Symbolization in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Symbolism is a literary technique used in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to give a deeper significance to the plot. The poem is littered with symbolisms. The symbols juxtapose one another and provide structure and symmetry within the story. The symbolisms also have specific historical context that adds to the story line and influences how the reader interprets the poem. Sir Gawain’s pentangle on his shield and the acceptance of the girdle from Lord Bertilak’s lady are two of the most prominent symbols presented to us in this author’s tale.
The pentangle painted in pure gold on Sir Gawain’s shield and embroidered on his shawl can be seen as a symbol of Gawain’s perfection and power over evil. According to Garald Morgan, “Gawain’s courtesy is associated with his virtue in the symbolic device of the pentangle in his shield. ” (Morgan 770) The poet uses 46 lines to describe the meaning of the pentangle.
No other symbol in the poem is described in such detail. Such a long explanation seems out of place in a poem full of fast-paced action, beheadings and temptations.
The narrator acknowledges this but proceeds to delve into his description after establishing a disclaimer: “And why the pentangle was appropriate to that prince I intend now to say, though it will stall our story. ” (Armitage 623-4) This passage alerts the reader to pay attention; the symbolic meaning of the pentangle is important to a proper understanding of the narrator’s message.
The poet illustrates the pentangle as a symbol of faithfulness and an “endless knot” saying, “It suits this soldier in his spotless armor/fully faithful in five ways five times over. (Armitage 631) The five points of the pentangle represent five virtues attributed to Gawain. Gawain’s life at this point is the perfect application of the virtues the pentangle signifies. The poet states, “the figure is a five-pointed star and each line overlaps and links with the last so it is ever eternal,” (Armitage 627) and then goes on to say, “So these five sets of five were fixed in this knight, each linked to the last through the endless line” The pentangle is a unity in which all parts are interrelated just as the spiritual, moral and social qualities are united in Gawain.
In the poet’s account of the “five sets of five” he specifies the spiritual, moral and social virtues that constitute the pentangle by including religious faith in lines 642-643 and the operation of the senses in line 640. The first attributes mentioned in the “five sets of five” is being flawless in the five senses and his five fingers never being at fault. According to Morgan’s interpretation of the poem he states, “From the poet’s attribution to his hero of perfection in the five senses it would seem that we are to understand that Gawain does not sin through mere sensual gratification” (Morgan 774).
What he is saying is, Gawain is able to appropriately control his sensitive desires by reason. Next, the five wounds of Christ and the five joys of Mary specify religious dimension. This appeal to faith symbolized by the pentangle is not at all out of the ordinary as we can see from other works of this time; “the appeal of metaphor and symbol was especially strong in a time that not only drew on the treasuries of the Christian tradition and classical literature and mythology, but invented the new “sign- language” which was one of its real innovations. ” (Bruce 15) These aspects of Gawain’s chivalry are the source of his courage.
A lot of attention is given to this, suggesting that, “courage is a significant element in the moral scheme of the poem” (Morgan 775). The fifth set of five presents five virtues: fraunchyse or friendship, felawshyp or fraternity, clannes or purity, cortaysye or politeness and pite or pity; all of which have a specific social extension in the poem. That is to say, the five qualities are relevant to the subsequent events of the poem. Following the beheading test at the Green Chapel, Gawain accuses himself of “cortayse” and “cowarddyse” for his acceptance of the girdle.
As translated by Simon Armitage, he says, “A curse upon cowardice and covetousness” (Armitage 2374). He claims the girdle as his downfall stating, “I gave into greed, and in doing so forgot the fidelity and kindness which every knight knows” (2380-1). We see Gawain’s failing in friendship and fraternity with his failed loyalty to Bertilak by accepting the girdle. According to Conor McCarthy’s interpretation, fraunchyse and felawshyp are linked on the pentangle because “it is in these two senses that Gawain will fail in his quest. (McCarthy 299) In this context then, it could be said that clannes and cortaysye are paired together because Gawain succeeds in preserving both qualities, despite temptation. The final quality attributed to Gawain is pite, translated as pity by Armitage. The word pite is rather ambiguous, and although Armitage translates it as pity, meaning compassion (an important attribute for a chivalric knight), it seams as a whole that piety, meaning moral virtue or faithfulness, is a better fit for the poem. Piety draws us back to Gawain’s religious faith which in a sense links the other four qualities.
