The color green has appeared in many different works over the years, and has been said to symbolize everything from nature to death to the devil. One of the most prominent works to feature the color green is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the classic tale of a knight whose honor and self-control in the face of temptation is tested when a mysterious challenger arrives in King Arthur’s court. The poem has been upheld as a purely Christian poem that enforces Christian ideals of chivalry and honor. The meaning of the ending of the poem, however, has long been in debate. The reveal of the true identity of the Green Knight and Sir Gawain’s decision to wear the green girdle as a badge of shame have split scholars on the meaning for decades. However, I surmise that the poem can be best understood by viewing the Green Knight as an incarnation of God, with his complex morality being explained by the similarly complex nature of the symbolism of the color green. Simply put, the meaning of the color of the Green Knight is not static throughout the poem, but it’s meaning is fluid depending on the scene, with the color overall being used as a sign of bad luck.
The story begins when the Green Knight appears suddenly in King Arthur’s court during a festival, and challenges anyone to come and strike him. There is a lengthy description of the Green Knight, where Gawain describes him as a giant, detailing his green skin, hair, and green horse. The knight then speaks directly to Arthur, asking for a game that will define the course of the story.
“I’m clothed for peace, not kitted out for conflict.
But if you’re half as honorable as I’ve heard folk say
You’ll gracefully grant me this game which I ask for
By right” (143).
Of course Gawain takes the challenge, and strikes the knight according to the rules according to the rules laid out by the knight himself. The Green Knight’s head falls, only for him to pick it back up, declare to Gawain that he is to meet him again at the Green Chapel in one year. King Arthur and his men are quick to laugh the incident off, but Gawain now must stick to his word and confront the supernatural knight in one year.
In this passage we are introduced to a green knight, a green horse, and a green chapel. The color green has been used throughout history to symbolize nature, and all things associated with nature, such as fertility and rebirth, or baptism. This would help explain why the Green Knight is described as holding a green holly branch. He is meant to symbolize nature, and his challenge to Gawain and King Arthur is, while the bidding of Arthur’s sister Morgan le Fay, is meant to showcase the unpredictability of nature. This idea can also be backed up by the fact that the Green Knight’s beard is compared to a bush during Gawain’s description of him when he enters the court. “The fellow in green was in fine fettle…plus a bushy green beard growing down to his breast” (141). However, the color has also been used to symbolize love, lust, the supernatural, decay, evil, death, and even the devil. Green is also the color of healing, which could reflect the knight’s immortality showcased when Gawain is allowed to strike him. His head falls, but the man does not die, he simply picks it up, declares the time and place that Gawain is to meet him, and walks off.
This blatant contradiction in meaning raises questions about the meaning of The Green Knight being green. Ultimately he is revealed to be the lord of the castle Gawain stayed in before making it to the Green Chapel, Bertilak de Hadesert. The whole game is revealed to have been a trick by Arthur’s sister Morgan le Fay, done in order to test the mantle of her brother’s knights. This seems like a noble enough cause, which would erase any notion that the Green Knight is an incarnation of the devil. However, Morgan le Fay’s scheme had another propose; she hoped to scare Guinevere, Arthur’s queen, to death. In this, the Green Knight’s motives become just as muddled in a moral gray zone as the meaning of the green color of his skin, garments, and horse. John Hutchings addresses the idea of colors having opposing meanings in his article “Folklore and Symbolism of Green.” He says, “Such contradictory usage can be explained through positing a Principle of Singularity which states that: ‘at any one time, to any one person, a colour symbolizes only one emotion or feeling regardless of what that colour may symbolize to another person or to the same person on another occasion’” (55). If a color can take on a different meaning to a person depending on the situation, so too can a color’s intended symbolism in a piece vary depending on the time and ideology of the author. This leads back to the question, what does the green color of the Green Knight mean? Is he a reminder of the unpredictability of nature, an incarnation of the devil, or some sort of Jesus figure sent to forgive Gawain of his sins (as he does in the Green Chapel.)
