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

Environmentalism, Mysticism, and Folk Horror in The Knights of Pendragon, Part 3

Although Gawain is victorious in it, Thomas’s vision also implies his own defeat at Captain Britain’s hands: after Gawain has killed Lancelot, he lifts the visor of his helmet to see the face of the scarecrow from Pendragon #1; in that issue, after it attacks him in the barn at the Hardacre farm, Thomas refers to the scarecrow as ‘Death… the Reaper’ (20), foreshadowing his demise. In the barn, the scarecrow shows Thomas his face, reflected in the blade of its scythe, an act which, in retrospect, foreshadows what occurs after Captain Britain has killed him: Thomas’s full transformation into Gawain, which can only occur once Thomas has died. Thomas’s death, then, is a sacrifice which must be made in order to bring Gawain fully into the world to do the Green Knight’s bidding. This bidding involves a second sacrifice, of Gawain to, and by, the Green Knight who beheads him in the Green Chapel which is revealed to be located, not in England as is the case in Arthurian myth, but instead in the heart of the rainforest (although later issues of Pendragon suggest that the Chapel exists in no fixed location but rather manifests where and when it is needed). As he travels towards the Chapel, in Pendragon #6 (Dec, 1990) along with Captain Britain and McClelland, whom they have rescued along the way, Gawain recounts the events of the legend of his previous encounters with the Green Knight, which form the basis for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, showing them a scar on his throat. As is the case in the folklore surrounding Gawain and the Green Knight, and in the poem, on their first encounter, Gawain had beheaded the Green Knight, at his invitation and on the understanding that a year later, the Green Knight will attempt to behead Gawain once he has travelled to the Chapel. Gawain’s scar is the result of the Green Knight striking his neck with insufficient force, deliberately, to behead him. Gawain has, instead, been tested in the ‘game’ the Green Knight has played with him, the purpose of which was to establish if Gawain was honourable enough to fulfill their ‘bargain’ of a ‘blow for a blow, a life for a life’. This time, however, when Gawain speaks of a ‘bargain’ with the Green Knight he is referring not to their individual arrangement, but to the ‘old bonds between nature’ Thomas tells Captain Britain of in the previous issue, which have been ‘broken’. Gawain seeks to restore these bonds which the Green Knight agrees to do if a sacrifice is made.

This agreement comes after the Green Knight, whose madness is now evident, has explained the reasons for his killings of the Omni-Corporation personnel:

Man is dirt, ungrateful, ignorant dirt and he reneges on his debts. That is why I have ridden out this last while, to settle my own scores…man seems ill-willing to do it voluntarily.

Furthermore, the brutality of the killings has been in imitation of humanity:

…now you find it easier to forget your fairer ways…and I have changed my ways to match yours.

Here, the Green Knight speaks as nature, using a particular phrase which brings Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis to mind:

Once there was a balance, now mankind scurries over me like lice and devours me…

Captain Britain initially offers himself up to the Green Knight as a sacrifice, as does McClellan. The Green Knight rejects both: Captain Britain because, as a superhero, he is expected to perform such a noble task; McClellan because she is motivated by guilt. Gawain’s offer is accepted, as he explains, ‘[j]ust because it is necessary’ (19). Gawain’s beheading regenerates the blighted rainforest around the Green Chapel, bringing to mind James Thurgill’s observation (‘Fear of the Folk: On Topophobia and the Horror of Rural Landscapes’ in Revenant 5, March 2020) that:

Folk horror conveys a strange ecology positioned outside of capitalist operations, one that unnervingly amplifies the more macabre aspects of capital itself […] and creates spaces where blood and sacrifice form the basis of ritual exchange.

Thurgill develops this observation further, writing ‘[o]ne of the key ways in which geography functions within folk horror is to reflect landscape(s) as the site(s) of exchange’. This is the case with Pendragon both in the rainforest and perhaps also earlier in Gower, if we consider Thomas’s summoning by W.H.O./Omni-Corporation/the Green Knight as the initiation of a ritual – his gradual transformation into Gawain – that will result in the sacrifice which will regenerate the rainforest. Thurgill cites The Wicker Man as

A ready example of folk horror’s positioning of landscape as a platform for exchange, with the ritual sacrifice of Sergeant Howie performed to rectify the failing crop harvest on Summerisle. Here, death provides the ultimate sacrifice.

Like Howie, Thomas is a policeman who is pure of heart and whose ritualized sacrifice is intended to ‘rectify’ a failure in the land. A significant difference between Pendragon and The Wicker Man. However – beyond the sacrifice of Gawain actually returning Thomas to life (and undoing the physical improvements he had experienced in the process; Thomas ends up hospitalized for several further issues of Pendragon and enthusiastically returns to his previous diet of cigarettes, alcohol and unhealthy food as soon as he is released) – the sacrifice of Thomas-as-Gawain actually does work; the viewer of The Wicker Man is left uncertain as to whether or not Howie’s death will make any difference to the harvest on Summerisle.

