The ongoing struggle of world views drives the conflict in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Although Christianity was the religion of the Pearl Poet and 14th Century Europeans, they struggled constantly with the world-view of The Church conflicting so heavily with their Pagan history. Paganism and Christianity were competing for their values and beliefs. The Pearl Poet used the conflicts of Sir Gawain to show the struggles of a Christian living among a Pagan world. Both the symbolic clashes and the literal struggles of Sir Gawain are used to express the contempt the Pearl Poet has for The Church of late 14th Century Europe.
Symbolic clashes appear throughout the poem. The Pearl Poet uses these clashes to show the collision of the two cultures. Starting at the very beginning, The Pearl Poet chose to open the poem at Christmas time. Christmas was a newly Christian holiday that was chosen because of its Pagan background. The Pagans already celebrated the Winter Solstice and The Church decided to make Christmas an easy transition by placing it in the middle of their two week celebration (Andrade). This holiday is a collision of the two world-views and The Pearl Poet doesn‘t hesitate to bring these dualities out right from the beginning.
The most obvious of the symbolic struggles is the shield of Sir Gawain. The Pearl Poet uses two Christian symbols on the shield. On one side is The Virgin Mary. This is The Church’s view of perfection. It would be hard even today to enter a Catholic Church without finding the image of The Virgin Mary. The other symbol is the Pentangle. The Pearl Poet goes into great detail when describing the Pentangle to make sure the reader knows it is to show perfection and completeness. The Pearl Poet also gives it Christian meaning by describing it as “…a sign that Soloman set long ago” (175). However, the Pentangle was derived in the roots of magic and superstition. The Pentangle was believed to show incorruptibility to the pagan people and would give them powers over evil. The Pentangle was a pagan symbol that was evolved into a Christian symbol by the people (Ross 22). The juxtaposition of these two symbols show the struggle between The Church and the Post-Pagan view of Christianity happening in Medieval Europe.
The Pearl Poet uses the literal struggles of Sir Gawain to further expose these dualities and to show his disregard for The Medieval Church. The 14th Century Church taught De Contemptuous Mundi, or “Contempt For The World.” The French monk Bernard De Cluny taught that Christians were to reject the “the world, the flesh, and the devil” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Sir Gawain not only interacted with these things, but he embraced them. This was the Pearl Poets way of conflicting the accepted views of The Catholic Church. Sir Gawain was faced with many temptations of the world and was able to overcome them in direct contradiction to what The Church would have taught.
The most prevalent contradiction in the journey of Sir Gawain was the temptations of Lady Bertilak. As Lady Bertilak repeatedly pursued Sir Gawain, he was able to prevail not by rejecting her, but by following his Chivalric or Moral Code. The Pearl Poet consciously ended each conflict with kisses (198-120) to show that Sir Gawain did not have contempt for the world, but instead he embraced it and still prevailed, a direct contradiction to Contemptuous Mundi.
Another central struggle of Sir Gawain was found in the gift he received from Lady Bertilak. By Sir Gawain breaking his agreement with Bertilak de Hautdesert and choosing to keep the Green Girdle he is showing an inner struggle in his faith. The Pearl Poet demonstrates the day to day struggle with materialism by illustrating Sir Gawain placing his confidence in the girdle and not in his faith that God will protect him (Raab). The Church taught to reject materials and put your faith in God alone. The Pearl Poet, again goes against the teaching of The Church and uses Sir Gawain to demonstrate his rejection of The Church. In the end, Gawain is alive because of the Green Girdle. He did not reject the girdle as The Church would have advised, but he used his possessions to his advantage. This could not be any more in contrast to the teaching of The Medieval Church, that taught to reject the world and give up your possessions to be closer to God.
The Pearl Poet brings more depth to this clash of world-views by revealing the identity of The Green Knight. The Pearl Poet describes The Green Knight in great detail to show his unmistakable completion. He is described as perfect, but also human.
One the greatest on ground in growth of his frame:
From broad neck to buttocks so bulky and thick,
And his loins and his legs so long and so great,
Half a giant on earth I hold him to be,
But believe him no less than the largest of men (Pearl 165)
This was a new concept for early British Literature. The typical Pagan antagonist was often green, as in this case, but most often not human. This was referred to in Celtic Literature as “The Green Man”. The Pearl Poet started a trend in early Christian Literature by making “The Green Man” an actual man (Doel). This is the first of many ways The Pearl Poet parallels the Green Knight to Jesus Christ.
The Green Knight was shown as a complete man who is nearly perfect in form, but The Pearl Poet also used his divine abilities to make the obvious connection. He survived death when Sir Gawain beheaded him, but continued to judge Sir Gawain with mercy in the closing of the Poem. The Pearl Poet was giving him supernatural attributes in addition to his judgmental qualities of mercy and forgiveness. Thus he becomes the supernatural, all powerful judge of unmistakable human quality, just as Jesus was the divine, all powerful God of unmistakable human quality.
When understanding the Pearl Poet’s intentions of contradicting The Medieval Church it is essential to see the Christ Figure in The Green Knight. It is also easy to see that Sir Gawain embodies the 14th Century Christian who struggles with these competing world-views. This is no more obvious than in the conclusion of the poem. Sir Gawain sees himself as a failure because of the expectation he has as a Christian. This expectation was placed on early Christians by the Church and their ideals of Contemptuous Mundi, however, The Green Knight forgives him and commends him for upholding his standards and the courage he displayed. As Megan Raab puts it, “The Green Knight outright compliment Gawain – as one of the most faultless men on Earth… Gawain of course feels differently”. He is also highly esteemed by his peers for his courage and commitment. These are two virtues held in high regard by both Pagans and Christians. Sir Gawain is rewarded by The Green Knight. He allows Sir Gawain to keep his life with the reminder of a scar and a girdle that will always keep him humble.
The Pearl Poet clearly uses Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to express his opinion on the competing world-views. Sir Gawain is able to come out victorious not because he followed what he had been told by The Church, but because he upheld his Christian values and accepted his Pagan surroundings. He did not reject the world around him, he embraced it and was still able to honor God and his fellow man. This shows the firm stance taken by The Pearl Poet in direct opposition to The Church of the 14th Century and adds much depth and value to the poem.
Doel, Geoff. The Green Man In Britain. Charleston: Tempus, 2001.
Poet, The Pearl. “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature in The Middle Ages, Vol A. 8th ed. Eds. Julia Beidhead and others. New York: 2006.