Pagan and Christian Symbolism in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight
Pagan and Christian Symbolism in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight
As many readers and scholars commonly agreed, and me myself also, "Sir Gawain and The Green Knight" is one of the most exciting examples of the Medieval English Literature, and possibly the best. The elements in Gawain are mainly based on courtly love, chivalric code. But another thing which I believe makes the story unique is the pagan and christian symbolism that strongly surrounded the story. In my paper I will try to explain the roots of these symbols and role and theme of them in the story.
The story starts with an uninvited quests enterance to the New Years Eve celebrations in Camelot and Pearl Poet defines him to his readers like this in his first stanzas where he tells about the stranger.
Great Wonder grew in hall
At his hue most strange to see
For man and gear and all
Were green as green could be
Then from lines 145 to 220 "Pearl Poet" defines the clothes, weapons and how he looks like. His gear also includes symbols and contrasts but first I want to talk about the fact that roots of the figure "Green Knight" may come from the "Green Man" which is a strange, interesting figure almost have an example at every part of the world which combines both paganism and christianism. It takes place as an architectural ornament mostly can be found as in not only on the ancient pagan graves, but also at the churches and carvings in the stone. General it refers rebirth, or renaissance. The Green Man appears in many forms but according to the Harding Mike's "A Little Book Of The Green Man" it mainly appears in three forms which are; the Foliate Head - completely covered in leaves, the Disgorging Head - spews vegetation from its mouth and the Bloodsucker Head - sprouts vegetation from all facial orifices. The symbol mainly appears as a pagan one but looks like later the Christians in nothern countries adopted it to their cultures. And this is not an unusual thing as I know, in this semester due to my personal interests I took the course of "History of Byzantine Empire" and also encountered there that early christians except the fanatics adopted their old culture (which is Greek-Roman, and as I remember there was a historical name of this situation but couldn't find it in my notes) in to Christianism in a harmony, which I found very exciting and interesting. So looks like Green Man is a figure that evoluated from paganism to christianism. Also in story the evolution of characther goes like that. He first looks like an evil rival to court, a demonic figure that comes out of nowhere and want to play a fatal game which will cause the death of Gawain, but through the end of story he looks like a perfect Christian as a helpful patron and host to Gawain. Also in Celtic mythology theres a god that named as "Viridios" means "Green Man" in Celtic language, which was also worshipped in Roman Britain. Not only in west culture but also in east there are similiarities. For example the Egyptian god of death "Osiris" is always painted in Green, so it may be called as a coincidence or not but the concept Green, refers to death and rebirt took place in Egypt, Arabia and even in Tibet and Persian religions and mythologies. So if we come to the point Green Man refers death, rebirth or renaissance in the Mythology, also in my opinion plays the same role in Sir Gawain. There are some alternate endings of the play, which may end by the Green Knights slaughter of the Gawain, so in this situation he can be the symbol of death, which is Green. Also we can't say if theres an afterworld or not but if there is, the rebirth of Gawain in afterworld may be symbolized by color green again (in case of his killing by Green Knight). Well the meaning of color suits the normal ending aswell in term of "Renaissance", Gawain in shame of taking the belt after weared it always like a symbol of his cowardness to always remember it like "I should never do such a shameful thing again". So it can be called as a Renaissance for Gawain.
Also in my opinion Green Knight can be a druid, because his profile suits to a druid one, also he is a shapeshifter, which is a druidistic skill and some say that Order of the Garter's motto and girdle tradition is also effected from the Sir Gawain. Not only his origins but also his apperance also symbolizing the extreme oppositions strangely. For example he is carrying a branch with his one hand which symbolizes the peace, and carrying an axe with the other which is symboling the conflict and war. He is symbolizing christian and pagan, good and evil. So its hard to say what he is exactly staying for. Maybe the whole symbols of opposition can be gathered in a bigger symbol, which is the chaotic nature of world and universe.
Another very strong symbolizm takes pleace while Gawain is getting armed for his journey through the "Green Chapel".
Then they showed forth the shield, that shone all red,
With the pentagle portrayed in purest gold
So the he gets a shield which has a pentacle on it. Well the Pearl Poet describes the pentacle at 46 lines, which means that he gave a serious importance to this symbol. It is believed that that the Commander of Gods Armies (since looks like God needs armies against his rivals he shouldn't be that great eh?), the Archangel Michael gave a ring to third king of Israel, Solomon, which has a pentacle on it, in order to protect him and make him superios against the demons. Also in Germany the symbol is called "Drudenfuss" to keep evil away from the objects and home. So with wearing this shield he now becomes protected against demon and evil. By the way the green refers devil in someways also, for example in famous painting of Michael Pacher "Augustinus und der Teufel " he painted the devil as green.Anyway in medieval number theory five always considered as a circular number, which always reproduces itself, kind of means the infinity. So it may also refer to infinite protection or incorruptibility of the Gawain. But author make this pentacle become more complex, talking about secondly five senses (sight,hearing,taste,smell,touch) kinda saying "May they never fail you". Thirrdly about five fingers kinda saying "May your swords aim never fail you". Then fourthly about five wounds of christ, which is a very spread symbol in Christian world, even flag of Georgia and was symbol of Crusaders. I'm not sure but I guess five wounds that killed Christ is symbol of sacrificing himself for the mankind, so in here Gawain sacrifices himself for his king. Then lastly he talks about five "Joyful Mysteries" which is a part of term "Rosary". 1) The annuciation- Humility, 2)The Visitation - Love of Neighbor, 3)The Nativity - Detachment from the things of the world, Contempt of Riches, Love of the Poor, 4) The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Fruit of the Mystery: Purity 5). The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple. Fruit of the Mystery: True Wisdom and True Conversion. (Taken exactly from Wikipedia's "Rosary" page)
So he is portraying an ideal chivilaric man and saying kind of " May you stay always like this.".
The fifth of five fives followed by this knight
Now all these five fives were confirmed in this knight
But its strange that why he did not prefer a christian symbol on the Gawains shield and choosed a judaic one. Constantine the Great conquered by that, and used afterwards by crusaders and christian warriors for being a symbol of their faith. Although Pearl Poet talked much about how good christians are the Arthurians, he preferred a Judaic sign. Also looks like there are other numbers that are significant for the poet like three kisses are exchanged between Gawain and Bertilak's wife; Gawain is tempted by her on three separate days; Bertilak goes hunting three times, and the Green Knight swings at Gawain three times with his axe. The number two also appears repeatedly, as in the two beheading scenes, two confession scenes, and two castles according to the Donald Howards "Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain". I find something else while researching that, in pagan the tradition of waiting a year and a day that figures heavily into pagan practices, particularly marriage or any contracts involving the family or any major decisions.So looks like also the year and a day tradition is another symbol of paganism. Also in my opinion at the hunting game, the fox is a symbol as well. Which is symbol of cunning because, when the dear and the boar hunted nothing happened specially between Gawain and Lady, but when it came to the fox, which is famous for its cunning; Gawain made a mistake and took the belt. And the belt also is an another symbol thay symbolling the cowardness of the Gawain. I read that some people saying that its also a symbol of Eve's seducing the Adam to take and eat apple, to that maybe refer to genesis aswell. Later after all test is over, Gawain continued to carry the belt as a shame for his cowardness, and always kept it in mind to never do it again.
I guess thats all I can say about symbolism, I have no doubt that there are much more to say about the symbolism in Gawain, but it needs more books and time. Due to deep paganism, neo paganism, medieval alchemy, celtic mythology and christian elements in it.