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The Five Virtues of Chivalry exemplified by the Pentangle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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This analytical essay presents information about the five virtues of chivalry that are exemplified by the Pentangle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Works Cited page appends ten sources in MLA format.


     Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a well-known Middle English romantic poem, which was written in the 14th century. The poet who penned down this poem remains unknown. The author of the poem, although unknown is linked to three other poems namely pearl, purity and patience. Although there is not much evidence to support this belief, but certain characteristics that are common in all the poems assert the belief, although the poems deal with a very religious theme. According to sources, “Sir Gawain And The Green Knight: Part 1 The final and most famous poem of Cotton Nero A.x is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a work that is commonly said to represent the “culmination of the romance tradition.” The poem consists of 2,530 lines, longer than those of Pearl, arranged in one-hundred-and-one stanzas, varying in length from twelve to thirty-eight lines” (English Epic Poems: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, p.1).

      The poem was basically written in a northern dialect. The tale is rather intriguing, due to the fact that it involves romance, magic, religion, action and betrayal all together.  The basic focus hereafter would be on the pentangle that was present on the shield of Sir Gawain. The characteristics, the virtues of chivalry that are represented by the pentangle and Sir Gawain’s attempts in order to fulfill those characteristics would be discussed.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

     As mentioned above, the author of the poem is unknown. The translation of the poem presents to us a tale of a knight, who accepts a challenge instead of his King and then the poem moves on to tell us of the hardships the knight failed in order to fulfill the challenge. Here, the author discusses the ideals that a knight has to put up with and he does so by including the virtues of the pentangle and he tries to compare the ideals of a knight with the realities of Sir Gawain’s life.

Pentangle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

     The poem under consideration is full of a number of symbols. When the poet describes Gawain’s departure to search for the Green knight, he puts forward a very deep description of the armor carried by Gawain. Here, a very prominent symbol on his armor is that of a pentangle, which perhaps is the only most evident symbol in the entire poem. The pentangle has a number of meanings and provides him physical and mortal protection. He has a pentangle on the outside which has Virgin Mary on the inside, near to his hear, which puts forward the notion that his belief in God was very strong (Analysis of the work, p.1).

Even though he does not pronounce his faith, yet he displays the pentangle to everyone along with its chivalric code and it is said that, “By causing the reader to view Gawain’s quest in terms of the pentangle, the narrator compares the knightly ideals with the reality of Gawain’s life. The narrator uses the pentangle to promote the knightly ideals, but he also accentuates the primary need for truth in knightly conduct. Finally, the difference between Gawain’s reaction to his failure and others’ perception of his faults remind the reader that no one can reach the ideal, and rather than getting bitter, we should learn from our mistakes” (Matias, p.1). This basically tells us the value of being truthful for a knight, and also that we must not get disheartened by our faults but should work on them to fix the damage that has been caused. The pentangle has five points and each point stands for five virtues of chivalry which will be discussed further on.

     As mentioned above, the five points of the pentangle in Gawain’s shield stand for five virtues of chivalry, which are exemplified by the character of Sir Gawain. According to sources, “the poem describes Gawain’s armor in detail. He carries a red shield that has a pentangle painted on its front. The pentangle is a token of truth. Each of the five points are linked and locked with the next, forming what is called the endless knot. The pentangle is a symbol that Gawain is faultless in his five senses, never found to fail in his five fingers, faithful to the five wounds that Christ received on the cross, strengthened by the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in Jesus (The Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption), and possesses brotherly love, pure mind and manners, and compassion most precious. The inside of the shield is adorned with an image of the Virgin Mary to make sure that Gawain never loses heart” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, p.1). Here we can ascertain that the pentangle represented five virtues which are free-giving, friendliness, chastity, chivalry, and piety. Other virtues related to knights are that of honesty, loyalty, devotion etc.

