The Humanity of Sir Gawain
- 1 The Humanity of Sir Gawain
- 2 Works Cited
The Humanity of Sir Gawain
Readers of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight develop a first impression of Sir Gawain as an almost unhuman like perfection of a Knight. At the beginning of the story it seems that Sir Gawain is a character of a different kind of world. It is not until later that it is apparent that even those who seem to be inconceivably perfect have the ability to fall short to sin.
Through the use of symbolism the author was able to display the natural tendency of the ordinary person to fall into the trap of sin, which also correlates with the the theme of nature in this story. The author used symmetry to give examples of symbolism in this story, which are: Lady Bertilak, the colors green and gold (predominantly displayed by the green girdle), and red, and the pentangle which is a symbol for Sir Gawain himself.
Lady Bertilak is an accurate symbol for the daily temptations that Sir Gawain faces and that many face in the real world. Her importance in this role of temptation becomes apparent from the moment that the audience first witnesses her beauty and flashy apparel (Goldhurst, 63). She is the center of the scheme put together by Morgan Lefay and King Bertilak to test the true chivalry and bravery of King Arthur’s court. The initial test is a test of Sir Gawain’s innocence and desire to appease those he is under. Lady Bertilak uses her body and her obvious beauty as a temptation for Sir Gawain to sin against his word. This initial test is where the audience sees the symmetry that draws a parallel between the events in the story and their metaphorical effect on Sir Gawain. Like the deer Lord Bertilak was hunting, Lady Bertilak approached innocent Gawain in the same manner.
The next animal was a Boar, which is parallel to the new strength Sir Gawain found. Finally, a fox, which was parallel to Sir Gawain’s belief that he had out -witted Lord Bertilak, when he accepted the sash from Lady Bertilak. After the boar hunt and deer hunt there was a large celebration, which could go to explain the reaction of rejecting temptation, however there was no celebration after the killing of the fox (Pedrosa, p. 72). The reaction to the fox hunt could serve as a parallel to the reaction that readers have to Sir Gawain’s fall to temptation (Pedrosa, p. 72).
There were three attempts at temptation and only one had success. Regardless of the new found strength that Sir Gawain had he still fell down at the feet of temptation. The scene where he took the sash was not a scene of disgrace, but a scene of humanization (Goldhurst, 63). This scene can be classified as humanization because of Sir Gawain’s reasoning for accepting the gift: He wanted to survive the Green Knight’s game. Lady Bertilak was able to provide Sir Gawain with enough temptation to make him obey his humanistic instinct of taking the sash for the possibility of his survival (Goldhurst, 63). Lady Bertilak is the human embodiment of temptation, which personalizes the portrayal of temptation’s effect on humanity.
The colors in this story are the most discussed element and the recurring symbol seen consistently through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The three primary colors in this story are green, red, and gold, which serve to explain human tendencies through a different perspective. The red eyes of the Green Knight are only seen a few times, but they stand out as the only non-green element on the Green Knight’s body. The red seems to portray a sort of evil, bloody, and violent character, which causes fear when he enters King Arthur’s court. Monsters are often portrayed with blood red eyes and green scaly skin, which characterized just how scary the Green Knight was (Karim, 1). This characterization of the Green Knight’s intimidating appearance and Sir Gawain’s determination to face him goes another step in explaining how brave and chivalric Sir Gawain is.
The color green is an obvious candidate for symbolism as it is first highlighted in the title. One parallel that can be drawn is between this color and it’s symbolic relationship with nature. The author seems to be using the color green as a representative of nature, as seen in the lines that read, All the evergreens the greenest ever, and grass-green or greener still (Anonymous, 142). These two phrases are both comparing the Green Knight’s color and horse’s color to natural elements, exposing the idea that this green color may symbolize the brutality and fierceness of nature. One major theme to be notified by a reader is the idea that the Green Knight who, Is nature, portrays Nature’s efforts to display itself, in almost any circumstance (Goldhurst, 61).
The author’s description of Sir Gawain’s quest to get to the Green Castle is particularly noteworthy because of the detailed depictions of the natural challenges Sir Gawain faced. This depiction involves the brutality and relentlessness of nature (Ganim, 381). The author also separates nature’s force from the force of temptation and fear that are natural human qualities (Ganim, 381). Before the Green Knight walked into King Arthur’s court, there was only civilization and order within a sheltered castle. As soon as this mass of green arrived to disrupt the peace the scene moved from one of civilization to one of a primitive atmosphere (Ganim, 380). The naturality of Sir Gawain’s situation explains the very reason he eventually succumbs to temptation. However, there is more evidence to what green represents than the completely green coloring of the Green Knight.
