Symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The story sir Gawain and the green knight is full of symbols ranging
from the people, the animals and the objects. Some of the objects that
evoke interest and symbolism are the pentangle on Gawain`s shield, the
green Knight and his color and the green girdle. Various interpretations
regarding the meaning of the symbols have emerged from significant
sources. The common line of thought has been that symbolism as a
stylistic device in this poem has been used to create an interface for
the reader which enables them to depict and visualize the events and
people described in the poem. Has this been achieved? Well, throughout
the poem symbols keep emerging. The symbols have been used to conceal
some information, but placed in their context, a reader is able to
understand the author`s point of view, as well as, the nature of the
characters used. All the symbols used in the poem revolve around Gawain
and every symbol is a step towards a change.
The context of the poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be placed
at around the late 14th century. It reflects the mastery of Middle
English story telling. The poem narrates of the adventures of sir Gawain
one of king Arthur`s knights. It is a literally work among many of
Arthurian literatures. The author of the poem is unknown but one cannot
mistake his literal mystic. The ensuing paragraphs are an in-depth
analysis of the literally work in question. The main interest is to
bring out the symbolism as embedded in the narrative by the author. The
poem is a narrative of medieval English it depicts the traditions of the
Welsh and English people. The stage is thought to be set in the west
midlands. The opening narrates the legendary founding of Britain with an
account of the fall of Troy. It tells of the origin of many famous
capitals of the World`s greatest empires albeit briefly. In the brief
history as translated by Kline (2), “but of all that here built, of
Britain the kings, ever was Arthur highest, as I have heard tell. And so
of earnest adventure I aim to show, that astonishes sight as some men do
hold it, an outstanding action of Arthur’s wonders”. The poet
introduces the legendary figure of British folklore: King Arthur.
The Green Knight
in his critical analysis Glaser (3) alludes that the green knight in
the poem symbolizes change and new life as does Christ in Christian
faith. This can be deduced from the beheading games where the green
knight lives on after his head is struck from his neck by Gawain a scene
synonymous with Christ’s resurrection. The events that follow are a
series of changes among the knights and the rulers of Camelot embodied
by Gawain. It is, therefore, expected that the whole society does
experience some change. The author heralds the green knight as the judge
and the savior of Camelot.
The narration enables the reader to create an image and visualize the
behavior and the traditions of British aristocrats during the period.
There was feasting and merry making for fifteen days during the
charismas festive the following excerpt from part three and first
paragraph shows that the nobles were extravagant, “At Camelot lay the
king, all on a Christmas-tide, with many lovely a lord, and gallant
Knight beside, and of the Table Round did the rich brotherhood High
revel hold alright, and mirthful was their mood…” (Weston 3). It is
during this party at the round table when the Green Knight, the poem`s
antagonist, appears. The green Knight comes to judge Camelot and its
leaders whom he accuses as greedy and extravagant at the expense of the
There are multiple possible explanations of the green color in the poem,
around which the main plot of the poem develops, but none of the
explanation is certain. In the traditional English story telling green
was a symbol which evolved with time. Howard notes that “at first the
color was used symbolize nature and its relatives: fertility and
revival” (400). In the medieval period storytelling, green alluded to
love, and human basic instincts. The color green has had its fair share
of usage in the traditional English society especially with fairies. In
some cases, the color green has been used to symbolize evil and
witchcraft a common tradition in medieval England. In some contexts the
color is used to depict decay and toxicity. However, the use of green in
symbolism cannot be limited to the above examples only this is to show
that green was quite significant to the society in question. In some
instances, green was used to signify a rite of passage from one stage to
another. For instance, green color embedded with gold represented the
transitioning from youth. Early mythology from the Celtic people, the
likely ancestors of today`s English society, believed that green brought
death and bad luck thus, evaded it in dressing. In the poem the green
girdle which was a symbol of protection now portrays shame and fear.
However, towards the end it depicts and symbolizes honor and is worn by
all the Knights of Camelot. Additionally, it also shows transition from
good to evil in and vice versa. This shows the various blotting and
restorative associations of the color green.
