, but in later tales, as in a number of 15th century sources, he appears in bizarre, horrible, and even comical disguise.

While the Gaelic Otherworld-god-in-disguise, generally, and Manannán particularly are instructive analogues for the Green Knight, I think that they are more than that. The correspondences can best be explained as the result of direct influence of Early Irish tales on Middle English tales. One possible line of transmission in this case is from Ireland and Scotland into Lancashire and Cheshire (perhaps via the Isle of Man).

The answer to the riddle of the nature of the Green Knight, however, is not easily solved from within the context of Arthurian literature – at least not the Arthurian tradition of late medieval England – the author of the poem didn’t even really know who or what the Green Knight was. There is no precedent for him in English. But readers familiar with medieval Gaelic stories can easily recognize the Green Knight in type and identity. The Green Knight is clearly an Otherworld-god-in-disguise. It is also clear from both SGGK itself, and from the Gaelic analogues that the Green Knight is not a malevolent figure, but rather a tester and benefactor, who teaches rather than harms Gawain. The role of Otherworld-god-in-disguise in the Gaelic tradition is most often played by Manannán mac Lir. In fact, what allows audiences to solve this sort of identity riddle is that Manannán appears in similar disguise relatively frequently. Readers and audiences learn to look out for him.

The characters that I am promoting as analogues for the Green Knight are known as "Otherworld gods." I should draw an important distinction here. When I use the term Otherworld god in this discussion, I am referring not to a wispy pagan deity but to a particular literary character, and by Otherworld-god-in-disguise I am referring to this character in a specific role. [6] The tale type in Irish literature to which the Otherworld god is most essential is the echtra or "Otherworld adventure." The interaction between the Otherworld god and the hero, which is a primary characteristic of an echtra, is "the essential pattern underlying a wide and varied selection of Irish tales and episodes". [7] As Tomás O’Cathasaigh points out in his book The Heroic Biography of Cormac mac Airt, there is a ‘two-fold typology’ in the relationship between the hero and the Otherworld god. The Otherworld god can function either as a villain or a benefactor in relationship to the hero. [8] Such is the pattern which also underlies SGGK.

Bricriu’s Feast is one example of an echtra and it is the most famous Celtic analogue for SGGK. Kittredge was one of the first to discuss the important link between the beheading scene in SGGK and those in Bricriu’s Feast. Later scholars, including Loomis and Buchanan, gave more detailed studies of this connection and posited Cu Roí as the Irish equivalent of the Green Knight. The parallels between the beheading scene of Bricriu’s Feast and SGGK are indeed striking, and Cu Roí’s function in that tale is remarkably similar to that of the Green Knight. We should be aware, however, that within medieval Irish literature Cu Roí is Cú Chulainn’s traditional enemy. While in Bricriu’s Feast Cu Roí functions as the Otherworld god as benefactor, first testing Cú Chulainn and then granting him the champion’s portion, this is by no means his customary role. [9]

Previous scholarship has documented the parallels between SGGK and Bricriu’s Feast, as well as those between the Green Knight and Cu Roí, but has evidently overlooked other relevant echtrae. The most important of these tales is Cuach Cormaic ("Cormac’s Cup"), which appears in two manuscripts from the early fifteenth century: The Book of Ballymote (circa 1407), and The Yellow Book of Lecan (circa 1414).  [10]

Correspondences between SGGK and Cormac’s Cup occur on a number of levels. Both stories are in essence about "trawthe" ("fidelity, truth"). In both stories the heroes are first tricked into an Otherworld journey where they are tested and subsequently taught the importance of truth and humility (both Gawain and Cormac also learn that appearances can be deceptive). The heroes of both stories are given a magical talisman, Gawain a green girdle and Cormac a cup. Both the Green Knight and Manannán function as Otherworld-god’s-in-disguise; at first they seem to be evil trickster figures but turn out to be benefactors.

