Symbols. The Centrality of Symbolic Expression in Sir Gawain.
Symbols were of great importance to the medieval world. Everything in the world — objects, people, events — had symbolic weight. Today, in 2009, we still live in a world that we understand through symbolic expression, but on a different level than the Middle Ages.
What is the Symbol?
Every critic, scholar, theologian, hermeneuticist has his or her own interpretation of the symbol, its function and expression. But there is general agreement that the symbol is an object, entity, image, mark (etc) that represents something else by resemblance, association or convention. There are myriad forms in which symbols become manifest, a great deal of them which we recognize reflexively. For instance, we instinctively know the red means stop, whereas green means go. This is color symbolism at the simplest. We know that a yellow diamond shaped sign with a black zig-zag arrow means that the road ahead will have several twists and turns.
On a more c0mplex end of symbolism, all language is essentially symbolic. Words are not the objects themselves which they represent. Words are images /marks / illustrations that represent the thing they signify. In other words, the word “cat” is not the cat itself, but represents the object or idea of a cat.
Paul Tillich, the early twentieth century existential theologian, was one of the most cogent writer concerning symbolism. He made a crucial claim about symbols. According to Tillich, whereas a sign merely points to the thing for which it refers, a symbol signifies and participates in that which it signifies. For example, the American flag is a piece of cloth, a mere object. Yet, it signifies a whole shit load of concepts and emotions. But when we see or address the flag, it does not remain separate from the things it represents. The flag becomes almost one in the same with that which it represents, participating in the ideas of freedom, equality, patriotism, etc. (Sometime such participation can create interpretive friction. Consider the huge flag-burning debate in the 1980s that cost Michael Dukakis the presidency. Now thinking of this, consider the Eucharist debates during the Reformation that tore Europe nearly apart. Does the bread and wine become the body and blood, or does it symbolize the body and blood of Christ only by representing it?)
The Symbolic Mind of the Middle Ages
The mind and the eyes of people in the Middle Ages saw the world through the lens of Christianity, and the Church’s vast array of symbols. Bible interpretation of the early Church in particular developed the notion that people, objects and events all have hidden and latent meaning. A great deal of symbolic and metaphorical understanding of literary interpretation derives from such figures as St. Augustine, who brought coherence and unity between the Old and New Testaments by claiming that everything in the Old Testament are “figures” or “types” that foreshadow the events (particularly Christ) of the New Testament.
Augustine and other early Church fathers developed a sacramental theology, in which everything becomes a signifier for a greater and transcendent Truth of God. As the years passed up until the time we are currently studying, the 1300s, symbolic language had become extremely complex and diffuse within the vision and thought of everyone. It spilled over into “fringe” sorts of realms, too, like omens, superstitions, numerology, prognostications. Augustine’s obsession with the Trinity compelled him to see threes and triples in everything in life, and this sort of thinking led many thinkers to see significance and coincidences in all kinds of numbers. Apocalyptic date-setting become not only popular, but could lead to mass panic at certain periods in history, like the year 1000, 1666, 2000, and, as I understand it, whatever year coming up soon that everyone claims that Mayans predicted the world would end.Catholicism had developed lengthy interpretations of the numbers one through ten that had vast theological meanings.
Bottom line, most people in the Middle Ages saw the world around them in terms of symbols. They were guided by a visual world in which everything in nature became a sign for something transcendent, much like the way in which road-signs guide us in our travels.
Symbols and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The poet made Sir Gawain a symbol-rich text, both because of the allegorical significance he / she tried to express, and because symbolic language was second-nature. Often symbols in the poem are not necessarily important because of what they represent, but whether or not the characters recognize them. I dwelt upon the entrance of the Green Knight into Camelot because it is important to realize how much King Arthur and his Knights do not recognize the blatant symbolism that accompanies their visitor. This blindness instantly reveals Camelot’s youth, but it also represents how Camelot needs to take their eyes away from those “earthly” things that make them love life so much, and direct their vision toward higher Christian truths and values.
Importantly, Gawain fails to recognize symbolism that glares him in the face during his journey. The poet utilizes a great deal of dramatic irony to reveal symbolic ignorance. Dramatic irony means when a poet shows a protagonist(s) unaware of ideas or events that are clearly apparent to the reader. One of the most clear uses of dramatic irony is the horror movie motif of a woman wandering through a house unaware of the zombie axe murderer that we know has crept into her bedroom (or some variation of this scenario). The most famous use of dramatic irony is the ancient Greek play Oedipus the King. Oedipus commands a ruthless investigation of the kingdom to find the murderer, while the whole time we know that Oedipus is, ironically, looking for himself.
When a Castle appears in an oasis of “green” after Gawain prays for salvation, we know that this must be somehow part of the GREEN Knight, although Gawain seems ignorant. The Baron’s Game of Exchange does not seem to make Gawain suspicious.
The crucial time that Gawain seems to recognize the symbolic significance of something is when the Lady offers him the magical green girdle. Importantly, though, Gawain accepts it anyhow.
Entry filed under: British Literature.