Over the last few weeks we have surveyed some of the ethical content contained in the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK). We have discussed the general nature of trawthe as “faith, fidelity, and integrity,” we have unpacked its religious character, and we have seen how such forthrightness might clash with social expectations. Yet when we left Gawain on his third and last day at Sir Bertilak’s castle, the good knight believes himself to have done quite well against his hostess’s advances. He has remained faithful to his host not only by mitigating the dishonorable intentions of the lady but also by returning to that man the kisses he won each day from the lips of that man’s wife!
Yet here is Gawain at his most vulnerable point in the work: in the rush of victory. “At the moment when Gawain believes he has safely emerged from his ordeal for the last time, the lady launches an attack more difficult to recognise or resist” (Winny 149; see our first post for works cited). She implores him to accept from her a token of unfulfilled love but when he refuses it, she instead offers him a girdle or belt that can strengthen his body to sustain the blow he is to receive the next day. “For whoever is buckled into this green belt, / As long as it is tightly fastened about him / There is no man on earth who can strike him down, / For he cannot be killed by any trick in the world” (SGGK 1851-1854). The lady therefore follows up her obvious assault upon Gawain’s virtue with a subtler tactic, appealing to the knight’s fear of impending death rather than his natural desire for carnal pleasure. After all, what is more right than seeking to preserve a life, even one’s own? But can he accept the girdle with her added stipulation not to reveal it to her husband that evening? For the first time, Gawain breaks one of his compacts. As Engelhardt notes, by accepting the girdle,
Gawain was enabled to appease her and thus conveniently to preserve his reputation for courtesy toward women. But in that very act he proved ungenerous, and therefore discourteous, to her husband; he sinned against piety and derogated his valor . . . . Thus Gawain had willfully placed himself in a new dilemma; he could not fulfill one compact without breaking the other. (222)
Yet there is something more at stake here. To this point in the plot, Gawain has sought protection and strength through his faith alone. By accepting the girdle, not only is he acting out of disdain for his host, but perhaps even for the Lord Himself:
As he goes to his fate, he is faced with conscious choice between the dictates of self-interest and Christian honor—between faith in Christ and Mary that he will be saved by grace, or at least granted the courage necessary to end his life with dignity and moral perseverance, and faith in himself that he will be able through his own wits either to prepare himself in such a way as to be invulnerable to the knight’s ax blow or to avoid the confrontation altogether. (Champion 416)
Accepting the girdle therefore violates every one of the five senses of trawthe represented by the pentangle. Just as “the pentangle on Gawain’s shield [is] a symbol of truth . . . the green sash is a symbol of falsehood” (Champion 421). He has determined to face the Green Knight not in courage but through deception; he has broken his agreement with the host to trade his winnings at the end of each day; he has denied the spiritual strength given by Christ through Mary; and he has surrendered his character for the sake of courtesy and his reputation. In the words of Myer, “His acceptance of the girdle, normally an item worn by a knight in tournament and therefore part of chivalric array, will ironically strip him of his internal virtues.”
This new reliance on the girdle above the faith and fidelity represented by the pentangle (the five-pointed star which adorns his shield) is seen in the manner in which Gawain arms himself. Not only is the account of his rearmament absent of any mention of that star, but the placement of the girdle seems to remove it from sight completely. “The implications is that in wearing the green girdle over his red surcoat (lines 2035-6), Gawain gives it pride of place over the pentangle (the symbol of his trawthe), and possibly that the pentangle is actually hidden by it” (Anderson 313). Even as he prays to God for deliverance, then, he is in fact “not relying on God but on the belt to save him” (Winny 152). It therefore comes as quite a shock to Gawain when the Green Knight reveals the cause for the scar he has given him at the Green Chapel. Arthur’s knight immediately understands his fault. “Gawain accuses himself of cowardice because fear for his life led him to accept the girdle from the lady, and covetousness because he kept the girdle instead of giving it to his host” (Anderson 314). Yet in spite of these things, the Green Knight seems more than willing to forgive him.
Bertilak acknowledges Gawain’s fault, but considers Gawain absolved of it (2395–99), and although Gawain lacks absolute perfection, he is still pre-eminent among other knights ‘in god fayth’ – which may mean both the good faith with which Bertilak is speaking and also the quality in which Gawain surpasses other knights. (McCarthy 305)
But how can Gawain maintain his prominence among other knights in the face of this humiliating revelation of his untrawthe? For an answer, McCarthy replies simply that “If Gawain fails in his trawthe in concealing the girdle, his subsequent actions prove that his fear of death has caused him to lapse, not to abandon his trawthe entirely” (McCarthy 304). Forgiveness, sought through confession and repentance, is the knight’s only path back to virtue. For this reason, Champion interprets this final scene with the Green Knight in terms of grace. Since “Gawain’s fault in accepting the protective girdle is clearly presented . . . in Christian terms . . . it behooves us to consider the Christian conditions under which the poet wrote,” namely, “whether salvation is achieved by divine grace or by human merit” (Champion 415). He continues:
In effect, Gawain’s devious attempts to save himself have been ignominiously exposed as shameful and worthless. Both the scar on his neck . . . and the sash which he now insists upon wearing outwardly as a symbol of his guilt and subsequent repentance . . . betoken his dependence upon an outside force superior to his own for his personal and spiritual safety . . . . Indeed, his fellow knights insist upon donning similar green sashes to betoken their gladness and to acknowledge their analogous human condition and dependence upon grace for salvation. (416-417)
Engelhardt adds that this is the poet’s intention from the very beginning. “The moral of his poem is not merely that man should curb his fear or rein his lust or keep his word” but that “the pride of magnificent kings, or gray-eyed queens . . . is illusory” (Engelhardt 224).
The pentangle is a symbol full of meaning both morally and spiritually. It is the heart of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in that it conveys the ideal of the complete man as depicted in Gawain himself. Yet even after the pentangle is removed from sight, its characteristics are seen in the trials Gawain faces and the choices he makes throughout the remainder of the poem. Clearly, the story could be taken at face value but there is a meaning that requires more than a superficial reading. “Thus, while there is no consistent allegorical level to which all significant details in the narrative cohere, the poet uses symbols to express moral values through the literal story” (Champion 425). He reminds us of the values of a martial society, of the importance of the spoken word, of a faith that transcends earthly circumstances, of one’s need for a consistent character, and (perhaps most of all) that in the end, we simply can’t do it by ourselves.