Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Symbolism

Significance of the color green

Given the varied and even contradictory interpretations of the color green, its precise meaning in the poem remains ambiguous. In English folklore and literature, green was traditionally used to symbolise nature and its associated attributes: fertility and rebirth. Stories of the medieval period also used it to allude to love and the base desires of man.[32][33] Because of its connection with faeries and spirits in early English folklore, green also signified witchcraft, devilry and evil. It can also represent decay and toxicity.[34] When combined with gold, as with the Green Knight and the girdle, green was often seen as representing youth's passing.[35] In Celtic mythology, green was associated with misfortune and death, and therefore avoided in clothing.[36] The green girdle, originally worn for protection, became a symbol of shame and cowardice; it is finally adopted as a symbol of honour by the knights of Camelot, signifying a transformation from good to evil and back again; this displays both the spoiling and regenerative connotations of the color green.[36]

The Green Knight

Scholars have puzzled over the Green Knight's symbolism since the discovery of the poem. He could be a version of the Green Man, a mythological being connected with nature in medieval art, a Christian symbol, or the Devil himself. British medieval scholar C. S. Lewis said the character was "as vivid and concrete as any image in literature" and J. R. R. Tolkien said he was the "most difficult character" to interpret in Sir Gawain. His major role in Arthurian literature is that of a judge and tester of knights, thus he is at once terrifying, friendly, and mysterious.[36] He appears in only two other poems: The Greene Knight and King Arthur and King Cornwall.[37][38] Scholars have attempted to connect him to other mythical characters, such as Jack in the green of English tradition and to Al-Khidr,[39] but no definitive connection has yet been established.[39][40]

However, there is a possibility, as Alice Buchanan has argued, that the color green is erroneously attributed to the Green Knight due to the poet's mistranslation or misunderstanding of the Irish word glas, which could either mean grey or green. In the Death of Curoi (one of the Irish stories from Bricriu's Feast), Curoi stands in for Bercilak, and is often called "the man of the grey mantle". Though the words usually used for grey in the Death of Curoi are lachtna or odar, roughly meaning milk-coloured and shadowy respectively, in later works featuring a green knight, the word glas is used and may have been the basis of misunderstanding.[41]

Girdle

The girdle's symbolic meaning, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, has been construed in a variety of ways. Interpretations range from sexual in nature to spiritual. Those who argue for the sexual inference view the girdle as a "trophy".[42] However, it is not entirely clear who the "winner" is: Sir Gawain or Lady Bertilak. The girdle is given to Gawain by Lady Bertilak in order to keep him safe when he confronts the Green Knight. When Lord Bertilak returns home from his hunting trip, Gawain does not reveal the girdle to his host but, instead, hides it. This introduces the spiritual interpretation, that Gawain’s acceptance of the girdle is a sign of his faltering faith in God, at least in the face of death.[43] To some, the Green Knight is Christ, who overcomes death, while Gawain is the Every Christian, who in his struggles to follow Christ faithfully, chooses the easier path. In Sir Gawain, the easier choice is the girdle, which promises what Gawain most desires. Faith in God, alternatively, requires one’s acceptance that what one most desires does not always coincide with what God has planned. It is arguably best to view the girdle not as an either–or situation, but as a complex, multi-faceted symbol that acts to test Gawain in more ways than one. While Gawain is able to resist Bertilak’s wife’s sexual advances, he is unable to resist the powers of the girdle. Gawain is operating under the laws of chivalry which, evidently, have rules that can contradict each other. In the story of Sir Gawain, Gawain finds himself torn between doing what a damsel asks (accepting the girdle) and keeping his promise (returning anything given to him while his host is away).[44]

Pentangle

The pentangle on Gawain's shield is seen by many critics as signifying Gawain's perfection and power over evil.[45] The poem contains the only representation of such a symbol on Gawain's shield in the Gawain literature. What is more, the poet uses a total of 46 lines to describe the meaning of the pentangle; no other symbol in the poem receives as much attention or is described in such detail.[46] The poem describes the pentangle as a symbol of faithfulness and an "endless knot". In line 625, it is described as "a sign by Solomon". Solomon, the third king of Israel, in the 10th century BC, was said to have the mark of the pentagram on his ring, which he received from the archangel Michael. The pentagram seal on this ring was said to give Solomon power over demons.[47]

