As the plot progresses in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), the poet reminds the hero of his sacred charge: “Now take care, Gawain, / Lest fear hold you back / From leaving on the quest / You have sworn to undertake” (SGGK 487-490; see our first post for works cited). Unfortunately, a year later Gawain makes this very mistake. He remembers his oath and departs Arthur’s court seeking the Green Chapel and the fate that awaits him there. Outwardly, he shows no fear in his departure; “He did not linger there, / But swiftly went his way” (SGGK 687-688). What fear he has is not in the trials that await him but the eternal echoes of his deeds in life. And as he defends himself against the wiles of the wilderness, he remembers well his faith and fidelity. He then rides “through the realm of England, / Sir Gawain, in God’s name, though he found it no pleasure . . . . And [with] no one but God to talk to on the way” (SGGK 691-692, 696). And though he meets many dark creatures throughout his journey, each time he triumphs not through his own strength, but through faith and hope. “Had he not been valiant and resolute, trusting in God, / He would surely have died or been killed many times” (SGGK 724-725).
Weariness, however, eventually sets in. The knight is worn down, burdened by the cold, lonely quest that is set before him. And through such weariness, the first hint of doubt sets in, doubt in his ability to follow through with his promise. This doubt, though, has not eliminated his faith in God. He rides until Christmas Eve and then, having lost his last bit of strength, he seeks divine aid.
And therefore sighing he prayed, ‘I beg of you, Lord,
His faith therefore provides him strength, and while immediate physical comfort is still distant, his hope stands firm. The prayers he prays were familiar to the readers of the poet’s own age, especially his adjuration of Christ’s blood. This expression is, “A phrase from the Primer, the more-or-less standard elementary school textbook from which children in the later middle ages first learned to read, where it is associated with the Paternoster [Latin Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer, Mat 6:9-13], Ave Maria, and Creed (cf. lines 757-8). Children in school would say the phrase and these three devotions, the first ones to be learned, before reciting the alphabet” (Anderson 309).
It is at this moment that respite comes. “Hardly had he crossed himself, that man, three times, / Before he caught sight through the trees of a moated building” (SGGK 763-764). The arrival at Bertilak’s castle is clearly intended to delight both the knight and the reader. “There is a sense of the miraculous about the sudden appearance of the castle, an indication perhaps that Gawain has indeed received supernatural help in his search for the green chapel, a search which in realistic terms he has little hope of bringing to a successful conclusion unaided” (Anderson 309). Yet the sudden splendor of the building may just as likely represent the first of the subtle deceptions Gawain is to suffer throughout his sojourn. It persuades him to let his guard down, to relax, to grow complacent. “If the glow of life within the gracious castle made temptation the more insidious, this was but a reminder that man must not presume upon divine mercy, that his experience of mercy must not relax his vigilance any more than the apparent severity of justice must occasion despair” (Engelhardt 224). Just as faith strengthens the knight on his journey, fidelity should alert the hero to any assaults upon his integrity. But the potential for temptation does not even occur to our hero, instead, he “graciously takes off his helmet, and devoutly thanks / Jesus and St Julian [the patron saint of hospitality; Winny 145], who kindly are both, / Who had treated him courteously, and listened to his prayer” (SGGK 773-775).
Once inside, Gawain receives a warm welcome, and is granted a great freedom by the lord of the keep. “He said, ‘You are welcome to do as you please / With everything here: all is yours, to have and command / as you wish’ ” (SGGK 835-837). Yet once again, the devil lurks just beneath the surface. To check this freedom requires an even greater reliance on his faith and fidelity, an increased effort that seems unlikely given his long travels and comfortable accommodations. The words of his host may also imply an even darker meaning. “This courteous encouragement to make use of everything at yowre wylle may hint at the freedom later offered to Gawain by the lady” of the house (Winny 145).
Gawain is further disarmed (literally and figuratively) by the behavior of other residents of the castle. “There he was stripped, with joking remarks, / That knight, of his mail-shirt and his fine clothes” (SGGK 860-861). The armor he puts off is heavy and as it is removed, off come the burdens of his quest and the vigilance of his virtue. Each of them longs to be with him and learn from him, knowing well the legends surrounding his name. He is,
the man to whom all excellence and valour belongs,
His reception, then, is that of a hero’s, but not merely or even primarily because of his mighty deeds, but rather because of his skill in speech. “Gawain is excitedly welcomed not as a renowned warrior but as the recognized authority on cultural behaviour, especially luf-talkyng 927, flirtatious chat” (Winny 146). There are two elements of foreshadowing at work here. The first is the downplaying of Gawain’s courage, which ultimately fails him, while the second is the luf-talkyng he shares with Lady Bertilak herself, which provides just such an opportunity for his fall.
