In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, what do the "five wits," "five fingers," and "five joys of Mary" mean in the pentangle on Sir Gawain's shield?

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Michael Otis | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th century Middle English alliterative romance recounting an adventure of Gawain, an Arthurian knight. The anonymous author goes out of his way - taking 46 lines of the poem - to explicate the symbolism of the pentangle embossed on the knight's shield: "And why the pentangle is proper to that peerless prince / I intend now to tell, though detain me it must.'' The poet does this for a reason that supplies the key to understanding the entire work: The pentangle as a whole and in its details betokens the truth; the reader is lead throughout the rest of the poem to ascertain how well or how poorly Gawain cleaves to this standard of truth. But it is also important to understand that Gawain himself assesses his chivalric conduct by the standard of the pentangle. He strives to attain perfect virtue or as shown by the symbol of perfection - the five-pointed, five-fold pentangle. Three details suffice to illustrate this: He is perpetually vigilant, that is "faultless in his five senses [wits]"; dexterous, that is never failing "in his five fingers"; and recollected, that is "all his force was founded on the five joys [the mysteries of Christ] / That the high Queen of heaven had in her child.'