The Arthurian romance tradition invokes the natural world as a ‘transitional’ or liminal space where the hero is stripped of his ‘social’ identity and after a period of integration into the ‘natural,’ returns to the social body (both court and communal) with a renewed and renovated ‘social’ self. In a move that anticipates the environmental movements of later centuries, the Arthurian stories enlist the natural world as locus for discovering the essential unsocialized self in order to reintegrate into the highly stylized (and often unnatural) cultural environments of court and politics with a refined moral and ethical understanding of self and the social body. The transformative power of the natural world, whether embodied by literal natural environments or the figurative natural (the Green Knight), demonstrates the varied ways in which the Arthurian tradition enlists nature and the natural world as a partner in the evolution of moral and ethical understanding and significantly, demonstrates the ways in which medieval authors imbue the natural world with values very similar to our own.
In the Prose Merlin and its Vulgate Sequel, both in Old French (13th century) and in Middle English (15th century), Merlin the Prophet is established as the kings of Britain’s most trustworthy counsellor. He regularly leaves Arthur’s court to visit his master, the clerk Blaise, who is in charge of writing down the story of the kingdom as well as the events to come, and their interpretation, according to Merlin’s word. Blaise’s settlement and Merlin’s retreats in Northumberland allow the mise en abyme of the writing process and punctuate the narrative both textually and iconographically. The forest itself is usually referred to very quickly, but it recalls Merlin’s ambiguous nature and also gives birth to the creation of the romance.
The Gawain stories reflect a transformation in the role of the forest from their French beginnings. The Englishing of the romance maintains the forest as proving ground, but the test no longer centers on knightly strength. It is a knight’s interior qualities that are scrutinized. By comparing Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, it is possible to demonstrate not only a shift in privilege from exterior physical feats to one of interior character, but also to show a decline in the presence of the forest as a whole.