Sir Gawain And The Green Knight Imagery
Essay, Research Paper
In literature, insights into characters, places, and events are often communicated to the reader through the use of imagery within the text. Thus is the case with “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. The Pearl Poet’s use of imagery runs rampant within the work culminating to set forth the theme of mysticism and/or the supernatural. In this Medieval romance, the types of imagery used are that of the season or climate, the colors and textures of fabrics and jewelry, and that of the introduction of the Green Knight himself.
The seasons play a major role in the development of the plot, allowing action to skip several months at a time by simply mentioning the turning of the leaves. The thematic imagery starts to outline the theme of the supernatural, when dealing with meteorological changes. For example when Gawain is searching for the Green Knight’s Chapel, it is mid-winter. Christmas is approaching, yet what answers his prayers comes in the form of something nearly unimaginable.
“We are made aware of the importance of the castle first when it just suddenly appears from nowhere and secondly when we notice it is set in a green field. The green field makes no sense to the reader because it is the middle of winter, but it does signify the fact that the appearance of the castle is not accidental. It is the combination of Sir Gawain’s prayer, the appearance of a beautiful summer landscape and the castle in the middle of it that strikes the reader and asks the question: What does it mean? The castle is great with a “palisade of palings” planted about for about two miles. It is shining in the sun, and Sir Gawain is standing in awe looking at it. He is thankful to “Jesus and Saint Julian” that they have put this castle there for him.” (Mossakowski 1)
This appearance in out of the middle of nowhere definitely carries with it some mystical, magical weight. The fog near the Green Knight’s demolished chapel can also be described as a change in atmosphere which leads to some mystical or magical emotions.
The attires of the characters do not match up to these atmospheric conditions when it comes down the supernatural. If anything they can be said to have an unrealistic or inflated view of medieval life. 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.
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.” Lady Bercilak convinces Gawain, after some persuasion, to accept a green girdle with life-preserving power on the day of this meeting with the Green Knight. Turning to this girdle for protection signifies Gawain’s diminishing faith. He depends upon a trinket of sorcery instead of placing his life in God’s hands. The mundane girdle couldn’t possibly match God’s power. The girdle is supposedly magic, but why should Gawain accept the word of a temptress? Still, he accepts the girdle; an impulsive act, considering his position. Gawain does not relinquish the girdle to Bercilak, as he should have because of a pact between them. Instead, he keeps it to protect himself. He breaks his word as a knight, which could certainly offend the god he serves and discredit the name of his king. The way Gawain refused to let go of the belt serves to show us the mystery behind men’s knottiness,
” This knot Gawain ties is relevant primarily because it also figures for Dante the “volume” which in turn figures the inscribed plenitude of the divine. The knot, in short, is a figure of the book, and as a figure of the book, it must have attracted the Gawain-poet strongly. For in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a “volume” figured as a “nodo” capacities the understanding of the knots of the pentangle and the green girdle as each a “volume,” or text or sign, which, as we have seen, must be read and interpreted, each in its own special way. And this is precisely because he is bound in a volume, tied in a knot, more mysterious and more intricate than anything he will ever comprehend. And the texts of man, by the same token, howsoever bound or woven or knitted they be, he must be ready to untie or loosen, to analyze, as the contingency of human affairs demands. Man’s knots and man’s texts and the knottiness of his texts must resemble the green girdle. “(Shoaf 164-165)
This passage seems to root itself in the imagery of the sash and how in some ways it has a mysterious feel to it. The girdle may be the greatest example of clothing imagery which helps convey the theme, save perhaps the shied, which isn’t truly a clothing product. The sash is clothing that sets theme the greatest due to the fact that it contains powers of sorcery or witchcraft, at least according to the count’s wife. That’s what gives it that element of mysticism. By the way, the above passage also discusses the lack of ability man has to let go.
The Green Knight arrival 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. As Heller and Headon describe the figure, “He was dressed all in green. Even stranger, his hair, hands and even his face were green. The only part of him that was not green were the whites of his eyes, and when he opened his mouth the tongue showed red.”(92) 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. “The extraordinary influence of the Green Knight’s marvelous, eerie appearance” (Shoaf 159) has a mesmerizing affect on reader and knights of the round alike. As if the imagery presented during the Green Knights introduction weren’t enough to send the message of improbable and unrealistic events occurring on a regular basis, then when Gawain actually slices off The Green Knight’s head would be a major wake-up call. His picking it up only adds to the ability of the work to show us supernatural tendencies.
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 imagery not only as a descriptive tool, but as a bellwether of the theme. 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.
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