There are many detailed correspondences between the two stories, and their essential structures are nearly identical: the hero is tricked into visiting the Otherworld where he is tested, taught a lesson, and then given his freedom. Among their further similarities are the gifts the hero receives which enable him to remember his journey and also augment his ability to tell the truth. The "lack" that is a motivating factor in both stories is implied in the lack of judgment used by the protagonists in making rash bargains with noble looking but strange men. Though Gawain, for his part, seems to agree to the pact with the stranger in order to save Arthur, Cormac, who is both the King and the hero, and as such combines the roles of Arthur and Gawain, has no excuse for his mistake. [11] The list of physical similarities between the characters is substantial. In both stories the hero meets a strange warrior who is not armed for battle. The one, the Green Knight, is "shoeless with gold spurs," and the other, Manannán, wears golden sandals. Both of these characters carry an unusual branch. In both tales the mysteries encountered in the Otherworld are explained near the end by the trickster-turned-benefactor. In both tales the hero meets the man he has met earlier but does not recognize him. In both tales the Otherworld king is quite handsome and has a beautiful wife. In both tales the hero passes through "an apparently magic mist" into the Otherworld. [12] While a beheading episode is not present in Cormac’s Cup, an axe does appear in both tales, and severed heads are located in wells in a later version of Cormac’s Cup. The immortal pig of Cormac’s Cup which is inexhaustible in that it can be slaughtered one day and yet reappear whole the next, is similar in this respect to the indestructible, seemingly self-regenerating, Green Knight.

The many similarities between SGGK and Cormac’s Cup are not merely cosmetic; the plot and function of the main characters are also parallel. These parallels allow us to understand the underlying meaning of SGGK and the function of the Green Knight. The Green Knight functions in SGGK, like Manannán in Cormac’s Cup, as the Otherworld-god-as-benefactor. He is, according to this interpretation, trying to do Gawain some good, to teach him about truth and humility.  [13] This relationship between the hero and the Otherworld-god-in-disguise is characteristically made clear only at the end of the story. The dénouement of the type of tale we have in mind is marked by the revelation of the purpose and name of the supernatural character who has been portrayed as an antagonist but is, in reality, a benefactor.

This character is the Otherworld god, and as Douglas Hyde and Robin Flower have observed, his name in medieval Irish literature is customarily Manannán. [14] In SGGK, however, the revelation of the nature and name of the Green Knight as Otherworld god makes little sense in an Arthurian context. Who is Bercilak? The explanation that Morgan le Fay really hoped that Guenevere would die of fright upon seeing the Green Knight is not consistent with the theme, tone, or nature of the poem.

The euhemerisation of the Green Knight is not, however, inexplicable. In fact, it makes a certain amount of sense. Even in medieval Celtic literature the function of the Otherworld god was subject both to deliberate modification at the hands of the Christian monks who recorded the early texts, and to various alterations and ramifications in the folklore. Indeed, the Otherworld god underwent a number of distinctive transformations in the Irish tradition. He was, for example, euhemerised, demonised, and/or made comically absurd. The Green Knight, however, retains much of his power and dignity; he is quite obviously supernatural, though he is not a "devil", and although he is bizarre, he is not primarily a comic figure, even though his laughter is one of the distinctive features which link his two identities.

The role of the Otherworld god, in this case the Green Knight, also depends on the particular needs of the hero. One of Gawain’s principal faults in SGGK is that he is overly coy. He is afraid of making a bad impression, of damaging his courtly reputation and of offending the lady, to such an extent that he does not even have the gumption to ask her to leave his chamber. The Green Knight, on the other hand, is less inhibited. Ironically, he makes a consciously bad impression on Gawain and thus tests his courtly demeanour. In reality, as the poem eventually reveals, the Green Knight is not a moss-coloured maniac but a handsome and well mannered king. [15] Part of the lesson Gawain learns is that he should not judge people or events solely by their outward appearances, nor should he present himself with such pious pretension.

