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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, does green symbolize cowardice or any negative trait?

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In the medieval poem titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the color green has complex associations. When the beautiful lady offers Gawain her green sash to wear secretly before he proceeds to his encounter with the frightening Green Knight, she tells Gawain that the sash can protect anyone who wears it from being killed:

“For the man that possesses this piece of silk,

If he bore it on his body, belted about,

There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down,

For he could not be killed by any craft on earth.” (1851-54; Marie Boroff translation)

The lady, then, appeals to Gawain’s fear of dying – a natural human fear that nearly all people share. Whether this fear should be classified as cowardice is another question. Gawain goes to confession immediately after he receives the sash and apparently confesses all his misdeeds and asks for forgiveness, but apparently he does not confess that he is deceiving the lady’s husband by keeping the sash (1876-84). If he had confessed that fact, presumably he would have ceased hiding the sash. Clearly he does not confess to the lady’s husband that he is secretly wearing the sash (1938-51), nor does he confess that fact later to the servant who leads him in the direction of the Green Knight’s chapel (2126-59). Likewise, Gawain never tells the Green Knight himself that he is wearing the sash, even though he has plenty of opportunities to do so if he so desires (2239-2357).

On numerous occasions, then, Gawain has chances to confess his deception, but cowardice of various sorts prevents him from doing so. He is afraid to tell anyone that he has taken out this extra insurance policy. He is so (understandably) desperate to live that he deceives, in turn, the priest, the host, the servant, and the Green Knight about his wearing of the sash. Yet the Green Knight, of course, is not really deceived at all, as he reveals in lines 2358-68. However, it is important to emphasize that the Green Knight does not consider the sash a sign of Gawain’s cowardice. Instead, the Knight comments that the cause of Gawain’s deception

. . . was not cunning, nor courtship either,

But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame.” (2367-68)

It is actually Gawain himself who condemns himself of cowardice (2374), and it is Gawain himself who specifically declares that the green sash is the symbol of his cowardice (2378-84). He repeats this declaration when he returns to Arthur’s court (2505-10). It is Gawain – and no one else – who associates the color green with the trait of cowardice. The Green Knight is more than willing to forgive Gawain, and so are Arthur and the rest of the court (2513-22). Rather than seeing the green sash as a symbol of cowardice, they see it as a symbol of common human fallibility and thus as a symbolic rebuke to any kind of human arrogance or pride. The court had displayed such pride at the very beginning of the poem, but the Green Knight has helped cure them of it and thus has revealed the true meaning of the color green in this poem: it is a symbol of renewal and eternal life and is thus perfectly appropriate to a poem set at Christmastime.

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