Loyalty, courage, honor, purity, and courtesy are all attributes of a knight that displays chivalry. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is truly a story of the test of these attributes. In order to have a true test of these attributes, there must first be a knight worthy of being tested, meaning that the knight must possess chivalric attributes to begin with. Sir Gawain is self admittedly not the best knight around. He says "I am the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest; / and the loss of my life [will] be least of any" (Sir Gawain, l. 354-355). To continue on testing a knight that does not seem worthy certainly will not result in much of a story, or in establishing a theme. Through the use of symbols, the author of Sir Gawain is able to show that Gawain possesses the necessary attributes to make him worthy of being tested. He also uses symbols throughout the tests of each individual attribute, and in revealing where Gawain's fault lies. The effective use of these symbols enables the author to integrate the test of each individual attribute into a central theme, or rather one overall test, the test of chivalry.
To establish the knight as worthy, the author first shows Gawain's loyalty to his king. The Green Knight challenges anyone in the hall to the beheading game and no one takes him up on it. Arthur, angered by the Green Knight's taunting, is about to accept the challenge himself when Gawain steps in saying "would you grant me this grace" (Sir Gawain, l. 343), and takes the ax from Arthur. This is a very convenient way for the author to introduce Gawain and also to show Gawain's loyalty to Arthur, but it seems almost too convenient. There is an entire hall full of knights, why does Gawain alone step up? Why is it that a superior knight such as Lancelot does not step up? The Green Knight is big and of course he is green, which might explain some of the delay in acceptance of the challenge, but these knights are warriors. The color green is not a frightening enough color, even combined with the Green Knight's size, to scare a true warrior. The possible reason for the hesitation by the knights could lie in the description of the Green Knight's eyes. The author points them out in line 304, "and roisterously his red eyes he [rolls] all about" (Sir Gawain). The critic Robert B. White Jr. says that "one need not look far to discover the general symbolic significance of red when it appears in early literature; it [is] generally associated with blood, cruelty, and violence" (224). The Green Knight's eyes display just how sinister he is and provide the reason that the other knights are hesitant to accept the challenge. Gawain's willingness to accept definitely sets him apart from the other knights. The author uses this symbol to reveal that Gawain is not only loyal, but also courageous, and worthy to have his attributes put to the test.
The author goes on to reveal yet another very important attribute of the loyal knight, his moral goodness. This is done in the description of the shield that Gawain arms himself with to undertake his journey to the Green Chapel. The shield is adorned "with [a] pentangle portrayed in purest gold" (Sir Gawain, l. 620). This pentangle symbolizes Gawain's "faith in the five wounds of Christ and the five joys of the Virgin [Mary], and his possession of the five knightly virtues. . ." (Howard 47). This display of Gawain's moral perfection, or purity, reinforces his worthiness to undergo the test of his chivalric attributes.
Honor is another very important attribute that a knight must possess. Gawain has given his word while accepting the beheading challenge that he will meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel in one year's time. This journey is not an easy task by any means. The author tells us "many a cliff must he climb in country wild; / far off from all his friends, forlorn must he...