     The author has given much significance to the pentangle and has spent nearly forty-six lines from line number six hundred and nineteen to line number six hundred and sixty-five. Also, in order to signify the importance of the pentangle, the author writes, “And why the pentangle is proper to that peerless prince / I intend now to tell, though detain me it must” (Anonymous, p.30). This message actually alerts the reader that what is about to come is extremely important so as to understand the meaning of the narrator.

     It is believed that the pentangle is basically “a token of truth”, which is the most significant virtue of the five points of the pentangle. But, the pentangle can not be considered as an ordinary symbol in the poem, as the pentangle and the virtues that it represents are the symbols around which the whole poem revolves. The pentangle of Gawain holds more significance than any of the other knightly symbols that have been put forward by the author and are mostly related to nature and mythology. Also, in the poem Gawain also considers the pentangle more seriously than any other knights have considered anything and he also successfully exemplifies the traits that the pentangle represents.

Gawain measures his own life by the pentangle and he wore it because of the fact that he had characteristics which made him worthy of wearing it. Gawain is sub-ordinate by the pentangle and the author proves him worthy of wearing the pentangle by saying that, “And well may he wear it on his worthy arms, For ever faithful five-fold in five-fold fashion, Was Gawain in good works, as gold unalloyed, Devoid of all villainy, with virtues adorned in sight” (Anonymous, p.30). Here it is noteworthy that being worthy of wearing the pentangle is not all that is considerable. What is more is that Gawain has to make sure that he lives up to the characteristics and the virtues that it represents. Perhaps the attempts made by Gawain in order to make sure that he exemplifies the virtues of the pentangle are an attempt so as to prove his own worth as well.

     The five five-fold virtues of Gawain when combined together present to us a very strong and well-balanced man. According to Matias, Gawain was a firm man and an exemplary knight considering that he was always alert as he is “faultless in his five senses.”, he was skillful and he never was “found … to fail in his five fingers”, he remained loyal to God and his religion for “his fealty … was fixed upon the five wounds that Christ got on the cross”, he was focused when it came to challenges and battles, for “all his force was founded on the five joys / That the high Queen of heaven had in her child”. Also, he has showed “on the inner part of his shield her image … that when his look on it lighted, he never lost heart.” Eventually, Gawain has all the characteristics and the five virtues which are required for a person in order to fit well in social settings, which are “beneficence boundless and brotherly love / and pure mind and manners… and compassion most precious” (Matias, p.1 and Tison, p.1).

     The five virtues are tested throughout the poem. First of all, his alertness” was put to test when he was traveling all alone in the wilderness that is full of serpents, wolves, bears and boars and even giants who he has to fight. Secondly, his other test was of loyalty to God as “had he not borne himself bravely, and been on God’s side, / He had met with many mishaps and mortal harms” (Anonymous, p.32). He also shows devotion to his religion and receives help from the heavens when on Christmas Eve he asks Mary for a place to listen to the mass and the castle appears before his eyes miraculously.  When this happens, he has to pass the test of brotherly love, which he does without any problems what so ever by showing brotherly love towards the lord of the castle.

Now, he is tested for his beneficence towards the lord which he exemplifies. When he offers without even being asked to, ““both tarry, and undertake any task you [the lord] devise” (Anonymous, p.39).  Now here comes a test which is perhaps the hardest. His pure mind is put at test by the Lord’s lady. He was tested by rejecting the sexual advances of the Lord’s lady while maintaining his dignity and avoiding un-chivalry. The Lady says, “My body is here at hand, Your each wish to fulfill; Your servant to command, I am, and shall be still” (Anonymous, p.44). He passed this test easily by means of courtesy even thought, “she tested his temper and tried many a time / … to entice him to sin, / … so fair was his defense that no fault appeared” (Anonymous. p.51).

      Another test that he passed was of faithfulness, which he passed and failed at the same time. The Lord’s wife won over him by making him accept a girdle owned by her, as it would prevent him from dieing. Sir Gawain accepts the girdle in exchange of the pentangle which basically alerts us of the short-sightedness of Gawain. Here his honesty was put to the test and this was tested by the exchange of winnings with the Lord. Here it is said that “virtue is best kept keen through tests both won and failed, as a failed test brings on divine punishment, and divine punishment serves as penance and stirs the sinner to realization and confession of his sins. This is evidenced by the fact that the Green Knight urges Sir Gawain to keep the green girdle through which he had sinned. As a reminder of his failure it will keep him far from sin in the future” (Human Heroes in Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Faerie Queen, p.1).