Critics and analysts alike have pondered over the green Knight, the
antagonist of the novel, for long. Some have likened the character to
the Green Man, a figure of mythology, who is associated with art and
nature in medieval literature. The mythological character is often
depicted as a symbol of Christianity or as the devil. The green knight
in the poem acts as a tester of the renowned Arthur`s knights, and as a
judge of the rulers. He calls King Arthur and those in his court
children who needs to be tested “Nay, here I crave no fight, in sooth
I say to thee, The knights about thy board, but beardless bairns they
be, An I were fitly armed, upon this steel so tall lack of strength no
man might match me in this hall” (Weston 12). However, the author does
not elaborate the character of the Green Knight. All there is his word
against those sitting at the high round table. This group has been
described as extravagant by the poet, and needing of testing from the
green knight.
The Girdle
This symbol appears when Gawain leaves Camelot in search of the green
knight`s castle. According to Bercovitch (255-256) a scholar of medieval
literature, the girdle embodied sexuality as well as spirituality
however it meaning has been misconstrued by scholars with some saying it
symbolized love and magic. Bercovitch further notes that, “The two
perspectives cannot be overruled because the girdle has been used by the
author to develop the two themes” (256). The girdle is given to Gawain
as a symbol of triumph over evil shortly after overcoming the desire to
heed to his hostesses’ sexual desires as shown in Klaine`s
translations (49)…..Your are welcome to my body, Your pleasure to take
all I must by necessity your servant be, and shall. The hostess wore
the girdle as symbol of protection from harm. Additionally, lady
Bertilak gives the girdle to Gawain so that it can protect him her
husband. Gawain later learns that the girdle had no magical powers
because his host still succeeds to put injury on him.
The notion that the girdle could save his life from his host`s harm
makes Gawain keep the girdle anyway. This infers the spiritual nature of
the girdle. For a man like Gawain who is guided by the chivalry code,
the girdle does not indicate his triumph. This follows that they had
agreed with his host that he would return what his hostess gave to him
in the absence of his host. Gawain does not uphold his end of the
bargain instead, he conceals the girdle. Some scholars argue that may be
Gawain kept the girdle so as to fire up his faltering faith in God. At
this point the spiritual nature of the girdle is brought into the
picture. From the beginning of the poem, the coming of the green knight
has led experts to liken him to Christ who overcame death. Gawain on the
other hand is likened to the average Christian who finds it hard to
practice pure faith, therefore, must keep an aid such as the girdle.
Thus far, we cannot say that the girdle is either spiritual or sexual to
its entirety. Observably, while Gawain is able to resist sexual advances
from his hostess, he cannot resist the power of the girdle.
The pentangle
Regarding the pentangle an emblem on Gawain’s shield, Battles (255)
argues that the pentangle symbolizes Gawain`s rebirth, a restoration of
faith, and purification . Additionally, Howard in his article argues
that the pentangle was more significant than the shield or the girdle.
“Yet the symbolism of shield and girdle is symbolism of a different
kind from that of the pentangle. The pentangle has an assigned symbolic
value. It is put into the poem in order to stand for an abstraction
like, Sin and Death.” (426). This is the single symbol that receives
the utmost attention from the author. Its inference, therefore, is
thought to be so significant. The pentangle was thought to have power
against demons. In addition, the pentagram has been associated with
other symbols in other traditions. Cook (130) mentions that “The
Germans had a similar symbol called the drudenfub: it was used in
households to keep off evil spirits from homes.” The symbol was also
inscribed on enchanted weapons with the belief that on reciting a
certain spell, it would summon magical forces. The magical references
are endless, but there lacks sufficient evidence to support these
theories. Thus, it is not clear whether Gawain`s pentagram was magical
or not. This tells the reader that the society in question was a
spiritual and the people involved practiced a lot of witchcraft. The
pentangle is also used to infer perpetuity. Howard notes that the
pentangle symbolizes Gawain`s renewed strength in all the virtues of
chivalry. “On its is the pentangle or “endless knot,” representing
Gawain`s perfection in his five senses and his five fingers, his faith
in the five wounds of Christ and the five joys of the Virgin, and his
possession of the five knightly virtues” (427). Gawain comes from
Bertilak`s castle with the symbol this is after his cleansing and
rebirth (Cook 150). The pentangle here may, therefore, be considered to
mean that Gawain has been tested and tried and will never go back his
past ways notes Barron (200). Medieval scholars have put forth the
number theory in which the number five was considered unique and capable
of replication. This brings about infinity thus, the pentangle on
Gawain`s shield has been explained along these lines.