It is undeniable that the Green Knight is shown as the antagonist of the story. While his reveal at the end of the story does show that his motives may in fact be noble, testing Sir Gawain and teaching him the important of chivalry, he is still working for the enemy. Morgan le Fay is a long time enemy of King Arthur, and her plot was intended both to test Arthur’s knights and bring about the death of Guinevere. In this, the Green Knight is the villain of the story, being controlled by a larger villain in the background to be told in another tale in a Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine type relationship. Just as the color green has multiple symbolic connotations, so does the Green Knight’s moral standing. Does this make the Green Knight an incarnation of the devil? “Green is also the colour of devils and demons…As a hunter who wears green to hide among the greenery so that he may kill animals sheltering there, so the devil wears green to hide himself among men so that he may capture their souls” (Hutchings 59). While the Green Knight doesn’t hide himself in his greenness, in fact he uses it to draw attention to himself; he hides his true identity in his greenness, as well as his true motives. Much in the same way that Lucifer tempted Adam and Eve with the apple of knowledge the Green Knight actively seeks to corrupt Sir Gawain by tempting him with his wife. While both Adam and Eve are fully corrupted, eating the apple and falling for the devil’s trap, Sir Gawain only moderately fails his test. He exchanges kisses with the knight’s wife, and accepts the gift of her girdle, which she promises will protect him from harm.
With the accepting of the girdle Gawain has broken the rules of the game and has compromised his honor as a knight. He has lost the game; the devil (if he is one) has won. However, the knight then goes on to explain to Gawain what he has done wrong, and then forgives him of his sins, impressed by his strength. This is where the argument for the Green Knight being a devil fails. The devil does not pardon the people whose souls he sets out to steal. No, he ensnares them in his trap and then consumes them. Here, however, we have the knight forgiving Gawain of his flaws. He says:
““As a peral is more prized tha a pea which is white,
in good faith so is Gawain, amongst gallant knights.
But a little thing more-it was loyalty that you lacked:
Not because you’re wicked or a womanizer, or worse,
But you loved your own life; so I blame you less”” (185).
These are not the words of a devil having successfully beaten his prey. No, these words are more akin to those of a priest, forgiving a wayward believer for his transgressions. When Gawain realizes the true nature of the game he has been put through, he ask what he can do to clear his name, to clean himself of the sins he has committed. The Green Knight answers with a laugh.
“”The harm which you have caused me is wholly healed.
By confessing your failings you are free from fault
And have openly paid penance at the point of my axe.
I declare you purged, as polished and as pure
As the day you were born, without blemish or blame” (185, 186).
With this, the knight has gone from a being of nature, to a devil, to a priestly or divine figure. No force of nature would pardon a human in such a way as this. Nature is a force that does not judge, it simply does. If the Green Knight were truly a representation of nature, than I surmise that Sir Gawain would not have made it through their encounter in the Green Chapel. He would have been beheaded cleanly and simply. The knight cannot be a devil either, as no devil tricks his prey, has him trapped within the rules of a game he agreed to, and then pardons him of any and all wrongdoings. Devils are not being the type to pardon, nor are they even capable of doing such a thing. Only God or a man whose life has been devoted to God can pardon a man of his sins. If this is true, than the Green Knight is either none of these things, or all of them.
Must it really be merely one or the other? Can the Green Knight not be all of these things, and at the same time none of them? The idea brings back the quote from John Hutchins, “Such contradictory usage can be explained through positing a Principle of Singularity which states that: ‘at any one time, to any one person, a colour symbolizes only one emotion or feeling regardless of what that colour may symbolize to another person or to the same person on another occasion’” (55). The color green means many things at different times to different people, as does the Green Knight mean represent different things to Gawain at different points of the story. When he rides into the festival and challenges Arthur he represents a force of nature, come to showcase his power and test the powers of the men ruling over the land. During his trials with Lady Bertilak the Green Knight is a trickster devil, out to corrupt the chivalrous knight. Then, in the Green Chapel he is a Godly man, capable of whipping away sins.