Like every other aspect of the castle, the agreement Gawain makes with Bertilak seems innocent enough. As Bertilak suggests:
You shall stay in your bed and lie at your ease
Here, then, Gawain has an opportunity to display the trawthe represented in the pentangle; an exercise in full disclosure and candor to determine what the knight’s life looks like as an open book. “The exchange of winnings contest exemplifies the poem’s insistence on the relationship between inner and outer in its demand that the private be made public: that the events that take place in Gawain’s bedchamber should be reenacted each evening in the public space of the hall” (McCarthy 301).
Up to this point, the fair-minded reader can understand why Gawain expects nothing but good from this place. He is staying in a well-set castle with a gracious host, flattering servants, and a beautiful lady with whom he may freely and innocently converse. What more could the good knight ask for? The poet, however, warns both Gawain and the reader of the coming deceit in his description of the lady’s entry to the knight’s bedchamber the first morning of hunting.
And as he lazily dozed, he heard slily made
Clearly, these are not the winnings Gawain pledged to his host the night before. As if her behavior does not convince us of her intentions, her words this same morning certainly should. When Gawain offers to put on “proper dress” so they might chat, the lady rejects his suggestion and promises “something better” (SGGK 1220, 1223).
I shall tuck you in here on both sides of the bed,
Yet talking seems to be only the beginning of her plans for the trapped knight. The second half of this response is especially telling. It recalls Solomon’s account of a similar lady. One night a young fool walks by the king’s window, turns the corner, and heads toward a neighborhood known for its less than righteous activities.
And there a woman met him,
Yet unlike that young fool (vv. 21-23), Gawain is “not unmindful of his devotion to Mary nor “the hereafter awaiting the man that dies in mortal sin” and therefore he sees through this first direct temptation (Engelhardt 221). So why, then, does the knight not flee the chamber like righteous Joseph, leaving his clothes behind yet preserving his integrity (see Gen 39:7-18)? Quite simply, because that is not the polite thing to do; any temptation, even one such as obvious as this, is to be deflected rather than denied. “His code made him reject as sinful the love of another man’s wife . . . yet he must manage this rejection with humility and forbearance, with tact and a light touch” (Engelhardt 222; original citations omitted). So instead, for three days the knight afflicts his soul with the guile of the seductress. Just as she “Waited there strangely long to see when he would wake” (SGGK 1194), Gawain seeks to endure the temptation passively rather than flee the situation and risk insult or injury. Yet seduced he will be.
Last week we discussed the general nature of trawthe as “faith, fidelity, and integrity,” using the description of Gawain’s character by way of the five-pointed star (or pentangle). But in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) trawthe also has a more specific meaning in the work of the poet, which he expounds on by illustrating the significance of each of the five interlocking lines of the unending knot:
First he was judged perfect in his five senses,
The first pentad that the pentangle represents seems simple enough and would appear not to require any additional commentary. Most scholars apparently agree since, of the various authorities consulted for my own efforts here, only McCarthy even mentions this first five and then only to say that the poet’s reference to them “is in accordance with the pentangle’s overall symbolizing of trawthe in conveying a sense of general integrity or righteousness” (McCarthy 297; internal citations omitted). This explanation, however, is not what we would expect given the remaining pentads, in which the Gawain poet consistently uses symbolism. Instead, the poet may be pointing not only to senses in general, but to the heightened senses of a knight engaged in hand-to-hand combat, a fate for which Gawain is at that moment preparing himself, perhaps with divine aid. As King David himself once sang, “Blessed be the LORD my Rock, Who trains my hands for war, And my fingers for battle” (Psa 144:1; see 18:34; 2Sa 22:35). However, since nothing else in context seems to recommend any particular interpretation, I offer this one tentatively.
The second pentad is slightly more conducive to interpretation. Though a number of views may be expressed here, it is McCarthy’s that is most persuasive. He believes with Franklin that the mention of Gawain’s fingers in line 641 may be “an indirect reference to the folding of fingers as . . . exemplifying another sense of trawthe, that of ‘faith or loyalty as pledged in a promise or agreement,’” a view that is consistent with other passages throughout the work (McCarthy 298). For example, consider one of Bertilak’s final exhortations before leaving Arthur’s court: “See, Gawain, that you carry out your promise exactly, / And search for me truly, sir, until I am found, / As you have sworn in this hall in the hearing of these knights” (SGGK 448-450). Gawain, then, is an honest man whose trustworthiness and faithfulness as a party to an agreement will be tested to see if his word is truly his bond.
