Home » Sir Gawain and the Green Knight » Symbolism In Sir Gawain And The Green Knight Essay

Symbolism In Sir Gawain And The Green Knight Essay

Friends, fellow protesters we are gathered here today to encourage others to be considerate of the environment. However, this poem here in my hand holds all the answers to our problems. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written over six hundred years ago, but despite this, its ecological statements continue to be relevant to our society today. It exposes our fraught relationship with our environment and what we should expect if we continue to disrespect the natural world.

Ultimately this poet here has created the first ever eco-poem through continuously alluding to nature and also metaphorically representing it as the antagonist, the Green Knight. As I said, it’s not just the intricacies of this poem that suggest this ecological interpretation. The Gawain poet makes his environmentalist view glaringly obvious through using the Green Knight himself as a metaphor for nature, and his abode the green chapel as a representation of the Earth.

It is thought that the green chapel, described as an “enclosed [a] cavity, like a kind of old cave, or crevice in the crag”, is referring to Lud’s church in the countryside of Wales. In pagan beliefs entering this deep crevasse is a way of connecting with the Mother Earth. Thus, interpreting the combination of the context of this poem and pagan beliefs the green chapel can then be considered a depiction of the Earth. When looking at the Green Knight a similar situation occurs. Through the description and symbolism associated with this character, it appears as if he is the manifestation of nature in a single physical form.

The Green Knight can be viewed as an extended metaphor for nature and the initial description of him solidifies this. His “tree-trunk legs”, “butterflies and birds” on his cloak and the fact that he appears in the court “shoeless” all connote and symbolise his connection to the natural world. Keeping this in mind there are numerous events in the story that appear to heed warnings showing how we are destroying nature, yet it also has the power to destroy us. Although Gawain plants his axe so firmly in the Green Knight’s neck that his “head tumbles onto the Earth”, the man doesn’t “shudder or stagger or sink”.

This may be just an exciting twist to the plot for the reader but they miss the real meaning, that being we continue to destroy nature yet it will always recover, albeit weaker, just as the Green Knight “cops hold of his head”. And if this hasn’t convinced you that the Green Knight @#$%^&* he also reminds Gawain to “receive the justice you are due” we are reminded by the poet that nature will always recuperate and live on. The Gawain poet also expertly describes the power and immensity of nature through looking at the Green Knight as a symbol of this power and through recognising the contrasting qualities of nature.

Hector, the guide that takes Gawain to the green chapel, for example, tells us that the Green Knight is “more powerful than any person alive on this planet” and the green chapel, well “to pass through that place unscathed is impossible”. These insights into the Green Knight and chapel, the embodiments of nature and Earth, reveal to the reader the respect and fear that the Gawain poet has for nature. He wishes to protect the beauty that it holds whilst at the same time fearing the brute force it possesses. Hence, the power of nature itself is also a key point of the poem.

Furthermore the contrast between the idyllic and harsh characteristics of the environment again relate to the eco-centric interpretation of this romantic poem. The weather that Gawain faced was horrific as he stated, “wars were one thing, but winter was worse”, through the visual imagery of battle in the context of the environment the reader gains an insight into the power of nature. Further uses of imagery and emotive language are used as Gawain travels through the “piercing cold” “peril” and “pain” to meet with the Green Knight.

However, the irresistible beauty of nature is also commented on with the “chandeliers of ice” and “snow capped summits”, this additional imagery, of extravagance and scenic beauty, contrasts with the aforementioned savage elements of nature. Add summary To further the connections to nature the poet has also included many allusions to the colour green, which has particular symbolic meaning. The predominant colour in nature is green, we are taught when we are young that green is associated with trees, grass and the natural world.

And what do we call our fellow environmentalists? That’s right, the Greens. Green connotes the idea of nature and Earth, hence yet again the Gawain poet has placed an emphasis on our association with nature as a result of mentioning this colour. The word itself is in the title of the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and thus the audience is alerted to the colour and its symbolism as soon as they pick up the poem. As we begin to read this text it is no different, the colour is continuously used in the description of the Green Knight.

The knight is described at the end of the bob and wheel as “entirely emerald green” this description is the last thing mentioned about the Green Knight and its position allows the phrase to resonate in the readers mind and again reminding them of nature. The description is furthered with the horse of which “every hair was green”, and stirrups with “green beads” and the “greenest jewels” making the symbolism even more apparent. However it is not just the Green Knight who is compared to this colour, Gawain takes a green girdle from Lady Bertilac and carries it to the green chapel.

