The poet responsible for the creation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses many literary techniques to teach his audience in more effective fashions. Symbolism may be the most prominent literary technique used in the poem, but it is not always easy to determine what each symbol represents. In some cases, such as Gawain’s pentangle, the poet explicitly defines each part of his symbol. However, in other cases, such as the poet’s use of the color green, the poet gives no such encompassing explanation. Though there are many instances in which the poet uses green to symbolize different ideas, some of these green symbols may be easier explained as smaller parts of a greater symbol. Because the color green is most commonly associated with the Green Knight, this essay will largely concern itself with green in relation to the Green Knight. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight most accurately represents the concept of rebirth because of green’s relationship to nature and youth.
First, the Green Knight is often associated with nature. For instance, when the poet first introduces the Green Knight, the Knight holds in one hand “a holly bob that is goodliness in green… and a [wicked green] axe” in his other (Sir Gawain 206-209). Furthermore, the poet remarks that Arthur’s court marvels at the Knight’s green, saying the color grew “greener [than grass]” (235). In some ways, the Knight physically represents a sort of untamed nature. The poet says the Green Knight’s hair is long and his “beard big as a bush” (182). Also, the Knight is not restricted by any sort of borders or laws because he does not hail from any country (199-200). Even Arthur’s court feels that the Knight, though humanoid in appearance, may not be human at all, but perhaps a demon or an embodied force, such as a force of nature (240). Although the Green Knight certainly represents nature in an earthly sense, the Knight also symbolizes complete nature of being. In other words, for nearly every positive aspect of life he represents, the Knight represents an opposite aspect as well. For example, though the symbol of the holly branch is certainly associated with nature, it is clear that its significance runs deeper. The poet describes the holly branch, a common symbol of peace, as goodly even in places where other plants have trouble surviving (206). Not only does the holly bob represent peace, it represents natural change. The “holly…is a pagan symbol used by Christians to celebrate Christmas, brought into the house on the winter solstice as a sign that greenery [or spring] will come again” (Little, Important Symbols: Sir Gawain). The coming of spring, especially in a medieval culture which relied on farming, is a very positive event representing an opportunity to plant once more. However, in his other hand, the Knight holds a wicked axe. While the holly represents birth, axes represent battle and more importantly death, or an end. The axe kills and the holly births. Not only do the objects the Knight holds represent a sense of rebirth, but the time at which the Green Knight arrives at Arthur’s court, Christmas, symbolizes the coming birth of Christ and a New Year (Sir Gawain 60). The Green Knight’s relationship to nature ultimately points toward rebirth, the concept the Knight truly represents.
Second, the Green Knight also represents age. Professor Northrup Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, states that the color green “traditionally [symbolizes] vanishing youth” (Frye, Anatomy of Criticism 200 and Lewis, Gawain and the Green Knight). Just as he contrasts between the many ideas the Green Knight possesses, the poet contrasts the Green Knight with Arthur’s court. For instance, before the Green Knight arrives in Camelot, Arthur himself is described as a “little boyish…[with] young blood” (Sir Gawain 85-90). The poet describes Arthur’s courts as “[gay] and [gleeful]” (46). By creating the court to be young and happy, and the king of Camelot youthful and active, the poet intends to juxtapose Camelot’s youth with the Green Knight’s maturity. When the Green Knight arrives, the poet describes him as ‘half a giant on earth” (140). With his long hair and beard, the Green Knight may represent the coming maturity of Gawain and Camelot. The poet further contrasts the Green Knight with the people of Camelot when the Green Knight describes Arthur’s court as a crowd of “beardless children” (280). Green and the Green Knight’s representation of vanishing youth further point toward the idea of rebirth. With holly in one hand and axe in the other, the Green Knight, who grows old and wise himself, sets forth a cycle of death and birth.
Not only does the Green Knight symbolize rebirth, but the Green Knight forces Gawain to be reborn. Gawain, at first feeble and cowardly, begins to become more mature as he prepares to face and eventually faces the Green Knight. When it becomes clear that the Green Knight visited Camelot to teach Gawain a lesson, it is fitting that the mature Knight excite a sort of maturity in Gawain. Not only is Gawain reborn, but Camelot learns from lessons the Green Knight teaches Gawain. For instance, after Gawain wears his green sash, a possible mark of rebirth and maturity, the rest of Camelot don green sashes to remember the lesson Gawain learned. Even when the Green Knight is beheaded, and he survives, what might have been the end of a life becomes a beginning. In conclusion, the Green Knight’s relationship with nature and youth point toward the Knight’s symbolization of the concept of rebirth.
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