Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More Greenery . . .

Green's Spectral Coordinates
It's all so complicated . . .
(Image from Wikipedia)

Searching for more on that green knight on a green horse, I came upon an interesting fact. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, "green" is related to the word "grow":
O.E. grene, earlier groeni, related to O.E. growan "to grow," from W.Gmc. *gronja- (cf. O.Fris. grene, O.N. grænn, Dan. grøn, Du. groen, Ger. grün), from PIE base *gro- "grow," through sense of "color of living plants."
Compare with the entry for "grass":
O.E. græs, gærs "herb, plant, grass," from P.Gmc. grasan (cf. O.N., Ger., Goth. gras), from PIE *ghros- "young shoot, sprout," from base *gro-/*gre- "that which grows" (cf. L. gramen "grass"); related to grow and green.
And we might as well check out "grow":
O.E. growan (of plants) "to flourish, develop, get bigger" (class VII strong verb; past tense greow, pp. growen), from P.Gmc. *gro- (cf. O.N. groa, O.Fris. groia, Du. groeien, O.H.G. gruoen), from root of grass (q.v.).
These dictionary entries inform us only about the etymologies for the English words "green," "grass," and "grow," but the proposed etymology for "verdure" suggests a parallel in the Romance languages:
c.1300, "fresh green color," from O.Fr. verdure "greenness," from verd, variant of vert "green," from L. viridis (cf. Sp., It. verde), related to virere "be green," of unknown origin. Perhaps ult. from a root meaning "growing plant" and cognate with Lith. veisti "propagate," O.N. visir "bud, sprout," O.E. wise "sprout, stalk, etc."
That, however, is speculation.

So is this: perhaps green is subtly associated with a 'supernatural' ability to regenerate. That might explain the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has the supernatural power to survive having his head chopped off:
The green knight got ready, feet firm on the ground;
leaned his head a little to let the cheek show,
and raised the rich riot of his hair
so the nape of his neck was naked and exposed.
Gawain held the ax high overhead,
his left foot set before him on the floor,
swung swiftly at the soft flesh
so the bit of the blade broke through the bones,
crashed through the clear fat and cut it in two,
and the brightly burnished edge bit into the earth.
The handsome head fell, hit the ground,
and rolled forward; they fended it off with their feet.
The red blood burst bright from the green body,
yet the fellow neither faltered nor fell
but stepped strongly out on sturdy thighs,
reached roughly right through their legs,
grabbed his graceful head and lifted it from the ground,
ran to his horse, caught hold of the reins,
stepped in the stirrup, strode into the saddle,
the head dangling by the hair from his hand,
and seated himself as firmly in the saddle
as if he were unhurt, though he sat on his horse without
a head.

(Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Stanza 19, translation by Paul Deane)
Rather gruesome, but it makes my point. The Green Knight survives decapitation. Also noteworthy is that he appears in the dead of winter but at the new year's beginning, when the darkest days are just being left behind, bearing -- in an earlier stanza -- a sprig of the evergreen holly, a winter promise of life in the coming springtime.

I've written "supernatural," but I'm not entirely satisfied with the term, for the growing of green grass -- as with all greenery -- is a purely natural process, presumably not just for us Moderns but also for Medieval people. But what does "natural" mean in such a context? Perhaps the green growth of springtime was considered natural but also mysterious, even uncanny.

A natural miracle.

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At 1:01 PM, Blogger N.E. Brigand said...

The connection of green and growth brought to mind this passage from Victor L. Parker's short article, "Colors", in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia (ed. Michael D.C. Drout, Routledge, 2006, p. 107):

- - - - - - - - - -
Green, besides its obvious natural associations with vigor and vitality, also had in medieval thought a connection with light: it suggested "seeds [which] burst into light" (Hugh of St. Victor, De tribus Diebus, 821B) and has "roots in the Sun" and "lights in whitest serenity" (Hildegard of Bingen, "O nobilissima uiriditas"). In Hildegard's conception, green was "the earthly expression of the celestial sunlight" (Dronke, 84).
- - - - - - - - - -

The last reference is to Dronke, P. "Tradition and Innovation in Medieval Western Colour-Imagery." Eranos (Leiden) 41 (1972): 51–107.

Despite Tolkien's edition and translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Parker doesn't discuss that poem (though he does mention Pearl) -- an omission for which Parker was faulted in Jason Fisher's review of that article.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

N. E. Brigand, thanks for the interesing and learned comment.

The connection in Medieval thought between green and light is certainly intriguing and raises some issues that I've never thought about before.

In Medieval thought, the supralunar realm was made up of the fifth element, the ether, which means that the sun is also some sort of concentrated ether, I suppose, and yet it sends its influence, via light, down into the sublunar realm and onto the earth, where it makes plants grow -- as people, of course, realized -- which means that living plants have a connection to the etherial realm (hence, I suppose, the link between earthly green and celestial light).

I wonder how this process was thought to occur. Apparently, I need to do some reading, for there might be more to say about the color green in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . . . and it leaves me wondering about the supposed link between Gawain and sun imagery.

Jeffery Hodges

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