In Contrayez Straunge

In which we wander into Wales

Once upon a time, an enormous Green Knight appeared at Arthur’s court with a great battle axe and challenged any of the famous knights to a game with only two moves. In the first move, the Green Knight would stand still while Arthur’s knight chopped off his head with the axe. In the second move, that knight would return the blow.

Sir Gawain—after doing some quick math and a mental review of basic human anatomy—agreed to the game, chopping the Green Knight’s head clean off, at which point the Green Knight’s body picked up his own head and told Sir Gawain to find him at the Green Chapel in one year and one day. He then rode boldly out of Arthur’s court into unknown lands.

A little less than a year later, Sir Gawain set out to meet his fate, riding from the the splendid order of Arthur’s court through a savage wilderness in search of his great green nemesis…

Places gain meaning from the stories we tell about them. That rather obvious point is one of the through lines of our coursework this semester in Britain. 

We’re here to study Britain, to ask the question, “What is this place?” 

And of course the most thoughtful response to that question isn’t to answer it outright but to consider multiple ways in which it has been answered: how has this place been understood in the contexts of different narratives? We’ve been looking not at definitions but at the act of definition as it has been performed at various points in history.

Painting by John Howe

This story of Sir Gawain begins in the mythical setting of Arthur’s Camelot, but Gawain rides forth into a liminal space somewhere between fact and fiction, because the poet takes great pains to name particular landmarks that would have been readily known to his northwestern audience at the end of the fourteenth century—places that are still recognizable today. He’s not in Narnia; he’s not traversing Middle-earth or Westeros. He rode, says the poem,

   Till he had wandered well-nigh into North Wales.
   All of the islands of Anglesey he holds on his left,
   And follows, as he fares, the fords by the coast,
   Comes over at Holy Head, and enters next
    The Wilderness of Wirral—few were within
   That had great good will toward God or man.
   * * *
   Over country wild and strange
   The knight sets off anew.
   Often his course must change
   Ere the Chapel comes into view.

   Many a cliff must he climb in country wild (“in contrayez straunge”);
   Far off from all his friends, forlorn must he ride.

(Trans. Marjorie Borroff)

Thus the anonymous Gawain poet shapes the landscapes of North Wales as “contrayez straunge,” a no-man’s land between the two civilized courts. This is, of course, an Englishman’s portrayal of North Wales, a liminal space not just between myth and history, fact and fiction, but also between the English and the Welsh. The area of the Wirral did have the reputation for being a forest full of outlaws—a place so dangerous that Edward III ordered it clear-cut in 1376.

But this view of North Wales didn’t start in 1376; it goes two Edwards back into the late thirteenth century, when the English king Edward I decided that he wanted to subdue Wales once and for all. He ordered the so-called “Iron Ring” of castles to be built throughout North Wales, not only as military strongholds for English troops, but also as thunderous rhetorical statements that the English were here in force, here in grandeur, and here to stay. 

The military purpose of his castles is now moot, but their rhetorical message is still going strong. They speak it loudly and boldly simply by existing. And they had been doing so for a century by the time Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written. For an English colonialist, Wales became the rough green region between strong castles: the exact landscape into which Gawain rides.

At the same time, there are narratives such as the Chester Cycle of mystery plays—written at roughly the same time as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—in which the shepherds in the Christmas play are clearly Welsh, and clearly do “have great good will toward God and man.” When three of these shepherds meet in the meadows, one says: “Nowe seinge God hath gaithred us togeither, with good harte I thanke hym of his grace.”

So alongside political conflict, there was also plenty of mutual trading and cultural exchange between the English and the Welsh at this time; the Gawain poet simply overlooks most of it, effectively reinforcing the colonial narrative of the Welsh as being wild, unruly, and dangerous. One consequence of using such pointedly real place names is to shape the identity of this real place and its people from a particular point of view—the same point of view from which Edward I built his castles.

If the identity of a place hovers between fact and fiction, the fictions matter.

This past Saturday, we journeyed into Wales—“in countrayez straunge”—roughly following the path that Sir Gawain would have taken as he left Arthur’s court in search of the Green Knight—although we were coming from the north, so we followed it backwards. As we drove down to Caernarfon, I was literally able to point out the window to the “islands of Anglesey,” which Gawain “held on his left” while we held them on our right.

We made three stops.

1. Flint Castle

Flint Castle was the first of Edward I’s Welsh castles, a day’s march from Chester. It had been standing for nearly a century when Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written, but it isn’t mentioned in the poem.

It was on our itinerary because it’s the site of a famous scene in our next text, Shakespeare’s Richard II, where King Richard is cornered by Henry Bolingbroke and descends to “the base court” to submit to the man who would usurp him as Henry IV.

