The Green Knight Essay, Research Paper
English Comp & Lit
March 7, 2000
Sir Gawain Essay
In literature, insights into characters, places, and events are often communicated to the reader by symbolic references within the text. This is the case in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In this Medieval romance, the colors and textures of fabrics and jewelry are used heavily by the poet not only as a descriptive tool, but also to give the reader information about the characters? personalities and roles within the story.
The narrative opens with a holiday feast in King Arthur?s court. The richness of this setting is represented by the decorations surrounding Queen Guenevere described in lines 76-80. ?With costly silk curtains, a canopy over,/ Of Toulouse and Turkestan tapestries rich/ All broidered and bordered with the best gems/ Ever brought into Britain, with bright pennies/ to pay.? These lines also symbolize the queen?s role in the poem of a stately symbol of chivalric Camelot and as a female ideal. In this setting women are all around, but Guenevere is positioned above them and is surrounded by expensive, beautiful things. She is clearly made superior.
The Green Knight then arrives at Arthur?s court to pose a challenge for someone to cut off his head and to have the favor returned a year later. He and his horse are both entirely green and are clad in rich attire. The horse?s saddle is described as follows, in lines 164-167: ? About himself and his saddle, set upon silk,/ That to tell of the trifles would tax my wits,/ The butterflies and birds embroidered thereon/ In green of gayest, with many gold thread.? The Green Knight?s appearance makes his supernatural qualities apparent from the start, even before he is able to survive decapitation. Though his ornate clothing establishes him as a respectable knight, the fact that he is entirely green is not normal. Green is often associated with creepy, monstrous things, so therefore the knight is given a supernatural quality by that color.
Gawain, Arthur?s knight who takes the Green Knight?s challenge, is portrayed in different lights as the story progresses. Descriptions of fabric and clothing are integral to this portrayal. When he is departing Camelot to find the Green Knight, Gawain is depicted as a virtuous, chivalrous knight bravely facing his fate. His clothing, therefore, is red, symbolizing courage, and bears a gold pentangle, a symbol of virtue. This is described in lines 636-639, ?On shield and coat in view/ He bore that emblem bright/ As to his word most true/ And in speech most courteous knight.? Later, when Gawain is taken in by the castle he happens upon, the fabric descriptions reflect how he is being taken care of. For example, lines 856, ?A canopy over the couch, clad all with fur? and 877 ?With quilts quaintly stitched, and cushions bedside? give the reader a sense of Gawain?s being sheltered. Then, when he is preparing to go meet the Green Knight, contrast is shown between his former bravery and his cowardice since accepting the protective green girdle from the Green Knight?s wife by lines 2035-2036, ?That girdle of green so goodly to see/ That against the gay red showed gorgeous bright.? Gawain wears the girdle to meet the green knight, and the red of his robes, which is symbolic of bravery, foils the girdle?s cowardly green. Though the girdle saves Gawain?s life, it ruins his reputation.
The Green Knight?s wife attempts to seduce Gawain each of the three days he is a guest at the castle and the court goes out to hunt. Each day, he politely refuses her advances, and she comes back more aggressive and with less clothing on. Lines 1738-1741 describe the third and most aggressive bedroom hunt scene through fabric and jewelry. ?No hood on her head, but heavy with gems/ Where her fillet and the fret that confined her tresses;/ Her face and her fair throat freely displayed;/ Her bosom all but bare, and her back as well.? Obviously she is trying to look good for Gawain with jewelry and lack of clothing. Her temptations eventually succeed in a way because he takes the green girdle from her so he will be protected.
A deeper sense of insight into the characters and the events of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes place through the author?s use of textiles and jewelry to describe and symbolize crucial parts of the narrative. The author?s detailed descriptions allow the reader to clearly picture scenes and clothing, and his use of metaphors provides for a deeper understanding of the subject matter.