When writing, never explain your symbols. The author of ``Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'' dropped this unspoken rule when he picked up his pen. Why? The detailed description and exposition of the pentangle form the key to understanding this poem. By causing the reader to view Gawain's quest in terms of the pentangle, the narrator compares the knightly ideals with the reality of Gawain's life. The narrator uses the pentangle to promote the knightly ideals, but he also accentuates the primary need for truth in knightly conduct. Finally, the difference between Gawain's reaction to his failure and others' perception of his faults remind the reader that no one can reach the ideal, and rather than getting bitter, we should learn from our mistakes.
According to Elspeth Kennedy, medieval knights were the primary audience for Arthurian romances like Sir Gawain. Many of these romances were intended to inspire knights towards the goals of honor and chivalry; in fact, as Kennedy points out in ``The Knight as Reader of Arthurian Romance'', later knights who codified chivalric practice often quoted Arthurian romances as a source. (Culture, 70).
Lays like The Song of Roland encouraged fervor for the deeds and honor of knighthood and indirectly teach the benefits of courtly conduct. However, Sir Gawain is inique; it directly addresses the ideals of knighthood by including the symbol of the pentangle.
This symbol first appears before Gawain leaves to find the Green Knight, when the others from Arthur's court ``showed forth the shield, that shone all red / With the pentangle portrayed in purest gold'' (28. 619-20). Gawain wears this star ``formed of five points'' on ``his worthy arms,'' and his ``coat in view'' because it carries a special significance for him. It also carries significance to the narrator's purpose, for he uses forty-six lines (619-65) to carefully show the pentangle's meaning in a level of detail no other symbol receives in the poem. Such a long explanation seems out of place in a poem full of fast-paced action, supernatural beheadings, seductive temptresses, and jolly hunts. The narrator realizes this but plunges into his description after inserting a disclaimer: ``And why the pentangle is proper to that peerless prince / I intend now to tell, though detain me it must'' (30. 623-4). This alerts the reader to pay attention, that the symbolic meaning of the pentangle is important to a proper understanding of thenarrator's message.
The five pointed star is primarily ``a token of truth''; truth is the largest significance of the pentangle (30. 626). Yet this star is no ordinary symbol. Gawain's coat of arms links more strongly to its symbolic meaning than most other knightly symbols, which were often taken from nature and mythology. The pentangle is not an ancestral coat of arms, for it applies to Gawain only. Thus Gawain takes it much more seriously than other knights would consider their own symbols. He defines his life by this symbol and attempts, with much success, to exemplify the traits it represents.
The five edges stand for characteristics that make Gawain ``foremost of men'' (30. 655), worthy of the pentangle on his shield. Note that Gawain must live up to his shield; he measures himself by his shield, not the other way around. The narrator notes Gawain's subordination to the ideals of the pentangle in the following passage:
Gawain's five five-fold virtues combine to make him a powerful, perfectly balanced knight, like the pentangle he strives to deserve. Ever alert, he is ``faultless in his five senses.'' Skillful, he never is ``found ... to fail in his five fingers''. Gawain's primary loyalty is to God, for ``his fealty ... was fixed upon the five wounds that Christ got on the cross.'' He keeps focus in battle, for ``all his force was founded on the five joys / That the high Queen of heaven had in her child.'' In fact, he displays ``on the inner part of his shield her image ... that when his look on it lighted, he never lost heart.'' Finally, he possesses all five virtues needed in social settings: ``beneficence boundless and brotherly love / And pure mind and manners... and compassion most precious'' (30. 640-54).
The sides of this star combine in a single unit to make the pentangle a symbol of strength, an ``endless knot'' (30, 630). Their unflawed combination makes them strong, for each side ``is linked and locked with the next / For ever and ever'' (30, 628-9). The narrator's language also emphasizes their strength with the clinking sound of ``linked and locked'' as if the pentangle's sides are rings of a strong coat of mail.