This is because the pagan religion on Summerisle, while followed sincerely by most of its residents, is, as Scovell puts it, ‘window-dressing’ for their exploitation by the island’s laird, Lord Summerisle. The Laird reveals to Howie that the religion is far from ancient, but is instead the invention of his grandfather, the first Lord Summerisle, in the late nineteenth century, cynically contrived as a form of, in the words of William Hughes, ‘social management’ (‘“A strange kind of evil”: Superficial Paganism and False Ecology in The Wicker Man’ in Ecogothic, Andrew Smith and William Hughes). And, as Hughes observes, Summerisle is not a self-contained pagan utopia but rather is dependent upon ‘the anonymous corporate world beyond its shores’ in which the island’s produce, particularly its apples, are marketed and consumed as a ‘delicacy’. This is an example of what Mark Fisher describes as ‘the way in which capitalism has absorbed the organic and the green’ (K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher from 2004-2016, Darren Ambrose) and while Omni-Corporation in Pendragon may truck in irradiated and artificially fertilized fruit that does not mean that their interests do or will not extend into the organic, green market. Howie’s sacrifice then serves two mundane – by which I mean non-magical – purposes for Lord Summerisle: first, to keep the island’s populace docile and second, if it does ‘rectify’ the failed harvest, to serve his commercial interests, as well as those of his corporate partners/masters. Thomas’s sacrifice, on the other hand, beyond its immediate effect of regenerating the rainforest, has the intended purpose of restoring ‘balance’ by re-forging the ‘old bonds between nature and man’ which requires a rejection of the environmentally devastating methods of production deployed by Omni-Corporation and their ilk. This rejection also involves eschewing the notions of ‘progress’, relating to technology, which drive industrialization. Like Walter Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’, the immortal Green Knight is able to look back through time and observe the ‘single catastrophe’ of ‘that which we will call progress’ in terms of the damage done to the environment (‘On the Concept of History’, 1940).

En route to the Green Chapel, Gawain and Captain Britain rescue McClelland from an attack by demonic creatures which are revealed, later in the series, to be soldiers of a demonic entity known as the Bane which has possessed Grace, Omni-Corporation’s CEO, and is using the company to wreak havoc. The Bane is the servant of the Red Lord, an elemental entity which is both the Green Knight’s eternal foe and his necessary counterpart, a destructive force providing the ‘balance’, as mentioned by Gawain, to the Green Knight’s fecundity; as the character Arthur Crown, the modern reincarnation of King Arthur, puts it:

The Red Lord and the Green Knight must coexist, and could do so as long as man didn’t outweigh the scales to either side…

Under capitalism the scales have been outweighed, with, in Crown’s words, ‘too much of mankind […] seduced by the easy riches of the Bane way’. Grace gleefully anticipates this situation intensifying, as she tells Omni-Corporation’s latest partner, Tony Stark, CEO of Stark Industries (and the secret identity of the superhero Iron Man):

Politics is dying, like some outmoded pagan ritual. In the new century it will be the multi-nationals who dictate global policy.

Grace is eerily prophetic here, foreseeing the rise of neoliberalism in the twenty-first century following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, events which were unfolding as these issues of Pendragon were being written. For Jodi Dean, neoliberalism’s emphasis upon the individual has had the result of reducing politics in the twenty-first century to ‘commodifiable “lifestyles”’ which includes being ‘Green’ (Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics). This is a far cry from the passionate environmental activism advocated by Abnett and Tomlinson in Pendragon. Or perhaps not: as Tomlinson observes, writing in 2009 (the same year as Dean published her observations on neoliberalism), ‘it was cool to be Green in 1990’. Dean sees democracy under neoliberalism as a ‘fantasy’ to keep the populace docile, which we might compare to the, as Hughes puts it, ‘superficial paganism’ of Summerisle in The Wicker Man.

Balance is restored, temporarily at least, at the end of the first volume of Pendragon after an epic battle between the forces of the Green Knight, led by Arthur Crown, and the Red Lord, headed by Grace. The former are victorious after Crown uses his powers – referred to in the series as the ‘Pendragon spirit’ – to show Grace the purity of his soul as a servant of the Green Knight and, by extension, of Nature. Grace’s horror at this revelation results in the Bane leaving Grace and the Red Lord withdrawing from the Earth. The final panel shows a triumphant Green Knight in a Christ-like pose, on the sunlight-bathed battlefield, surrounded by trees and birds in flight as he heals the land. Overlaid on this image is a caption with a quotation from the poem ‘The Dead’ by René Arcos which includes the lines

Under the earth no more than one,
One field, one single hope,

The planet earth is this ‘one field’ which is the responsibility of both the Green Knight and of humanity under the ‘old bonds’ which Thomas’s sacrifice has helped restore.

After the sixth issue of Pendragon, the focus shifts away from Thomas to other characters who receive the ‘Pendragon spirit’ from the Green Knight, including McClellan, and fewer folk horror tropes are present. However, the final panel of issue 6 calls back to the panel from the first issue which shows an insubstantial figure, revealed by now to have been the Green Knight, observing Thomas’s isolated cottage in Gower. This final panel is also set in Gower, although on a coastal cliff where Thomas is gathered with McClellan and Captain Britain in his civilian guise as Brian Braddock. The Green Knight, fully substantial now, again observes from afar, from a vantage point which places him, not amongst trees but as a part of them (Grace refers to the Green Knight as ‘Lord of the Trees’), emphasizing his connection to Nature and the restoration of the ‘old bonds’ or, we might say from a folk horror perspective, of the ‘olde ways’.

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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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