Students leave the same tower that Richard II left to submit to Bolingbroke

The castle, in other words, is central to two narratives: an assertion of power by one English king (Edward I), and a dramatic secession of power by another (Richard II).

Of course, every person who visits any site also understands it in the narrative of their own experience, and students seemed to find the place liberating after scarcely an hour on our coach. It was hard not to—the low horizon, the green grass, the relatively warm air and fresh breeze. Only at the bottom of the towers was it really easy to read this site as an instrument of domination and submission.

2. Saint Winefride’s Well

Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Winefride, who wanted to become a nun. This enraged the young man who wanted to marry her, Caradoc, and he promptly cut off her head.

Three miracles ensued. First, her uncle happened to be a Welsh abbot and later saint named Beuno. (His name is sometimes Anglicized as “Saint Bono.” I will not do that.) Beuno reattached her severed head, and she was restored to life. Second, Beuno cursed Caradoc, who fell dead and the spot, and the earth itself opened to swallow him. Third, a spring immediately gushed forth from the place where Winefride’s head had hit the ground, and the water from that spring brought healing power to those who devoutly sought it.

There is still a small shrine around Saint Winefride’s Well, which has been visited by common pilgrims and queens and kings—including Richard the Lionheart and Henry V—for 800 years. It seems to be the “Holy Head” mentioned in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (above), a place with obvious relevance to the Beheading Game in which Sir Gawain is participating—and also to the challenges of chastity that face him in the middle of his story.

Window in the chapel at St. Winefride’s Well

Here is a place that is clearly, and some would say completely, defined by the story that is told of it.

I don’t think students knew exactly what to make of it. We had visited the shrine of Saint Cuthbert the week before, and several people in the group are extremely reluctant around saints and shrines. (The word “idolatry” has come up repeatedly in conversation and in students’ writing.)

Curiously, the students who don’t identify very strongly as Christians had the fewest problems with these religious practices; it was our devout Protestants who, well, protested the honor shown to Cuthbert and Winefride—and did so on explicitly Christian grounds.

I encouraged these students to show up to Saint Winefride’s Well as Christians, whatever that might mean: to say a short prayer, to recite a favorite Bible verse, to simply stand and breathe and listen for whatever prayer God might cause to rise in the silence of their hearts. I didn’t ask anyone to pray to or through Saint Winefride herself, or even to acknowledge her as a saint or exemplary person. (Personally, I’m not sure she ever existed.)

I simply invited everyone to use this spiritual space as a spiritual space and not simply a tourist destination. I don’t know if any of that happened, and I won’t ask. But the group did get suddenly silent for about a minute or so after we entered the shelter of the well itself.

For my part, the most moving aspect of the shrine is the vast array of names carved into the walls—some of them quite old. The interior space is small and intimate, even though it’s built out of bare stone, and I could sense the presence of centuries of fellow Christians all around me. I don’t believe the literal facts of the Winefride narrative, and maybe some of them didn’t, either. But we all believe in the power of God expressed in that story. It seemed to me that we were all gathered around that.

As I mentioned above, we always visit sites within the narrative of our own experience, and here it seemed to me that the narrative was a collective experience, a spiritual wiki slowly written across the ages.

While I was looking around at the walls, for some reason, I suddenly missed my mom. She died of cancer about three years ago. I don’t know why she came to mind: she had no connection to Saint Winefride, or any other saint, and I don’t think she would have known exactly how to take the story or the shrine, either. She would have looked at the stones, though—she always looked at stones. Mom never traveled very far, but she was an explorer at heart, the kind of person who took an active interest in pretty much everything and everyone. I could just hear her voice in my head as I looked at the names carved into the walls: “Let’s see if we can find the oldest one!” So she and I did.

Now, it would be possible to narrate this story as a mystical encounter, with the soul of my mother literally putting those words into my head and silently gliding at my side as I moved around the well. 

This wasn’t that. At least I don’t think so. (Although, really, who’s to say? Mom is with God now, and with God all things are possible. And who among us knows exactly what it means to “be with God”?)

I’m quite content to say that I simply missed her and was heartened to think of her. I went into the small chapel beside the pool, lit a 40p candle to mark the memory in some physical way, and briefly thanked God for the many ways she had and has been present to me.

3. Caernarfon

Once upon a time, there was a Roman Emperor named Macsen Wledig. Macsen dreamt one night of a beautiful princess who lived in a great castle on between a mountainous region and the sea, and he loved her with all of his heart and might (which is saying a lot: his name in Latin was Magnus Maximus). The dream did not evaporate when Macsen woke up. He believed that the princess was real, and he sent scouts throughout his empire to find her.

