Social Tension and the Pantheistic Call back to Nature As illustrated in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”

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During the Medieval era in England, a time of religious and social change, the Catholic Church actively sought to out-root the pagan influences - or at least try - and introduce new cultural norms and understanding of nature and the environment. Paganism and it's pantheistic and animistic sub-parts defined pre-Christian England since man first inhabited the island. These ideas contrast strongly with the Christian “justifications for dominating nature” (Kline 3). “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” highlights this social/religious transition and conflict through the Green Knight and his juxtapositions throughout the tale with Sir Gawain. Thus the tale portrays the differences in the new and old orders and makes a definitive statement about each through the allegorical and symbolical representations of the Green Knight.

Most superficially and thus most notably to the reader, the Green Knight enters the tale “in guise all of green [including] the gear and the man” (line 151). Throughout the tale the Green Knight and all things that are part of his charade - the belt, the Green Chapel and his horse - in fact carry through this color theme. Thus, the Green Knight serves as a symbol for nature and thereby pantheistic pagan ideals. In contrast Sir Gawain who’s attire “all ranged on the red the resplendent studs” (line 603) and who’s “shield...shone all red” (line 619) represents the polar opposites of the Green Knight. The contrasting red symbolizes blood, and through this the Christian association with sin. From this symbolism, the greater struggle of traditional paganism over new Christianity becomes clear through the Green Knight as he challenges Sir Gawain.

The tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” not only highlights the clashi...

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... together to call for a return to the reverence for the power and wisdom found within nature. Throughout the tale the Green Knight demands reverence through his wisdom and power while Sir Gawain - the symbol of the new Christianity - fails again and again in the face of the cleverness of the trail on which the Green Knight sends him. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” cleverly makes a call for a return to the old ways of spiritual reverence for nature without – perhaps an act of pragmatism by the author - angering the new Christian order.

Works Cited

Branston, Brian. The Lost Gods of England. New York: Thames and Houston, 1984. Print.

Kline, Benjamin. First Along the River. Landham, MD: Acada Books, 2000. Print.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton, 2006. 160-213
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