“The Old Bonds Between Man and Nature Have Been Broken”:

Environmentalism, Mysticism, and Folk Horror in The Knights of Pendragon, Part 2

The presence of UNIT analogues W.H.O. in a rural location, investigating an anomaly connected to the land, brings to mind the folk horror-themed episodes of Doctor Who referred to by Scovell and mentioned above; however, the folk horror element present in this issue of Pendragon is more substantial than a mere superficial resemblance to the TV series. The scarecrow symbolizes the ‘olde ways’ – to use a phrase regularly deployed by Scovell – of pre-industrial farming which was more respectful of the land (Melvin compares Hardacre’s pesticide to napalm and claims his fertilizer will turn the farmland into the ‘Gobi Desert’) and which have returned in monstrous form; furthermore, it is the vengeful instrument of the land itself, as personified by the Green Knight. In terms of Scovell’s Folk Horror Chain – his method of ‘highlight[ing] connections and strong ties’ between folk horror texts (Scovell, Folk Horror, p.15) – the sadistic murder of Hardacre can be seen as an example of ‘skewed belief systems and morality’ resulting from the ‘halting of social progress’ although, from the Green Knight’s perspective – and from that of Abnett and Tomlinson – it is Hardacre’s agricultural methods, and the notions of ‘progress’ that underpin them, which are the result of a skewed worldview. Abnett and Tomlinson may also have been influenced to use the scarecrow here by the British children’s fantasy TV series Worzel Gummidge (1979-1981) which starred Jon Pertwee (who played the Doctor in The Daemons). The titular character is a scarecrow which can come to life and although the series is generally light in tone, it nevertheless contains several unsettling elements, not least of all Worzel’s habit of changing heads – and, as a result, personalities – and the presence of his boundary-free scarecrow nemesis, Dafthead. In the series, scarecrows are given life by a sort of kindly wizard called The Crowman, played by Geoffrey Bayldon. Bayldon not only twice refused the leading role in Doctor Who, he also appeared as ‘Wiseman’ in the 1973 film adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Stephen Weeks. The scarecrow and Ruth’s doll miniature of him in Pendragon #1 – coupled with the possibility that the Green Knight may have been Thomas’s life even before the events depicted in the series, including arranging Valerie’s death so as to ensure the healing of the land – also brings to mind the song ‘The Scarecrow’ by English folk duo Lal & Mike Waterson from their 1972 album Bright Phoebus which has, as Rob Young has observed, an ‘implication of child sacrifice’ (p.194), perhaps in order to secure a bountiful harvest, in the lines ‘As I rode out one fine spring day/I saw twelve jolly dons dressed out in the blue and the gold so gay/And to a stake they tied a child newborn/And the songs were sung, the bells was rung, and they sowed their corn’.

The second issue of Pendragon (Aug, 1990) sees Thomas in Kenya, investigating the apparently accidental death of an Omni-Corporation executive – trampled by a herd of elephants – who is revealed to be a member of an ivory poaching cartel; the Green Knight is responsible for his ‘accident’. While there, Thomas experiences more visions, in which he is again Gawain. In one, he confronts the Green Knight, still in the scarecrow form although in the garb of a medieval warrior and riding a monstrous, elephantine creature Thomas calls ‘the beast’. Text from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is overlaid on the images depicting this vision, recounting both Gawain’s prowess as a warrior and his devotion to god; god here can be understood as the Green Knight himself as Thomas gradually becomes Gawain, and therefore the Green Knight’s instrument in its campaign against Omni-Corporation. Outside of his visions, Thomas encounters the Green Knight only briefly after he has killed several other ivory poachers, also removing their teeth in another act of poetic justice. In this encounter, Thomas describes the Green Knight as ‘a vast, whirling entity with eyes as soulless as a scarecrow’s’’, in a further indication of the Green Knight’s madness. The next issue (Sep, 1990) takes Thomas to Florida which allows Abnett and Tomlinson to address the environmental issues of oil pollution in the sea and the smuggling of endangered animal species, Thomas having been sent to Florida to investigate the latter and its possible connections to Omni-Corporation, which turn out to be true. By now, Thomas’s visions have intensified, as has his sense that he has been ‘chosen’ for this mission.

