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).