Literature Color Symbolism

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The Color of Literature
Color symbolism can be used to set the tone of a story and aspects within that story. Colors can invoke an emotional response as well as paint a picture of a character or scene within the story. In exploring the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Damrosch, Pike 1200-59) along with Christopher Columbus’ letter The Green and Beautiful Land (Columbus 1-7) there are three main colors that stand out. The first color, as shown in both titles, is green. Green plays a significant role in both tales as it is the main color of the antagonist in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the supple landscape that is described by Columbus. Green also represents negative aspects in the stories such as misfortune and lack of experience. The second color that is emphasized is yellow, or gold. Gold is woven throughout each tale with varying meanings, ranging from vitality to deceit. The final color that is significant is red. Red not only sets the tone for strength and aggression but is used to describe the scenery. Both authors let these colors stand out on their own as well as lacing them together to paint vivid pictures in the reader’s imagination. Color symbolism plays a leading role in the nature and meaning of both stories. The color green symbolizes nature, good luck, and renewal as well as inexperience, jealousy and misfortune (Rohrer; Smith). In both writings, green has the significant meaning. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the most noticeable reference to green is toward the beginning of the story when the Green Knight appears on a green horse wielding a green axe in one hand and a green holly bough in the other. The Green Knight is a giant of a man, entirely green from his bushy hair to his bare feet with broad shoulders and a narrowing waist so his image portrays that of a tree (Kelly), showing the symbolism of nature. The saddle blanket on the horse is bright green and embroidered with birds and flies (Damrosch, Pike 1207), reinstating the reference to nature. Other references to the color green in reference to nature include the description of the entrance to the Green Chapel which is pictured as “grass in green patches was grown all over” (1251). Sir Gawain makes the observation that because of the overgrown area, it “fits well that fellow transformed into green” (1251). Green may show natural and positive symbolism, but it also is used to describe less desirable attributes. A significant reference to green in a negative light is the belt that Sir Gawain is given before facing the Green Knight. The belt is the only thing that Sir Gawain hides and lies about. The Green Knight, who later reveals himself to be Bertilak, the lord of the castle who hosted Sir Gawain the previous three nights, knows that Sir Gawain lied about the green belt. It is here that the color green shows misfortune, as Sir Gawain is humiliated that he was not as virtuous as he wished to be. The final reference to green pertains to the change in how the belt is worn. During the altercation with the Green Knight, Sir Gawain wears the belt properly on his waist under his clothing. On his way home, Sir Gawain wears the sash as a baldric instead of a belt. The change in how Sir Gawain wears the green belt represents renewal, as the Green Knight did not slay Sir Gawain. Even though Sir Gawain is ashamed of his weakness pertaining to the belt, King Arthur sees Sir Gawain’s quest as successful and wishes all of his court to wear a bright green baldric and to wear it in the same fashion as Sir Gawain, “a band of bright green obliquely about him”(1259). The green baldric renews its meaning and transforms from a source of misfortune to a sign of good luck in Arthur’s court. Good luck plays a part in the account by Christopher Columbus in The Green and Beautiful Land. When Columbus found the Caribbean Islands it was by chance and luck as he was looking for a passage to India. Columbus’ description of the...
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