Symbolism of the Pentangle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an Arthurian romance believed to have been written in the late fourteenth century by an anonymous author. (This is the same time when Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, though the language is very different). The poem takes place in alliterative verse, and tells the tale of Gawain, one of the knights of the Round Table.
In the poem, a knight dressed in green comes to Camelot and challenges the knights. Gawain accepts the challenge, which involves a strike to the neck with a large axe. According to the terms of the challenge, Gawain is allowed strike the knight once. If the Green Knight survives, Gawain will have to travel to his kingdom the next year, where the Green Knight will then be allowed to have one strike at Gawain. The majority of the story revolves around Gawain's journey to find the knight, and the trials and tests of virtue he encounters along the way.
Gawain is considered one of the most noble and virtuous knights, and embodies the chivalric tradition of the time. Chivalry was a code of honor that developed out of the older heroic tradition, and served as a means of overlaying Christian values onto heroism. While most knights of the Middle Ages would typically have carried a shield bearing a symbol of battle or bravery, Gawain breaks from tradition by bearing the emblem of the Pentangle, a symbol of of the virtues Gawain is supposed to embody as a sort of "moral representative" of the Court.
The Pentangle as Truth
Essentially, the Pentangle is meant to signify Truth. Gawain is morally tested throughout his quest, and the one attribute with which he struggles is in telling the truth. However, in the context of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Truth is presented as a concept that means more than just the difference between honesty and falsehood.
Truth in this context signifies not just honesty, but faithfulness, honor, Christian faith, goodness and purity. These attributes are considered essential to the chivalric code, and are what all knights are meant to aspire to.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight places a large emphasis on the number five. The Pentangle (pent = five) represents five groups of five, giving us a total of 25 aspects or characteristics that make up the concept of chivalric Truth. Essentially, the Pentangle forms a sort of blueprint for the chivalric code. Each point on the Pentangle represents one group, and all are linked as these aspects are interdependant and interrelated.
The Five Fives
The first group is the five senses. Gawain is described "faultless in his five senses." This is a mark of a good knight, one who can rely on the senses in battle. There is also an aspect of truth to the idea, that a knight trusts what is real, and sees the world around him for what it is and is able to react accordingly.
The second group of attributes is the five fingers. For a knight, the hands are of the utmost importance, and Gawain, as a true knight, will not be failed by his five fingers. In addition, because the hands can be seen as an instrument, there is an allusion at work of the chivilrous knight being "the hand of God."
The third group is the five wounds of Christ during the Crucifiction. A good knight, a true knight, would endeavor to preserve righteousness and chivalry even if this means the loss of life. As Christ died on the Cross, so must Gawaine be willing to lose his head without fear, in order to defend the honor of Arthur's court.
The fourth group is the five joys, the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption. Gawain's "force" is "founded" on these; he is meant to take courage in Christ's example, and use the five joys are a source of his strength. If Gawain is a good knight, and upholds this paradigm of Christianity, then Mary will then serve as a source of strength, courage and protection to him.
As a compliment to this group of five, Mary is depicted on the inner side of the shield. In addition to the five joys, Gawain may also look to her for inspiration and solace. The inner side is the part of the shield closest to the body and his heart, thus he is inwardly closely linked to Mary, who also serves as an admonishment to respect women and chastity, and to remain pure in his own right.
The fifth group is a collection of chivalric attributes, a guide of conduct. Generousness, brotherly love, pure mind, good manners, and compassion make up this group, which are meant to guide Gawain in his everyday doings, his manner, and his conduct.
Ultimately, the Pentangle serves not only as a symbol of chivalry, but as a talisman of strength and protection. Yet this strength and protection come with a condition attached: in order to receive the benefits of the Pentangle, Gawaine must successfully respects, and embody what it represents, that is "stays true" to the five elements that make up the Pentangle.
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