Notwithstanding the many important links between the two, it must be admitted that the Green Knight is unlike the Manannán of Cormac’s Cup in a number of important respects. One conspicuous contrast is that in Cormac’s Cup Manannán is described minimally as a "staid and noble" looking character; his disguise is a seemly one and his strangeness, while mentioned, is not elaborated. While the Green Knight is one of the most bizarre characters in English literature, the Manannán of Cormac’s Cup is comparatively blasé. On the other hand, the outlandish appearance of the Green Knight may be evidence of Celtic derivation.  [16] In any event, the appearance of Otherworld gods in Irish literature, as evidenced in the description of Cu Roí in Bricriu’s Feast and of Manannán a number of other tales, is often quite outlandish.

Manannán, in fact, undergoes a number of transformations in Irish literature which may help us to resolve some of the most significant differences between the depiction of him in Cormac’s Cup and that of the Green Knight in SGGK. The two predominant processes which affect Manannán’s role in Early Irish literature are euhemerisation and caricature. He is, on the one hand, euhemerised into a brilliant and somewhat prescient sea captain who is able to predict the weather, and, on the other, caricatured as a clownish figure whose appearance and antics dramatically belie his powerful supernatural identity. In the latter sort of tales, however, the Otherworld god’s identity is usually revealed at the end of the story. [17]

It is the second of these portrayals, the caricature of the Otherworld god that is most pertinent to the role of the Green Knight in SGGK. Manannán plays this role in four Middle Irish tales. In lay 61 from Duanaire Finn: The Book of the Lays of Fionn a collection of Fenian poems recorded in seventeenth century manuscripts, but linguistically dated to the fifteenth century, Manannán appears as a gruagach, a "hairy man", "an enchanter", "a warrior of strange appearance" – or in this case, a great big hairy-scary with a sword stuck through his head:

We saw approaching us in the plain a great warrior of soldierly size. A flawless sword was through his head so that it stretched from ear to ear. [18]

Near the end of the tale, after the warrior has been responsible for a good deal of mischief to Finn and his men, we discover the name of the trickster and everything is set to rights:

I am Manannán mac Lir; my wrath and enmity against you were great. I left my home for this, that you might all fall at one another’s hands...

He drew the sword out of his own head (though that was a bold proceeding). His head he left whole when he had drawn it out: its blade he measured alongside Conan. Then Conan arose whole from the spot where he had been thrown down. [19]

Here again we see Manannán playing a role which is very similar to that of the Green Knight. He appears mysteriously and seems at first to be villainous and to cause distress and potential death to the heroes, but in the end he serves to help the protagonists by teaching them a lesson and restoring them to health. We also find a caricature of the Otherworld god here; his appearance is grotesque and his behaviour is outrageous. Manannán plays a similar part in other Irish tales such as Eachtra [Imtheachta] An Cheithearnaigh Chaoilriabhaigh ("The Adventure of the Kern in the Narrow Stripes") Tóraighecht in Ghilla Dhecair ("The Pursuit of the Troublesome Churl"), and Bodach in Chóta Lachtna ("The Churl in the Grey-Coloured Coat"). [20] These tales are roughly contemporary with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. [21]

Manannán’s role in the first tale, Adventure of the Kern in the Narrow Stripes, is central to the narrative, and suggestively relevant to the role of the Green Knight in SGGK. A peculiar echo of SGGK occurs in Adventure of the Kern in the Narrow Stripes when a great number of men are killed with axes and later restored to health by the kern. The basic scenario of the tale, which is repeated with a number of variations in the course of the story, is that a mischievous and foolish looking character appears from nowhere, wreaks considerable havoc when he is mistreated, and, in the end, restores all the wounded and dead men to health before he mysteriously disappears.