Gawain's traits that correspond to the sides of the pentangle also merge into one. Gawain's life at this point is the perfect application of the virtues the pentangle signifies; ``all these five fives [are] confirmed in this knight'' (30. 656). These ideals are strengthened in his life because they balance. They are not ``assembled all on a side, nor asunder either, / Nor anywhere at an end, but whole and entire'' (30. 659-60). Gawain's loyalty to these ideals make him a knight whose ``equal on earth can hardly be found,'' despite the fact that he is in a big pond, among ``The most noble knights known under Christ'' (16. 51, 31. 676).
Gawain's superlative nature is also emphasized by the physical features of the pentangle he wears on his shield. It is ``portrayed in purest gold'' on his red shield (29. 620), just as Gawain is ``faithful [\ldots] in good works, as gold unalloyed'' (30, 633). According to the narrator, Gawain at this point in his life is untainted by any flaw. He is pure: perfect like the gold on his shield.
The pentangle's placement on Gawain's shield suggests that his knightly virtues may be a necessary protection in his quest. Compared to a strong coat of mail, the symbol on his shield is also set ``Royally in red gold against red gules'' (30. 663). The word `gules' is named after the gullet, or throat, and refers to the blood-red color of a person's neck. A gule is also a special seal used on coats of arms, shields, and banners to represent the blood-red of a throat. When Gawain throws his shield ``about his broad neck,'' we get a strong hint from the narrator that the pentangle, and by implication, the ideals of knighthood, may be what Gawain needs to survive his coming adventure, to prevent his own neck from becoming blood-red.
The narrator also hints at a crack in the shield. As Green suggests in ``Gawain's Shield and the Quest for Perfection,'' the pentangle's connection to Solomon brings in a tinge of doubt inthe pentangle, and therefore in Gawain (Green 186).
Gawain's knighthood is tested in every area before he meets the Green Knight on the appointed day; it must protect him if he is to even reach the Green Chapel. He faces danger alone in the wilderness, charms public society in the castle, and finally resists the temptation of another in the privacy of the bedroom. How does he stand up to these ideals?
While searching for the Green Chapel in the wilderness, he must call upon all of his alertness when ``wild men of the woods'' ambush him ``from the rocks.'' He uses his skill in war to defeat these, as well as ``serpents,... savage wolves, ... bulls, ... bears, and ... boars besides.'' He even fights ``giants that came gibbering from the jagged steeps.'' His loyalty is also tested, for ``had he not borne himself bravely, and been on God's side, / He had met with many mishaps and mortal harms'' (32. 720-25). Gawain also stays true to his religion and receives heavenly aid. On Christmas Eve, his focus on Mary and her Joys pulls him through when he asks Mary to help him find a place to keep the holiday. Mary looks kindly upon Gawain's focus and fulfils his request; a castle miraculously appears. So far so good.
After Gawain's prayer, he must summon his courtly graces in the castle. He displays his brotherly love toward the lord of the castle when ``the two embrace'' (37. 840). He acts beneficently toward the lord when he offers, without being asked, to ``both tarry, and undertake any task you [the lord] devise.'' He also displays good manners, for after three days of feasting, the lord states, ``As long as I live, my luck is the better / That Gawain was my guest at God's own feast!'' (39. 1035-6).
Next, Gawain must be protected in the area that was a weakness in the Pentangle's own deviser: his pure mind. When the lord's wife sneaks into his bedroom and sits on his bed, he immediately is aware of his danger, but ``signs himself swiftly, as safer to be / with art.''(43. 1202) After some banter back and forth, this beautiful woman, who Gawain thinks ``excelled the queen [Guinevere] herself'' says to him (37. 945):
Gawain successfully rebuffs all of her sexual advances. Although ``she tested his temper and tried many a time / ... to entice him to sin, / ... so fair was his defence that no fault appeared'' (51. 1549-51). The narrator seems impressed with Gawain's resistance. However, not all is well with Gawain.
