The Role of Colors in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval poem by an unknown author dated by the late 14th century. Some of the colors frequently mentioned in this poem have a symbolic meaning. A great semantic load assigned to different colors in medieval literature is known to researchers: it “provided important information about objects” and exposed “moral and spiritual connotations” (Wooglar 1). The colors in the poem also have different shades of meanings that are important for revealing the characters and a deeper understanding of the plot. Thus, by using green and gold colors, the author put an additional emphasis on such layer of meaning expressed in the text as a conflict between chivalry values and human nature.

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Green color plays the central role in the poem since one of the main characters, the Green Knight, is associated with it: he has a green horse, a green axe, and green skin. He is described as an entirely green: “all green was this man” (Sir Gawain 8). There are different ways to understand the symbolic meaning of the green color in this poem. For example, for a medieval person, green color could mean the power of nature, youth, lust and some wild, animal powers. It also reminds of the Green Man, a popular folk character with a vague source (Coley 13). This character is often associated with some pre-Christian beliefs and rebirth of the nature in spring, whereas the Green Knight seems to be closer to nature than to people. The Green Knight has superficial powers: when Sir Gawain cuts off his head, he stays alive, takes his head and goes away, which resembles of plants that can grow after having been cut.

In the end of the poem, Sir Gawain secretly receives a green and golden silken belt and gains victory over the Green Knight, but it turns out that the belt was the Green Knight’s property and that the Knight was the owner of the castle where Sir Gawain stayed before. Sir Gawain is ashamed that he tried to survive using some tricks. In the end of the poem, other knights decide to make the green belt the symbol that would remind them of the importance of fair play. Also, color green is the symbol of “honor and shame” (Harbus 2). In the beginning of the poem is associated with some primordial powers, acquires a new meaning: honesty.

Another color that appears in the text very often is gold. Sir Gawain, a young, but noble and brave knight, has golden elements in his armor. He also carries a shield “with the Pentagle in pure gold” (Sir Gawain 44). This color expresses nobility and, perhaps, self-confidence that the knight displayed in the beginning of the poem. A lady in the castle where Sir Gawain stays offers him a golden ring as a gift but Sir Gawain refuses and wants to take only a belt (which is golden and green). Thus, the author shows that the knight somehow betrays his “golden” qualities (nobility and fairness), deciding to cheat in order to stay alive. As a result, he acquires some “green”, “wild” qualities, such a desire to survive beyond any moral principles.

Thus, the contrast between red and green colors reveals one of the main conflicts of the poem: the confrontation between chivalry and wild, chaotic powers of nature that lie in the depth of a knight’s personality and should be struggled with. It proves the thesis that the colors reveal the sense of characters’ actions and emphasize the importance of staying honest, conveyed by the author.

Works Cited

Coley, David K. Diaspora, Neighborhood, Empire: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Exemplaria, 2020.

Harbus, Antonina. “Emotion and Narrative Empathy in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” English Studies, vol. 97, no. 6, 2016, pp. 594–607, doi:10.1080/0013838x.2016.1183929.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated by Brain Stone. , Penguin, 1974.

Woolgar, Chris. “Medieval Food and Colour.” Journal of Medieval History, vol. 44, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1–20, doi:10.1080/03044181.2017.1401391.

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