The third of these fives introduces a new element to Gawain’s integrity that is elsewhere only implied or mentioned in passing: his religious faith. Anderson lists the five wounds of Christ as His “nail wounds in hands and feet [and His] spear-wound in the side,” noting that these “are a usual medieval devotional subject” (308). The account of these five wounds may be noted from the Gospel of John. When Jesus was crucified (John 19:23), the Romans nailed His hands (specifically His wrists) to the cross to support His upper body. To secure His legs, the Romans would have laid one over the other and driven a larger spike through both feet (specifically His ankles), thereby creating not one but two wounds (see John 20:24-29). The fifth wound was inflicted postmortem to ensure His removal from the cross prior to the Jewish Passover, which was to begin at sunset:
Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. (John 19:31-34)
Thus it is in the physical existence of Jesus Christ and the power of His crucifixion that our knight’s “earthly faith” and selfless courage resides.
The fourth pentad both “derives from the third” and adds another dimension to this faith (McCarthy 298). Anderson identifies these five joys of Mary as “the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection [and] Ascension of Christ [as well as the] Assumption of the Virgin into Heaven,” another common “medieval devotional subject” (Anderson 308). The Christian origin of these first four joys is clear from the New Testament itself (see Luke 1:26-38; 2:1-20; 24:1-12, 50-53). The fifth, however, adds a specifically Catholic color to Gawain’s profession, rooted in an ancient belief in Mary’s own reception into Heaven (rather than a natural death). But how does this explain Gawain’s behavior toward Mary’s image? Why does he look to her in hope of deliverance? Hardman provides us the answer:
The connection between Gawain’s looking at the image of the Queen of Heaven and his unfailing valour is more than a boost to his morale such as a knight might gain from glancing at a picture of his lady before going into battle . . . . It recalls the promises frequently attached to Marian devotions, assuring the faithful of her help, especially at the hour of death, a number of which stipulate that the devotion is to be practised while looking at an image of the Blessed Virgin. (Hardman III)
It is therefore clear that to our poet the truly complete man is a man of faith, which even a cursory reading of SGGK or the poet’s other assumed works (Pearl, Cleanness or Patience) will tell us. What is perhaps more striking at first, however, is the application given in context. Rather than demonstrate Gawain’s faith through his observance of the traditional feasts or his daily prayer, the poet points to Gawain’s bravery and “fortitude” in battle. “Gawain’s courage is linked to his faith,” an emphasis “appropriate for the quest which Gawain undertakes, for it is a brief lapse in his courage in the face of death . . . that causes Gawain to accept and conceal the green girdle in breach of his agreement with Bertilak” (McCarthy 298; internal citations omitted). Like previous concepts associated with the pentangle, this relationship between faith and courage is also adapted from the New Testament. Compare the poet’s faith and imagery with the words of the apostle Paul:
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (Eph 6:10-13)
Though Gawain’s enemies are physical as well as spiritual, faith is the key to his strength and the assurance of his victory, if not in life, then in death.
The final pentad is the first and only grouping that raises the moral significance of the symbol to explicit terms. Here, our poet lists five of Gawain’s more attractive qualities: generosity, love of fellow-men, purity, courtesy, and compassion. Four of these five virtues are directed toward others while only one focuses on the kind of internal consistency that represents the heart of full trawthe. Engelhardt, however, places less significance on these individual traits than he does on their respective functions.
Since, however, the five virtues assigned to Gawain in that dilatation are not determinative or even quite discriminable, it has seemed more apt in this analysis to consider his predicament rather in terms of the three virtues that would govern the three domains of activity, the military, the religious, and the courtly, in which the complete knight, the veritable man, might demonstrate his perfection, or, as the poet has named it, his trawthe. These virtues shall be called valor, piety and courtesy. (Engelhardt 219)
In either case, with either five virtues in mind or with three, Gawain is soon seen as a good, but conflicted man: what may be brave, may not be best; what may be right, may not be couth; what may be socially acceptable, may be far from courageous. This final sense of trawthe as “integrity,” is therefore about a balance between equally important, yet equally demanding aspects of one’s character, an ambiguity that forebodes future conflict for good Sir Gawain.
