The Symbol of the Color Green in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Pearl Poet

The color green represents many different things in general, but it is also specifically symbolic in the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. First, the Green Knight is, literally, green. This makes him appear odd or even supernatural. At a deeper level, the green also represents the devil and death, but because green is an ambiguous color, it can also represents nature and life, as the holly is a symbol of nature and of the will to live, as it is a very hardy plant. Apart from the Green Knight, green epitomizes envy and evil as well, themes that are important in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

When the Green Knight makes his first appearance, he is “in guise all of green, [both] the gear and the man” and “in his one hand he had a holly bob” (I. 151, 207). The holly, which grows in the winter, the time where even the hardiest plants won’t grow, represents the will to live, longlivity, and in its simplest form, nature. However, on a darker note, the green knight is described as a “grim man in green” and carried a “Danish (long bladed) ax devised for” killing Gawain, an obvious description of the Grim Reaper or a contemporary equivalent and therefore symbolizing death (III. 2259, 2223). The setting itself is very ominous, with “a most barbarous din”, and even Gawain states that “the devil himself (can) be seen / Saying matins at black midnight” here (III. 2200, 2188). Although the Pearl Poet describes the Green Chapel as being full of death, it also has signs of life, for example the chapel itself is overgrown with grass, signifying the presence of nature and life.

Green not only symbolizes nature, but also is traditionally referred to as the color of envy. Gawain himself is usually the center of envy, as he shows in the beginning of the poem. He wants the court to envy him for his bravery and therefore takes the Green Knight’s challenge. He also envies Lord Bercilak for having such a beautiful wife who “excelled the queen herself” (II. 945). Moreover, despite the color of the Green Knight’s clothes, the Green Knight is not actually the personification of envy, which is commonly described as being a green-eyed monster. The Green Knight, having red eyes, is therefore not related to the sickness known as envy. However, it can refer to the devil, who had red eyes, and therefore evil and wrongdoing.

Green however is related to envy, and on the same note, it is also related to evil. The medieval incarnation of Satan was said to have worn green, and therefore green is linked to evil and wrongdoing. The girdle, an earthly, coveted, and supposedly supernatural item, is green. First of all, Christianity teaches against coveting material things, especially things that are gaudy and have high earthly value. Second of all, its supernatural nature makes it a pagan item, which is completely against Christianity. The fact that the girdle is literally the modern equivalent of underwear also goes against morals, both Christian and human.

Green is envy, represents evil, and is a paganistic color, but it also represents life. It is related to Morgan leFaye, who is a paganistic character because she is said to be a sorceress (from Arthurian legend). It symbolizes many contrasting themes, some of which are contradictory. In turn, green is also much like the laws and codes of the time, like the Chivalric Code, the Knightly Code, Courtly Love, loyalty to the king, queen, and host, and simple common sense. The Pearl Poet may have chosen the color green to represent the struggles Gawain experienced as he attempts to fulfill all three conflicting codes; therefore, the poem is a satire of such codes.

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