In medieval age, body and soul were thought to be so intertwined and
wound was seen as a sign of sin which is not visible. In this belief,
the neck was particularly believed to be the part of the soul connected
to will. It was believed that it connected the two most vital parts of a
man the heart and the head. After accepting the girdle from the lady of
the castle Gawain chose to use reasoning instead of courage. This
according to his host was a sin which was symbolized by the wound he
received on his neck from the axe of his host. Through the tests Gawain
is able to see the weakness vested in him. The will to be proud rather
than be humble before God was termed as a sin. This weakness in Gawain
is synonymous to the weakness in all the other Knights of King Arthur of
Camelot (Scaglione 250). This follows that Gawain was the greatest
Knight in Camelot. The change and transformation of Gawain is viewed as
the salvation that comes to the whole of mankind if they agree to accept
Christ who is their savior. It infers that the wounds of Christ heal
those who are internally wounded at the expense of their pride.
The narrator incorporates symbolism of numbers so as to give the poem a
symmetry and meaning. Barron a scholar in ancient literature observes
the symbolism of number two and three “ the lord Bertilak is out of
his castle three times hunting, lady Bertilak makes sexual advances to
Gawain on three occasions, the Green Knight swings his axe three times
at Gawain, In addition, number two appears in the poem a few times for
instance in the two castles, two confessions, and the two beheading
games” (27). The other significant number is number five which is
infinite in this case as represented by the pentangle. The number five
is particularly symbolic as it represents the five pillars of
Christianity which are, faultless senses, strong arms, Christ`s five
wounds, as well as, the virgin Mary’s five joys (Glaser 120). Gawain
is viewed as the fifth symbol because he comes out of these tests as
refined and revived he embodies the five principles of chivalry which
forms a brotherhood piety, courtesy, generosity, friendship and
chastity (Spark notes 768). In his work Klaine brings out the symbolism
and importance of number five as follows, “The fifth five that I find
the knight used was Free-handedness and Friendship above all things his
Continence and Courtesy corrupted were never, and Piety, that surpasses
all points – these pure five were firmer founded in his form than
another” (29). The above virtues are entangled into the pentagram
which forms an infinite cycle indicating endlessness of the new nature
of Gawain (Armitage 84). The number symbolism depicted above is intended
by the author to show the perfection of knighthood through Gawain.
Through the analytical examination of the symbols in the poem, a reader
is able to visualize the society in the setting. Firstly the reader is
able to gather that the society depicted was spiritual and practiced
Christianity. All these from the symbols used in the development of the
plot in the poem. Every symbol is a stage towards the transformation of
the entire Camelot.
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Weston, Jessie L. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Mineola, N.Y: Dover
Publications, 2003.
Howard, Donald. Structure and Symmetry in sir Gawain and The Green
Knight. web accessed on April 16, 2013 from
Glaser, Joseph. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Indianapolis: Hackett
Pub. Co, 2011
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Bercovitch, Sacvan. “Romance and Anti-Romance in Gawain and the Green
Knight. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 1968. Pp. 257-266.
Battles, P. Gawain and the Green Knight. Ontario: Broadview Press. 2012.
Barron, W. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Manchester: Manchester
University Press. 2004
Scaglione, A.S. Knights at Court.California: University of California
Cook, James R. Aesthetic and Religious Symbolism in Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight. Atlanta: s.n., 1977
Barron, W R. J. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 1998.
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Glaser, Joseph. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Indianapolis: Hackett
Pub. Co, 2011.
Anonymous, SparkNotes 101: Literature. New York: Spark Educational
Publishing. 2004.
Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Faber, 2007
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