The pentangle, then, is the embodiment of the ideal of integrity. But this integrity is no accident. It arises from faith in the Son of God, looks to Him for comfort and courage, focuses his senses in the heat of battle, exhorts him to remain true to his word, and refines the habits of mind and body in order to shape his character. And in Gawain “these noble five / Were more deeply implanted . . . than any other” (SGGK 654-655). As McCarthy comments, “The quality of trawthe that Gawain embodies then is synonymous with the quality of nobility that all of the second estate should aspire to in order to justify their noble status and reputation” (300). The implicit question the poet asks is therefore whether such a standard is even possible. But what soon becomes clear, is that “The tests that Gawain faces . . . are profoundly related to the qualities that he has been shown to possess in the poem’s explanation of the pentangle’s symbolism” (McCarthy 299).
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) the poet depicts the latent strengths of Gawain’s character—and therefore the basis of his noble reputation—in terms of the armor in which he is clothed. Prior to departing Arthur’s keep, “In armour as he was, he went to hear mass / Offered and celebrated for him at the high altar” (SGGK 592-593; see our first post for works cited). Many of those courtiers prayed for Gawain’s safe return, but most mourned his tragic fate knowing that no man could survive a blow from one who had walked away holding his own severed head. But any wariness Gawain himself felt is hidden beneath the panoply with which he is armed:
Then Gawain seizes his helmet and kisses it quickly,
The virtue within is therefore seen through the beauty and strength displayed without: his readiness for combat, his perfection in prudence, and his respect for female gentility and skill. Yet at this juncture, the poet is far less eager to carry on the tale and instead “delays” Gawain’s fate, wanting to ensure that the reader truly grasps the gravity and grace of this knight:
Then they brought out the shield of shining gules,
So what of this five-pointed star, the pentangle? Why does the poet halt the story for forty-three lines to explain it to the reader? He obviously believes that “the symbol of the pentangle is . . . indispensable to the understanding of the poem,” as well as our appreciation of Gawain’s character (Engelhardt 218). The symbolism here, then, is primarily moral rather than mathematical: “As the pentangle may be drawn in one continuous movement, so it becomes the symbol of the complete man, whose integrity admits no imperfection; and it is this integrity in Gawain which the poem will show to be more apparent than real” (Engelhardt 218).
Gawain’s shield, like that of any medieval knight, serves two purposes: “declaring the bearer’s identity” and “warding off attack” (Hardman I). By placing the image of the pentangle on Gawain’s shield the poet thus seeks to identify Gawain as a man of integrity and to intertwine the shield’s protective power with Gawain’s own moral strength. As long as Gawain relies on his faith and fidelity he is protected, while any departure from these will endanger him both physically and spiritually. The poet reinforces this connection through the material used for the pentangle itself, “pure gold.” Gold is a “traditional image of moral purity” deeply rooted in the medieval mind, particularly through their contact with ancient Jewish and Christian sources (Anderson 307). For example, during the height of Job’s trials his friends provide him little comfort, yet aware of his own integrity and the righteousness of God’s judgment, he is not without hope. For “He knows the way that I take; When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10 NKJV; see Pro 17:3; 27:21; Zec 13:9; Mal 3:3). Anderson also points to a similar usage in an apocryphal work from the intertestamental period: “For gold is tried in the fire, and acceptable men [are tried] in the furnace of humiliation” (Ecclesiasticus 2:5 in Anderson 307). This test or trial may not always appear to be positive, but those who are acceptable to God understand that trials may not only be a cause for growth, but for joy as well. As the apostle Peter would later write:
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1Pe 1:6-7; see 1Co 13:12-13; Rev 3:18)
The overall meaning of the pentangle is therefore one of “fidelity,” as Winny translates the Middle English trawthe (or troth). The word has a variety of meanings, of which the most obvious is “truth,” with all its related connotations. “It embraces the concepts of loyalty, honour, fidelity and integrity. The last sense is especially important in the poem in the light of the way in which the poet explains the unity of the pentangle figure” (Anderson 307). Just as the continuously-drawn star is an organic whole that relies upon the unity and strength of each part, “the virtue of trawthe, as the poet presents it, is made up of all the other virtues, so that if Gawain should fail in any one respect then all his integrity (and therefore all his chivalry) is gone” (Anderson 307). As the poet writes,
Now truly, all these five groups were embodied in that knight,
Trawthe is therefore concerned not merely with believing the truth or speaking the truth, but being (as we would say) “tried and true” through the consistent application of truth in thought, word, and deed. This later correspondence is especially pertinent to the trials Gawain will face throughout his quest. “The poem’s testing of renown through the testing of Gawain’s embodiment of trawthe suggests that the two should be related: that excellence in reputation should correspond to nobility of character, and this is clearly the case here” (McCarthy 301).
