Study Guide

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Anonymous

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Symbolism: The Pentangle

The narrator of Sir Gawain is very clear about what the pentangle (five-pointed star) on Gawain’s shield represents:

It is a symbol that Solomon designed long ago
As an emblem of fidelity, and justly so;
Therefore it suits this knight and his shining arms,
For always faithful in five ways, and five times in each case,
Gawain was reputed as virtuous
(625-626; 631-633)

These five ways in which Gawain is virtuous are in the dexterity of his five fingers, the perfection of his five senses, his devotion to the five wounds of Christ, his reflection on the five joys of Mary in Christ and, finally, five virtues: generosity, fellowship, chastity, courtesy, and charity. Wow, that’s a lot of virtue.

The pentangle is an appropriate representation of these five areas of virtue because each of the five sides of the pentangle transitions seamlessly into the next. This aspect of its geometry might represent the way in which the virtues are interrelated, each area feeding into and supporting the other.

Symbolism: The Color Green

The mysterious, gigantic man who interrupts the feast at Arthur’s court on New Year’s Eve is green from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. We can use other things we know about the Green Knight to figure out what the symbolism of the color might be. For example, instead of carrying traditional knightly weapons, he carries a holly branch in one hand and a large axe in the other. Both of these objects connect him to nature, particularly the woods. The Green Knight’s test of Gawain makes him very aware of his strong survival instinct, something he shares with animals. And the place where Gawain must meet the Green Knight – the Green Chapel – is one of the most wild, natural places in the poem. Based on these clues, we’re pretty sure that the color green represents nature. People, places, and things in the poem that are green somehow have a significant connection to nature.

Symbolism: The Green Girdle

The green girdle, or belt, that Lady Bertilak gives to Gawain as a "lover’s token" is another symbol whose meaning is made very clear to the reader. When Lady Bertilak presses Gawain to accept it, she presents it as something to remember her by, but happens to mention that it will make the wearer invincible. For Gawain, then, the green girdle represents his survival. Since Gawain fails to exchange the girdle with Bertilak as the terms of the men’s agreement dictate, it also symbolizes to the reader Gawain’s desperate desire to survive at the expense of his code of honor. Only after Gawain "fails" the Green Knight’s test does this meaning become clear to him.

Gawain promises himself that he will wear the girdle forever as a symbol of his failure, but also as a reminder of how "a man may hide his misdeed, but never erase it" (2511). After all the men in Arthur’s court decide to wear a similar belt, however, the girdle takes on a new meaning – it becomes a symbol of honor. More than any in the poem, then, this girdle is a multi-dimensional object whose meaning depends upon the interpreter and the moment of interpretation.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory Study Group

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