The inter-relationship between external descriptions and the internal psychology of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

Essay, 2004

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0


There have been many discussions, essays or psychological interpretations about the aristocratic romance of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, which was written at about 1400 by an unknown author. The romance embodies chivalric ideas of the English ruling class in the mid-fourteenth century. The central focus is set on Gawain, an honourable and courteous knight belonging to Arthur’s Round Table. Gawain is the only one between all the famous knights like Lancelot or Galahad who stands up for his king when a Green Knight rides into the hall on Christmas Day and wants to challenge Arthur in a beheading game. He showes to have more honor and courage than the rest of Arthur's Court by coming forward and accepting the challenge in Arthur’s place. The quest is that the knight has to cut off the Green Knight’s head and in one year and a day has to go out and find the Green Knight and allow him to chop off the head of Gawain. The Arthurian knight, who helds his virtues high, has to realize that not even he is perfect but that he is human like every other man in the world. After he has partly failed his quest, he is his main criticist who blames himself for not being perfect. In the eyes of King Artur’s court and even of the Green Knight he is still seen as “þe fautlest freke at euer on fote зede”. In this romance Gawain represents a knight who does not accomplish anything materialistic or rescue a beautiful woman. His achievements and his failure are only personal. He does not want to loose his honourful state as a knight and has to keep his word to Arthur’s court and to himself. His main quest is not about fighting but about the struggle with his innerself. It is said that Gawain has to go through many adventures and that he has to struggle but it is nothing told about these numerous adventures because it is not important for his quest. The reader already knows that Gawain is a famous character but what makes him a human? Throughout the poem Gawain shows that he is also capable to deal with precarious or even embarrassing situations which might call for discretion and tact.

Gawain, in being a strong knight represents physical perfection and he has the strength and the stamina to complete the strenuous journey to the Green Chapel. But besides all this he also represents the perfect gentleman.

In this essay I will show that Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a character with many virtues and that his outer appearance stands in close relationship to his internal psychology. Every character is characerized through what he or she thinks about him or herself, how others think and feel about the character and through the actions of the character as well. Gawain is characterized through his armour which directly leads to his internal psychology. His actions are very characteristic for him and it is also very important what others think about him and how that differs from his own view of himself.

After Gawain has taken on the challenge of the Green Knight and has beheaded him, he has one year’s time before he has to go and seek for the knight, who rode away with his head in his hands. When it is time for Gawain to fulfill his quest, he leaves Camelot in full armor. With him he has a “schelde, þat was of schyr gouleз/ wyth þe pentangel depaynt of pure golde hweз”(619-20). The pentangle on his shield represents perfection. It is also called the endless knot because it goes on forever. It symbolizes natural perfection and for Gawain that means moral perfection. The poet tells us that the pentangle used to be an emblem of Solomon as a token of truth. For the people in the Middle Ages Solomon was a figure of Christ. He resembled perfection. This is what the poet tells us about the symbolic device of the pentangle. In the Bible Solomon is depicted as an imperfect figure who, in the end is guilty of some follies through which he looses his kingdom. And even Gawain, when he is blewn by the Green Knight, laments that he has been trapped by women like Solomon or David had been and that he is weak like they were.

On the one hand the Gawain poet tells us that the pentangle is the symbol of perfection and truth and that it originally dates back to Solomon but on the other hand we are told by Gawain himself that Solomon was not at all perfect himself. How do these views coincide with each other?

I think it could be understood as follows: Solomon was a figure of great honour and truth for the people in the Middle Ages but he still was a human being and not God. If he, like in the Bible depicted, is seen as a symbol of human weakness, he can still be a hero for the people of the Middle Ages for if he had been faultless he would have been Christ or even God. The pentangle in the sense of being perfect and with no flaw at all is no suitable sign for a knight like Gawain. He helds his virtues too high and must realize that he fails in the confrontation with the Green Knight, who was bewitched by Morgan La Fay. The Green Knight also tells Gawain that the witch Morgan Le Fay, who is trough all the Grail stories seen as an evil character, is Gawain’s aunt. This can be seen as a symbol of the dark side of Gawain’s character. On the one hand he is Arthur’s nephew and on the other side stands a wicked witch who wishes to do harm to Arthur’s court. Morgan represents in some way the flaw in Gawain’s character and Arthur his righteousness.