Along these lines, some academics link the Gawain pentangle to magical traditions. In Germany, the symbol was called a Drudenfuß and was placed on household objects to keep out evil.[48] The symbol was also associated with magical charms that, if recited or written on a weapon, would call forth magical forces. However, concrete evidence tying the magical pentagram to Gawain's pentangle is scarce.[48][49]

Gawain’s pentangle also symbolises the "phenomenon of physically endless objects signifying a temporally endless quality."[50] Many poets use the symbol of the circle to show infinity or endlessness, but Gawain’s poet insisted on using something more complex. In medieval number theory, the number five is considered a "circular number", since it "reproduces itself in its last digit when raised to its powers".[51] Furthermore, it replicates itself geometrically; that is, every pentangle has a smaller pentagon that allows a pentangle to be embedded in it and this "process may be repeated forever with decreasing pentangles".[51] Thus, by reproducing the number five, which in medieval number symbolism signified incorruptibility, Gawain's pentangle represents his eternal incorruptibility.[52]

The Lady's Ring

Gawain's refusal of the Lady Bertilak's ring has major implications for the remainder of the story. While the modern student may tend to pay more attention to the girdle as the eminent object offered by the lady, readers in the time of Gawain would have noticed the significance of the offer of the ring as they believed that rings, and especially the embedded gems, had talismanic properties.[53] This is especially true of the lady's ring as scholars believe it to be a ruby or carbuncle, indicated when the Gawain-Poet describes it as a "brygt sunne" (line 1819),[54] a "fiery sun."[55] Given the importance of magic rings in Arthurian romance, this remarkable ring would also have been believed to protect the wearer from harm.[56]

Numbers

The poet highlights number symbolism to add symmetry and meaning to the poem. For example, three kisses are exchanged between Gawain and Bertilak's wife; Gawain is tempted by her on three separate days; Bertilak goes hunting three times, and the Green Knight swings at Gawain three times with his axe. The number two also appears repeatedly, as in the two beheading scenes, two confession scenes, and two castles.[57] The five points of the pentangle, the poet adds, represent Gawain's virtues, for he is "faithful five ways and five times each".[58] The poet goes on to list the ways in which Gawain is virtuous: all five of his senses are without fault; his five fingers never fail him, and he always remembers the five wounds of Christ, as well as the five joys of the Virgin Mary. The fifth five is Gawain himself, who embodies the five moral virtues of the code of chivalry: "friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety".[59] All of these virtues reside, as the poet says, in the "Endless Knot" of the pentangle, which forever interlinks and is never broken.[60] This intimate relationship between symbol and faith allows for rigorous allegorical interpretation, especially in the physical role that the shield plays in Gawain's quest.[61] Thus, the poet makes Gawain the epitome of perfection in knighthood through number symbolism.[62]

The number five is also found in the structure of the poem itself. Sir Gawain is 101 stanzas long, traditionally organised into four 'Fitts' of 21, 24, 34, and 22 stanzas. These divisions, however, have since been disputed; scholars have begun to believe that they are the work of the copyist and not of the poet. The original manuscript features a series of capital letters added after the fact by another scribe, and some scholars argue that these additions were an attempt to restore the original divisions. These letters divide the manuscript into nine parts. The first and last parts are 22 stanzas long. The second and second-to-last parts are only one stanza long, and the middle five parts are eleven stanzas long. The number eleven is associated with transgression in other medieval literature (being one more than ten, a number associated with the Ten Commandments). Thus, this set of five elevens (55 stanzas) creates the perfect mix of transgression and incorruption, suggesting that Gawain is faultless in his faults.[62]

Wounds

At the story's climax, Gawain is wounded superficially in the neck by the Green Knight's axe. During the medieval period, the body and the soul were believed to be so intimately connected that wounds were considered an outward sign of inward sin. The neck, specifically, was believed to correlate with the part of the soul related to will, connecting the reasoning part (the head) and the courageous part (the heart). Gawain's sin resulted from using his will to separate reasoning from courage. By accepting the girdle from the lady, he employs reason to do something less than courageous—evade death in a dishonest way. Gawain's wound is thus an outward sign of an internal wound. The Green Knight's series of tests shows Gawain the weakness that has been in him all along: the desire to use his will pridefully for personal gain, rather than submitting his will in humility to God. The Green Knight, by engaging with the greatest knight of Camelot, also reveals the moral weakness of pride in all of Camelot, and therefore all of humanity. However, the wounds of Christ, believed to offer healing to wounded souls and bodies, are mentioned throughout the poem in the hope that this sin of prideful "stiffneckedness" will be healed among fallen mortals.[63][64]


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