Sign of Failure and Means of Education: The Green Girdle as Religious Symbol in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
G. Stolyarov II
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2005 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007, where it received over 3,500 page views. To preserve a record of my writings following the shutdown of Yahoo! Voices in 2014, I have given this article a permanent presence on this page.
Critics interpret the green girdle's religious symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in two principal ways. Some contend that the girdle symbolizes Gawain's spiritual failures and shortcomings; others claim that it acts as a teaching tool for Gawain, enabling him to gain an improved Christian worldview. The two interpretations do not necessarily clash, and certain critics hold both simultaneously.
Sidney E. Berger considers the girdle the means by which Gawain departs from the true Christian pilgrim's way of spiritual self-improvement. For R. Allen Shoaf, the girdle symbolizes Gawain's excessive reliance on his own judgment for the interpretation of the "surfeit of signs" around him. Shoaf also discusses the girdle's positive symbolism in leading Gawain to recognize and function within his human constraints. Phillipa Hardman deems Gawain's belief in the girdle's magical properties compatible with a fourteenth-century Christian view of piety: many of the poet's contemporary readers would have believed in such protective powers. Hardman argues that the poet uses the girdle's magical association as a red herring for his readers-leading them to make Gawain's own error in misinterpreting it. Tison Pugh claims the girdle represents Gawain's cheating at Bertilak's godgame. Yet the girdle is more than a symbol of Gawain's failure: it is a means by which he receives instruction. By falling short of the godgame's standards, Gawain fulfills Bertilak's purpose of teaching him man's need for humility. Julian Wasserman and Liam O. Purdon see the girdle as the centerpiece of Gawain's sin-whose withholding makes his first confession false. Wasserman and Purdon compare Gawain's intent to commit sin after the confession to Guido da Montefeltro's quest for absolution from future sins in Dante's Inferno.
For Sidney E. Berger, the girdle symbolizes Gawain's straying from the spiritual pilgrim's proper path. By keeping the girdle, Gawain violates his agreement to reveal and give his day's winnings to Bertilak-valuing survival above his moral obligations. He is driven by "fear of losing his (physical) life, not the attitude a moral wayfarer should have" (Berger 91). By means of the girdle, Gawain departs from the conventional pilgrim of the peregrinatio-a journey of spiritual improvement.Instead of focusing on refining his spirituality, "Gawain is more practical; he refers more immediately to success in his encounter with the Green Knight" (Berger 94). Gawain is guilty of more than this-worldliness: when he initially hides the girdle, he commits "premeditated sin, since he plans already to break his vow to his host by not giving up the love-lace" (96).
The desire to conceal the girdle also causes Gawain's sinful false confession before the priest - which signifies his failure to meet the peregrinatio's religious standards: "confession is a necessary part of the peregrinatio; and the success of one's confession will determine the disposition of his soul" (Berger 97). Gawain's very reliance on the girdle instead of God to protect him signifies his departure from a proper Christian attitude: Gawain "cannot be a servant of God if he relies on the...girdle to save him" (Berger 99). Gawain presumes the girdle alone can preserve him - even when he must violate Christian precepts to use its powers. Gawain's faith in the girdle's abilities trumps his faith in God-an error he recognizes after receiving his blow from Bertilak.
But - argues Berger - Gawain does not return to being a faithful Christian upon confessing before Bertilak and resolving to wear the girdle for life. Instead, Gawain's claim that his shame can never be erased "is not the attitude of a true Christian pilgrim at the end of peregrinatio. It denies hope and faith, the effects of charity, and the efficacy of true confession" (100-101). In changing the girdle to a symbol of shame, Gawain remains bound by its power. The girdle still keeps him away from a truly Christian understanding.
R. Allen Shoaf's first interpretation of the girdle's symbolism essentially concurs with Berger. After repenting, Gawain decides to wear the girdle for life, seeing it as a "syngne of [his] surfet" (SGGK 2433), where "surfet" denotes "an excess of self-reliance, a pride of mind" (Shoaf 153). Gawain depends "on his own 'good' judgment in deciding to take the green girdle... when, in fact, his judgment...is actually corrupt" (153).
