The Meaning Behind the Girdle
In the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, after two failed attempts at seducing Gawain, Lady Bertilak grants the knight a gift in response to his disinterest and inability to give her a keepsake of any sort. As Gawain refuses the gift of the exquisite, red gold ring, Lady Bertilak gives him a sash made of green silk and embroidered with gold thread. Gawain initially declines this gift as well, insisting that he will not accept anything until he has completed the Green Knight’s challenge. But, Lady Bertilak counters that and claims the girdle possesses magical qualities, and Gawain accepts the gift, convinced that it would bring him immunity against the Green Knight’s blade.
Therefore, the promised protection is the first meaning Gawain associates with the girdle, as it seemingly served its function of safeguarding him, though not in the same way as Lady Bertilak claimed. His belief in the girdle’s magical properties provided assurance that he may perhaps be spared from death, and convinced him to tell the truth, making it a motif of his survival. As the Green Knight, revealed to be Lord Bertilak, said, “By confessing your failings you are free from fault / and have openly paid penance at the point of my axe” (2391-92). And so, the girdle represents both Gawain’s downfall and salvation, a double-edged sword that will always be a part of him and haunt him in the years to come.
Similarly, the girdle serves as a memento of Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight under Morgan le Faye’s orchestrations. It was also the offending object that allowed the mystery of the Green Knight’s identity to be solved, and for the motivations of those at Castle Hautdesert to be revealed. In the final moments of the confrontation, Lord Bertilak, as his wife did, offers the girdle as the gift. “It’s yours, Sir Gawain, / a reminder of our meeting when you mix and mingle / with princes and kings” (2396-98). Thus, the girdle serves as an ever-present reminder for Gawain to remain humble, and to always remember the moment when his knightly virtues failed him in a time of danger, against Morgan le Faye’s influence.
Furthermore, the girdle, like the scar on his neck, is evidence of Gawain’s sin. While he did not engage Lady Bertilak’s attention any more than she gave him, his failure to be truthful is his disgrace and wrongdoing. Having privately confessed his sins to the priest and been granted absolution, Gawain did not consider mentioning the girdle to Lord Bertilak, only giving him the three kisses he “won” from Lady Bertilak earlier on. Aside from “sash,” the girdle is referred to as the “love-lace” (1874) throughout the poem, an implication to how Gawain is bound to his secrecy and sin; “once sin is entwined it is attached for all time” (2512), as he describes. This ties him to his personal shame, convincing him to seek repentance through wearing the girdle for the rest of his days, and proving the negativity and sense of finality in his view of the events that transpired.
King Arthur, on the other hand, holds the much more optimistic view that the girdle represents respect and unity among the lords and ladies of his court. As Gawain had volunteered himself as the “weakest of [Arthur’s] warriors and feeblest of wit” (354) to take on the Green Knight’s challenge, the decision for all of Arthur’s knights to wear a green sash serves as a show of gratitude, and demonstrates the camaraderie within the brotherhood of the members of Arthur’s court. This embodies the definition of the phrase “all for one, one for all,” and highlights the importance of mutual understanding and sacrifice for one another. Thus, Gawain’s original meaning of the girdle is forgone in favor of a purpose worthier of pride and less of shame, emphasizing the knightly virtue of friendship.
To Arthur and his court, the girdle also represents honor as Gawain had upheld the knightly virtues till the very end. He remained chaste and courteous in the face of temptation and death respectively, thus demonstrating his strong sense of character as a member of Arthur’s roundtable. Rather than falter, Gawain kept his promise from a year and a day ago and acknowledged his faults, displaying his complete willingness to repent. In the 5 described knightly virtues, “generosity, courtesy, chastity, chivalry and piety” (663), Gawain also exhibited chivalry and piety in his respect towards Lady Bertilak and habit of seeking enlightenment from his patron saint Mary, as well as members of the clergy. Despite how Gawain was personally convinced of his failure, he failed to realize just how well he adhered to them from an outsider’s perspective.
Finally, the girdle is a testament to Gawain’s success in surviving the Green Knight’s beheading game. Regardless of all the obstacles—self-inflicted and inflicted by others—he endured, he did not have to die for his mistakes and found forgiveness. Even though he was convinced that he was weak with a feeble mind, his survival demonstrated otherwise, proving his worth as a knight and Arthur’s nephew. His resilience against Lady Bertilak’s persuasion and his readiness to admit his shortcomings are admirable qualities from Arthur’s perspective, and allowed Gawain a victory that was comparatively better than physical domination, in spite of Gawain’s personal feelings of pessimism towards the entire journey.
To conclude, Arthur and his court’s views are much more optimistic than Gawain’s opinions, and seem more correct and appropriate as Gawain could have been influenced by self-doubt and personal regret, while Arthur’s court saw Gawain’s experience as a learning opportunity and a chance for everyone to band together in support of Gawain’s year-long trial.
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