Analysis of Symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


  2. BODY
  3. The pentangle as a symbol of truth
  4. The green girdle as a symbol of safety and honor
  5. The green color as a symbol of life



Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem, which implements a classic quest formula. The poem unveils a story where a knight receives a challenge, which he has to meet before returning home to report on the major occurrences of the quest. On the New Year’s Eve, the Green Knight unexpectedly appears at the King Arthur’s court and suggests to play a game. Only the individual who accepts the challenge to take his axe to strike him will be considered brave enough. Furthermore, he will find a way of returning the blow in exactly a year’s time. Through the presented story in the poem, it is evident that symbolism plays an important role when it comes to the development of the solar hero.

Symbolism and Its Effect in the Development of the Solar Hero

The symbol evident in canto 1 of the poem is the pentangle. This symbol originates from the Bible; it is believed that King Solomon designed a five-pointed star, which acted as his magic seal. The pentangle symbolized truth. Each of the points on the star linked and locked with others resulting in an endless knot. The pentangle was a symbol of the virtues, which Gawain aspired. For instance, he seeks to be faultless in all the five senses that he has. Additionally, the symbol suggested that for him to be a solar hero, he should never fail in his five fingers. Moreover, the pentangle symbolized that Gawain was to be a solar hero by remaining faithful to the five wounds that Christ received on the cross. Furthermore, the pentangle was a representation of elements, which Gawain was to derive his strength from such as the five joys, namely, piety, courtesy, brotherly love, generosity and chastity. This symbol was depicted on Gawain’s shield; apart from the pentangle, it also contained the image of the Virgin Mary to ensure that Gawain never loses his heart (Morgan 769). According to Carruthers, “For’t is in figure formed of full five points I ween, each line in other laced, no ending there is seen” (480).

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In canto 2, another symbol appears – the green girdle. The girdle worn by the host’s wife represents safety since it is meant to keep Gawain from harm. The girdle is made from green silk and embroidered using a gold threat to establish a link to the Green Knight. The girdle possesses the power of keeping the person who wears it safe. Despite this, it is evident that the green girdle symbolism changes throughout the poem based on how it is interpreted (Cooke and Boulton 42). For instance, in canto 4, the meaning of green girdle changes; it no longer possesses any magical features. After the Green Knight provides that he is the host, Gawain provides that the girdle is indeed a representation of cowardice and exaggerated love of the mortal life. At this point, Gawain wears the girdle to represent his state of sinfulness. According to Weston, “a man may hide his misdeed, but never erase it” (Hardman 247). Additionally, the followers of Arthur also wear the green silk baldrics, which are similar to Gawain’s girdle, to show their support. At this point, the girdle implements a new meaning. Incidentally, the girdle symbolizes honor. The fact that the girdle symbolizes different aspects at different instances provides an indication that that it is a multi-dimensional object whose meaning depends on how it is interpreted as well as the moment of interpretation.

Canto 3 demonstrates the symbolic use of green color. The mysterious man who interrupts the New Year’s feast at King Arthur’s court is wearing green armor. It is also evident that the Green Knight always carries an axe and a holly branch with him suggesting that he is connected to nature. The fact that the Green Knight tests Gawain makes him aware of his strong desire to survive is an aspect he shares with animals (Nievergelt 18). It is also important to note that Gawain was supposed to meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. According to the description provided to the presented meeting point in the poem, it is apparent that the Green Chapel was the wildest point in the poem.


To conclude, symbolism has played a considerable role in the development of the solar hero concept in the poem. Through the pentangle, the symbol of truth is revealed as well as the various factors, which a hero must possess, such as being faultless. The symbolism of the green girdle has also played a significant role in the development of the concept of the solar hero. Apparently, the girdle symbolizes honor and safety. The green color symbolizes the survival instinct that is also crucial to a hero.


Works Cited

Carruthers, Leo. “The Duke of Clarence and the Earls of March: Garter Knights and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Medium Aevum, vol. 70, no. 1, 2001, p. 480.

Cooke, W.G. and D’A. J.D. Boulton. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Poem for Henry of Grosmont?” Medium Aevum, vol. 68, no. 1, 1999, p. 42.

Hardman, Phillipa. “Gawain’s Practice of Piety in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Medium Aevum, vol. 68, no. 2, Sept. 1999, p. 247.

Morgan, Gerald. “The Significance of the Pentangle Symbolism in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’.” Modern Language Review, vol. 74, no. 4, 1979, pp. 769-790.

Nievergelt, Marco. “Paradigm, Intertext, or Residual Allegory: Guillaume De Deguileville and the Gawain-Poet.” Medium Aevum, vol. 80, no. 1, 2011, pp. 18-40.