Gawain's judgment - like every man's - is "corrupt" because it falls short of the ability to gain accurate knowledge from the myriad symbols, the "surfeit of signs that beset the Arthurian kingdom and... challenge its capacity to interpret them" (Shoaf 153). The text is so replete with symbols that the characters' minds are insufficient to grasp the meaning of each. Each symbol also has a surfeit of possible meanings-especially the girdle, which "signifies something different to everyone" (Shoaf 155). Gawain's inability to interpret these meanings renders the girdle his "sign of surfeit."
Unlike Berger, Shoaf does not see the girdle's religious symbolism as solely negative. Illustrating this, Shoaf explores the poet's use of knots to describe the pentangle and girdle. The pentangle is a perfect, divinely ordained, impossible-to-untie knot, "to some extent defying interpretation" (160). While Gawain remains the knight of the pentangle, he strives for the impossible: the absolute, final, comprehensive interpretation of everything-a task for which only a divine judgment can suffice.
The girdle, however, forms a manmade knot, easy to tie and untie, "more open and free and possibly... easier to interpret" (Shoaf 160). Knots like the girdle's do not reach geometric perfection, but "they will submit to analysis" (Shoaf 165). As Gawain becomes the knight of the girdle, his new symbol liberates his mind from pursuing the one absolute answer. Instead, Gawain accepts "indeterminacy and... pluralism of interpretation" (166)-which facilitate efficacious human analysis. Shoaf, unlike Berger, does not think the girdle keeps Gawain froma proper Christian understanding: it empowers Gawain to operate within Christian-perceived limits to human judgment.
In contrast to Berger, Phillipa Hardman does not see Gawain's departure from Christianity in the girdle. Hardman claims that many of the poet's contemporaries believed in girdles' protective powers. Charlemagne romances, stories of the Virgin Mary, "manuscript illumination, wall painting, embroidery, sculpture, and stained glass" (Hardman 255) told of girdles' abilities to save their possessors from physical harm.
The perception of girdles as magical did not clash with a medieval Christian worldview. To many fourteenth-century Christians, the girdle served a similar function to "written amulets bearing the names of God for protection from harm, a 'magical' belief not necessarily at odds with conventional Christian piety" (Hardman 255). Girdles were often thought to give "magical protection against being hacked to death" (255). While Berger claims that Gawain's trust in the protective powers of the girdle necessarily implies his turning away from God, Hardman disagrees. Gawain-like many of the poet's contemporaries-might have perceived the girdle's use as an extension of his faith.
Hardman interprets Gawain's first confession to stem from - not conflict with - his acceptance of the girdle. The medieval user of magic objects thought they would be efficacious if their user was "clean shriven and out of deadly sin" (256). Gawain thinks the girdle could save his life only if he were cleansed of all sin beforehand. To make the girdle work, Gawain desires to confess his sins before meeting the Green Knight.
Hardman argues that the poet deliberately uses the magical associations of items like the girdle as "red herrings" (258). Because the fourteenth-century reader would have expected the girdle to actually protect Gawain from harm, he would have wrongly anticipated its function in the story. The girdle is no genuine magical item, but Bertilak's elaborate test for Gawain. The poet leads Gawain and the reader to misjudge the girdle at first. He conveys a Christian lesson to his readers by showing them that they are just as fallible as Gawain himself. Like Shoaf, Hardman thinks the poet uses the girdle to lead Gawain and the reader toward a more Christian understanding of human limitations.
Tison Pugh, like Berger, considers the girdle's meaning to oppose Christianity's teachings. Pugh discusses the girdle's role in a godgame-where one player acts as a "god" figure and pursues an overarching strategy that entangles the other unsuspecting player in the game. The "god" figure uses his position in the game didactically: in the poem, Bertilak plays such a role, conveying to Gawain man's inherent imperfection.
Bertilak involves Gawain in the godgame of Christianity, which uses the pentangle to represent the ideal knight-subjecting Gawain to standards his actions cannot match. Bertilak as a "god" figure uses an overarching strategy in the godgame. Gawain lacks such a strategy; his "only recourse is to cheat by withholding the girdle" (Pugh 533). In cheating, Gawain only betrays his ignorance of the godgame's greater dynamic. Gawain's violation of his contractual promise "highlight[s] his inability to meet the standards of his pentangle and... be the man...the pentangle affirms him to be" (Pugh 534). By using the girdle to cheat at the godgame, Gawain loses - yet, because Bertilak designed the game with a didactic purpose, Gawain gains by learning why he lost.
