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‘The whole things is allegorical from start to end, yet he never takes you by the neck and says “Get down to it, that’s an allegory, you’ve got to interpret it”, the way most allegorists do.’ (Basil Bunting on Poetry, p.15.)
‘The poem however does not take any line or lead readers to any simple value judgments. Rather … it draws readers into active response to the story and prompts them to attempts to weigh up issues for themselves.’ J. J. Anderson, Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Everyman 1996), p. xxi
The contradicting views on allegory and its starkness in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight immediately present the problem of the copious different meanings, suggestions and nuances of word ‘allegorical’. In its simplest form, an allegory is a narrative constructed of representations of concepts, where events and people become metaphorical. ‘Multi-layering’ combines with the fine line between ‘allegorical’, ‘tropological’ and ‘anagogical’ to mean that in using the word ‘allegorical’ one must be careful not to reduce and over-simplify a complex and rich work such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Gawain-poet does, as Bunting observes, use allegory (including metaphor and symbolism), but he actually uses it to ‘[draw] readers into active response to the story’ (Anderson). Part of the richness of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight lies in the variety of possibilities the author offers for interpretation. He clearly signifies the allegorical implication and meaning in the poem, but due to the multitude of alternative interpretations never pins the reader down in the simplistic way Bunting seems to imply. The blatancy with which examples of allegory hit the reader impresses upon him the requirement to interpret them, and thus the prompts the reader ‘to weigh up issues for themselves’ (Anderson).
It would therefore be wholly simplistic to suggest that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is merely an allegory of the life of the Christian man; however on inspection it is clear that the poem is full of Christian symbolism. The poem’s structure clearly points to the interpretation of Gawain’s journey as the quest that every man must undertake throughout his lifetime, ultimately heading towards judgment by God. This allegorical interpretation seems to cast the Green Knight as God, or even Christ Himself, as he sets Gawain on the adventure in order to tempt and test him in his search for the Divine. He begins in a mode that the poet highlights as very penitential, as if preparing himself spiritually. By setting the departure at Advent, the author signifies this penitential theme as not only was it a cold, bare, wintry season, but it was also a time of fasting in preparation for Christmas. As Gawain travels, the poet uses vocabulary with penitential connotations such as ‘alone’, showing how companionless he is, and ‘Ner slayn with the slete he sleped in his yrnes’; the vicious, icy weather allegorizing the mortification of the flesh. He ‘cryed for his mysdede’, and his piteous weeping for his sins again emphasizes the penitence. The journey is long and arduous, just as the Christian life is, and at line 544 the poet calls it a ‘passage’, the standard contemporary word for an armed penitential pilgrimage undertaken on behalf of Christ (or of St Peter). Gawain’s journey is very like a pilgrimage in the way he finishes it at a chapel, where he is confronted with his faults (in this case cowardice and lack of courtesy) admits them in a sort of confession, repents and is absolved by the Green Knight. His mortification, yearning to be ‘clene’ and the various other examples of vocabulary associated with confession and repentance, such as ‘penaunce’ and ‘remorde’ leave the reader in no doubt that this is a Christian allegory that they should interpret.
Furthermore, the date of the absolution of Gawain by the Green Knight lends another allegorical significance to the poem, as it occurs on New Year’s Day; the Day of the Circumcision. Just as the promise of a New Covenant of power to hear confession, impose penance and absolve was sealed with Christ’s circumcision, so is it when Gawain is absolved, also through the spilling on blood. The physical symbols of the wearing of the girdle as a sign so that ‘in syngne of my surfet I schal se hit ofte’ and the everlasting scar, a ‘token of untrawthe’ (‘trawthe’ being a central theme as it is his ‘trawthe’ that Gawain fails) remind not only Gawain but also that reader of the meaning and reason of his journey. This, of course, is set out with what is perhaps the poet’s greatest achievement. The anti-climax he achieves in his presentation of the beheading ‘game’ pertinently shows how the ‘game’ is a symbolic representation of the test that Gawain has already undertaken and failed. What had seemed to be simply a progressive interlude at Hautdesert was actually the main subject of the poem, and the crucial test was actually at the castle not at the chapel. The three kisses, three days spent at Bertilak’s castle, and the three blows of the axe are beautifully mirrored to show the insignificance of the actual beheading, and with the ambiguity imbued in Bertilak’s unveiling (he seems to ‘slide’ from the Green Knight into Bertilak without notice) the reader is slowly drawn to realize that the test was not physical at all, but moral, and an internal allegory for Gawain as well as us.
Similarly, but to different ends, internal allegory abounds in both Pearl and Patience in order to teach the characters themselves a lesson. Whilst Gawain and the reader revise their understanding of the Green Knight as an internal allegory, as well as the girdle to remind him of his sin, Jonah must see the Woodbine as an allegory of Ninevah in order to realize God’s heart. Patience is a lesson of exactly that; patience – which may be unpleasant but despite this is noble. The poet clearly points the reader to this allegory using a number of methods – most obviously interpreting the allegory himself for the reader in the final line: ‘pacience is a nobel point, thagh hit displese ofte.’ Secondly, he chooses to manipulate and exploits Biblical allegorical exegesis, by choosing the unusual example of Jonah to allegorize patience (the more usual would be Job) and also drawing on the popular Medieval allegorical reading of the story of Jonah. The typology of Jonah pre-shadowing Christ (see Matthew 12:40) points again to the Gawain-poet’s use of Christian allegory as readers are directed to the patience and longsuffering of Jesus not only on the cross but also as we continue to sin.