Again, text from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is overlaid on the panels depicting Thomas’s visions, in which he appears as Gawain; text from the poem is also overlaid on his actions outside the visions as he uncovers the role of an Omni-Corporation board member, Ricou Mendez, in an animal smuggling ring, making it clear to the reader that Thomas’s role as detective and as the modern iteration of Gawain are becoming indistinguishable. The issue ends with Thomas also coming to this realization when the Green Knight has weaponized the oil polluting Florida’s waters to first of all kill Mendez and his henchmen at sea, then to target the Coast Guard vessel which Thomas has been using to pursue Mendez. That the Green Knight is prepared to murder Thomas and the Coast Crew is yet another indication of his madness; however, Thomas is able to assuage the Green Knight’s rage by calling to him, after quoting aloud the lines from a modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ‘It whirred and whetted like water in a mill!/What! It made a rushing, ringing din, rueful to hear’, followed by further lines which are dialogue spoken by Gawain himself:

“God’s will be warranted.
‘Alas!’ is a craven cry.
No din shall make me dread
Although today I die.”

Thomas repeats his plea on the next page which consists of a single panel in which the Green Knight manifests as an impossibly huge sea creature, completely dwarfing the Coast Guard vessel. (Appropriately enough, in comic book parlance, such a page is referred to as a ‘splash’.) The following page shows a relieved Thomas burst into tears as he refers to the Green Knight as ‘old friend’ and expresses his relief that the entity ‘remembers’ him, although it appears to equally be the case that Thomas has remembered who he both has been and is again: Sir Gawain. This revelation – which is shared by the Omni-Corporation henchman Dolph, who has been shadowing Thomas since the investigation began and who has survived the Green Knight’s assault on Mendez’s boat – brings the issue to a close. It also marks the beginning of Thomas’s physical transformation into Gawain, as remarked upon in the next issue by the journalist Kate McClellan – who too has been shadowing Thomas on his investigation in the hope of exposing Omni-Corporation. McClellan also comments upon his ‘sudden ability to get by in fourteenth century Saxon dialect’.

The events of this issue take place in Belize City where Thomas closes down – violently – the rest of Mendez’s smuggling ring, encountering the Green Knight in monstrous avian form in the process. The five-panel sequence in which he does so begins with this version of the Green Knight prepared to attack Thomas (panel 1), followed by a close up on Thomas’s face (panel 2) which becomes the face of Sir Gawain (panel 3); in panel 4, the Green Knight still seems prepared to strike while Thomas communicates with it telepathically, asking ‘You can’t have forgotten our last meeting?’, a reference to the previous issue; the fifth panel repeats the fourth but with Thomas again transformed into Gawain and a sound-effect of a threatening screech from the Green Knight, suggesting it is about to pounce. Instead, on the opening panel of the next page we see it has flown out of the window of the aircraft hangar where Thomas has confronted the smugglers. That Thomas has had to remind the Green Knight of his identity as Gawain both here and at the close of the previous issue, as well as the scarecrow’s assault upon him in the first issue, suggests that, while in its monstrous forms, undertaken to commit murder, the Green Knight’s faculties are compromised and seems to be a further indication of its insanity. We learn shortly after, via a conversation between Thomas and McClellan, that he has been taken off the investigation by W.H.O. and is now acting independently, or rather as an instrument of the Green Knight, on a mission that he describes as being ‘not just a case. It case never was’. Here, the fusion of environmentalism and mysticism is almost complete; almost, because Thomas is yet to fully take on the physical form of Gawain – despite McClellan’s observation that he is ‘sixty pounds lighter and thirty years younger’ – and allow the knight’s personality to dominate his own, a transformation which will only occur after Thomas makes a journey – or more accurately, a pilgrimage – to the Amazonian rainforest in the next issue (Nov, 1990).

