Symbolization in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Symbolism is a literary technique used in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to give a deeper significance to the plot. The poem is littered with symbolisms. The symbols juxtapose one another and provide structure and symmetry within the story. The symbolisms also have specific historical context that adds to the story line and influences how the reader interprets the poem. Sir Gawain’s pentangle on his shield and the acceptance of the girdle from Lord Bertilak’s lady are two of the most prominent symbols presented to us in this author's tale.
The pentangle painted in pure gold on Sir Gawain’s shield and embroidered on his shawl can be seen as a symbol of Gawain’s perfection and power over evil. According to Garald Morgan, “Gawain’s courtesy is associated with his virtue in the symbolic device of the pentangle in his shield.” (Morgan 770) The poet uses 46 lines to describe the meaning of the pentangle. No other symbol in the poem is described in such detail. Such a long explanation seems out of place in a poem full of fast-paced action, beheadings and temptations. The narrator acknowledges this but proceeds to delve into his description after establishing a disclaimer: “And why the pentangle was appropriate to that prince I intend now to say, though it will stall our story.” (Armitage 623-4) This passage alerts the reader to pay attention; the symbolic meaning of the pentangle is important to a proper understanding of the narrator's message. The poet illustrates the pentangle as a symbol of faithfulness and an “endless knot” saying, “It suits this soldier in his spotless armor/fully faithful in five ways five times over.” (Armitage 631) The five points of the pentangle represent five virtues attributed to Gawain. Gawain's life at this point is the perfect application of the virtues the pentangle signifies. The poet states, “the figure is a five-pointed star and each line overlaps and links with the last so it is ever eternal,” (Armitage 627) and then goes on to say, “So these five sets of five were fixed in this knight, each linked to the last through the endless line” The pentangle is a unity in which all parts are interrelated just as the spiritual, moral and social qualities are united in Gawain. In the poet’s account of the “five sets of five” he specifies the spiritual, moral and social virtues that constitute the pentangle by including religious faith in lines 642-643 and the operation of the senses in line 640. The first attributes mentioned in the “five sets of five” is being flawless in the five senses and his five fingers never being at fault. According to Morgan’s interpretation of the poem he states, “From the poet’s attribution to his hero of perfection in the five senses it would seem that we are to understand that Gawain does not sin through mere sensual gratification” (Morgan 774). What he is saying is, Gawain is able to appropriately control his sensitive desires by reason. Next, the five wounds of Christ and the five joys of Mary specify religious dimension. This appeal to faith symbolized by the pentangle is not at all out of the ordinary as we can see from other works of this time; “the appeal of metaphor and symbol was especially strong in a time that not only drew on the treasuries of the Christian tradition and classical literature and mythology, but invented the new “sign- language” which was one of its real innovations.” (Bruce 15) These aspects of Gawain’s chivalry are the source of his courage. A lot of attention is given to this, suggesting that, “courage is a significant element in the moral scheme of the poem” (Morgan 775). The fifth set of five presents five virtues: fraunchyse or friendship, felawshyp or fraternity, clannes or purity, cortaysye or politeness and pité or pity; all of which have a specific social extension in the poem. That is to say, the five qualities are relevant to the subsequent events of the poem....
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