Which they did. The lovely Princess Elen lived with her father, a British chieftain, at Segontium in modern day Caernarfon. Macsen went to her. She welcomed him, as did her father and the local people, and Macsen and Elen fell in love, establishing the city as their capital, ruling together for many years and begetting heroic descendants including King Arthur and Constantine.

A story on top of a story

Edward I did not build on stone alone: he also set the foundations of the mighty Caernarfon Castle on this myth. He stacked the story of his own conquest on this local legend, fully intending this earlier Welsh story to show through in his new English narrative. And multiple aspects of his own life did echo that of Macsen: he was the foreign leader of a multinational empire (in Edward’s case, territories in France, England, and Ireland—in addition to Wales).

He was also passionately in love with his wife, Eleanor of Castille (not Elen—but close!—and alas, not Welsh).

Caernarfon Castle is thus not only an intimidating statement of military presence—and it is certainly that—but also Edward I’s attempt to tap into local, Roman, and Arthurian myths as ways to validate his power. Students observed that it does indeed feel like a house of war, but also like a fairytale castle, complete with a sea on one side and rolling green hills on the other. The towers of Caernarfon are all multifaceted. That seems appropriate.

One place to see the confluence of these two stories is in the Eagle Tower, basically a royal palace within the castle.

The Eagle Tower with that essential element of every castle: the coffee shop

The eagle was the emblem of the Roman Empire, of course, but—as historian Sara Cockerill has pointed out—the design of the tower itself, with three polygonal towers, is a reference to the seal of Castille: an architectural embodiment of Edward’s devotion to his wife, Eleanor.

Eleanor of Castille’s Coat of Arms

It was also in the Eagle Tower that Edward and Eleanor’s son Edward II was born, becoming the first English Prince of Wales—a title that Edward was attempting to take forcefully from local claimants to it. Legend has it that he promised to give them a prince who was born in Wales and spoke not a word of English, with baby Edward ticking both boxes.

That’s a nifty story, but that title—Prince of Wales—is still held by English royalty, and the slate circle in the middle of the courtyard was placed there for the ceremony in which that title was conferred on Prince Charles by the queen in 1958.

The thing about the past is that it’s not always just the past.

Stories within stories

Also included in the castle—accounting for nearly a quarter of the massive building—is an extensive museum covering the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a military regiment that goes all the way back to 1689. It is an astonishingly comprehensive history of the regiment, with walls and walls of text and pictures, and cases and cases of medals, weapons, and other artifacts—all showing the courage, valor, and honor with which these soldiers from Wales served the British empire.

Which is a little weird. The castle itself, the grand container for this exhibit, is the story of the suppression of the Welsh by the English king. The exhibit, on the other hand, shows the story of the Welsh bravely fighting and dying for the English kings and queens—often in an effort to suppress other nations into submission to the British empire. 

As a visual explanation for this weirdness, I’d point to the familiar Union Jack—the flag of the United Kingdom. The flag includes elements of every country in that union except Wales: the red cross of St. George for England; the white-on-blue X of St. Andrew for Scotland; the red X of St. Patrick for Ireland (it’s complicated).

Here there be not Welsh dragons—despite the fact that Wales is part of the United Kingdom. The Welsh flag wasn’t even formally recognized as such until 1959.

Yet here is this extensive museum to Welsh officers fighting and dying under the British flag.

I tried to imagine what Edward I would make of the museum. I’ll bet he’d like it very much indeed.

OK, I said to myself. But all the brochures, plaques and literature are in Welsh. The castle is now operated by Cadw, an office of the Welsh (not English or British) government dedicated to preserving Welsh heritage. And the flag that flies over Caernarfon is the Welsh flag, which contains no British elements. One might say that although the English castle still stands; the Welsh have now literally taken it over. And they’re using the building to tell their own story. (They’ve graciously included an English version so that the rest of us can read it.)

Fair enough. But it’s odd when the story they’re choosing to tell at such length—in whatever language, but especially in their own—is the story of their participation in an imperial expansion of which they themselves were among the earliest casualties.

I don’t get it. I wonder if it’s difficult (or even possible) for a twenty-first century American—a person whose country was formed by the rejection of English imperialism and whose land has never been colonized by a foreign power—to fully understand the long and nuanced narratives of Welsh history?

