Nov 11, 2017 1233 Words  Pages

In the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain brings two very different items to face the Green Knight. The pentangle on Gawain’s shield and the green girdle he ties around himself are both complex symbols with many contrasting meanings. One of the ways the Gawain-poet uses these items is juxtaposing them to develop Sir Gawain’s character. The pentangle represents the ideal human perfection and the green girdle causes Gawain to fail to teach him about his lack of perfection. At the same time the pentangle represents security and the girdle is a trap, used to show Gawain that things are not always what they seem.
In order to teach Gawain about the faults of perfection, the pentangle represents the ideal human nature, while the girdle represents its flawed reality. The five sides of the pentangle represent many things, but most importantly, the five virtues. The pentangle is described as “five points, whose force never failed” (657). The ultimate goal of a knight at this time is to live life based off these five virtues and live Christian values. The ideals symbolized in the pentangle represent the perfect knight of this time and because he has never been tested, Gawain holds himself to these standards and does not realize that they are unattainable. Conversely, the green girdle represents the imperfection of humans and their ability to make mistakes. The green girdle, which supposedly can save Gawain leads him to covet his life too closely which is, according to Gawain, “… contrary both / To largesse and loyalty belonging to knights” (2379-2380). The keeping of the green girdle leads Gawain to break his promised to Lord Bertilak and therefore act contrary to the ideals represented in the pentangle. Although Gawain considers this to be a failure, it truly just shows him that no human is perfect, and the pentangle is an impossible standard. Ralpha Hanna III agrees with this stating, “Gawain in his failure (however measured) finds himself inhabiting a world where the promise of perfection is distant,”(Hanna, 145). This important lesson that Gawain learns is one that could not be possible without his idolization of the pentangle and his downfall due to the girdle. Therefore, the Gawain-poet uses these items in contrast to teach Gawain how to deal with failure to become a better knight and person.
Another lesson that Gawain learns is to look past appearances, because pentangle and green girdle both represent the protection to Gawain in some way, but Gawain learns through the failure of his quest that the girdle is truly a trap. The pentangle is emblazed proudly on his brand-new shield, which is described as “the shield, that shone all red / With the pentangle portrayed in purest gold” (619-620). Not only does the item the pentangle is on protect him physically because it is a shield, but the pentangle also represents Gawain’s protection through God, because the five sides of the pentangle also represent that “All his fealty was fixed upon the five wounds / That Christ got on the cross…” and the image of Mary is portrayed on the inside of Gawain’s shield (643-644). The promise of protection through the pentangle is one of perfection where Gawain is protected completely from harm through divine powers. But Gawain starts to show his doubt in this protection when Lady Bertilak tells Gawain that if he wears the green girdle, “There is no man in heaven that could hew him down,”, Gawain turns instead to this magical object for protection (1853). Although now it seems that the pentangle and girdle serve the same purpose, this is misleading because the green girdle is given to Gawain as a test, and therefore represents a trap. As A. Kent Hieatt points out, the Gawain-poet uses the word lace to describe the girdle, capitalizing “on the habitual and general figurative meaning [of the word lace as] ‘snare’ or ‘trap’ because snaring Gawain is what Bertilak’s wife…is trying to do” (Kent Hieatatt, 116). This demonstrates that while the girdle seems to bring Gawain comfort it really is a trap used by the Bertilaks to prey on his doubt in the pentangle and fear of endangerment. Gawain learns through this that things are not always as they appear, and that the girdle has a deeper significance and is meant to teach him a lesson rather than serve as protection.
Through these contrasting meanings of the pentangle and the girdle, Gawain learns many valuable lessons and develops greatly as a character. Gawain’s realization of the lack of perfection within himself, due to the failure of his quest, leads him at first to reject the girdle and try to give it to the Green Knight: “then he grasps the green girdle and lets go the knot, / Hands it over in haste…” (2376-2377). Gawain is so ashamed of his sins and shocked by his inability to hold the standards of the pentangle that he cannot even bare to hold onto the girdle any longer. W.A. Davenport concurs with this idea, writing “Gawain feels ashamed…that because of fear he was lead to act in a way unworthy of his code” (Davenport, 143). As he recovers from this initial shock, Gawain decides that the girdle will not be a source of shame, but rather a reminder of his faults. Gawain says that “And so when praise and high prowess have pleased my heart / A look at this love-lace will lower my pride” (2437-2438). Through this failure and realization of his flaws, Gawain learns to stay humble and strive for the best, but never again assume that he can measure up to the ideals of the pentangle. Gawain’s use of the girdle also shows how he grows to see the girdle as more than a just promise of security or a trap, but instead, something that will remind him of his imperfection. Before this Gawain seems to assume that everything is what it appears, not even questioning when Lord Bertilak asks him to play a game and agreeing to the terms willingly (1105-1111). This game ends up being what causes Gawain to break his promise by keeping the girdle, and Lord Bertilak uses the girdle and game together to trap Gawain. Because he is tricked, Gawain learns an important lesson that the Gawain-poet emphasizes in the girdle and pentangle as well: not everything has one meaning and appearances can be deceiving. Through the pentangle and girdle, Gawain uncovers the shocking truths that perfection is not attainable, and everything is not always as it seems, but these lessons only serve to make Gawain stronger and wiser.
The Gawain-poet uses the pentangle and girdle as important devices to aid in the improvement and maturation of Gawain. Without these items, the quest that Gawain goes on would be virtually useless. Gawain would not grow in the important ways he did only through his failure in the girdle to reach the ideals of the pentangle; Gawain would not learn from his entrapment by the girdle made possible through his doubt in the pentangle. The way Gawain grows from his experiences, aided by these plot devices, shows that sometimes people must be faced with complete opposite in order to discover what they believe is real and true. Gawain finds important lessons in the contradictory meanings of the girdle and pentangle, showing that people can sometimes find the greatest truths within conflict and opposition.