Gawain though is no supernatural being like Morgan or the Green Knight and beyond all his virtues is still human and cares for his own life. If you take the pentangle as symbol of five virtues but include the humanity which is characeristic of humans, then Gawain would be perfect to bear the sign on his shield and there would be no problems to fulfill the requests of the pentangle.

In the Middle Ages the heraldic charge on the outside of the shield identified the characteristic virtues of the knight, who bore it. In the Gawain poem the pentangle symbolizes the five virtues of “fraunchyse”(generosity), “felawschyp”(love of his fellows), “clannes”(purity), “cortaysye”(courtesy) and “pité”(compassion or piety).

The Arthurian knight Sir Gawain was considered to be faultless in all five. He also was faultless in his five senses and never failed in his five fingers.

Richard Hamilton Green in his essay Gawain’s Shield and the Quest for Perfection says that in the Middle Ages perfection in the five fingers was a symbol for the five virtues. The thumb was a symbol for justice and justice works together with the other virtues and is equal to them in strength. On a human hand the thumb is also equal to and works with the other fingers. The index finger then stood for prudence, the third finger for temperance, the ring finger signified fortitude and the little finger stood for obedience, which included respect to one’s own reason as well as to human authority and the divine will (vv.Green p. 188). These are all virtues Gawain is famous for. He is just to other people and rather takes less than he is entitled to. He is prudent in his actions e.g. in fending off the Lady’s advances and in terms of temperance he is never greedy. He also shows great fortitude in accepting the quest and fulfilling it. The virtue obendience lies in his being obedient to King Arthur because he is his vassal and he also is obedient to his own word which he gave the Green Knight. When he is in Bercilak’s castle he says that “Whyl I byde in yowre borзe, be bayn to зowre hest.” That means that he is also obedient to Bercilak as long as he stays in his castle. The only thing one could criticize is that he is not fully obedient to God when he accepts the girdle and through that rejects God in resorting to magic but I will come to that later.

Gawain also trustes in the 5 wounds of Christ. In the Renaissance there was already a pentangle as symbol for these wounds. In Christian terms it is a figure for salvation.

His strength and courage Gawain draws from the 5 joys of Mary, which she had with her child. This was the reason why he has her image depicted on the inside of his shield so that he will never loose his heart in a fight.

An English contemporary of the Gawain poet, Robert Holkot, wrote that King Arthur also had a picture of the Virgin Mary on the inside of his shield and that it helped him ,like it helps Gawain, to recover hope and strength.

Gawain carries his shield with him for protection untill he makes halt at Bercilak’s castle and stays there for a few days. When he leaves there, he not only has his shield but also a girdle from the lady of the castle for protection. The lady tells Gawain that if he wears the girdle and does not tell her husband about it, then nothing could happen to him and he could not be killed. Gawain, in the face of the meeting with the Green Knight the next day, fears for his life

and believes her. It seems that he does not trust in the painted picture of Mary on his shield nor in his shield anymore. Besides that, he now breaks his pledge to the host to exchange winnings at the end of every day. The reader learns that Gawain is not fearless after all and that he cares for his life very much. In the beginning of the story when he leaves Arthur’s court he says that the loss of his life counts little what is contradicted by his accepting of the girdle. The shield is symbolic for Gawain’s physical protection and the girdle now takes its place. The difference is that the girdle is supposed to protect him with the help of magic. When Gawain bore the shield he declared himself as Arthur’s knight, with wearing the girdle he becomes somewhat the lady’s man because he trusts in her word more than in his armour. But still he is never wholly sure of the powers of the girdle. This can be seen at his flinching at the first stroke of the axe. When his neck is nicked with the third stroke je jumps up and throws before him his shield and not the girdle. Wheras the shield was an emblem of Gawain’s virtues and the use of goods of the world in the service of the Christian ideals of a knight, the girdle now is one of his faults. Besides that it is a symbol of self-centered means of holding on to life. After his failure is uncovered by Bercilak, Gawain from there on wears the girdle as a sign of weakness of the flesh. For G. the green girdle is a badge of shame, for

Camelot a badge of honour because they see Gawain as a human being who is doomed to make mistakes in some ways.


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The inter-relationship between external descriptions and the internal psychology of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar Köln)
Medieval English Literature
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ISBN (Book)
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Gawain, Green, Knight, Medieval, English, Literature
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Bianca Stärk (Author), 2004, The inter-relationship between external descriptions and the internal psychology of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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