The girdle is both a symbol of Gawain's cheating and a teaching tool for Gawain-through which the godgame "discloses itself not to be an agonistic competition but a revelatory experience" (Pugh 538). The game facilitates Gawain's search for a new set of principles: it "strips [him] of his former chivalric identity and forces him to find a new spiritual identity based upon humility" (Pugh 540). Pugh's interpretation contains elements of both Berger's view of the girdle as anti-Christian and Shoaf's perception of the girdle as a means for Gawain to grasp essential Christian truths.
Pugh disagrees with Hardman's view that Gawain's first confession is compatible with his acceptance of the girdle. For Pugh, Gawain's "withhold[ing of] the girdle from his confessor [is] an apparent breach of the rules of Christianity" (540). Pugh goes further to claim-like Berger-that "Gawain rejects God's grace to accept the green girdle" (540)--placing his faith in the girdle's protective power rather than in God's grace alone. By accepting the girdle, Gawain has cheated and already lost at Christianity's godgame.
Julian Wasserman and Liam O. Purdon agree with Berger and Pugh that Gawain's acceptance of the girdle fundamentally conflicts with his confession. Wasserman and Purdon note "a striking juxtaposition between the act of hiding away the girdle and the act of disclosure, which is confession" (647). In genuine confession, "nothing must be held back" (647-648), but Gawain holds the girdle back from his confessor and Bertilak. While Gawain holds back the girdle, his sins cannot be cleansed: "Gawain is only pronounced '[clean]' when he offers the girdle and confession with what the Green Knight explicitly terms '[good will]' at the end of the poem" (650).
Wasserman and Purdon compare Gawain's false confession to Guido da Montefeltro's attempt to cleanse his sins in advance in Dante's Inferno. Both Gawain and Guido lack the necessary prerequisite for genuine confession: contrition. Guido's confession enables him not to be contrite about counseling deceit. Gawain's confession is false "because he intends to break his promise - sworn 'by God' - to his host" (650). In neither case can there be true repentance, since those who confessed proceed to sin afterward; the false confession only lifts the burden of contrition from their minds.
During his first confession, Gawain is enthusiastic, not contrite, about keeping the girdle; he remains sinful while holds it back. Wasserman and Purdon argue that "the girdle's open display, rather than its hidden status, is Gawain's mark of spiritual growth" (659). Disclosed, the girdle becomes a "token of repentance" (659): it enables Gawain to recognize and turn back from sin. Like Shoaf and Pugh, Wasserman and Purdon view the girdle to signify Gawain's failure and his spiritual education.
Analysts of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight interpret the girdle's representation of Gawain's spiritual failure from a variety of perspectives: the girdle represents Gawain's spiritual departure from the peregrinatio, excessive reliance on his own judgment, inability to fully interpret the symbols around him, susceptibility to red-herring magical connotations, cheating at godgames, and his false confession. Multiple views of the girdle's didactic religious symbolism also exist: it liberates Gawain from trying to match the divine, informs him of his human constraints, teaches him humility, and-when revealed-allows him to repent. Virtually all the critics agree that Gawain erred spiritually in accepting the girdle, yet some-especially Shoaf, Pugh, Wasserman, and Purdon-also see the girdle as facilitating Gawain's way out of his predicament.
Personal Reflections on the Critics' Views
Examining the text and the green girdle from an atheistic perspective, I necessarily derive fundamentally different implications from them than a Christian reader or critic would. For example, I disagree with Berger that Gawain's valuation of his own survival necessarily opposes his spiritual well-being or his moral integrity in upholding contracts. Rather, Berger falls into the same trap that Gawain himself does in thinking the two values mutually exclusive. By letting Gawain live because of his generally honorable conduct, Bertilak shows him a mutually reinforcing relationship between integrity and survival. In giving Gawain a slight blow on the neck, Bertilak also demonstrates that one's physical suffering comes in proportion to one's violation of one's word. Berger wrongly suggests that spiritual integrity and the quest for physical self-preservation are necessarily at odds, and that the latter is necessarily an improper goal for one who seeks spiritual betterment. I see no such conflict; morality and survival do not clash in the poem. I view the girdle as the symbol of Gawain's perceived false dichotomy between integrity and survival-since by accepting the girdle Gawain locks himself in a double bind of having to break his promise to someone.
