THE GREEN KNIGHT

This is the head of Adam de Guye, a late medieval knight, who according to a cousin of mine, a family history buff, is our earliest traceable ancestor.1 It is part of his tomb effigy in the church at Collingswood, a small parish in Wiltshire.

I should confess from the onset that on a recent visit to his resting place I failed to respond with the kind of reverence due to the sire of my ascendants and first bearer of the family name.

The effigy struck me, in fact, as impossibly inept.2 The face is as flat as a thumb nail, and the expression, oddly leonine and gently abstracted, hardly becomes a proud warrior. The eyes, misaligned and off centre, are mere bore holes, and the mouth, if one can call it that, is a shallow notch left of where a missing nose should be.

It is impossible to conceive of a likeness that is less of a portrait, hence, perhaps, the difficulty I had in connecting with my ancestor, but, on consideration, there is nothing too surprising in this lack of facial definition. The figure was meant to be seen from the side so that the details of the face would not have been visible to a casual visitor, and Norman tomb effigies were conceived less to commemorate an actual knight than to embody the idea of Knighthood itself.

Not that this lets off the sculptor, who was probably a stonemason by trade – more used to hewing out doorsteps or stone water troughs – but it has to be said that this lack of artistry or ruggedness of technique serves the purpose of tomb art quite well. Our knight, as we have seen, has no eyes or mouth to speak of, is without ears or a nose, and we never forget that the hands on the hilt of his sword can neither clutch nor feel. The once living person, in other words, is now a block of insensible matter, no different in kind from the stone he is carved out of. This was a theology that clearly separated the soul from the body, and Adam’s spiritual portion is somewhere else altogether.

Having said that, despite the religious hysteria that characterised the period, this effigy and others of its kind evoke – to me at least – less the metaphysical dimension of human life than enthralment to physical experience.

Looking at Adam it is hard to escape the sense that hunting, jousting, feasting and rogering were the core of a nobleman’s existence, and that the soul of our knight has sunk without trace. Unlike Michelangelo’s slaves, in which the spirit informs the body as much as the reverse, he is nothing more than a lump of stone. There is no struggle here, but an impression, instead, of spiritual impotence, of complete subjugation to the binding inertness of matter.3

Nor was he the pillar of strength that a medieval knight, notwithstanding his recumbency in death, was meant to have stood for.

If the head, blunt and phallic, evokes stubborn resolve and the brute power of a fighting man, the rest of him reveals a much slighter figure.

The effect might be due to the unusual positioning of his effigy, level as it is with the hideous, plum-coloured carpet, but Adam strikes one as runty and even – dare I say it – as a bit of a ponce. He has slender calves and small, rather dainty-looking feet. His sword is more than half the length of his body and it is hard to imagine how he might have taken a swipe at a would-be opponent without being run through in a trice or cutting himself instead.

His effigy also lacks the serene appearance of most other effigies I have seen which are generally more streamlined and tend towards symmetry.

Adam, in fact, looks distinctly uncomfortable, – fidgety in fact – as though he didn’t quite fit in his niche, and was feeling hemmed in.4

We are meant to infer from the jutting right elbow that he is drawing his sword – almost as though he were moved to anger by my remarks, – but I wonder if this seeming restlessness of his doesn’t relate to his moment in history, a time when the rigid stasis of the feudal order had started to shift.

More literally, the odd angularity of his posture might suggest that he died on the battlefield, since violent action naturally upsets the symmetry of the body.

He is not pigeon toed as I thought when I first saw him online. On closer inspection we can clearly see that his right leg is crossed over his left, which was once thought to mean that a knight had been a crusader.

Although this notion is now discounted by historians there is no proving that he didn’t fight for the Cross5 and – all things considered – I am willing to believe my would-be ancestor had some kick in him after all, and that in his short lifetime he journeyed far from the rain-battered oaks of Savernake, that he knew the baking heat of the Levant, and the horror and excitement of slaughter on the battlefield.

But he appeals to me far more in a different guise altogether. When I first saw Adam’s picture I assumed that the green colour visible on parts on the effigy was due to a mossy growth that had spread in the damp of the chapel, but looking at the striations on the side of his head it is very clear that at some time or other (probably in modern times) liquid paint was chucked over him and dribbled down the side of his face, thereby turning my ancestor – quite literally as it happens – into a Green Knight, like the astonishing figure in the well-known chivalric romance. This character is open to numerous interpretations – and I hesitate to advance my own – but along with courage and spiritual rebirth he surely stands for the vital forces of Nature. In a similar relationship to the natural world it also struck me when looking at Adam’s head that it resembles an acorn (as do many heads of knights in Norman tomb sculpture), with the helmet as its cupule or base. I don’t suppose this was intentional, it being a Christian monument, but the oak is sacred, of course, in pagan belief systems, and its fruit is a wonderful symbol of resilience and futurity – just what you’d look for in the primogenitor of a family tree.

 

1) Though possible, of course, this hardly seems likely since the records are much too patchy to establish a continuous line of descent.

2) This head is so crudely sculpted it reminded me at first glance of those slashed and mangled beetroots one sometimes sees piled in great heaps after harvest time.

3) I am reminded of those horrifying moments I experienced as a child when I would wake up in the night and my flesh would feel numb and so crushingly heavy it seemed as if I were made out of granite.

4) I feel for him, in fact, because his apparent discomfort evokes what tall people like myself have to endure in the sleeping berths of overnight trains.

5) By Adam’s day enthusiasm for crusading was on the wane in Europe. 2 centuries after the first call to arms the Christians had failed to secure Jerusalem and the Crusader states were hanging on for dear life. If Adam was born in 1240, as one online source suggests, he might have taken part in the Ninth and last official crusade as a teenager. If on the other hand he was born in 1280 as attested by most other sources online he might have escaped with his life at the fall of Tripoli or the siege of Acre.