A second tale, The Churl in the Grey-Coloured Coat, also contains important comparative evidence for SGGK. In it the Bodach is a large, lumbering, bad-mannered churl who, despite his inauspicious appearance, turns out to be the powerful Manannán. [22] As in the previous tale, he tests the hero’s generosity and his ability to see through pretence and disguise. At the end of the tale the Bodach is revealed to be a benefactor rather than a villain. Manannán has become especially absurd in The Churl in the Grey-Coloured Coat. His overriding characteristics are his flouting of conventional dress and behaviour. He has an intense love of devouring blackberries by the bushel, is a shabby dresser, and is generally impolite and unkempt (in the Manx version he is actually described as being "yellow"). [23] Nevertheless, at the conclusion Manannán demonstrates considerable supernatural force and he is associated, as he is in other tales in Gaelic literature, with sea and storm. Furthermore, The Churl in the Grey-Coloured Coat shares a similar structure with both Cormac’s Cup and Duanaire Finn 61, but it is closer to the latter tale (and to SGGK) in that the disguise which the Otherworld god assumes in this story is bizarre rather than dignified. What separates this narrative from most others of this type is that in all the other tales Manannán transforms himself back into a more seemly aspect at the end; in The Churl in the Grey-Coloured Coat, however, he retains his disguise as if it were his true shape.

The Gilla Decair, the titular character of the third of these tales, is an ugly and mischievous fellow who appears one day at Finn’s court and proceeds to engage himself as a member of Finn’s troop, and then, just as suddenly and unexpectedly as he arrived, to disappear. While the riddle of the identity of the Kern and Bodach are straightforwardly resolved for the reader, the identity of the Gilla Decair in The Pursuit of the Troublesome Churl remains controversial. He is not specifically revealed to be Manannán in the tale, but Manannán’s name is mentioned portentously in one episode, and a number of clues in the story point to him as the Gilla Decair’s ultimate identity.

We know from his earliest appearances in the literature that Manannán is associated with shape-shifting, that he is king of the Otherworld, and that he is often associated with sea imagery. We have seen him in the role of Otherworld-god-in-disguise before, both as a handsome noble in Cuach Cormaic, and as a grotesque caricature in Duanaire Finn 61, Adventure of the Kern in the Narrow Stripes, and The Churl in the Grey-Coloured Coat. From the minute he appears in The Pursuit of the Troublesome Churl, we suspect that the Gilla Decair may be Manannán - he is dingy, dirty, rude, and strangely misshapen like the Bodach, and the name that he gives, like those used by the Kern in Adventure of the Kern in the Narrow Stripes, is clearly a pseudonym. When the Gilla Decair ("Troublesome Churl") lifts his coat up over his haunches and prepares to rush out over the sea like a windstorm, we can already guess with whom the Fenians are dealing. Further details of the description of the Gilla Deacair reinforce our educated guess that he is Manannán. Other hints to the Kern’s identity include the long rod he carries, which may be a comic version of the magic branch Manannán carries in Cuach Cormaic and a reflex of the one the Green Knight carries in SGGK (a magic branch is mentioned later in The Pursuit of the Troublesome Churl as well). Furthermore, his approach is accompanied by the "noise of a mighty ocean wave," and his manner of locomotion, which conveys a wave-like undulation or the tacking of a sailing ship, also hints at his identity.

Although, the final name which the character, who is referred to as king of the land under wave, gives to the Fenians is Ábhartach mac Ildathaig. The name Ábhartach reads here like one more forainm or "soubriquet " for Manannán, rather than an actual identity. The name may be a version of the noun abartach "performer, trickster" and Ildathaig from il "many" + dathach "colours." "The multi-coloured trickster" looks to be a description of a particular role rather than an identification of a mythological character. The name Ábhartach appears only rarely in Irish literature and then almost always in close proximity to Manannán. [24]

The Ábhartach from The Pursuit of the Troublesome Churl, like the Bodach from The Churl in the Grey-Coloured Coat may pertain obliquely to the scholarly debate surrounding the origin of the name Bercilak which some scholars read as Bertilak and a few others as Bernlak. [25] Alice Buchanan postulated that the word bachlach, which is a synonym for the later Irish word bodach, has been mutated into the name Bercilak:

The gigantic tester in the Champion’s Bargain is frequently referred to as a bachlach, a word meaning a "herdsman," and pronounced as a trisyllable, like an imaginary German word bachelach. In GGK the tester’s name is finally revealed as Sir Bercilak. Hulbert, who discovered the correct MS. reading of this name, also showed that the same name appears to be assigned to a huge old knight in the False Guinevere story, whose name is given in Fueterer’s Lancelot as Barzelack and in the English prose Merlin as Bertelak. Even though the printed texts of the French Vulgate Merlin, which is the presumptive source of both these English and German romances, give Bercelai and Bertolais, there is a possibility that the original French form was Barcilak -- about as close an approximation as one could make in French to the Irish sound bachlach. [26]