Likewise, in Pearl, the speaker can only reconcile the loss of his pearl by a painful education in symbolism. Like Gawain, he is required to go on a journey, although a much more obviously metaphorically moral one, towards the New Jerusalem. Pearl is clearly allegorical throughout, and, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, much contentious debate surrounds the subject of where the ‘true’ allegorical significance lies. However, this is precisely where we can see that the Gawain-poet is different to ‘most allegorists’, as Bunting would call those who allegorize obtusely and simply. When Pearl first started being studied, in the late Nineteenth Century, the general interpretative assumption was that it was an autobiographical elegy. Clearly, literary criticism has progressed from this sort of naivetÃ©, since we do not even know the poet’s name, let alone what his life was like and whether it corresponded with anything he wrote in Pearl! However, it actually does not matter whether it is autobiographical or not, since the issue of real importance is how and how effectively the experience in transformed into literature. Instead, the common view is that it is an allegory and the pearl and the Pearl Maiden (themselves an internal allegory) represent a quality or abstraction, which the narrator has lost. M. R. Stern argues that ‘the Pearl Poet quite consciously intended to make his poem one huge typological metaphor of orthodox Christian behaviour’ . Clearly, this supports the view concerning the Gawain-poet’s preoccupation with Christian allegory, although narrows the argument so much that it fails to take into account the copious other interpretations of the allegory, so multitudinous that space prevents explanation of them here. As the meanings of the pearl are gradually revealed, the speaker gradually comes to a place where he has learnt to place himself in God’s judgment. Allegory in Pearl, just as in the other poems, is difficult to pin down – the abundance of possibilities for the allegorical puzzle the reader and yet there is no concealed meaning intended. The author is certainly able to place these two initially apparent opposite realities alongside each other; the poem’s message is an instructive one, whatever it might be!
Similarly, many alternative interpretations are offered in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Despite the obvious Christian allegorical references, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remain shrouded in a mystery orchestrated by the poet in order to draw the reader in further. The poet’s notable failure to create the Green Knight as a consistently understandable character (right up even until the end where his double identity is revealed) means that he is not openly symbolic like the Pentangle. Indeed, many different suggestions for the allegorical meaning of the Green Knight have been proposed. He dramatically intrudes on the feasting at Camelot, his startling appearance and particularly his dazzling colors introducing the court and the reader to the poet’s most mysterious allegory. The poet’s meticulous manicuring of the finest detail of the Green Knight draws attention to the ferocity and rudeness surrounding his actions: ‘The renk on his rouncÃ© hym ruched in his sadel, And runischly his rede yen he reled aboute.’ This violent intrusion is not controlled by the festivity’s orderly restraint (exemplified by the author’s careful inclusion of the ‘table fellowship’ of each member of the court sitting in their rightful place as befitted their order). Here, the poet seems to be implying the ‘dark’ side of the Green Knight, leading some critics to believe he is an allegory for Satan. However, his color also suggests vitality, newness of life and verdure has long been associated with abundance; these associations point once again to the allegory of Christ embodied in the Green Knight (although it must be noted that green also has links with the diabolical). This feeling of unease surrounding the Green Knight and his identity and motivation does not, however, prevent the reader from detecting an allegorical style and trying to interpret it; in fact it contributes to the author’s allegorical meaning behind Gawain’s quest.
The point that the allegorical significance of these poems is clearly highlighted to the reader to interpret is emphasized further by the fact that in Pearl, the Maiden actually expounds a piece of Scriptural allegory, the Parable of the Vineyard, elaborating on its literal meaning and then interpreting its allegorical meaning for the speaker and reader (lines 613 – 632). She explains the symbolism of the last-hired men, of the coming into the vineyard and of nightfall to the point at which we are given so much literal information it is clear and easy to deduce the rest of the allegorical meaning. Similarly, she explains the distinction between the New Jerusalems – of course partly for the rather unintelligent speaker, but it is unlikely that the poet would waste the reader’s time if the explanation was not for a purpose; i.e. to lead him to the correct allegorical meaning. However, despite the poem’s allegorical nature being clearly highlighted to the reader, Spearing says ‘it seems improbably that Pearl is an allegory in the sense of containing some systematic concealed meaning’ and this certainly seems true. The allegory contained in Pearl is not one that must be dug for, apart from the sifting through of other allegorical possibilities. Instead, the poet wanted the reader to accept the speaker himself as having lost innocence (or whatever allegory is found) and thus the story itself shows us the consequences of this.
Thus ‘All four poems insist on allegorical, symbolic or analogical understanding. They encourage their readers and their characters thus to interpret the inner meaning of their experience.’ The fact that the poems are allegorical is highlighted, and this in itself would prompt the reader to attempt interpretation, although it is true that this is done somewhat gradually throughout the poems. Whilst there are numerous different interpretations offered, in agreement with Chris Page, it should be suggested that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the other two poems do not have a separate allegorical level, stubbornly resisting the urge of some critics to reduce it to a simple formula of ‘simple value judgments’ (Anderson).
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