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.