No matter what the explanation, one here can not deny that Gawain broke his promise of remaining pure of mind and honest. Another aspect is that acceptance of the girdle involves self-interest, but still he remains chaste (Weston, p.1). One other attraction in accepting the girdle is the perseverance of his honor. By accepting the girdle, he was ensuring his life long enough to reach the Green Knight, which would then bring more honor to Sir Gawain. A knight so brave and chaste throughout the story falls short and fails when it comes to a very common weakness of the knights: the greed for more and more honor. It can be said, that even though Gawain had set out to die in honor, when he received a chance to fulfill a challenge yet stay alive, he chose being honored more by staying alive.

 According to Liu, Gawain believes a lot in the values represented by the pentangle. He does not believe in what ifs or whether he should do something or not. He believes in action no matter how unpleasant the circumstances would be and “He volunteered to undertake the Green Knight’s challenge from his sense of chivalric duty. He insists on keeping his side of the bargain, again, as part of his chivalric duty. The poet makes clear that Gawain is guided and protected entirely by his sense of morality, both Christian and chivalric, which is symbolized by the shield with Christian and chivalric symbols on it. Eventually he will encounter perils that come from other members of society and from within his own human nature. Throughout, the writer questions the viability of societal values when pitted against human nature and societal imperfection. Through his excessive descriptions of luxury and revelry, the poet has already implied the weaknesses and superficiality of human society. Gawain himself seems too perfect, too idealistic to survive unscathed in the less-than-perfect human world” (Liu, p.1).

     Gawain came out perfect in all five of his tests as has been told to us by the poet. The presence of the pentangle on the shield of Gawain suggest that his virtues of a knight would be extremely necessary in order to protect him from the hardships which he would face on the path to search for the Green Knight. It is said that, “The sides of this star combine in a single unit to make the pentangle a symbol of strength, an “endless knot”. Their unflawed combination makes them strong, for each side “is linked and locked with the next / For ever and ever”. The narrator’s language also emphasizes their strength with the clinking sound of “linked and locked” as if the pentangle’s sides are rings of a strong coat of mail. Gawain’s traits that correspond to the sides of the pentangle also merge into one. Gawain’s life at this point is the perfect application of the virtues the pentangle signifies; “all these five fives [are] confirmed in this knight”. These ideals are strengthened in his life because they balance. They are not “assembled all on a side, nor asunder either, / Nor anywhere at an end, but whole and entire”. Gawain’s loyalty to these ideals make him a knight whose “equal on earth can hardly be found,” despite the fact that he is in a big pond, among “the most noble knights known under Christ” (Matias, p.1 and Anonymous, p.30). Also a fact to be considered is that the pentangle also represents the superlative features of Gawain himself.

     All the virtues of Gawain as a knight are tested by all means before he reaches the Green Knight (Glenn, p.1). Throughout his journey he faces dangers posed by him because of being alone in the wilderness, he charms all the people present in the castle by his personality and virtue, and later he also easily rejects the offers made to him by the lady of the castle. While doing all of this, Gawain also manages to remain firm and honest to his belief and religion. First of all, he portrays loyalty towards hi religion and according to the author, had he not done so he would have faced major problems throughout his journey. Secondly, Gawain showed brotherhood to those present in the castle of Bertilak and then, “Gawain must be protected in the area that was a weakness in the Pentangle’s own deviser: his pure mind. When the lord’s wife sneaks into his bedroom and sits on his bed, he immediately is aware of his danger, but “signs himself swiftly, as safer to be / with art.” After some banter back and forth, this beautiful woman, who Gawain thinks “excelled the queen [Guinevere] herself” says to him” (Matias, p.1 and Anonymous, p.43). Sir Gawain passes this test with courtesy and chivalry even though the lady makes a number of attempts with various tricks but he remains virtuous and clean.