Gawain's adventure in the castle not merely a mathematical measure of his social virtues. Mathematically, his actions add up to what is expected of him, and his social skills seem to be in working order. He pleases the host, he eats, drinks, enjoys socializing, and even manages to be polite, courteous, and flirtatious with the woman who tries to seduce him multiple times, all while he tries to stay true to the pentangle. As Green points out, Gawain's temptations are a comic element in the story (Green 192). They are funny because they take the chivalric idea of courtesy to the absurd maximum, beyond the line of reason. His experiences hint that he may be trying to take these ideals too far. Biblical stories would encourage him to flee the temptation, but he manages to stay true to all his ideals at the same time, including the ones that would suggest he flirt with her. When she tempts him, he winks, says ``no'' creatively, and gaily plays along with her game.
That Bertilak's wife wins the upper hand over Gawain gives us a hint that Gawain may be a bit short sighted. As Green points out, once Gawain enters the castle, his life becomes much more superficial than it is out in the wilderness while he searches for the Green Chapel. The joys of making merry, themselves a part of keeping true to the pentangle, distract Gawain from the rest of his knighthood. They weakening him to the point of breaking his word of honor, showing that his careful attention to the details of his current situation may cause him to lose sight of the bigger picture (Green 191-2).
After Bertilak's wife convinces Gawain to take the seemingly magic girdle for protection, Gawain fails in the big picture; he fails in truthfulness by refusing to tell Bertilak about the girdle. He has sworn an oath with Bertilak to swap the day's winnings, but instead gives his host three kisses. Furthermore, he breaks his Christmas oath with the Green Knight, for he had agreed ``to endure a deadly dint, and all defense / denied'' (63. 2040-2). The girdle is most certainly an attempt at defense, but he ignores that detail. While this may seem a horrible mistake by a knight who should know better, it's an understandable one, for he fails by seeking yet another detail of knightly virtue: his honor.
When Bertilak's wife offers Gawain the girdle and mentions its magical potency, Gawain is immediately interested by the possibilities, for ``could he escape unscathed, the scheme were noble!'' (58. 1858). The potential gaining of honor by escaping the Green Knight through a ruse proves Gawain's downfall. Honor is not a bad thing, for his interest in honor leads him to follow through with his oath to the Green Knight by seeking the chapel. One would certainly not call Gawain noble if he had, instead of searching for the chapel, fled as far as possible. Furthermore, guile in a knight, according to Strickland, was highly admired in Medieval times. Guile was an accepted, positive trait that often brought more admiration than strength or combat skill (Strickland 128). But in the case of Gawain, he fails not by accepting the girdle, but by breaking his oath with Bertilak. Guile combined with oath-breaking brings high shame to a knight, but Gawain can't resist (Strickland 128-9). The best of knights, who is able to persist so bravely throughout the story, finally falls to the a common knightly weakness: the desire for honor. He comes in search of the Green Knight to meet his death with honor, but when presented with a way to live and gain yet more honor than he would by dying, he goes along with the ploy.
Instead of trusting in the unbreakable, endless knot of truth Gawain in his guile trusts in the weak lace girdle and conceals it ``tucked away'' (59. 1874-6). However, he must still keep up the appearance of truth, and puts a false pentangle in the place of the golden one he abandons. After an unusually penitent mass, he goes to the dance, and ``delighted all around him, / And all agreed, that day, / They never before had found him/ So gracious and so gay'' (59. 1876-1885, 1889-1892). When the lord of the castle arrives, ``he clasps him accordingly and kisses him thrice,'' (60. 1936) instead of giving him the girdle. He then clinches the deception by exclaiming, ``all that I owe here is openly paid'' (60, 1937). His plan has worked, or so he thinks.