Not only does this again highlight the connotations of the colour green but the green girdle can be likened to our green belts of untouched bushland that surround our urbanised areas and must continue to in the years to come. If that wasn’t enough to persuade you the countless pagan references throughout the poem are another comment on our connection to nature. The pagan traditions described in the poem were often deeply connected to nature and recognised the power and importance of the environment.

Through using these connections the poet has again drawn the attention of the reader to the natural world and our relationship with it. The “eternal sequence, season by season”, not only represents the idea of time passing but also the pagan ideals of the eternal cyclical change of nature. Other references to the Celtic pagan tradition are the year and one day waiting period between when Gawain is challenged by the Green Knight and when they meet again, representing the time needed to be initiated in many pagan faiths.

The temptation or beheading game, the contest in which the Green Knight challenges Gawain to behead him in return for the same opportunity for the Green Knight in a years time, which is initiated by the Green Knight when he first enters the Court at Camelot is also relevant but more on this later. However, possibly the most important natural pagan reference is the character from which the Green Knight is thought to have been derived from. The Green Man or Wild Man was another purely green creature and the pagan idol of fertility.

So not only does the Green Knight represent nature but also the fertility and resurrection of Mother Earth. This is evident in this poem as the Green Knight miraculously repairs his severed head in the space of a year much like nature repairs itself throughout the annual seasons. This is yet another reminder to the reader that Gawain is travelling into the natural world and the pagan tradition. However, the Gawain poet ultimately aims to educate his audience about the connection between civilisation and nature.

When Gawain is challenged to seek out the Green Knight he is also being challenged to leave the comfort of Camelot behind and experience and connect with nature. This is again another clever reference to the way that society and civilisation have sheltered and hidden themselves from the natural world, distancing ourselves from it, and losing our connection with it. This contrast, between society and nature, can be observed through the atmospheric changes throughout the different settings in the poem.

In the beginning, at Camelot, Arthur and Gawain are joyfully celebrating Christmas with their closest friends and admirers. There is a jovial atmosphere where carousers are “merrymaking” as people “pressed forward to offer their presents”. However, once Gawain enters the natural world of the Green Knight he is “unloved and alone, foraging to feed, finding little to call food”. The contrasting atmospheres, joyful and isolating, represent the brutality of nature and the cruel surroundings Gawain find himself in. This contrast again signifies an element of the ecology centred interpretation of this romantic poem.

As Gawain experiences more of the natural world and its regenerative nature he realises how human society and the fear of death held by those in Camelot if inferior when compared to the environment. This is insightful for the audience as the Gawain poet asks them to question how they interact with the nature around them. After illuminating the power and beauty of nature as well as societies segregation from the natural world the Gawain poet also warns medieval society of the inherently destructive qualities of agriculture.

Medieval society at that time was purely agrarian with land being the primary commodity and farming the major occupation. However, this constant ploughing and destruction of the Earth is addressed in this poem. When the Green Knight challenges Gawain to return one year later after the beheading it is in order to “reap what” he has “sown”. This agricultural diction in this context of the horror and bloodshed of beheading is another reference the Gawain poet makes to the destruction of our environment. The beheading of the Green Knight can also be seen as a reference to agriculture.

In ancient pagan myths, which are deeply interwoven in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the beheading of the Green Knight is indicative of the seasonal cycle of harvesting and planting crops. The stark juxtaposition of agricultural practises with the brutality of death again highlights the resilience of nature and the conservationist views of the Gawain poet. Regardless of the fact that medieval society relied on agriculture the Gawain poet has recognised how the benefits of farming didn’t necessarily outweigh the negatives. @#$%^&* I hope now that the importance of this text has been realised by all of you here today.

Clearly it must be evident to all of you that the Gawain poet, at least partially, was aiming to warn society about their rejection and destruction of nature. Through the use of extended metaphors and various symbols and connotations, the Gawain poet skilfully draws our attention towards the natural world and asks us to consider how we interact with our environment and perhaps how we should be connecting with the biosphere. Is anyone out there still sceptical about the importance of this poem and how it clearly represents our fraught relationship with the environment?

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.