Thomas’s journey takes him to a site of environmental devastation which he describes as both the ‘heart of darkness ‘and ‘Avalon’. As he moves through the rainforest, Thomas experiences intense visions of himself as Gawain travelling to the Green Chapel, overlaid with text from the modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Greek Knight which had been used earlier in the series. In the visions, when Gawain arrives at the Chapel he is confronted by, and enters into combat with, Sir Lancelot; when Thomas arrives at ‘Avalon’ he is confronted by Captain Britain, dispatched there by W.H.O. to apprehend Thomas, but also, it transpires, infused with the soul of Lancelot by the Green Knight. This encounter calls back to the events of Pendragon #1 in which Captain Britain re-activates Thomas, ending his rural isolation in the ‘haunted house’ that is his Gower cottage; this time, however, Captain Britain is there at W.H.O.’s behest to put an end to Thomas’s mission. We can look at both encounters between Thomas and Captain Britain in terms of one of the functions of Scovell’s Folk Horror Chain: ‘to highlight connections and strong ideas between cause and effect, idea and action, the summoning and the summoned’ (Scovell, Folk Horror, p.15). Both encounters between Thomas and Captain Britain involve a double summoning: in each, Captain Britain, ostensibly, summons Thomas at the behest of W.H.O.; however, and as the infusion of his body with the soul of Lancelot, and of Thomas’s body with the soul of Gawain, demonstrates, Captain Britain, and Thomas, have actually been summoned by the Green Knight. The Green Knight is, then, the causal force for all of the events of these six issues of Pendragon – it is, after all, his killings of individuals associated with Omni-Corporation that stimulates W.H.O. to summon Thomas, via Captain Britain, to investigate – and, therefore, there exists a tension between idea and action in the sense that neither Captain Britain nor Thomas, initially at least, are aware of whose agenda they are truly serving. By the end of Pendragon #4, when Thomas has gone ‘rogue’ from W.H.O., and has undergone a physical transformation allowing him to easily best a group of heavily armed Omni-Corporation mercenaries in combat, he is aware that he has a calling – which will take him to the rainforest – even if, as he admits to McClellan he still doesn’t know what that calling is exactly. He is also aware by this point that he has been changed on more than a purely physical level, telling her, ‘I don’t even think I’m entirely human anymore’. We can even talk about a triple summoning here, as Thomas’s realizes that it is in fact Omni-Corporation who have initiated W.H.O.’s investigation into the murders of their personnel – the reason for the intimidation of the Cabinet minister in the first issue, mentioned above – although Grace, the corporation’s CEO, is not herself aware of the Green Knight’s involvement (nor of her own true nature, as I will discuss further towards the end of this essay).

In an impassioned speech to Captain Britain, which refers back to the quotation from Ben Elton that opens the first issue of the series and echoes Melvin’s sentiments later in that issue, Thomas makes clear his views – and those of the Green Knight, which are also the views of Abnett and Tomlinson – on the environmental devastation wrought by Omni-Corporation and their ilk:

Look at this hellhole that used to be rainforest – cleared for scrub-pasture to feed the world’s craving for hamburgers! Did this government care about the forests? That without the oxygen they provide, the whole bloody planet could suffocate and die? No, they only care about their own national debt. Look around you, boy – at the world your visionless leasers created. A world where rain is poison and sunshine is death. Don’t talk to me about crime. You should be ashamed to wear that flag [a reference to Captain Britain’s superhero costume, which is based on the Union Jack].

Brandishing his copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Thomas then states that although ‘the old bonds between man and nature have been broken […] if we can restore the balance there’s still hope’. The ‘old bonds’ Thomas refers to are comparable to the ‘olde ways’ the return or persistence of which, as Scovell observes, is often a characteristic of folk horror. ‘The use of ‘balance’ here refers not only to a return to a more sustainable exploitation of the planet’s natural resources but also to the wider cosmology of Pendragon, clarified in later issues and which I will address below in the conclusion. Captain Britain is deaf to Thomas’s insistence that he has to continue his quest leaving Thomas with, as he sees it, no choice but to engage him in combat. Their battle repeats a clash between Gawain and Lancelot already shown to Thomas, and the reader, in a vision, overlaid with text from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the vision, Gawain is triumphant; in actuality, Captain Britain prevails after he loses control and kills Thomas.


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Dr David Sweeney is a lecturer in The Glasgow School of Art's Design History and Theory department, where he specializes in popular culture. He is the author of the books Scanned Clean: (Re)Reading Michael Marshall Smith in the Digital Age (Subterranean Press, 2022); The OA (Auteur/LUP, 2022), a critical study of the Netflix series of the same name; and the forthcoming The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn: Genre, Gender, Glamour (LUP, 2024), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters. Contact him here: d.sweeney@gsa.ac.uk

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