Pagan and Christian Symbolism in "Sir Gawain and the Green Night"

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Pagan and Christian Symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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...