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The Color Symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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To illustrate the universal themes of his medieval tale, the Gawain Poet uses elements outside of dialogue. In particular, the subtle use of colors expresses the values that impact Sir Gawain throughout the poem. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the colors gold, red, and green are employed to symbolize prosperity, passion, and nature.

The color gold represents Sir Gawain’s prosperity, not of wealth, but of strong character and resolute moral fiber. Initially, gold appears in the composition when the narrator delineates, “When he was hasped in armour his harness was noble;/The least lace or loop was lustrous with gold…/And all was arrayed on red with nails of richest gold” (Stone 44). The narrator describes the armor of which King Arthur has crafted for Gawain to battle the Green Knight in. The protection is intended to reflect the knight himself, who has a heart of gold. The warrior may be youthful and inexperienced, but his willingness to sacrifice for the greater good shows itself to be a worthy skill that sets him apart of the rest. Likewise, the hue appears to reinforce Gawain’s ideals when the speaker notes, “Then they showed him the shield of shining gules,/With the Pentangle in pure gold depicted thereon” (44). The chronicler details the display of the shield, marked with the holy Pentangle. While most recognize money as the ultimate sign of wealth, true enlightenment stands as the indication of Sir Gawain’s affluence. By coloring the Pentangle gold, it illuminates the wealth the knight’s divine principles.The Pearl Poet seeks to proclaim that a sturdy religious backbone has an increased worth compared to one’s monetary value. Additionally, the orator attests to the warrior’s character when he observes, “Gawain was reputed good and, like gold well refined,/He was devoid of all villainy, every virtue displaying/In this field” (45). The narrator compares the young man to gold, explaining that both the nobleman and the rich color have a pure quality to them. Sir Gawain qualifies for the Green Knight’s quest because he retains a priceless aspect that matches none in King Arthur’s court: his virtuous, moral code. His sheer devotion the just doctrines of the world establish the patrician an asset to the noble court, which is why the king and his people heavily mourn the thought of Gawain’s death.

Red exemplifies the knight’s ardor, which acts as the motivation for several of his actions. Primarily, the crimson shade appears first in the novel when the storyteller elucidates, “The fair head fell from the neck, struck the floor,/And people spurned it as it rolled around,/Blood spurted from the body, bright against the green” (37). The narrator depicts the beheading of the Green Knight by Sir Gawain. One of the hero’s minor flaws lies in his passionate spirit, which urges him to make rash decisions. His strong loyalty to his monarch compels him to defend King Arthur’s honor, signified by the scarlet blood that gushes from the Green Knight’s wound. The youthful fighter’s choice results in a positive outcome, but that is not always the case when he allows his fervor to control him. Consequently, the color emerges again when the speaker declares, “It was the lady, loveliest to look upon,/With chin and cheek so fair,/White ranged with rosy red” (66). The lady of the castle, Lady Bertilak, visits the male in his bedroom while he sleeps. Lady Bertilak serves as a symbol of temptation for Sir Gawain. His moral code restrains from acting on his desires for the seductress, but does not deter him enough from the woman’s lures to sin. Similarly, the author mentions the color red when he denotes, “She proffered him a rich ring wrought in red gold” (89). The matron tried offer Gawain several gifts, tokens of her affection. Yet again, the vermillion tone materializes when the knight faces a moment of enticement. His passion to live causes him to fall for the lady’s proposals to help him cheat his quest. In the end, that zeal induces him to betray his honorable principles.

The reoccurrence of green throughout the tale demonstrates the role of nature in humanity. The debut of green arrives with the Green Knight when the narrator proclaims, “[T]here heaved in at the hall door an awesome fellow…/Men gaped at the hue of him/Ingrained in garb and mien…/And all a glittering green” (26). The citizens of King Arthur’s court behold the Green Knight as he barges in on their dinner. The verdant shade of the antagonist evokes the image of nature and the natural world. In nature, there are obstacles that confront people at unexpected times, in similar fashion as Green Knight. Furthermore, green manifests in forms other than the jade warrior such as “[a] girdle green with a golden hem,/Embroidered only at the edges, with hand stitched ornament” (89). The temptress proffers a gift that may help Gawain escape bereavement. This situation also reflects a universal event in life, in which a person has the option to take the easy way out. When the nobleman accepts the girdle, it becomes a mark against his character and a sin he must live with for a long time. Moreover, the color green appears a final time in the story when the narrator explains:

They…parted on the cold ground

Right there.

Gawain on steed serene

Spurred to court with courage fair,

And the gallant garbed in green

To wherever he would elsewhere (113).

After the Green Knight reveals his identity to Sir Gawain, they both part ways and return back to their homes. The entire encounter with the warrior’s chartreuse opponent validates the ultimate truth that life is a series of tests, with each success or failure teaching a valuable lesson. Through this quest, the youth learns that he is not perfect, and that atoning for our sins is a part of nature. Truly, Sir Gawain’s journey reflects a course all humans must travel through in life themselves.

The hues golden, crimson, and vert mirror wealth, avidity, and the natural world in the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The golden color reflects Gawain’s rich moral standards which differentiate him from all others. The utilization of scarlet emphasized the manner in which passion can lead to success or ruin. The color of emerald highlights the influence of nature in the happenings of human life. Through the employment of these three colors, the Gawain Poet manages to express ubiquitous veracities about humanity and about the capacity to live freely in the world.

Works Cited

Stone, Brian, trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Classics: Penguin, 1974. Print.

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"The Color Symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." GradesFixer, 22 May. 2018, https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/color-imagery-in-sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight/. Accessed 23 February 2020.
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