Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Symbols

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight symbolism penetrates the entire poem. Nevertheless, there are two symbols that require further analysis. In this article, they will be discussed:

  1. the knightly symbol – the pentangle,
  2. and the color symbolism in the poem.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight symbolism.

The Pentangle

The pentangle that Sir Gawain adopted for his shield can be interpreted in several ways. On the main level, the pentangle on Sir Gawain’s shield signifies the truth. However, the truth in this poem is more than just honesty. It also means Christian faith, purity, and moral goodness. In the chivalric tradition that adopted some Christian beliefs, these qualities are presented as essential for the code and every knight in particular. At the beginning of the poem, Gawain himself becomes a symbol of unwithering faith and honesty. Until the moment he accepts the challenge, Gawain’s life represents all the virtues that the pentangle stands for.

The poet uses 50 lines to describe the meaning of this symbol on Sir Gawain’s shield. According to Gawain poet, the five-ended star was initially designed by King Solomon. In the poem,  two different words refer to this symbol – “the pentangle” and the “endless knot.”  This symbol is also a way to represent the five wounds of Christ and the five joys of Mary. It also represents five essential qualities that any knight should possess. These qualities are Franchise, Fellowship, Cleanness, Courtesy, and Charity. The inside of the shield is decorated with the image of the Virgin Mary. It is peculiar because, traditionally, pentangles have magical associations. Yet, the significance of Gawain’s pentagram is much broader. The poet draws particular attention to the color of the symbol. It’s gold, connected with nobility and richness. Some critics note that Gawain is the best represented by gold, while the Green Knight—by green. The poet emphasized that the pentangle is painted of pure gold. 

Throughout the poem, Gawain faces several tests. Not only his personal qualities are tested but also his adherence to the chivalric values. Gawain fails to adhere to the standards he chose for himself, and the values he stands for fail. By accepting the green girdle from the lady, he demonstrates his human imperfection. Gawain prefers to win by cheating rather than keeping up with the values the pentangle represents. He is afraid of death. His natural surviving instinct is stronger than any artificial set of rules. Gawain fails, but he is able to learn his lesson. He comes back to Camelot as a new man who is aware of his limitations and flaws.

Quotes about Pentangle

  1. “Then they brought him his blazon that was of brilliant gules with the pentangle depicted in pure hue of gold. By the baldric he caught it and about his neck cast it: right well and worthily it went with the knight. And why the pentangle is proper to that prince so noble I intend now to tell you, though it may tarry my story”. (Part 1, Stanza 27)
  2. “And well may he wear it on his worthy arms, For ever faithful five-fold in five-fold fashion Was Gawain in good works, as gold unalloyed, Devoid of all villainy, with virtues adorned in sight” (Part 2, Stanza 35)
  3. “First faultless was he found in his five senses, and next in the five fingers he failed at no time, and firmly on the Five Wounds all his faith was set that Christ received on the cross, as the Creed tells us; and wherever the brave man into battle was come, on this beyond all things was his earnest thought: that ever from the Five Joys all his valor he gained that to Heaven’s courteous Queen once came from her Child. For which cause the knight had in comely wise on the inner side of his shield her image depainted”. (Part 1, Stanza 28)
  4. “It is a sign that Solomon once set on a time  to betoken Troth, as it is entitled to do; for it is a figure that in it five points holdeth, and each line overlaps and is linked with another, and every way it is endless; and the English, I hear, everywhere name it the Endless Knot”. (Part 2, Stanza 27)

Color Green

Colors are significant for the understanding of any literary piece. When it comes to Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, they become markers, navigating the entire plot.

The poem’s antagonist, the Green Knight, is described as a man in completely green armor. He is stronger, taller than a human, and can survive the beheading game. The audience connects these superb qualities with the unusual complexion. But he also has green garments, a green horse, green ax. Besides, he tells Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel a year later. This exaggeration in using green color throughout the poem plays a vital role for the audience. It brings alive a lot of associations and mental connections. 

 In Medieval tradition, the color green is closely connected with several themes. The first one involves supernatural power and magic. The second theme this symbol stands for is nature and wilderness. It opposes King Arthur’s court that represents civility and life arranged around the knightly code. The third symbol is love and lust. The last one refers to youth, regeneration, and renewal. 

The Green Knight and his alter ego Lord Bertilak represent both the supernatural and natural:

  1. They live in a castle far removed from civilization amid a green forest.
  2. They possess magic items, such as the green girdle.
  3. They are very close to nature.

The characters demonstrate these themes through seduction games and hunting scenes. Their lives are filled with green symbols. Just like the color green itself, The Green Knight has a lot of faces in the poem. Despite being harsh and strong, he is also merciful and knows how to forgive. 

The most peculiar episode in the entire poem and the ultimate climax is depicted at the Green Chapel. Gawain wears the green girdle to go to the Green Chapel and meet the Green Knight. In this scene, supernatural, natural, and religious elements are closely interconnected. As it was mentioned, girdles are used in connection with magic and mythology in literature. In the Bible, the item refers to preparedness. Yet for Gawain, the green girdle becomes a symbol of his own. It is a reminder of his failure and a symbol of his moral rebirth. Like the girdle that goes through a transformation of its own, Gawain initially and at the end of the poem are two different characters.

Quotes about Color Green

  1. “All of green were they made, both garments and man: a coat tight and close that clung to his sides; a rich robe above it all arrayed within with fur finely trimmed, showing fair fringes of handsome ermine gay, as his hood was also”  (Part I, Stanza 8)
  2. “Very gay was this great man guised all in green, and the hair of his head with his horse’s accorded: fair flapping locks enfolding his shoulders, a big beard like a bush over his breast hanging that with the handsome hair from his head falling was sharp shorn to an edge just short of his elbows, so that half his arms under it were hid, as it were in a king’s capadoce that encloses his neck”. (Part 1, Stanza 9)
  3. “I shall give you my girdle, less gain will that be.’ She unbound a belt swiftly that embracing her sides was clasped above her kirtle under her comely mantle. Fashioned it was of green silk, and with gold finished, though only braided round about, embroidered by hand; and this she would give to Gawain, and gladly besought him”. (Part 3, Stanza 73)
  4. “All goes as he chooses at the Green Chapel; no one passes by that place so proud in his arms that he hews not to death by dint of his hand. For he is a man monstrous, and mercy he knows not; for be it a churl or a chaplain that by the Chapel rideth, a monk or a mass-priest or any man besides, he would as soon have him slain as himself go alive”. (Part 4, Stanza 84)
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