Stories outside of stories

When I was planning this excursion (about a year ago), I did a web search for local tour guides. The “local” part was important to me. I wanted someone who could talk about the castle, of course, but also the town. Preferably someone who actually lived there; preferably someone who spoke Welsh. I realized that our excursion into Wales would be shaping students’ own narratives of the place, and I didn’t want to swoop in from England to Edward I’s grand English stronghold, marvel at its might, and then board the bus back to England. That would have been another version of Sir Gawain’s Anglocentric narrative placement of Wales.

I figured the castle would speak for itself. I wanted someone to fill in the rest of the picture, so that when my students reflected on the day, their memory of it would include a real Welsh person and a sense of the lives spent outside the castle walls.

Melissa Lambe of Caernarfon Walks provided all of that. She’s a native of Caernarfon, where over 80% of the people speak Welsh (the highest percentage even in Wales). She explained that her schooling not only included Welsh but was actually in Welsh—although the students “took an English class, too.”

I was curious to hear how such a person would tell the story of the castle. She did give us some good factual information as we walked around the building from the outside, but it was far from the focal point of the tour. We soon moved on to the streets of the city and up the hill to the remains of an old Roman fort. 

At one point, various phrases in Welsh were written into the sidewalk, and Melissa challenged us to read them out loud. “That’s pretty close!” she said—although when she herself read them, I couldn’t help think that “pretty close” might be Welsh for “not remotely.”

A little later, we came to something I had never seen before: a church literally built into the corner of the city wall. I was marveling at the architecture, trying to guess the date, and thinking through the logistics and possible symbolism of the building when Melissa casually remarked that her parents had been married there, and that she herself had been baptized there. 

When we talked as a class about the visit a couple of days later, I’m not sure how many students remembered the date when Edward I finished Caernarfon Castle. Several remembered those facts about that church.

To be clear, the focus of the tour was not Melissa’s own life and times in the city. She is a history scholar with a wealth of knowledge and a flipbook of pictures showing how various places looked in days gone by. The personal bits came almost inadvertently, as offhanded comments along the way—which in some ways made them more genuine. They weren’t part of a presentation. They were real life.

As we were walking, I asked Melissa about the story of the castle. How do they tell that story—in Welsh—to schoolchildren? She explained that there isn’t a heroic emphasis on Edward I. The castle is not so much the grand ambition of a great man as it is the target of various rebellions by the Welsh. That makes sense.

lot of sense. In fact, in her own way—knowingly or otherwise—I think Melissa was doing the same thing.

In 1400 (shortly after Gawain was written; the year after Richard II walked down from the keep at Flint Castle), Owain Glyndŵr—“Owen Glendower” in English ever since Shakespeare’s fairly skewed version of him in 1 Henry IV—began a fifteen-year uprising against the English that included the storming of Caernarfon Castle. 

And he used the town to do it. City walls had been built concurrently with the castle, and because the north side of the castle was completely protected by the city walls, the north walls of the castle hadn’t been finished. The Welsh population had been mostly pushed outside the city walls and were allowed inside only on market days (some things never change), but on one such market day Glyndŵr and his followers used the opportunity to storm the castle.

They ultimately failed. But as Melissa finished her tour, I suddenly realized how little of that tour had been devoted to the castle, and how much of it had been spent in the town. She didn’t tell the exciting, militant stories of the major rebellions. She pointed out various features of Welsh life outside those narratives: the smallest pub in Wales, the smallest church in the UK. 

Urgent question: Could the tallest member of our group fit into the smallest church in the UK?

But these little things had the cumulative effect of displacing that massive castle as the center of the story. In a way, her tour was a quiet, calm, cheerful equivalent of the Glyndŵr Rising: a civilian counter-narrative pushing back on the story-built-on-top-of-a-story.

Watch out for that last step: it’s a doozy.

There is a gentle power here, the power of simple survival. The great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova—whose husband and son were executed by the State, who was personally persecuted by Stalin—defeated all of her enemies using the oldest trick in the book: she outlived them. So have the Welsh. Their national motto might well be: “We’re still here” or simply “Here we are.” Because that is the message that is communicated by the flags and narratives that still fly over Caernarfon.

Now, I wonder what Edward I would think of that? Alas, the silent soul of that departed king put no words into my head in answer to that question.

*   *   *

Places gain meaning from the narratives in which they appear, including the very powerful narrative of our experience of that place. As we boarded the bus and headed back north into England—holding the islands of Anglesey on our left this time, as had Gawain—I worried that the excursion had been overloaded. So many places, so many narratives.

But I remembered with a smile that the candle I had lit at St. Winefride’s Well was still burning, and I hoped that students would be disposed to remember this region not just as a wild in-between or off-to-the-side place, but as a space occupied by real people and defined by a multitude of stories.

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Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."