For this definition of trawthe, the poet again draws on a common biblical idiom. When Yahweh looks down on the wickedness and evil intent of His creation, He finds one on whom He may bestow His favor. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” since he “was a just man, perfect [Hebrew tamim] in his generations. Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:8-9; see Job 1:1, 8; 2:3). In other words, he is a righteous and godly man of integrity. Later Solomon (the “designer” of the pentangle himself) employs a related term to make the same point and to teach one of its benefits: “The righteous man walks in his integrity [Hebrew tom]; His children are blessed after him” (Pro 20:7). And centuries later, the idiom is used once more by the half-brother of Christ to demonstrate an aspect of trawthe that rises repeatedly in SGGK (such as, at line 369): “For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect [Greek teleios] man, able also to bridle the whole body” (Jam 3:2; see Eph 4:13; Col 1:28). In each of these passages, integrity is about the completion, the perfection, and the attainment of truth in our inner and outer being. And it is from this common religious and moral heritage that our poet draws the moral significance of the pentangle.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, epic poetry is a genre that has not only peaked my personal interests but is also perhaps the most conducive to the sort of ethical reflection needed in our modern, science-driven culture. But (perhaps in part because of that very reason) it also the least studied (at least, outside the classroom). After all, as many might ask, what good are stories about magic and wizards and dragons, when we have reason, science, and so many of our own pressing problems to address right here and now?
The first of these works to catch my eye years ago was the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. At first glance, SGGK is just another one of these fantastical tales, and even worse, of that sub-genre that has revolved for centuries around King Arthur and his legendary knights. Yet Gawain’s experience is not about victory over monsters (though there are several mentioned), nor about his prowess on the battlefield (though his skill in combat is well known). Instead, there is a moral; a moral with a distinct religious and even Christian influence that forms the core of the poet’s views on our human condition. As Champion notes:
For, while Gawain is not . . . overtly didactic in tone, it is deeply imbued with Christian moral values and matters of contemporary Christian concern. So pervasive is this quality that critics now conclude that the author “was thoroughly familiar with the trends of religious concepts” and had read considerably “in the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, and throughout the theological treatises of the patristic writers.” (413)
These underlying theological and ethical concepts become increasingly clear not only through the primary narrative of our hero’s quest, but also in the “moral themes arising from the poet’s use of symbolism and allegory” (Champion 413). It is my purpose here to examine the specific symbolism of Gawain’s pentangle—the five-pointed star which adorned his shield—to demonstrate the primacy of trawthe not only in the character of Gawain himself but also in the trials that he faces on his quest.
We are introduced to Gawain in the main hall of Arthur’s castle, where the members of the Round Table have gathered for their annual Christmas feast. Gawain’s placement at the table indicates for us his relatively high standing among his peers: “There good Gawain was seated beside Guenevere” (SGGK, line 109). Though modern readers are more familiar with the later prominence enjoyed by Lancelot (that is, prior to his betrayal), “early Arthurian tradition” presented Gawain as “a mighty warrior”, “a paragon of courtesy,” and as “first in eminence amongst the knights” (303). The three essential elements of Gawain’s character are therefore implied by the tradition itself, in the words of Engelhardt, the virtues of “valor, piety and courtesy” (219). The poet then displays all three aspects of knight’s character, by way of his appeal to Arthur (his mother’s brother) to allow him to confront the Green Knight in the king’s stead:
‘I beg you in plain words
Here, Gawain is not merely addressing Arthur, but the reader as well, allowing us to see for ourselves his courage, reverence, and politeness. What we see, however, looks strange to our modern eyes. The knight is not merely waxing poetic, he seems to overdo these virtues, perhaps even exercising them to a fault. He clothes himself with a false humility and patronizes his master and host. So in our first scene with the knight, we see both the justification for Gawain’s renown in the Middle Ages, as well as the potential for the sort of lapse he suffers before returning to Arthur’s court.
Lord willing, we will continue our look at the character of Gawain next week by examining another of the poet’s devices: his description of the knight’s armor.