illustration of a green shield with an ornate design

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Pearl-Poet

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How is the shield a symbol of both moral and physical protection in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

The pentangle is a symbol of both the knightly virtues Sir Gawain should practice and the protection that those virtues provide. The pentangle also represents the five wounds Christ suffered on the cross, as well as the Virgin Mary who helped him in his time of need.

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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain's shield symbolizes both the moral and physical virtues that protect the knight, as well as the virtues the knight is supposed to embody. The narrator explains as follows the symbolism of Sir Gawain's pentangle.

Morally, it is a Christian religious symbol with several layers of meaning. First, the five points of the pentangle each have five aspects of their own. One group of five represents the five wounds that Christ suffered on the cross. Another group of five represents the five joys, which are the Christian Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption, all closely linked with the Virgin Mary. Looking at the pentangle reminds Gawain of Christ's suffering and of his own moral obligations. Because of his deep love of Mary, Gawain also has her portrait painted on the "greater half of the shield," so he can glance at her and gain courage when he needs it.

The pentangle acts, too, as a symbol of secular or physical protection in that another group of five represents the five knightly virtues that Sir Gawain possesses. These are "more surely set upon that warrior than any other" and are as follows: generosity, fellowship (which includes the concept of empathy), chastity, courtesy, and piety. These are virtues expected to be practiced by all of the warriors of the Round Table, and they will be put to test by the Green Knight.

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