     At times one is forced to believe that perhaps the life of Gawain is a bit superficial and his temptations might even bring about a bit of comic in the story. All through the poem he remains good keeping in mind the fact that, “he pleases the host, he eats, drinks, enjoys socializing, and even manages to be polite, courteous, and flirtatious with the woman who tries to seduce him multiple times, all while he tries to stay true to the pentangle. His experiences hint that he may be trying to take these ideals too far. Biblical stories would encourage him to flee the temptation, but he manages to stay true to all his ideals at the same time, including the ones that would suggest he flirt with her. When she tempts him, he winks, says “no” creatively, and gaily plays along with her game” (Matias, p.1). Later on, even though Gawain accepts the girdle given to him by the lady in exchange of his pentangle, he stands true by not informing her husband of her deeds, even though he breaks his promise with Bertilak but perhaps he was looking out for himself in the future where he thought he would require the girdle to save his neck and gain honor. When he finds out that the girdle could not do anything for him he realizes his mistake which the sign of a true knight.

He realizes that perhaps the existence of the girdle hurts more than helping him he realizes that saying the truth would have helped him far more. As the author says, “True men pay what they owe; No danger then in sight. You failed at the third throw, So take my tap, sir knight. For that is my belt about you” (Anonymous, p.70).  He realizes that he has somehow failed the virtues of the pentangle and he feels remorse and shame over his actions. According to sources, “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight contains a thought-provoking message. The pentangle’s ideals form the central conflict within the story, which is Gawain’s inner fight more so than his ordeal with the Green Knight. While he is indeed the greatest knight of all, while he so successfully matches up to the ideals he carries, he, like anyone, falls short. The narrator certainly uses his story to inspire knights to aim for the same ideals, but he doesn’t stop there. By including Gawain’s over-reaction to his failure, the narrator reminds us that when we do fail, we should deal with it by getting right with others, getting up, and learning from the experience” (Matias, p.1). Here it can be said that the poem presents to us a moral that one should not give up on himself if he/she makes mistakes, but one should learn from those mistakes and rectify the actions that he/she would take in the future.


     In the light of the above discussion we can hereby culminate that Sir Gawain and the Green knight is a poem that tells us the story of a knight accepting a challenge and putting up with certain virtues while fulfilling the demands of the challenge as well as exemplifying the virtues that are represented by the pentangle that is present on his shield. The Knight passes all his tests without any problems, even though he preferred his self-interest at one point.

Works Cited

Analysis of the Work. Retrieved on March 24, 2007 from: http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/iacd_99F/medieval_lit/sirgawain/analysis.html

Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (translated). United States of America. Oxford University Press. 1998.

English Epic Poems: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Monarch Notes. December 31st, 1963. Pp.1. (periodal, www.highbeam.com/doc/1P1-28048263.html)

Glenn, Jonathan. Notes on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. University of Central Arkansas. Pp.1. (literary, http://faculty.uca.edu/~jona/second/ggknotes.htm#id007)

Tison, Pugh. Gawain and God Games. Christianity and Literature. June, 2002. Pp.1. (periodal, http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb049/is_200206/ai_n5745909)

Human Heroes in Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Faerie Queen. Retrieved on March 24, 2007 from: http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=861895&lastnode_id=0

Matias, Nathan. Gawain Superstar: The Pentangle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Retrieved on March 24, 2007 from: http://www.rubberpaw.com/writings/gawainsu.html

Liu, Cecilia. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Fu Jen University English Department. 1999. Pp.1. (literary, http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/English_Literature/englit_1/gawainsum.htm)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Retrieved on March 24, 2007 from: http://csis.pace.edu/grendel/projs4a/gawain.htm

Weston, Jessie. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. University of Rochester.  June, 1998. Pp.1. (literary, http://www.lib.rochester.edu/Camelot/sggk.htm) 

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