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“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” can be followed for entertainment value, but one passage in particular calls for deeper analysis. Before Sir Gawain begins to undertake his quest for the Green Chapel and dons his armor, the plot has been moving at a steady pace. At this point, the poet diverges from the plot to spend around fifty lines describing Gawain’s shield. By invoking a meaningful symbol, the pentangle, this description holds important information about Gawain that could not be conveyed within the plot alone.
The most essential part of this section is simply a description of the shield’s appearance. As the poem reads, “Then they schewed hym the schelde, that was of schyr goules / Wyth the pentangel depaynt of pure golde hews” (lines 619-620). Gawain arms himself with a shield of fair red color that has a pentangle painted upon it in golden hues. It is the pentangle on which the poet focuses much attention in this passage. For every knight, the shield played two roles. First, in a sheer physical sense it offered protection in battle. It was also used as a means of identification among other knights (Green 126). Each knight had a different design or symbol placed upon his shield, making it possible to identify people in battle when helmets obscured faces.
The pentangle, more commonly known as the pentagram, requires further description. It is a five-pointed star made with a single stroke (Haskell 36). This symbol appears in many different traditions; however, the poet makes clear in description how the pentangle should be interpreted:
And quy the pentangel apendes to that prynce noble
I am intent yow to telle, thof tary hyt me schulde:
Hit is a syngne that Salamon set symquyle
In bytoking of trawthe, bi title that hit habbes,
For hit is a figure that haldes five poyntes,
And uche lyne umbelappes and loukes in other,
And ayquere hit is endeles, and Englych hit callen
Overal, as I here, the endeles knot. (623-30)
The poet emphasizes the importance of the pentangle when he states that all English call it the endless knot, a perfect design. Thus the pentangle upon Gawain’s shield suggests an ultimate level of knighthood that identifies him not only as one of the best of Arthur’s court, but perhaps the best of England. The pentangle shows that Gawain “is, or ought to be, the model of the secular, militant estate, the ideal of the ruling class, presented for the admiration and emulation of the audience” (Green 128).
However, it is not just the perfection of the pentangle’s design that justifies Sir Gawain’s ability as a knight; the symbolism runs much deeper. The poet describes, “Forthy hit acordes to this knyght and to his cler armes, / For ay faithful in five and sere five sthes / Gawan was for gode knawen and as golde pured / Voyded of uche vylany wyth vertues ennourned in mote” (631-35). The “five fives” (Green 126) refer to five ways of knighthood as well as five traits that an exemplary knight should have. The five fives define Gawain as England’s definitive knight.
First, the poet describes Gawain as being faultless in the five senses, suggesting the strength of the knight’s wits. The next five is the five fingers, which stand as a symbol of Gawain’s great physical prowess. The third is the five wounds of Christ (two the hands, two to the feet and the lance piercing) which stand as a sign of Gawain’s faith in Christianity. The poet states, “And alle his afyaunce upon folde was in the five woundes,” suggesting that Gawain puts his complete and total trust in his faith (642). The fourth five is noted as the five joys of Mary – while in battle, Gawain focuses upon Mary and her child to receive courage; also, an image of Mary is painted on the inner side of Gawain’s shield. Finally, the fifth five is an assortment of things that can be considered as the chivalric values of men (generosity, fellowship, purity, courtesy and pity).
The pentangle has appeared throughout history, from Babylonian pottery to Freemasonry to Jewish iconography (Green 130) and held special meaning to original readers of this poem as well. The pentangle relates not only the endless nature of truth, but also all the characteristics of an ideal knight. The fifty line diversion from the flow of the plot relates more than a simple description of an object; clearly, the poet wanted readers to consider the broader significance of the shield and pentangle. Because of this diversion, the reader returns to the plot with greater appreciation for Sir Gawain’s character and exemplary traits.
Green, Richard H. “Gawain’s Shield and the Quest for Perfection.” ELH. June 1962: 121-139.
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