Sir Gawian Essay, Research Paper
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the poet depicts an entertaining story of adventure and intrigue. However, the poem is more than a grand adventure. It is an attempt to explore the moral ideals of Sir Gawain. Gawain’s standards are represented by the pentangle on his shield. The depiction of the pentangle occurs when Sir Gawain is preparing to gear up for his quest for the Green Chapel. Gawain’s outfit is described in great detail, including its color, makings, and apparel. His armor is meant to serve as a means of protecting his physical being. This shield has great spiritual values in the five-points of the pentangle. Representing the knight’s physical being, the shield serves as a form of protection of the knight’s inner soul. The attempt to maintain and balance his high religious values of the shield with his ideals of courtesy is the eventual cause of Gawain’s downfall. The removal of Gawain’s shield from his attire contributes to his downfall. Without the ideals of the pentangle protecting him he plummets into a world of turmoil.
Before Gawain’s fall there is a combination of both virtues when Gawain, in search of the Green Chapel, prays for help on Christmas Eve. His language reveals his religious teachings and devotion:
…”I beseech of Thee, Lord,
And Mary, thou mildest mother so dear,
Some harborage where haply I might hear mass
And Thy matins tomorrow-meekly I ask it
And thereto proffer and pray my pater and ave
His speech combines the meekness and homage to the Lord that he has. Mary’s knight’s prayers seem answered as a castle becomes noticeable off in the distance. Though is seemingly a miracle Gawain remains true to his chivalric principles.
Gawain then rides up to the gate and asks for lodgings for this eve of Christ’s birth. This simple scene shows how the pentangle can have true balance. As Hollis says, “Gawain prays for a solution to his current predicament, and upon finding a solution he procures his lodgings through courtly requests. Finally, he properly thanks Jesus for his ‘good’ fortune.” As a result of Gawain’s virtue he gains entrance into the castle. However, his entrance into the castle is for reasons that he is unaware of at the time. From the instant Gawain sets foot inside the castle his downfall is inevitable.
It is in this castle that Gawain’s competing values are put to the test. Up until now Gawain has been fitted in his armor and shield, but at the castle he finds that there is no longer a need for his armor. Sir Gawain is now stripped of his symbolic identity by the removal of both shield and gear. In its place he wears mundane clothing. This is the first step toward the disruption of the balance of values that the pentangle represents. It is these clothes he wears when the lady of the castle tempts him during the three mornings.
Sir Gawain sees the lady as extremely sensuous. This is not characteristic of “the way one views the wife of a lord who is giving you safe harbor for the next several nights, especially if one is renowned as the Virgin Mary’s knight.” (Hieatt) Describing someone’s wife as toothsome to your desires is bound to create some kind of trouble. This change in Sir Gawain is from the lowering of his shield. The lady then tests Sir Gawain when her husband is off on the hunt.
At first Sir Gawain attempts to hold on to the virtuous ideas if the pentangle. He refuses the persistent lady’s advances during the three mornings, despite his moment of lusty thoughts from the night before. The Gawain-poet goes into great detail describing the psychology of the scenes during each daily test, so far as to symbolically compare them with the animal of the day being hunted by Bercilak and his troop. For all purposes Sir Gawain maintains his courtesy with
the lady during each day, but he looses ground, too, in that she receives one more kiss each successive day.
On the first day, Gawain is quite shy towards the lady’s advances. His replies to her are jumpy and skittish like the hunted deer’s movements. He fends her off with his courteous words, holding true to his chivalric principles. Gawain finally escapes by granting the lady a kiss, which he then, as the rules of the game demand, gives to the lord. The second day brings with it the struggle to maintain the knights virtue. Once again Gawain attempts to hold off her advances, but in the end he surrenders two kisses. It is on the third day that Gawain fails the test. He finally succumbs to the lady’s will and relinquishes the ideas of the virtuous pentangle.
Gawain has not just broken the covenant between him and the lord of the castle, but also the Green Knight’s compact. The whole thought of a scheme being noble is ludicrous, for cheating is both dishonorable and spiritually wrong. Gawain has diminished the religious portion of the pentangle for fear for his own skin. Gawain did far better on the impassable test than any other knight or man could do. Also importantly, Gawain goes to confession the first chance he gets before leaving – he is not wholly reduced to a despicable liar and cheat. Gawain still attempts to hold on to the virtuous aspects of the design on his shield. He then prepares to set off for the Green Chapel.
