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.