Originally published: 16.10.16
I’ve somehow never written this post about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – the poem that is many people’s first encounter with the gorgeous poetic language and spellbinding storytelling of medieval England – though I’ve been wondering about a minor detail I’ve noticed in the poem, for a while. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late fourteenth century, somewhere in the West Midlands to judge by the dialect, and it survives in a single manuscript along with three other works by the same writer: two religious poems and a long, very beautiful and very evocative dream-vision about mourning and loss. All of these poems – but especially Gawain and Pearl – show a fascination with symmetry and number-patterns, and there are any number of complicated interlocking sequences of pairs and triplets and fivefold symmetries, as well as concentric circular structures of narrative and verse form.
I’ve noticed when teaching Gawain that this is an aspect of the poem that invites a remarkable degree of visual concentration – and a kind of visual, mathematical concentration that always seems remarkably medieval (think about the complicated numerical structures of a cathedral, or even of a fan-vault roof). Foremost amongst the visual symbols of that poem is the pentangle – the five-pointed symbol Gawain wears on his shield as he rides out from Camelot, and which symbolises his linked, fivefold virtues bound together forever into a locked, endless knot.
Gawain’s shield device is – patently – not a heraldic display of identity, like the medieval shields we more commonly see on old buildings and in church windows, where quartered symbols might show parentage, ties of marriage, position in the family birth order, and more. Rather, it is his personal device, and a somewhat inscrutable design. Almost as important, as the narrative wears on, is another object: a lady’s girdle, which promises Gawain sure protection against his deadly enemy, but which also (female-wise) entangles him in a complicated web of competing obligations and broken promises. This slender green circle becomes the badge of Gawain’s shame, the symbol he takes on to show his later, compromised identity as a sadder and wiser knight.
Conventional readings of this poem interpret the two objects – the shield device and the girdle – as representative of a conflict between two sides, or two orders of morality. The pentangle speaks of chivalric virtue with a hefty dose of Christian piety, for it aligns the five points of the pentangle with the wounds of Christ and the joys of the Virgin Mary. The girdle, meanwhile, smacks of feminine, perhaps even superstitious, reliance on amulets, and is indelibly associated with Gawain’s creeping fear for his own physical safety. It is easy to read the pentangle as an ideal view of chivalry – a view of chivalry that knots virtue to virtue in an unbroken, regular shape – and the girdle as its insinuating undoing. In reality, my feeling is that the pentangle, and the brand of chivalry it advertises, is nothing remotely so unambiguous or perfect. Nor, indeed, is the girdle so easily interpreted as the polar opposite of virtue: as scholars have more recently noted, its protective qualities have their real-world parallels in the religious prayer-girdles (tightly written with invocations to the Virgin) that pregnant women would use as they prepared for the terrors of childbirth.
This superficial, binary opposition of pentangle and girdle, of five-point star and circle, is, in any case, elegantly and suggestively resolved by the poet. In the final lines of Sir Gawain, he departs from the world of romance and – in the final allusion to encircling narratives arching over and around the tiny matter of Gawain’s own temptation – he evokes the wider frame of Christian history, praying:
‘Now þat bere þe croun of þorne,
He bryng vus to his blysse!’
Now, He who bears the crown of thorns,
Let him bring us to his bliss!
The circle; the girdle. The pentangle; the points. The two images, superimposed, underlie these final lines, bound together in this last image: the crown of thorns.
I really don’t know if this is something other people have noticed. A not-quite-cursory but not-entirely-focussed look at the scholarship doesn’t throw up any other scholars mentioning it, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility. But, every year, I always find students who are as delighted with its neatness as I was, and I do believe that – in a poem full of numerical and structural richness and subtlety – it is significant and meaningful.
Reading Medieval Books! I rant about women in literature and history, occasionally pausing for breath to be snarky about right-wing misogynists. I promise pretty pictures of manuscripts and a cavalier attitude to sentence structure. Twitter @LucyAllenFWR