Just as the meaning of the color green is in constant flux, so to is the role of the Green Knight. He is a force of nature, a trickster who brings about a fall, and a man of forgiveness. He is meant to be God. God himself has come down to test Arthur and his knights, using Morgan le Fay and her nefarious schemes for his own agenda. Despite Sir Gawain’s failings, God has judged him to be good, and a man of good heart. This then extends to Arthur and his court. Upon learning of the Green Knight’s identity and what all has happened to him, Sir Gawain begins to riddle off a list of other famous men who in the bible had their downfall brought upon them by women.
“But no wonder if a fool finds his way into folly
and be wiped of his wits by womanly guile-
it’s the way of the world. Adam fell because of a woman,
and Soloman because of several, and as for Samson,
Delilah was his downfall, and afterwards David
was bamboozled by Bathsheba and bore the grief.
All wrecked and ruined by their wrongs; if only
we could love our ladies without believing their lies.
And those were foremost of all whom fortune favored,
excellent beyond all other existing under heaven.”
Of course all of these examples fall apart under close observation. Adam ate the apple of his own accord, King Solomon took foreign wives of his own will, and David committed adultery of his own will. The part with King Solomon an also be seen as a foreshadowing of things to come for King Arthur’s court. The judgment of God given to Gawain and extended to Arthur’s court falls apart after Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot, just as happened when David committed adultery with Bathsheba. Further evidence supporting the Green Knight to be God himself; come to test Arthur and his knights of the round.
Throughout the poem the Green Knight takes on many different meanings, as does the color green, however, one meaning of the color follows Gawain throughout the entirety of the poem; bad luck. Everywhere the color shows up Gawain is put through a trial, forced to endure the advances of a married woman or face being beheaded. This streak of bad luck begins when the Green Knight rides into the festival, and Gawain offers himself as the person to participate in the knight’s game. Gawain’s bad luck is another piece of evidence towards the Green Knight’s true identity as the Christian God. In the bible, it is aid that Job was tested by the devil, allowed by God, through a series of trials. His sons were taken from him, his animals, and his health. Yet he pulled through a believer and these things were restored to him. While not as extreme as what was done to Job in the biblical story, both characters were being tested to prove their worth and faith in God. Having everything in his life threatened by the Green Knight’s scheme tests Sir Gawain, and although he fails, he makes it through, haven been forgiven by the knight.
The true nature of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is hard to decipher when taking it in for the first time. The Green Knight’s true motivations and the ending are ambiguous, as the conclusion given is not a clean cut one where the person presented as the antagonist to our protagonist was defeated. Instead we are treated to a twist of sorts, and the knight that challenges the honorable Sir Gawain was in fact testing him the whole time. The story makes the most sense when examining it from the symbolic meaning of the color green. The color is very prominent in the poem, with the driving force of the poem being completely green from head to toe. While the significance of the knight’s unusual color can be hard to grasps at first, the history of the color helps give away the true meaning behind the mysterious knight and his challenge to Arthur’s court. In accepting the Green Knight’s challenge, Sir Gawain was in truth accepting a trial by God. Green has been used to represent nature, evil, god, and many other things throughout history, especially in the English-speaking region of this time. Just as the color green was used to symbolize different things during different times and in different context, the Green Knight represents a different obstacle to Gawain at different points in the story. He represents a force of nature, a challenger, and a cleansing priest. The only person who can be all of those things is God. When Gawain fails, he is not mad. No, in fact he is impressed at how he withstood the temptation of the Lady Bertilak and the bad luck trials he had subjected the man too. The Green Knight is a force of nature, but above nature. He is God, and Sir Gawain failed his test, but was forgiven, because that is what God does.
Hutchings, John. “Folklore And Symbolism Of Green.” Folklore 108.1/2 (1997): 55. Literary Reference Center. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. 9. Julia
Reidhead. New York, NY. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. 137-188. Print.