In my judgment, Shoaf's argument suffers from a non sequitur. He claims that the surfeit of symbols necessarily precludes man from accurately interpreting each one-yet he then proceeds to give the interpretations of symbols that Gawain and Arthur's court miss. This implies that these interpretations could be overlooked-and are by Gawain and the court. However, they do not have to be overlooked, since Shoaf - also a fallible human being - is able to meaningfully interpret them. Gawain's error in failing to comprehend the symbolism of the girdle at first was a particular mistake - saying nothing of the general human condition. Man can make errors; he does not have to make them. Just as he can choose to interpret wrongly or not interpret at all, he can also choose to interpret correctly. I consider Gawain to have been mistaken in interpreting the girdle in the context of the survival-integrity dichotomy-an error Gawain later recognizes and repents. Man's inability to be right does not follow from his ability to be wrong. Rather, man can correct his mistakes and obtain absolute factual and moral knowledge-as Gawain has done.
I find Hardman's historically rooted analysis of the poet's use of the girdle to offer interesting insights into the associations the fourteenth-century reader would have made with that symbol. The twenty-first-century reader would need to suspend his disbelief in order to attribute - rightly or wrongly - any magic powers to the girdle. For the poet's contemporaries, this attribution would have been much more realistic. They would have been more susceptible to the poet's "red herring" and misled into believing - along with Gawain - in the girdle's efficacy as a means of protection.
I also find appealing Pugh's interpretation of the girdle as the symbol of Gawain's cheating in Bertilak's godgame. The godgame has an overarching didactic purpose, though I disagree with Pugh as to what that purpose is. Pugh views the godgame as teaching Gawain the need for humility and the impossibility of human perfection; I think the game ultimately demonstrates to Gawain that survival and integrity do not conflict. Gawain accepts the girdle under the assumption that he would have to sacrifice his integrity in order to survive. The girdle thus violates the godgame's basic premise and symbolizes Gawain's cheating-not only in terms of the rules of the game, but also of the rules of reality, since reality admits no survival-integrity dichotomy.
Wasserman and Purdon correctly see the girdle as fundamentally incompatible with Gawain's first confession-even if one views the confession in a non-religious context. I consider Gawain to be guilty not of religious sin, but of this-worldly moral error in initially accepting the girdle. Still, confessing one's error of judgment implies acknowledging it; acknowledging one's error is the first step toward correcting it. A confession that either refuses to acknowledge a given error or seeks to absolve one of future error has no constructive purpose-because he who confesses will persist in the error. A confession bears any fruit only if it leads one to reject the errors in one's judgment and actions. Gawain's first confession is false, because rejecting his error would have necessitated suffering the already irreversible consequences of his initial acceptance of the girdle.
Berger, Sidney E. "Gawain's Departure from the Peregrinatio." Essays in Medieval Studies 2 (1985): 86-106. Loyola University Chicago. 24 Nov. 2005 .
Hardman, Phillipa. "Gawain's Practice of Piety in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Medium Aevum 68.2 (1999): 247-67. OCLC FirstSearch. 24 Nov. 2005 .
Pugh, Tison. "Gawain and the Godgames." Christianity and Literature 51.4 (2002): 525-51. Shoaf, R. Allen. "The 'Syngne of Surfet' and the Surfeit of Signs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." In The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition. Ed. Christopher Baswell and William Sharpe. New York: Garland, 1988. 152-69. University of Florida. 24 Nov. 2005 http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/rashoaf/gawain/surfram.htm>.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ed. and trans. James Winny. New York: Broadview, 2004.
Wasserman, Julian, and Liam O. Purdon. "Sir Guido and the Green Light: Confession in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Inferno XXVII." Neophilologus 84 (2000): 647-666.
Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II) is an actuary, science-fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress.
In December 2013, Mr. Stolyarov published Death is Wrong, an ambitious children’s book on life extension illustrated by his wife Wendy. Death is Wrong can be found on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.
Mr. Stolyarov has contributed articles to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), The Wave Chronicle, Le Quebecois Libre, Brighter Brains Institute, Immortal Life, Enter Stage Right, Rebirth of Reason, The Liberal Institute, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
In an effort to assist the spread of rational ideas,
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