The green girdle portrays natural ideas of temptation, instinct, and sin, with the gold trim on it representing civilization, and furthers the development of the use of these colors (green and gold) throughout the story. The green girdle was the only temptation that Sir Gawain took, ignoring his chivalric actions. It was not the shiny gold rim of the girdle, but the green of it, the lush, natural green color, that caused Sir Gawain to take it (Goldhurst, 64).
This natural temptation caused a noble Knight to bow to temptation’s feet, for no other reason But to save himself (Anonymous, 175). The green of the girdle gave Sir Gawain a glimmer of hope and was attractive enough for him to accept the gift. He was not attracted so much to the gold as he was the green color because he made the natural implication that this green garnet would save him from the game the Green Knight wanted to finish. In the story, Sir Gawain refused a ring and even refused the girdle at first until Lady Bertilak announces that as long as he wears it around his waist he will, Be safe against anyone who seeks to strike him (Anonymous, 175). This statement shows the effect that nature had on the decision for Sir Gawain to accept the girdle because it was not until he believed that this piece of clothing would save him that he actually took it. The inborn and natural need to survive caused Sir Gawain to forget his chivalric teachings. The green girdle not only represents natural instincts and sin, but the battle between nature and civilized ideas that people have created (Ganim, 380).
The two lines, Our man bore the belt not merely for its beauty/ or the gleam of its edges which glimmered with gold (Anonymous, 178/ 179), explain this idea of the flashy gold representing civilization, and the green representing the naturalistic ideas that oppose civilization (Goldhurst, 65). Sir Gawain took it not because of its flashy golden outline, but because it reminded him of his opponent. Sir Gawain ignored his values that had been instilled in him, like he ignored the gold, and upholded the more natural value of humanity represented by the green. In the final scene with the Green Knight, the Green Knight announced that it was all his plan, and commended Sir Gawain’s almost perfect Chivalric actions. The Green Knight noticed that Sir Gawain obeyed his instinct and because of his humanistic flaw, the Green Knight said, You loved your own life; so I blame you less (Anonymous, 185). All of these ideas involving the green girdle displaying nature’s influence on temptation and the inborn flaw that keeps humanity away from perfection. The Green Knight recognized Sir Gawain’s reason for his dishonesty and sin, and therefore only nicked his neck.
The green girdle’s meaning changed toward the end of the poem. It can be argued that the green girdle was a symbol of sin from the moment that Sir Gawain accepted the gift. The girdle was handed to Sir Gawain the moment that he chose survival over his honor. When Sir Gawain wrapped the belt around his waist for the first time the author made note that this particular color suited Sir Gawain and, Went well with the rich red weaves that he wore (Anonymous, 178). The color red was originally established as a particular symbol of evil in the story, and this is the first real mention of Sir Gawain’s red attire. This color was reintroduced alongside the only mistake Sir Gawain made, which leads to the assumption that the author was correlating this gift with an act of sin. To further the meaning of the green girdle, Sir Gawain even announced its symbol, As a sign of my sin, after being caught by the Green Knight (Anonymous, 187). When he arrived back he announced again that the girdle symbolized his sin and his fall to temptation.
Sir Gawain views his sin with a lot more shame than the other men of the King’s Court does, and he repeatedly announces the sash as a symbol of his failure (Howard, 433). However, when King Arthur’s court welcomed him back they changed the meaning of the green girdle from natural temptation and sin, to one of honor, humility, and renewal.
The green girdle was transformed from a symbol of primitive instinct, to a sign of sin, and finally to the lush green emblem of renewal. More importantly the color itself becomes a symbol of renewal. Before Sir Gawain officially received the green girdle from the Green Knight he was nicked by the axe after the third blow. Sir Gawain had arrived at a completely green and bushlike cave called, the Green Castle. After receiving the blow the Green Knight declared Sir Gawain, Free from fault/ as polished and as pure as the day you were born. This sentence correlates with the Christian ideal of forgiveness after repentance, and also works to establish an idea of renewal. This idea can also be shown through the return of the girdle to Sir Gawain. When the Green Knight gives the girdle back to Sir Gawain he describes it as gold-hemmed, leading the reader onto the idea that he is recognizing the girdle for its civilization, the gold, as a reward for Sir Gawain’s chivalry (Anonymous, 186).