Not only is the pentangle a symbol in itself clearly described by the poet, it is also often times linked as a symbol to magical traditions. The Gawain poet states, “It is a symbol that Solomon once set in place” (Armitage 625). Some scholars claim that the pentangle had magical defense against evil spirits. This could be supported by the inclusion of Solomon in the poem. Solomon, the third king of Isreal, in 10th century BC, was said to have the mark of the pentagram on his ring, which he received from Archangel Michael. The ring was said to give Solomon power over demons.
The reason why the pentangle, in popular superstitions, has come to be adopted as a mystical symbol to ward off evil is not hard to see when we consider other medieval symbolism. The number five itself is deeply significant in medieval numerology. V. F. Hopper points out how important numbers were in medieval thought. He states that numbers were deeply rooted in medieval thought “not as mathematical tools, nor as the counters in a game, but as fundamental realities, alive with memories and eloquent with meaning” (Hopper viii).
According to Hopper, the most potent numbers in magic appear to have been three, four, five seven and nine. Of the number “five” he states as a “holy” number in the east. The number five was also said to be “incorruptible by virtue of its reoccurrence in multiplication” (Kitely 45). The question of how the magical side of the pentangle affects one’s reading of the poem is important to look at. Also important to question is why the poet focuses on the moral aspects of the pentangle and not the magical ones.
Kitely notes, “Gawain sets out to meet a magical creature of unknown power…he is a creature of malignant magic. What more suitable device could Gawain, therefore, bear than the five pointed pentangle…Gawain therefore leaves with the dual moral-magical defense of the pentangle. Superstition and philosophy are equally satisfied” (Kitely 47). The poet reveals through the poem that magic of itself is insufficient to combat against another species of magic. Kitely says, “Paradoxally, the poet has revealed that he was after all, correct to focus on the moral and religious side of the pentangle. (Kitely 49)
If Gawain had placed total reliance on this thought, then he would have been unscathed. The pentangle might have seemed like a dual symbol of defense, but it is ultimately only reliable in its moral defense. Medieval audiences who knew of the magical association might have been left feeling that only total reliance on Christian virtue would help when faced with uncertainty in medieval times. Kitely affirms saying, “In the poem, as it stands, the magical side of the pentangle serves to underline the basic moral themes. (Kitely 50) It seems that rather than clashing with the moral side, the magical aspect emphasizes the poet’s attitude towards superstition and a reliance on aids other than Christian virtue, as we see costly toward Gawain. There is an ingenious symmetry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and can be seen prominently between the pentangle and the green girdle. The poet spends 46 lines carefully, and almost laboriously, expounding the symbolism of the pentangle and yet he says nothing explicitly about the girdle. Its symbolic value is simply what Gawain assigns it and what the reader believes it to be.
Jan Solomon calls the girdle “the thematic and symbolic nexus of the poem” (Solomon 274). The girdle is a tangible object upon which the climax of the poem focuses. The girdle unites two major plot lines, the temptation and the beheading game, and yet the girdle remains somewhat of a debated mystery. The anonymity of the author has allowed more latitude for scholars to make it what they will. Some scholars such as Roger Loomis (pg. 154) and Larry Benson (pg. 40) believe the girdle to be a “love token”. Martin Stevens however, contests references to the girdle as a “sexual symbol” or “sexual trophy” (Stevens 77).
He believes such descriptions arise from confusing the medieval girdle with the modern undergarment. According to the medieval dictionary, a girdle is “a belt worn around the waist, used for fastening clothes or for carrying a sword, purse, etc. ” Considering the girdles importance in the poem it is a good idea to fully understand the nature and meaning of the girdle more precisely. This will provide a better conception of what the girdle really was and what it symbolized and should affect how one reads the poem. We can all concede that the girdle is a belt of some sort.