The relationship between the names gilla, bodach, and bachlach implies some sort of corresponding relationship between the gruagach, the gilla decair, the bodach and Bercilak. Perhaps the words in the second set, like those in the first, are essentially synonymous. [27] The implication is that Bercilak, if it is indeed an Anglo-Norman form of bachlach or even if it is simply a creative French soubriquet intending "carl" (as in The Carl of Carlisle see note 31), is a name generally analogous and specifically relevant to the names of the Irish Otherworld god; perhaps Bercilak too is fundamentally simply an alias. [28] The fact that soubriquets are used in the Irish sources may imply that the true name of the Otherworld god had a somewhat taboo status in the tradition. It is certainly also true that the aliases provide an added element of suspense to the tales. One of the most interesting aspects of the echtra is the riddle of the true identity of the mysterious but uncannily familiar stranger who motivates the action of the tales. But in order for the revelation to be fully effective, the traditional role of the Otherworld god must be understood by the audience, and his identity implied in his description and behaviour. >

But the Otherworld god function of the Green Knight in SGGK is disguised not only by the fact that there is no precedent for that role in English literature, but also because the Green Knight is revealed at the end of the tale not to be a powerful supernatural character, but rather a mere mortal whose apparent powers were the result of someone else’s witch-craft. The second major process which affects Manannán in Irish literature, and in turn reflects light upon the nature of the Green Knight in SGGK is euhemerisation; the process by which myths and/or mythical characters are interpreted as deriving from historical mortals. Manannán is most clearly euhemerised in early Irish texts called Cóir Anmann and Sanas Cormaic, where he is described as a famous trader from the Isle of Man. [29]

The portrayal of Manannán as a mortal associated with the Isle of Man is suggestive in respect to SGGK for two main reasons. First of all, it demonstrates that the supernatural powers of Irish Otherworld god characters could be effectively rationalized in the literature; secondly it introduces a possible line of transmission of Early Irish tales into Middle English via the Isle of Man. Certainly, both Middle Irish and Middle English were spoken on Man (as they were in Ireland) in the late fourteenth century. In fact, according to the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, the English dialect spoken on the Isle of Man in the later Middle Ages was the same as that spoken in the North West Midlands and in Cheshire -- the very dialect in which SGGK is written. [30] Dialect evidence must, of course, be used with extreme caution, and unfortunately very little of the history of the Isle of Man at this period is recorded in Gaelic or Middle English records. It is possible, however, that both Middle English and Middle Irish speakers lived in relative proximity on the island, and it seems safe to assume that a certain amount of bilingualism would have been necessary in such an environment. We might also assume that such bilingualism may have resulted in the transmission of stories from Middle Irish into Middle English and vice versa. [31]

It is tempting to speculate, in fact, that the Isle of Man, which is traditionally associated with Manannán in medieval Irish literature, may be the very place where the various traditions, Celtic, Norse, Middle English, and Norman French might have been synthesized into the SGGK story. The Isle of Man and the king of the Isle of Man play important roles in Middle English reflexes of SGGK such as The Turke and Gowin. The Isle of Man might also have been associated with the dangerous realm into which Gawain travels to fulfil his contract, because the Island was used as a place of imprisonment and execution by English monarchs in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. [32] However, even if the transmission and/or synthesis of the tale did not occur on the Isle Man, there are manifold, though tenuous, threads linking SGGK with the Isle. [33] These connections between the Isle of Man and versions of the SGGK story, and those between Manannán and the Green Knight are mutually reinforcing and yet ultimately more tantalizing than conclusive.

