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 Pentagle is also known as an endless knot and symbol of faithfulness.
The Pentagle is also known as an endless knot and symbol of faithfulness.

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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Comments 12 comments

FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

I remember reading this in highschool. I'd forgotten all the symbolism though as it's been 17 years. My memories are of the journey itself.

Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK

Interesting shedding of light on an old tale and an old symbol.

Scarlet Scrivener 4 years ago

Interesting article. Somewhere posted on the net, I have one of my old college papers on Sir Gawain that talks about the meaning of the green man of the forest, which plays in a lot of fairy tales, including Lord of the Rings.

In occult symbolism, the five pointed star is a shield. Occultists protect themselves from their enemies and strike at them psychically through this shield, as per The Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Golden Dawn.

Voting up and accolades.

Anaya M. Baker profile image

Anaya M. Baker 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

I have to confess that I didn't make it very far into the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I loved the Hobbit, and have read it so many times, but just couldn't get into Tolkien's more adult works. I may give them another try though, I'm really interested in his symbolism and just the amazing construction of his worlds. On another note, I haven't heard much about the Green Man of the Forest, will have to do some research, this sounds like a good one!

Scarlet Scrivener 4 years ago

Tolkein is a marathon, but he was THE big authority on Anglo-Saxon in his time and he combined a lot of the elements of fairytales and old Anglo-Saxon lore in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The little hobbits first leave their little hobbit-town (which hobbits, usually never do) and one of the first things that happens to them before they meet Stryder (the ranger played by Viggo Mortensen in the movie) at the pub, is they are aided by a man in the forest and his beautiful wife. He and his wife are like the Green Knight and his wife in the Sir Gawain story.

Definitely don't let the movie put you off from reading the books. They are good - they don't have the emotional power of a woman novelist's work, but they tell a good story. The books are better than the movie, but the movie is a phenomenon, because it couldn't have been done until only fairly recently because of a lack of tech.

Scarlet Scrivener 4 years ago

Here's a little something on the green man of the forest -

He is sometimes associated with gods of fertility. Another example of this in famous literature is Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Once in the forest, the actors and the four lovers fall under his spell.

Anaya M. Baker profile image

Anaya M. Baker 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Thanks Scarlet! I agree, the Lord of the Rings movies are spectacular, but don't really touch on Tolkien's scholarship and literary accomplishments. I think after all the reading I've been doing on the old Anglo-Saxon tales, I might have a better appreciation for the trilogy than the last time I tried to read it. And thanks for the link on the Green Man!

Anaya M. Baker profile image

Anaya M. Baker 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Just read the Green Man article, really cool! It adds a completely new dimension to the Gawain story, and come to think of it, I think I've seen some of the green man artwork without even realizing what it was. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

Casey V. 4 years ago

It's amazing how religious the literature was in the Medieval times!!!! And it shows that leading the life they led is very fulfilling and man, medieval readers must have been very entertained with finding all these symbolisms and hidden details :P

Anaya M. Baker profile image

Anaya M. Baker 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

Hi Casey, thanks for stopping by! I think the increased presence of religious sentiment in the medieval literature might also have to do with the fact that in those times the Church was much more of an institution than it is today, an institution with a very pronounced political and financial stake in what was happening, especially in regard to arts and literature. Also, with such a large percentage of the population being illiterate, very often writers would be clerics or other church officials, who had been taught to read as part of their religious training.

Noel Brindley 2 years ago

The Gawain poet makes much of knots and truth

We are told the pentangle is a knot.

The fret, on the Audley coat of arms of Staffordshire was indeed a knot, the True-Love knot as described in, 'A System of Heraldry Speculative and Practical: with the True Art of Blazon, according to the Most approved Heralds in Europe': By Alexander Nisbet, Gent. p218 (1722).

'The Fret is composed of a Saltier & Mascle, and is a badge of Fastness and Fidelity, like a knot or Tye of Ribbons. The English I find take it so; and call it the Love Knot. It is called by some English Heraulds, Heraldorum Nodus amatorius; the Herauld's Love Knot, because it is divised by them, as an Armourial Figure.'

(See also, Encyclopaedia Heraldica Or Complete Dictionary of Heraldry, Volume 1, By William Berry.)

It is interesting that the poet tells us that Gawain wears True-Love's (knots) on the hem of his aventail: Tortors and trulofez entayled so ├żyk

There is a book, A dictionary of Chivalry by Grant Uden, which describes how the knot was used to represent a family name. His entry is on page 14, under "Badge". Uden tells us that: 'Among the most popular and curious badges were various types of knot,e.g................ (list of knots, the Harrington knot being closest to the Audley's, except it was not gold on a red backgroud) Often, these knots (in Heraldry) were a rough pictorial representation of the wearer's name or initials. Thus, the Stafford knot may be considered as two S's crossed; the Bourchier knot embodies two B's; the Bowen knot is made of bows, or loops; and Lacey's knot is a play on the name, an intricate lacy design. The pentangle is made up of five 'A's suggesting an Audley connection.

Anate profile image

Anate 2 years ago

This was an interesting and well written article.

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