We see it then as an accessory. Originally, however, the girdle was not worn for warmth or ornament but as a magical binding either as a protective amulet or sign of the individual’s mystical incorporation into a social group. Later leaves or cloth panels were attached for modesty’s sake. Wilhelm Wundt states, “the celtic use of champion belts among the Greeks and Semites, even the Church’s corona of tonsure, derive from the principle of binding or encircling as magically promoting divine protection and positive good fortune” (Wundt 86) This is true in other parts of the ancient world as well.
The wrapping of the toga by the Romans can also be seen as a species of engirdling magic. Zoroastrians had a similar custom; at the initiation rite by which a Cathar became a perfectus, the initiate was “girt” about the body with a thread, which was called his garment. (Onians 453) The girdles magic can even be seen in the Bible when God has Jeremiah carry out with his linen girdle to demonstrate that “as the girdle clingeth to the loins of men, so have I cause to cleave unto the house of Judah” (XIII 1-11) and in Isaiah’s prediction “And the Righteous shall be the girdle of his loins and faithfulness the girdle of his reins” (XI. ). These passages have been analyzed by Onians: “God and medicine man use the same means and no less in blessing than in cursing” (Onians 367). The girdle, as one can see, in some form or another is littered throughout pre medieval history and literature. The archaic magical force of girdling continued then into the Middle Ages. Male girdles began to represent sovereignty, authority and power. Freidman and Osberg state, “To get someone’s head under your girdle meant to conquer him” (Freidman and Osberg 304).
A vassal, or one who entered into mutual obligations with a monarch, was supposed to take off his belt in the presence of his suzerain, or superior. From Roman times to medieval romances foot soldiers surrendered by unfastening the cords around their hips which held up their undergarments. The woman’s girdles on the other hand, involve somewhat different magical and symbolic associations. The girdle of Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, love, war and sex, became a girdle of fertility.
When she unfastened it in the underworld, the earth became infertile. The most famous of all girdles, the cestus of Aphrodite-Urania, became as early as Homer a “gurdel of lecherie”, excluding all enticements of lust. (Freidman and Osberg 304) It also is seen frequently in medieval and Renaissance poetry. The proponent girdle was the maiden’s sash or belt. According to Freidman and Osberg, it was “an amulet to preserve by advertising the virginity of the wearer, it was credited with, among other things, holding wolves at bay” (Freidman and Osberg).
Another instance of the girdle can be found in religious legends as such: the maiden rescued by Lydgate’s St. George was able to lead the dragon into the city by her girdle. The girdle was also seen as a husband’s trophy, suggestive of the sexual act and fertility and a pledge of marital chastity. Interestingly enough, in medieval England prostitutes were forbidden to wear girdles of any sorts. Now, with all of that history at the forefront we have to ask; what fashion of girdle was the one Gawain received from Bertilak’s lady and what did it symbolize?
Can this question even be answered or is it to be left to the readers’ interpretation? The connotations of the girdle explain why the lady wanted Gawain to conceal it from her husband and why Gawain finds her request completely legitimate. Gawain felt justified in concealing it for upon showing it to Bertilak, he would surely think things that never were. Gawain’s overriding reason for keeping the girdle was to preserve his own life and to level the playing ground with the Green Knight. The magical connotations of the girdle strengthen his rationalizations.
By an understandably devious process, the girdle becomes exclusively associated in Gawain’s mind with the adventure of the Green Chapel, not as a relevant item in the exchange agreement, which is just a game. The girdle complicates the motivating impulses and refracts the lines of moral action. With the acceptance and concealment of the girdle Gawain is removed from the unnatural category of systematic perfection, as symbolized by the pentangle, and brought into the reach of human relatability.
According to Friedman and Osberg, “his final succumbing to the lady’s wiles to the extent of accepting the girdle, retrospectively soils the resolute but polite skill with which he had parried her onslaught up to that event” (Friedman and Osberg 312). The possession of the girdle, even though it is left ambiguous how much Gawain really trusts the magic of it, could be seen to undercut his bravery. Although it could also be said that it is no more cowardly than relying on the pentangle to give him strength. Aside from the connotations associated with the girdle, the fashion in which Gawain wears it is also important to discuss.