The similarities between the characters in SGGK and those in Gaelic literature, combined with the fact that there is no obvious lineage for the Green Knight’s role in English literature, make it more likely that the role of Otherworld-god-in-disguise was borrowed into Middle English rather than Manannán and the Green Knight share a common Indo-European ancestor. The facts which suggest direct influence, with a plausible nexus at the Isle of Man, can be summarized as follows: the Green Knight plays a role in SGGK which is very similar to that of the Otherworld god in Early Irish literature; Manannán is the most traditional identity for the Irish Otherworld god; he is particularly associated with the Isle of Man in Early Irish tradition; echtrae with Manannán in the role of Otherworld god may have been told in late medieval Man; the English dialect of SGGK was spoken and written in an area inclusive of the Isle of Man; speakers of Middle Irish and Middle English may have been in relative proximity during the fourteenth century on that island and may have had some level of intercourse; and, finally, reflexes of the SGGK tale, such as The Turke and Gowin, contain specific associations with the Isle of Man. While none of these facts, either in isolation or even in combination, are sufficient to prove contact, they, nevertheless, demonstrate the possibility of direct influence and the certainty of association.

The association between the Green Knight and Manannán is also quite secure, and the possibility of direct influence is a real one. Even the rationalization of the Green Knight as Bercilak is analogous to one development in the portrayal of Manannán in Middle Irish literature. Even as Manannán is euhemerized as a renowned chapman named Orbsen in texts such as Sanas Cormaic and Cóir Anmann, [34] so at the end of SGGK it is revealed that the Green Knight’s apparently supernatural powers are in fact attributable to the machinations of Morgan le Fay. [35] This explanation of the Green Knight’s role is in many respects apposite, despite the fact that it obscures the Otherworld-god-in-disguise function of the Green Knight. While the Fisher King may be a distant literary relative, and Merlin and a few other "enchanters" have a number of otherworldly powers and characteristics, there is no room for a clearly identified Otherworld god in the genre. The figure who is empowered by the surprise ending is the "goddess" Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half sister, and the closest thing to such a character (especially in a malevolent guise) in Arthurian literature. [36] Morgan is, like the Otherworld god in Gaelic tradition, both a villain and a benefactor. Her beneficent role is manifested in that she is fated to take Arthur away to Avalon and help to heal his wounds after his battle with Mordred. Her malevolent role, which is much more relevant in SGGK, is evidenced in her hatred of Guenevere, and her keen desire to destroy Camelot.

Using Morgan as an explanation for the strange behaviours and supernatural powers of the Otherworld god in SGGK is, of course, not entirely satisfactory. [37] This device in effect strips the Green Knight of his power and proper dramatic function. It effectively explains the role of the Green Knight at the level of "text as literature," but at the same time obscures his function and the underlying structure of the "text as myth". [38] The motivations of the Green Knight could not have been merely to frighten Guenevere to death; his real purpose, as revealed in the actual events of the tale, had to do with testing and teaching Gawain. Furthermore, the revelation that the Green Knight is in fact Bercilak de Hautdesert, is, for many readers, a peculiar anticlimax. After-all, who the devil is Bercilak de Hautdesert? Though no little ink has been spilt in trying to resolve this question, especially by identifying him with historical figures, I think that the right answer is that he is nobody -- instead of an answer to the question of the Green Knight’s ultimate identity we get a tautology. The Medieval English audience probably had no better idea who Bercilak de Hautdesert was than most modern critics seem to. They probably recognized by his name that he was meant to be a nobleman (Norman French?) from a distant land. Irrespective of the displeasure and frustration of many modern readers and critics, such an ambiguous answer is actually the only one appropriate in the Arthurian context. Any attempt to answer the riddle of the Green Knight’s identity, by substituting the names of Celtic otherworld gods such as Arawn, Angus, Bobh Derg, Cu Roí or even Manannán for Bercilak, is even less satisfactory; for such names are essentially incompatible with the Arthurian tradition and would have been either meaningless or, if understood, possibly even heretical. [39] While the Green Knight functions as an Otherworld god in the tale, he cannot be identified as a pagan deity at the conclusion. The Gawain-poet created a role consonant with the Arthurian milieu by identifying the fabulous Green Knight with the otherwise unknown Bercilak (whose name might have originally meant simply "churl"). The Green Knight’s supernatural powers, however, and his mischievous, apparently malevolent behaviour, are attributed to the magic of Morgan.

