Essay on The Moral Symbolism of the Green Girdle

Essay on The Moral Symbolism of the Green Girdle

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The symbolism of the girdle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight changes and grows as the poem progresses, adding Gawain's honor and sin to seemingly separate ideas of an untamed nature related to the otherworld and animal instincts. Piotr Sadowski, in his The Knight on His Quest: Symbolic Patterns of Transition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, calls the girdle a symbol of “complex moral truth” that the other knights of the Round Table fail to learn from, as Gawain does. While I agree that the girdle's most important function is the message it conveys about morality as it pertains to courtly behavior, I argue that the moral ideal the girdle sets is not higher than the knights achieve, but rather is balanced between humanity and the godliness Gawain strives for – that is, the moral standard by which these knights should abide does not call for absolute purity, like their chivalric codes do, but allows for the minor sins that humans fall into by their very nature. By combining knightly honor, Gawain's sins, and the Green Knight's Otherworldliness in one symbol, a moral truth contrary to Sadowski's strict, traditional chivalry emerges that embraces humanity and nature, rather than rejecting them entirely in favor of godly ideals.
When Bertilak's wife first presents the girdle to Gawain, it is described simply as being of green silk and gold trim, which should instantly remind the reader of the description of the Green Knight when he enters Arthur's court. The combination of green and gold is the primary trait of both the Green Knight and the girdle, and since the girdle receives no extra description at this time, it inherits its symbolic meaning from the symbolism of the Green Knight and the color green. The Green Knight is ...


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...eas in one symbol is critical to the theme of morality and overall meaning of the poem, because it comments on the nature of morality and what moral behavior for a knight really is. Even court life need not be washed completely of human sin and the natural instincts all animals rely on, for being godly, as Gawain is, should not be viewed as the primary characteristic of being moral. There should be a balance between humanity and godliness, similar to Aristotle's idea of a golden mean, that all these knights seek. By showing that knights should achieve this balance, the author extends his message to the common people, who looked to knights as role models of morality. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight challenges the contemporary ideals of morality, presenting instead a golden mean that the common people would not have associated with their knightly role models before.

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