It is easy to fall into the error of believing that the girdle is concealed under his armor when he leaves the castle. We are deceived by the fact that Gawain initially conceals it from Bertilak. Gawain, in fact, wears it on the outside. The poet explains that he wraps himself with the girdle after he clothes himself with his coat which was emblazed with the pentangle. He wraps it over his coat, which is a symbol of his parting from the virtues of the pentangle. Spiritually and physically the girdle superseded the pentangle. Gawain wearing it in sight also shows his reliance on the magical symbol of the girdle.
As Gawain sets out for the Chapel he notably displays is to bring the magical influence into play. This indicates that he does have some faith in the girdle’s magical implications, though these implications prove to be trumped in the end just like those of the pentangle. There is symbolic polarity between the image of the pentangle and the image of the girdle given to Gawain by Bertilak’s wife in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The pentangle or “endless knot” illustrates Gawain’s virtuous perfection and the girdle becomes an indication of the knight’s lapse of perfection. There is however a significant link between the two symbols.
Both of the figures’ definitions change by the end of the poem. The shield and the girdle are real objects and function in the poem as living articulate symbols dynamically paired. The pentangle evokes the chivalric ideal. In the beginning, when Gawain sets out on his quest, the pentangle is emblematic of his knightly virtue. He is seen as a flawless knight. Gawain embarks on his adventure and along the way deviously accepts a girdle from Lord Bertilak’s lady. Upon his meeting with the Green Knight at the Chapel, his blunder is revealed and the girdle becomes emblematic of his fault.
The whole movement of the story hangs upon his yielding to temptation, accepting the girdle, and having his failing revealed to him. When we reach this point the poem is shifted and the meaning behind the two symbols is altered. The pentangles “endless knot” is seemingly broken. In desperation to save his own life, we see Gawain fail in friendship and fraternity, two parts of the pentangle that are placed together. The pentangle, which once symbolized his faithfulness and honor, is broken and morphed into a reminder of his shortcomings. The girdle, on the other hand, starts out as a symbol of Gawain’s imperfection and fault.
When Bertilak reveals himself as the Green Knight and confronts Gawain for the acceptance of his wife’s girdle, Gawain says, “My downfall and undoing; let the devil take it” about the girdle. The girdle is a sign of Gawain’s sin. On his homeward journey Gawain wears the girdle across his chest and knotted at the hip. When he arrives back in Camelot he recounts his trip to the Green Chapel and describes the girdle as a band of shame. King Arthur and the rest of the court laughs and provides comfort to lift their noble knight. The girdle changes to a symbol of honor.
It is redefined by the collective as a symbol of greatness. Collectively the brotherhood had the power to bear the shame and wear the girdle as a symbol of nobility. Sir Gawain’s pentangle on his shield and the girdle given to him by Bertilak’s wife are two of the most prominent symbols presented to us in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The pentangle’s appropriateness to Gawain is outlined in an explanation of its fivefold symbolism. The author goes to great lengths to illustrate the importance of the pentangle. The pentangle in its self is a symbol of Christian perfection.
Also, it would have magical implications to the readers familiar with medieval superstition. Knowing the “other” characterization of the pentangle can change how the reader perceives the text. The girdle also has magical and historical connotations that affect the way the poem is read; proving that the history behind certain aspects of the poem was important to the poet’s overall moral of the story. The one question that remains is; if the girdle is so important to the poem, then why does the poet go to the painstaking lengths to lay out the symbol of the pentangle, but leave the meaning of the girdle open to our interpretation?
The symbol of the pentangle is artificial and therefore must be meticulously defined, whereas the meaning of the girdle defines itself in the eyes of the reader. The two symbols are juxtaposed throughout the poem and their meanings oppose each other to provide a symbolic representation of the moral of the story. That is, human reality is not pure Christian perfection, neither is it absolute shame on those who sin, but it is found somewhere in between.