On the literary level of the tale, the Green Knight is Bercilak and his supernatural power is due to Morgan le Fay, but on the mythic level the riddle of the Green Knight’s role in SGGK can best be solved by recourse to Gaelic literature. While the poet made a valiant effort to reconcile the demands of his genre with the deeper structural elements of the tale-type, compelling questions about the nature of the Green Knight remain. The results of this investigation into the nature of the Green Knight reveal, then, that his role in SGGK is analogous to that of the Gaelic Otherworld-god-in-disguise. Furthermore, while Buchanan and others have previously noted this relationship, their choices of Cu Roí and/or the Welsh Arawn, as the primary examples of the type do not sufficiently exemplify the role of this character in the tradition. C. S. Lewis may have been essentially correct in his assertion that there is nothing really like the Green Knight, at least not in English literature; nevertheless, it is clear that there are important analogues to, and possible archetypes for, the Green Knight in the Gaelic Otherworld gods, particularly in the role of the Otherworld-god-in-disguise, and specifically as that role is filled by Manannán, the "dear little one from the Isle of Man."

A reader by the handle of "CrunchyFrog" wrote to add his views to this topic:

"I hope you don't mind my adding my bit (or bid) for scholarship here, as I hold a B.A. in Literature (Purdue U) but I am not a Middle-English scholar. The following opinion is just that; I might follow it up later, with more research.

I was struck by the description of the Green Knight in almost erotic terms; the bedroom scenes in the castle between Gawain and the Lady seem even more-so. This leads me to believe that a woman might have been involved in the telling of, performing of, or 'scribing' of the poem. She could have been a Pagan witch, telling a tale; a Norman French troubadour accompanying herself on a lute, reciting her version of an old Irish tale; a nun transcribing a pagan poem or at least taking dictation from a poet or bard. My own view is that either a Pagan woman witch, or a troubadour with Pagan leanings, is the author (or, given that poetry then was sung by wandering performers and would vary from singer to singer and even setting to setting, as close to an author as we can get), and one who resents that Christianity has supplanted 'The Old Ways.'

The Green Knight, by his green all-over appearance, might be a Pagan deity (as he has elements of what Lady Raglan called 'The Green Man'); more than likely, he is a mere enchantment of one (by Morgan la Fay). It would be quite keeping in line with Morgan le Fay as the Pagan witch bedeviling Arthur's court, undermining his rule by undermining his Christian faith: a Pagan witch should (presumably, in the eyes of the Church) have no power in a Christian King's court. Not only does the Green Knight enter the court, unbidden, he also challenges the King in the own court, unbidden; finally, the Green Knight leaves it just as unbidden; by all rights, he should have been dead, and the matter finished there and then.

I don't think it's necessary to identify precisely just who 'Bertilak' is. He might be the Green Knight; he might also be just the lord of the manor. The story functions with or without the reader knowing just who he is or what his title might be. And, as the poem has been told and re-told prior to its being written down, 'Bertilak' just might be a composite of several people, and may even be a local lord disguised, especially if you're a troubadour who's has a bit of a run-in with said local lord who doesn't much care for wandering musicians singing Paganistic debauching tales and mooching money and drinks off of his good people.

As far as the plot device of having Morgan la Fay being the one pulling the strings, it is in line with a Pagan showing her audience that, for all the Christian elements in the poem, the Pagan ones win out in the end. The Green Knight is beheaded in a Christian king's court--and not only survives, but he picks up his head and keeps speaking to Gawain, his would-be killer, and Arthur's court. He could have very easily could have could have returned the fatal stroke to Gawain; instead, he (or Morgan) chooses to humiliate Gawain--and, by extension, Arthur's court. Through Morgan, the Pagan poetess/troubadour has made her point: for all of Christianity's power, Paganism still holds sway all the years after the Christian conversion the general populace."