Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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The Color Green Symbol Analysis

The Color Green Symbol Icon
Colors are very important markers in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. When the figure of the Green Knight first intrudes upon Arthur’s court, his green complexion immediately marks him as a supernatural character, and his magical ability to survive beheading thus seems to somehow come from or be connected to his greenness. But green also is a traditional reminder of the natural world. As the poet describes the seasons, the weather, and images of hunting, the color green reappears as a symbol of nature, unbound by the rules of the court but with its own order of death and regeneration, predator and prey. With this double meaning of green as a symbol of both the supernatural and the natural in place, the poet plants a lot of green symbols into the plot. These symbols can be read in various ways over the course of the poem. Like the green girdle that Bertilak’s wife gives to Gawain, which at first represents protection from danger but comes to stand for Gawain’s failure. There’s also the Green Chapel, where the climax of Gawain’s moral journey takes place, and is the meeting place of the supernatural, religious, and natural forces that impose on Gawain.

The Color Green Quotes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Sir Gawain and the Green Knight quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Color Green. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Chivalry Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the W. W. Norton & Company edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight published in 2008.
Lines 1-490 Quotes

I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant,
or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.
But handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse,
for despite the bulk and brawn of his body
his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.
In fact in all features he was finely formed
it seemed.

Related Characters: The Green Knight
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 140-146
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to the mysterious Green Knight. The Knight, one would think, would be an intimidating, scary figure--big, loud, ugly, etc. But although the Green Knight is massive, he's not an ogre (another typical figure in English fantasy stories). Instead, the Knight is well-dressed, handsome-looking, and well-proportioned. in other words, he's basically a normal knight, who just so happens to be a giant, and green.

The Knight is both familiar and unfamiliar--his body is normal, but large and green. The ambiguous nature of the Knight's appearance reflects his ambiguous moral status in the poem; we're not sure if we can trust him or not, and he is a representative of both the supernatural (in his size and strange color) and the natural (in his handsomeness and tree-like color).

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Some stood and stared then stepped a little closer,
drawn near to the knight to know his next move;
they'd seen some sights, but this was something special,
a miracle or magic, or so they imagined.
Yet several of the lords were like statues in their seats,
left speechless and rigid, not risking a response.
The hall fell hushed, as if all who were present
had slipped into sleep or some trancelike state.

Related Characters: The Green Knight
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 237-244
Explanation and Analysis:

Understandably, most of the knights and lords in the court of King Arthur are very frightened of the Green Knight--he's so big, supernatural-seeming, and intimidating that he could presumably kill any one of them. The Knight walks through the halls, staring at the guests in King Arthur's court, and nobody greets him; they're just too frightened.

Who's in the wrong here, the Knight or Arthur's guests? While the Green Knight is portrayed as a somewhat frightening figure, we should keep in mind that the poem is set during Christmas time. By refusing to greet the Green Knight politely and offer him food and shelter, the guests at the court are betraying their Christian, chivalric, and courtly duties.

I'm spoiling for no scrap, I swear. Besides,
the bodies on these benches are just bum-fluffed bairns.
If I'd ridden to your castle rigged out for a ruck
these lightweight adolescents wouldn't last a minute.
But it's Yuletine – a time of youthfulness, yes?
So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge:
if a person here present, within these premises,
is big or bold or red blooded enough
to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,
I shall give him as a gift this gigantic cleaver
and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.

Related Characters: The Green Knight (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 279-289
Explanation and Analysis:

After Arthur greets the Green Knight (showing the hospitality that none of his guests would), the Green Knight explains what he wants. He wants to play a "game" with the bravest members of King Arthur's court: he and his opponent will trade one blow each. Interestingly, the Green Knight reminds everyone that it's Christmas, and therefore a good time for games. He seems oblivious to (or else darkly alluding to) the fact that this particular "game" is lethal, and not exactly a good Christmas activity.

The poem sets up an interesting contrast between Christianity and chivalry, then--between the religion of mercy and the knightly code of violence and warfare. At this point, it seems that the Green Knight himself sees no real contrast between the two systems of behavior--but his challenge immediately sets up a contradiction in "courtly" values.

The handsome head tumbles onto the earth
and the king's men kick it as it clatters past.
Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,
yet the man doesn't shudder or stagger or sink
but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs
and rummages around, reaches at their feet
and cops hold of his head and hoists it high
and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,
steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle
still gripping his head by a handful of hair.

Related Characters: The Green Knight
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 427-436
Explanation and Analysis:

Sir Gawain strikes at the Green Knight, decapitating him, and his head flies to the floor. To everyone's surprise, the Green Knight's headless body then simply walks after its own head, picks it up, and rides away. The scene is gruesome, and somewhat comic (like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon)--the casual way that the Knight trudges after its head and rummages around on the floor suggests that he's had to do so many times before.

