Symbols and Symbolism in Sir Gawain and Green Knight

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Symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


Symbolism is a literary technique used in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to liven up the story and give a deeper significance to the plot.  Almost anything in the poem can be interpreted as a symbol in one way or another.  The Green Knight, the green sash, and Sir Gawain's shield are three of the most prominent symbols presented to us in this author's tale.



            The Green Knight, this poem's antagonist, serves as a symbol himself.  He is not only portrayed as evil, but a mixture of the familiar and foreign, nature and synthetic, and divine and damned origin.  His large stature can be interpreted as threatening or powerful.  His green glow could be nature-associated or alien-associated.  The first time he appears in the poem, he is even carrying a holly-branch (signifying peace) in one hand and a battle axe (signifying conflict) in the other.  It's hard to say exactly for what the Green Knight stands, because for every characteristic symbolizing one extreme, the other extreme is also symbolized.  Perhaps he stands for the Earth: for its familiar and foreign; peace and tempest; threatening and safe; evil and good attributes that exist in unity to make up this one giant ball of mass in the universe.  At the beginning he came for a dangerous game; we believe he wants to harm Sir Gawain.  In the end, it turns out that he planned the whole thing as a test for Gawain, knowing perfectly well that he would prevail, and that in the end, this whole ordeal would make him a stronger and better person. 



            The green sash is a smaller symbol in the story, yet serves quite a large purpose.  The green color signifies Gawain's cowardice, and the fact that he was going to encounter the green knight the next day.  The sash, supposedly able to keep him alive, was not the reason his life was spared, for the whole story was a test.  The host's wife untied it from around her waist and tied it around his, and he accepted it.  This sexual innuendo and symbol of courtly love ended up causing his downfall.  He ended up keeping the sash as a reminder of this "year and a day," and the test he was given.  All of the other knights of the Round Table also started wearing green sashes in order to remind them of the lesson learned by Gawain. 



            Sir Gawain's shield is another symbol with multiple meanings, offering him both physical and moral protection.  There is a pentangle on the outside, with the Virgin Mary on the inside.  The virgin is close to his heart, symbolizing his belief in God and trust in Him.  This relationship with God is the source of his inner strength.  While his faith is something he keeps to himself, he displays the pentangle and its chivalric code to the world.  Each point stood for: his flawless five senses, five fingers, the five wounds of Christ, the Five Joys, and the virtues of free-giving, friendliness, chastity, chivalry, and piety.  The pentangle is a star interlaced, with no beginning and no end, so that anywhere you start, the beginning gives way to the end and the end ultimately becomes the beginning again.  In that in a year and a day, winter had given way to spring, then summer, then fall, then back to winter, and his promise was due.  By the time Gawain thought it was all over and the Green Knight would take his life, it was actually the beginning of his life, but with a whole new prospective. 



            Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is rich in symbolism and other literary techniques (not to mention alliteration), which help the reader assimilate the events of the novel.  These three symbols in particular give this poem a whole new dimension.  In a way, you realize a book is so much better when you finish reading it than you think it is while you read it. 


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MLA Citation:
"Symbols and Symbolism in Sir Gawain and Green Knight." 29 Nov 2015

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