People of the Middle Ages saw and interpreted their world through the lens of Christianity, and the church had no small amount of symbols. These people were guided by a visual world, in which practically everything in nature became a sign for something transcendent, something that could make them stand closer to understanding God. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides vast Christian symbolic richness, but at the same time the poem supplies the reader with a wide range of Pagan allegory, the result making of Sir Gawain a unique story full of complex contrasts.
The story begins with an uninvited guest at King Arthur’s court, during the Christmas celebrations. A solemn knight in complete green apparel makes a challenge, and Sir Gawain, being the bravest knight in the court, takes it up. The Green Knight offers to “…strike a strong [axe] blow in return for another” (XIII-287), which he would claim in a “year and a half” time, which was a period of time used by pre-Christian Celtics. The figure of the Green Knight may have its origins in the “ Green Man”, a pagan architectural ornament found in graves and buildings, which signified fertility and rebirth, vital aspects of nature. Green was additionally associated with fairies, spirits, or with the devil. So the knight’s greenness also represents his connection to the supernatural world. The knights at Arthur’s court certainly think the Green Knight must be a ghost or a magical being, they think he is an apparition from the land of fairy:
For astonishing sights they had seen, but such a one never;
Therefore a phantom from Fairyland the folk there deemed him. So even the doughty were daunted and there no reply,
All sitting stock still, astounded by his voice. (XI.239-242)
They are in fear of being magicked, for no one dares to speak when confronted with what appears to be supernatural in nature. Despite being regarded as a magical being, the Green Knight holds in his hand a branch of holly, which is representative of Christmas and its culminating experience within the soul life from the “rebirth” of Christ on December 25th. In his other hand he holds an axe, a symbol of conflict and war. He is holding together good and evil.
Sir Gawain deals a savage blow to the Green Knight’s neck severing his head, only to watch him pick it up by the hair and keep talking, reminding Sir Gawain to look for him at the Green Chapel to receive his own blow with the axe. The Green Knight represents a pagan spirit of vegetation, very much like a tree with the ability to regenerate, to sprout a new limb or change its growth direction if it should be cut off; unlike a person who loses a limb and is permanently handicapped. While humans shy away from their inevitable death, it is nature which can continue to restore and regenerate itself.
When the time almost comes for Sir Gawain to fulfill his promise and start his journey, he puts on his knightly clothes and armor; his shield in particular is described thoroughly:
It is a symbol which Solomon conceived once
To betoken holy truth, by its intrinsic right,
For it is a figure which has five points,
And each line overlaps and is locked with another;
And it is endless everywhere, and the English call it,
In all the land, I hear, the Endless Knot.
Therefore it goes with Sir Gawain and his gleaming armour,
For, ever faithful in five things, each in five fold manner. (XXVII.625-632)
The Pentangle is a five-pointed star, a pagan symbol for protection, positive power and controlling the elements. The four lower points represent earth, water, air, and fire, with the fifth top point standing for the divine spirit, epitomizing the continual flow of life and energy. The narrator of Sir Gawain also explains the Pentangle with Christian symbols. The archangel Michael gave to the third king of...