Where are ye going?
Said the knight on the road,
I’m going to school
Said the child, and he stood.
He stood and he stood
And t’were well that he stood
So the traditional ballad known as ‘The False Knight on the Road’. In some versions the knight is the Devil, or an old crone, or a witch. In such encounters it is necessary either to exchange or solve riddles or counter a statement with a better one:
I wish ye were in yon lake
Quoth the hag on the road;
With a good boat under me
Quoth the wee lad and so he stood.
The boat for to break its bottom
Quoth the hag on the road;
And for ye to be drowned
Quoth the wee lad, and still he stood.
Ballads and tales about encounters on a path usually feature a young person who has to stand firm against an adversary. Who is this adversary?
The person making the journey is young because it is a new beginning: the acolyte seeking new knowledge, the young hero on a quest, the character represented as The Fool in the tarot pack. For many in this world who claim wisdom the quest is a foolish undertaking. But if, in making it anyway, the quester is innocent or naive, how will wisdom be gained for protection? Help is at hand as any good fairy story will tell. Often in the form of a wise counsellor or animal helper. But this is a journey that must be made alone and there are ‘false knights’ who might lead you astray. Never mind, consider the story of ‘The Green Man of Knowledge’ :
Jack, who has never ventured out of sight of the cottage in which he was born, one day decides to go to seek his fortune. In spite of the protests of his mother that he knows nothing of the ways of the world he sets off and eventually follows a signpost pointing to ‘The Land of Enchantment’. As night draws near and he begins to wonder where he will sleep a robin lands on a nearby branch and asks him where he is going. He explains that he needs somewhere to spend the night so the robin directs him to a cottage a mile or so along the road. He goes there and is welcomed by an old women who invites him in and gives him food. Then a young woman takes him to a bedroom and shows him a comfortable bed where he can sleep. During the night he wakes briefly and thinks he is sleeping on some moss on the cold earth, but when he awakes in the morning he is snug in the comfortable bed. When he get up an goes to the kitchen the young woman gives him breakfast then tells him to go out to the garden where her grandmother will give him some advice. He thinks he would rather stay with the young woman but does as she tells him and the old woman advises him as to the way he should go and sends him on his way. The young woman comes out as he is leaving and gives him a gold coin.
He stops for lunch at an inn and gets into a game of cards, eventually winning more gold coins and his opponent withdraws from the game.
“Who are you?” Jack asks him.
“The Green Man of Knowledge”.
“Where do you live?”
“East of the Moon, West of the Stars”.
At which he disappeared and left Jack with an overwhelming desire to find him again.
He journeyed on until he came to a cottage that was just like the one he had stayed in the previous night, and again he was welcomed and fed by the old woman and put to bed by the young woman who seemed even lovelier than before. The Old Woman was knitting by the fire when he went to bed. By the morning she had produced a large square that showed woods and fields and rivers and paths like a map, but also like a picture. She said if he stepped into it he would find someone to help him get to the Green Man of Knowledge. But he must be aware of the dangers and be sure he wanted to go. He said he was sure so she told him to step on the knitting and then said “Away with you”.
As the young woman waved him goodbye he was whirled through hail, fire, brimstone and water. Then he found himself in a blacksmith’s workshop. The old woman was there too, but now she was the smith’s wife. The smith pointed to a far off castle and said that is where the Green Man of Knowledge lives. “The only way in is across the deep moat is across the bridge, but if you step on it it will turn into a spider’s web and you will fall into the water and be sucked under. So you must wait until the Green Man’s three daughters come down to bathe. When they go into the water they are swans. Two are black but the youngest is white. When they are in the water as swans you must take all the white swan’s clothes and hide them. Then she will help you.”
Jack did this and when the two older daughters had come out of the water, dressed and gone back into the castle, the youngest called out to him
“Whoever you are, please give me back my clothes”.
He replied that first she must help him, so as a swan she carried him across the water. Then he saw that it was the young woman from the cottage, but she sent him on his way into the castle.
The Green Man looked astonished to see him and took him to a room with a trap door so Jack fell through into a cell. But that night the young woman came to him with food and said she would help him perform the tasks that the Green Man would set for him. The first of these was to retrieve a ring from a deep well. For this the woman made a ladder of herself so he could climb down to the bottom. She told him to be careful because if he slipped on he rungs he might break one of her bones. In spite of his care he slipped on he bottom rung, but she helped him find the ring and climb out again. The next day she wore a glove to hide her broken finger from the Green Man who was surprised that Jack had been able to retrieve the ring . The next day he was taken to an adjoining hill and told he must build another castle on it. When left to get on with his task Jack did not know how to start but the woman came and helped him build it. She told Jack that when the Green Man asked why there was a gap in the wall he was to tell him it was for him to complete the work. When he did this the Green Man was again astonished and asked who was helping him, but Jack would not tell. Finally he was set the task of bringing together all the ants from the forest and if he did he could marry one of the Green Man’s daughters and have enough money for them both to live on for the rest of their lives. When the young woman comes she tells Jack to dig an enormous hole and seal the bottom. Then she sang a song which attracted all the ants and when they were in the pit put a cover on it.
There are further episodes in most versions of the tale until Jack is eventually able to marry the Green Man’s daughter but she helps him overcome all the obstacles placed in his path and, of course, they live happily ever after. So who are all these characters? It seems clear that the old and the young women are so closely identified as to be regarded as one. The old woman treats him as a son. The young woman is his heart’s desire. Together they are what Jung would have called his anima. The anima, for a man, and the animus, for a woman, is superficially our other-gendered self, though Jung makes it clear that more deeply it is our soul. In this view the young man’s helpers are aspects of himself. So he is still alone on the journey. But he also has an adversary. Why is the young woman both the granddaughter of the old woman who helps him and the daughter of his adversary? A common folk tale motif here is the pattern where the daughter helps the man she wants to marry to overcome her father who is often a wizard or an ogre. Usually the young man does not seek the father but cannot avoid him because he seeks the daughter. Here the Green Man meets Jack on his journey and creates the desire to seek him out. He is the adversary or the false knight who tests him, here by the card game at the inn to see if he is worthy. So if the women here are Jack’s anima, is the adversary also an aspect of himself, an ‘other’ dark side of himself whom he must displace to gain his ends? Do we provide our own obstacles on the path, taking the form of the Devil or an old hag? If so, the form of the false knight is the clearest representation of our own deceit, conjuring a demon or facing the Hag who makes us confront our own shadow - the darkness we cast across the light of the world, or even our own absence from it. Then, we had better know the answer to the questions our not-self has to ask. With the help of the helper who tells us who we are and the helper who shows us what we desire and what we can become.
A fuller version of ‘The Green Man of Knowledge’ can be found in A Dictionary of British Folk Tales Katherine Briggs - 4 vols (1970) pp 290-295. There is also a vividly told version in Scottish traveller dialect , ‘The Green Gadgie o Knowledge’ in Reek Roon a Camp Fire by Stanley Robertson (2009) pp.17-27. ‘The False Knight on the Road’ (Child 3 a, b, c) is widely available in ballad collections.