Once again Gawain arms himself and sets off on his quest. The second arming scene parallels the first arming scene in all but one important detail. W. Bryant Bachman observes in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Green and Gold Once More” that the emphasis on the first arming is Gawain’s shield, and on the girdle in the second arming. “Where the shield once represented a balance of virtues, now the emphasis is on the girdle, which clearly invokes a dominant secular value, with religious ideals taking a back seat.”(Bachman) Before, the shield gave him strength and courage to face his mystical foe, but now he relies on a ’sure thing’ to provide his strength. The pentangle is no longer the important aspect of Gawain’s armor. The green girdle now represents his oncoming downfall. Finally, he arrives at the mysterious Green Chapel to seek his doom.
Gawain’s attitude changes when he meets the Green Knight for the second time. At Arthur’s court he was the epitome of courtesy in his language with Bercilak, but at the second meeting he behaves impatiently and speaks in angry words. Gawain is no longer the same individual. The ideals of the pentangle are no longer with him. The moment he slept with the lady of the castle a change began deep in his soul. It is during the three ‘axe blows’ that Sir Gawain faults again: he flinches on the first attempt. Even though he has the girdle of invincibility he still fears for his own flesh. Gawain has walked far away from the path of the pentangle.
Finally, after Gawain receives a nick, the Green Knight explains his test. Although Gawain has ultimately failed Bercilak’s test, he is sure to point out that Gawain is still a ‘pearl…to other gay knights’. At this point Gawain is too stricken with embarrassment
In the end Gawain wears the girdle as a symbol and reminder of the weakness of the human flesh. Just like the pentangle this girdle now server as a reminder of many religious overtones. The Gawain poet disrupts the pentangle and Sir Gawain’s life for a reason: to teach people a lesson. The lesson is to show “the impossibility of maintaining ones earthly knight values, while also holding one’s religious values.”(Hodges) The pentangle is an excellent ideal, but in the real world it becomes an impossible standard. Gawain’s downfall was the result of trying to maintain the ideals of the pentangle. These were ideals that eventually cost him his soul.
1) Bachman, Bryant. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The green and the Gold Once
More.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 23 (1981): 495-516.
Bryant discusses the link between Gawain and the Green Knight through the pentangle. The article goes on to discuss how Gawain attempts to embody the aspects of the pentangle in his search to overcome the Green Knight.
2) Bratt, Catherine. “Gawains Antifeminist Rant, the Pentangle, and the Narrative
Space.” Yearbook of English Studies. 22 (1992): 117-39.
Bratt gives insight into the pentangle as being a representation of an antifeminist movement. Her views are that the pentangle is merely a symbol of Gawains desires.
3) Hieatt, Kent. “Sir Gawain: Pentangle, Luf-Lace, Numerical Structure.” Papers on
Language and Literature. 4 (1968): 339-359.
Hieatt suggests that the pentangle is a natural, not arbitrary, symbol of Gawains imperfection. He also states that the fact of the pentangles unification represents the way Gawains “excellences” fit together.
4) Hodges, Laura. “‘Syngne,’ ‘Conysaunce,’ ‘Deuys’: Three Pentangles in Sir Gawain and
Green Knight.” Arthuriana. 5 (1995): 22-31.
Hodges’ article gives insight into the fact that there are three different pentangles, not just the one on the shield. According to Hodges the recognition of all three pentangles allows the reader to understand the poems imagery.
5) Hollis, Stephanie. “The Pentangle Knight: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The
Chaucer Review. 15 (1981): 267-281.
Hollis discusses the psychological process involved in Gawains actions. She also focuses on Gawains explanation of his failures. This article provides a detailed character analysis of Sir Gawain.
6) Kiteley, John. “The Endless Knot: Magical Aspects of the Pentangle in Sir Gawain
and the Green Knight.” Studies in the Literary Imagination. 4 (1971): 41-50.
Kiteley discusses the representation of the pentangle as a magical force. He also states that nowhere else is the pentangle used as a “heraldic” device for Gawain.
7) Lass, Rose. “Mans Heaven: The Symbolism of Gawains Shield.” Medieval Studies.
28 (1966): 354-360.
Lass goes into great detail describing the symbolism of the pentangle on Gawains shield. Her observations show that the shield is actually a representation of the knight’s soul.
8) Morgan, Gerald. “The Significance of the Pentangle Symbolism in Sir Gawain and
the Green Knight.” Modern Language Review. 74 (1979): 769-790.
Morgan discusses each part of the pentangle in this article. Each part of the pentangle stands for an aspect of Gawains life.
9) Howard, Donald. Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Notre Dame:
Notre Dame Press, 1968.
This is a compiled work that presents several aspects of the poem. Each article offers a different view on the repersentation of certain symbols in the poem.
This website provides a detailed character analysis of Gawain, giving insight into the meanings behind his actions.