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North: The Significance of a Compass Point in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and some other Medieval English Literature
By Michael Murphy
Lore and Language, Vol. 3:8 (1983)
Introduction: In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the hero, like many another knight, sets out on a quest. In a couple of interesting ways, however, this quest journey is different from others in medieval romance: we know with some precision in which direction the hero is going — North; and we know the precise time of year — between All Hallows (November 1) and Christmas. We know the direction because we are told the names of places that Gawain passes and in what order, names that remain to this day: North Wales, Anglesey, Holy Head (though this is not the modern Holyhead), and the Wirral. The information that Gawain is going North in the winter is not merely stated and abandoned; the loneliness and discomfort of the journey through a bleak winter countryside are emphasized in two or three stanzas that embody some of the most memorable natural description in medieval English literature (II, st. 9-11). This is not the never-never season of most medieval romance, in which events, whether they are indoor feasts or outdoor quests and jousts, take place in a sort of perpetual spring-summer. The country through which Gawain rides is, by strong contrast, the bare, gnarled countryside of a northern land in winter.
This unusually precise depiction of time and space leads one to ask whether Gawain’ s northern journey simply means that he is taking on an unusually difficult quest by going to the coldest part of the country at the coldest time of the year, or whether the emphasized direction has some significance beyond that. I think, perhaps, it does; and that the significance is related to medieval associations with North.
Many years ago Walter Skeat drew attention to a passage in Piers Plowman where Langland refers to an ancient association between the rebel archangel Lucifer and the North. Holy Church is recounting the story of the Fall of the Angels:
Lucifer lovelokest tho ac lytel while it dured.
He was an archangel of hevene on of Godes knyghtes .
He and other with hym that hulde nought with truthe
Lopen out in lothliche forme for hus false wille;
He hadde lust to be lyke hus lord god almyghty.
Ponam pedem meum in aqu i/one, et ero similis altissimo.
Lord! why wolde he tho thulke wrechede Lucifer,
Lepen aloft in the north side
Than sitten in the sonne side ther the day roweth?
Ne were it for northerne men a-non ich wolde telle;
“Ac ich wolle lacke no lyf” quath that lady sothly;
“Hit is sykerer by southe ther the sonne regneth
Than in the north by meny notes no man leve other.
For thider as the fiend flegh hus fote for to sette
There he failed and ful and hus felawes alle;
And helle is ther he ys, and he ther ybounde.
Evene contrarie sitteth Criste clerkus knowen the sothe:
They care noght thaub it he cold knaves, when thei worchen.
In wonderwyse holy wryt tellith how thei fullen;
Somme in erthe, somme in aier somme in helle dupe,
Ac Lucifer lowest lith of hem alle.