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Viewing a map of the world with some friends the other day, half-seriously exploring our general decampment from “civilisation”, we came to the conclusion that there was almost nowhere left to go. Between us we had either lived or been born or travelled extensively on all of the continents. Our criteria were nothing special. A typical mixture of escapism, pragmatism and simple humanism. We wanted somewhere that would nourish our bodies, minds and spirits. Somewhere we might survive, in the mundane if not urbane sense, yet where survival would not mean desperation, scraping by at all costs. Somewhere we might enjoy walks, views, running water and singing air. Somewhere we might find inspiration from crackling fires and whispering woods. Somewhere we might share with likeminded souls. We were in other words hunkering after Where the Wild Things Are.
You will recall from the story – as with countless other fairy tales traditional and modern – that this is the place where we meet our own shadows, own them, befriend them, dance with them by the light of the moon. This is the place where light interweaves gracefully with dark, onto which fabric the soul projects its deepest desires, its deepest fears. A place which in turn projects a sense of order, a sense of place and relationship for all these things into the soul. We know from all the fairy tales that this place is of course the forest.
It is our place, in every sense.
In the sense that it is our original habitat. In the sense that it is still ours to own. In the sense that if we destroy it we destroy ourselves. For where then will we dance with our shadows? Maurice Sendak’s 1963 story is for children, but its message is for all ages. What will we be nothing left to the imagination, nowhere left unlit? Everywhere a zoo, a golf course, a theme park.
The forest is our place in every sense. It is the place of sense. It is ours in no sense – in no cence.
This was the message of the Green Knight. Cut off my head only if you agree to suffer the same in a year and day. My head will grow back. Will yours? The adventures of Sir Gawain, then, are the adventures of humanity in its fall from grace, in its divorce from nature and headless galloping. In its great trial. The place of reckoning is the Green Chapel, the heart of the forest. There, the Green Knight shows Gawain mercy, but only after he has fully surrendered, honouring the original contract.
There is no getting out of this contract.
Which is something we seem to have forgotten only very recently, in the grand scheme of history. Since the Europeans turned up in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia, and with the same darkly ingenious manoeuvre produced pieces of paper that said the land – be it forest, mountain or pasture – was rightfully theirs by order of a king or queen the locals had never heard of. The locals were subject to those pieces of paper too. If they were seen by the conquerors as wild things, they were not befriended.
Among many others the 2008 documentary The End of Poverty traces our headless, heedless steps very carefully. From the birth of capitalism and globalisation as those nefarious contracts were issued, to the perilous situation ‘civilisation’ finds itself in now. Where vast numbers of people have no clean water. Where most people live in appalling poverty. Where monetary cabals of the North suck the South dry. Where the poor South in fact pays for the rich North. Where the machine seeks to commodify everything. The land we stand on. The water we drink. The air we breathe. The animals are animate flesh bred for burgers, and the forests have become plantations – renewable sources feeding our printers.
This is where it goes when there is nowhere for the wild things, when the dark is not in step with the light. When the dark in fact masquerades as the light. As God. As Good. As the future. As civilisation.
And when the dark masquerades as the light it is capable of tremendous Ironies. Such as the idea that civilisation is that which is not the forest. Civilisation tapers away from the great towers of ‘Light’. At its fringes ancient trees are cut down so that a family may survive by selling charcoal.
We have beheaded the Green Knight.
Who will honour the appointment at the Green Chapel?