The fine line between horror and comedy is a fixture of the poem--Gawain faces a series of terrifying, supernatural challenges, of which the Knight's challenge is only the first, and yet each challenge is somewhat mitigated by humor.

Lines 1126-1997 Quotes

"As an honest soul I swear on my heart,
you shall find the Green Chapel to finalize your affairs
long before dawn on New Year's Day.
So lie in your room and laze at your leisure
while i ride my estate, and, as our terms dictate
we'll trade our trophies when the hunt returns
I have tested you twice and found you truthful.
But think tomorrow third time throw best.

Related Characters: Bertilak of Hautdesert (speaker), Sir Gawain
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 1673-1680
Explanation and Analysis:

Bertilak is still seemingly oblivious to Gawain's relationship with his wife--as far as he's concerned, Gawain is a great guy, and totally trustworthy. Bertilak knows that Gawain is going to face off against the Green Knight very soon, but he suggests that they play one more round of their game: Gawain and Bertilak will trade their earnings at the end of the day.

It's worth noticing that Gawain's friendship with Bertilak has a familiar three-part structure, as in so many fairy tales. Moreover, Bertilak's fondness for games and play is highly reminiscent of the Green Knight's, foreshadowing the connection between the two characters. (Also note that the place where Gawain is to meet the Green Knight is a chapel, not a castle or battlefield--another link between the seemingly contradictory ideals of Christianity and chivalry.)

Lines 1998-2531 Quotes

"Regard," said Gawain, grabbing the girdle,
"through this I suffered a scar to my skin –
for my loss of faith I was physically defaced;
what a coveting coward I became it would seem.
I was tainted by untruth and this, its token,
I will drape across my chest till the day I die.

Related Characters: Sir Gawain (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Color Green
Page Number: 2505-2510
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gawain decides to wear the green garter forever as a sign of his weakness and humility. The garter becomes an explicit symbol in the poem: once supposed to render Gawain invincible, the knight now acknowledges it as a symbol of his weakness. Interestingly, the garter has become a distinctly Christian kind of symbol, designed to remind humanity of its limitations, rather than its greatness.

Sir Gawain isn't a great knight by the standards of chivalry--he gave in to temptation by kissing the Lady and hiding the girdle from Sir Bertilak. And yet by the end of the poem we get the sense that he's become a wiser, more confident man. He realizes that chivalry isn't all it's cracked up to be: humility, intelligence, and instinct are equally important. There's more to being a knight than volunteering to die: self-control and self-awareness (i.e., awareness of one's limitations) are required, too.

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The Color Green Symbol Timeline in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Color Green appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lines 1-490
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
The intruding man is handsome and well-proportioned, despite his massive size, and he is completely green in color. Every piece of his elaborate costume is green, with gold details. He holds... (full context)
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...the head toward them, and tells Gawain to find him a year’s hence in the Green Chapel . And as suddenly as he arrived, the knight is gone. (full context)
Lines 491-1125
Chivalry Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...offers him a longer stay but Gawain refuses, saying he must journey on to the Green Chapel and complete his challenge. The lord is pleased to explain that he knows exactly where... (full context)
Lines 1126-1997
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...she offers a ring, but when he refuses, she offers a less expensive keepsake, a green girdle. When she tells Gawain that the magic of the girdle ensures the wearer protection... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Gawain dresses, hiding the girdle underneath his clothes. He goes to the chapel to confess his sins and, having been... (full context)
Lines 1998-2531
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
...is shined as brightly as it was when he left Camelot, and he wraps the green girdle around his waist. He mounts Gringelot, thanks and blesses the court and rides out... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
The servant brings him close to the Green Chapel but stops before reaching it, saying that he will not accompany Gawain to the doomed... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...high banks of rock and cliffs that cast shadows on his path. He sees a grassy mound ahead but when he gets closer, he realizes that it is hollow like a cave.... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
...hunt. The Knight explains that on the third day, Gawain was deceptive and hid the green girdle from his host, so received one nick from the axe. Gawain is shocked to... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...the best and bravest of Arthur's knights. Gawain, ashamed at his failure to return the green girdle to his host, rushes to untie it from his waist and offers it to... (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
...by women then he can forgive himself for being similarly tricked. Gawain does accept the green girdle, not for its material value, but to remind him of his weakness. (full context)
Chivalry Theme Icon
The Natural and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Legend, Fame, and Reputation Theme Icon
Games, Rules, and Order Theme Icon
...adventures on the way. His neck wound heals and he enters Arthur’s court wearing the green girdle like a sash. He is greeted with joy and love. He confesses the whole... (full context)