No longer trusting in the virtues of the endless knot, which he most likely took on when giving his knightly oaths, he knots the girdle about his waist and trusts in what he wins through oathbreaking (63. 2024-41). But the girdle does nothing for him. After feinting twice, the Green Knight nicks Sir Gawain's neck with his razor-sharp axe, showing that the girdle is powerless. In fact, it hurts him more than helps. When the Green Knight explains, Gawain learns that truth, the primary ideal represented by his shield, would have been an impenetrable protection, that by taking a new knot, he secured his harm.
The Green Knight's words sting more than the axe-blade. Sir Gawain acknowledges that his is not a true man and confesses his cowardice, admitting to ``disloyalty and lies'' (71. 2383). In anguish, he admits that he no longer suits the pentangle and the truth it symbolizes. His knighthood has been tempted and found to be lacking, but in a twisted sort of way. He fails in a way many knights have; in attempting to attain the pinnacle of knighthood. He forgets that truth must be present in all his efforts. Aghast, remorseful, and convinced of his own shame, he now wears the green girdle as a new symbol, a ``badge of false faith'' (74. 2509).
In fact, Gawain is a bit too upset about his failure. Bertilak, the Green Knight, chuckles at Gawain's melodramatic response to failure, considers him ``fully confessed'' and ``polished as a pearl, as pure and as bright / As you had lived free of fault since first you were born'' (71. 2391-4). He asks Gawain to spend the evening with him, but Gawain refuses. Instead of keeping his promise to learn from his mistake, Gawain clings to his wounded pride. He launches into a flurry of reasons why his mistake is understandable and receives the girdle as a token to remind him of his pride (72. 2429-2438).
On his way home, Gawain again experiences many adventures, which prove that he is still as skillful and great a knight as before. But the wound on his neck is the only one that heals (73. 2484). When he tells his story to the people of Arthur's court, he speaks ``with rage in heart'' and ``the blood burns in his cheeks / For shame at what must be shown'' (74. 2501-4). Rather than learning and getting over it, he brands himself a perpetual failure, ``for where a fault is made fast, it is fixed evermore'' (74. 2512).
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight contains a thought-provoking message. The pentangle's ideals form the central conflict within the story, which is Gawain's inner fight more so than his ordeal with the Green Knight. While he is indeed the greatest knight of all, while he so successfully matches up to the ideals he carries, he, like anyone, falls short. The narrator certainly uses his story to inspire knights to aim for the same ideals, but he doesn't stop there. By including Gawain's over-reaction to his failure, the narrator reminds us that when we do fail, we should deal with it by getting right with others, getting up, and learning from the experience. This message was particularly important in a time where the military elite stopped at nothing to establish their personal gain and often used the chivalric codes only when a rule served their own purposes. This story encourages knights to deal honestly and never give up trying to improve.
The narrator includes a final twist at the end to accentuate the need to learn from mistakes and keep on going. Instead of being shocked at Gawain's failure, Arthur's court is pleased and impressed at how well he handled himself despite the challenges] of his quest. To soothe his injured pride, they take on the green girdle, not as a symbol of shame, but as a much more practical symbol of Gawain's real success than the idealistic pentangle:
The poem ends with the hope of redemption and joy despite human failure, the hope of eternal salvation from the consequences of human error by the only One who ever lived up to moral ideals: Jesus Christ. We are left with the hope that Gawain embraced this hope, got over his failure, and lived to continue his stellar life to the end of his days.
Kennedy, Elspeth. ``The Knight as Reader of Arthurian Romance.'' Culture and the King Ed. Martin B. Shichtman and James P. Carley. Albany: State University of New York Press. 1994.
``Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.'' Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, Pearl: Verse Translations. Tr. Marie Borroff. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2001. 15-74.
Strickland, Matthew. War and Chivalry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996.
``The Song of Roland.'' Trans. Jogn O'Hagan. The Harvard Classics: Epic and Saga Vol. 49. Ed. Charles W. Eliot. New York: P. F. Collier & SonCompany. 1910. 97-2008.