Sir Gawain, only recognized the girdle for its green out of shame for his instinctive acts. These two contrasting statements paired together by the author display the two separate meanings of the girdle and the full importance that the colors have. At the end of the story Sir Gawain bared the girdle across his chest, and announced his failure and sin, in response he received laughter. The words from the Green Knight showed the previously mentioned ideas of renewal in faith and in his humanity. The laughter that Sir Gawain received conveyed more than acceptance; it conveyed total honor and total renewal for any matter that these people could consider unfaithful or sinful (Ganim, 383). The girdle shared similarities with one other symbol in the story, and ran parallel with more than it’s color. The pentangular shield and the girdle were displayed in similar circumstances, and both represented Sir Gawain’s character in some way (Howard, 431).
Sir Gawain’s second journey begins with a description of the green girdle to display Sir Gawain’s error and his upcoming hardship, however the first journey begins with the pentangle to display Sir Gawain himself (Howard, 431). The difference between the two items in explaining Sir Gawain is the green girdle shows the falter in his virtues, while the shield shows the strength of his virtues (Howard, 428). The Arthur made sure to detail every inch of the pentangle, and even included a picture of the item to display its value and importance. The pentangle included a picture of the Virgin Mary on the inside, and was a reminder to Sir Gawain to continue and have faith (Howard, 427). This display of Sir Gawain’s strong belief and his valued religious characters describes the kind of Knight Sir Gawain truly is. Display this particular aspect of Sir Gawain’s life, shows that he is a man of character and incredible morals. His morals make him a great target to show the humanistic tendency to be weak in the presence of sin.
The pentangles five pillars represent his faith in Christ, the joys of Mary, his ability to use his senses, and his possession of the five Knightly values (Howard, 427). The five values that this great addition to his shiny, flashy, and pure armour are: Friendship, fraternity, purity, politeness, and pity (Anonymous, 151). These were Sir Gawain’s core values, which went to explaining the kind of Knight Sir Gawain was, and deepened the meaning behind the inevitable mortal end and sin. If the pentangle was not so detailed the reader would not fully understand all of the crucial things that Sir Gawain held near, without this Sir Gawain would be an ordinary Knight, a man susceptible to temptation and sin. The use of the pentangle as a sort of Badge of truth (Anonymous, 150) made an undeniable impression of the purity of Sir Gawain in the way that it was a highlight to his already pure and clean armour.
This pentangle gave a sense of perfected morals to the reader, making sin seem impossible, when it finally occurred the reader could develop the true meaning of this play (Howard, 427). Even near perfect Knights are not immune to sin, and stray from their perfected core values, which the reader is aware of from this shield.
This play, without a doubt, is a play of humility and morality. The Arthur works with many symbols such as Lady Bertilak, the colors green, gold, and red, the green girdle, and the pentangle to portray the idea that even near perfect people are completely prone to sin. He uses symbolism and parallelism to completely develop his essay. Nature’s power explains the reasons for Sir Gawain’s fall from grace and is emphasized in several ways throughout the play to provide framework to the symbols in the story.
Anonymous.Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Norton Anthology: English Literature: The Major Authors, Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Norton, 2013, pp. 135-188, 2 vols.
Ganim, John M. Disorientation, Style, and Consciousness in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. PMLA, Vol. 91, No. 3, May 1976. pp. 376-384. JSTOR
https://www.jstor.org/stable/461688 Accessed Oct. 8th, 2018.
Goldhurst, William. The Green and the Gold: The Major Theme of Gawain and The Green Knight. College English, vol.20, No. 2, Nov. 1958, pp.61-65. JSTOR www.jstor.org/stable/372161 Accessed, Nov. 12th, 2018.
Howard, Donald R. Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain. Speculum, vol.39, No. 3, Jul.1964, pp. 425-433. JSTOR
https://www.jstor.org/stable/2852497 Accessed, Nov. 12th, 2018.
Pedrosa, Antonio Vicente Casas. Symbolic Numbers and Their Functions In Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. Universidad De Las Palmas De Gran Canaria, 2006, acceda.ulpgc.es:8443/xmlui/bitstream/10553/6418/1/0234349_00012_0004.pdf. Accessed Nov. 12th, 2018.
Karim, Cheryl. O’ That Jolly Green Giant. Pagan Elements, 2002, csis.pace.edu/grendel/projs2002f/sceneessay.html. Accessed Nov. 12th, 2018.
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