The court of King Arthur
is full of costumes and rituals. The prize piece of Gawain
’s magnificent armor is a shield decorated with a five-pointed star, or pentangle. The pentangle is said to have illustrious origins – the shape was supposedly designed by the great biblical King Solomon. Each point of the pentangle stands for a list of virtues or wits, including the five joys of Mary and the five wounds of Christ. All of these virtues are encompassed in the star and the points are connected by one unbroken line, which itself stands for eternity. Altogether, the pentangle is a symbol of endless truth. As is true in the poem as a whole, figures of Christianity always occupy a central thematic place, and that is also true of the pentangle: in its center is a portrait of Mary. Yet despite the elaborate message of this symbol and its perceived protective power, it is also a mere costume, painted on to Gawain’s shield. The failing of the knightly code that follows reveals the pentangle to be a shallow symbol, out of touch with the reality of human life, and as such it indicates that the very formulaic practice of religion and chivalry at play in King Arthur's court is artificial and fragile, unable to survive in the real world, as opposed to Bertilak and his court's earthier existence that is nonetheless animated by a deeper mercy.