A Knight of God or the Goddess?: Rethinking Religious Syncretism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Arthuriana, 17.3: 31–55 (Fall 2007)

By Larissa Tracy

Since its first modern publication in 1839, Sir Gawain Green Knight has been interpreted as a purely Christian poem, one that embodies the rational virtues of Christian chivalry and righteousness[i] or penitential doctrine.[ii] In the poem, the evil sorceress,[iii] or reformer of sexual immorality,[iv] orchestrates an evil plot to test the renown and reputation of Arthur’s court and, if she is lucky, to kill her archrival Guinevere. But over the years, scholars have illuminated the multi-faceted nature of medieval society, demonstrating that medieval literature does not necessarily fit into a dominant Christian mold from which all other religious traditions were erased.[v] They have broadened their view of the Middle Ages and have begun to see a more tolerant society where once critics saw a stubbornly and exclusively Christian culture. Studies on magic in medieval romances, persistent paganism, and medieval Jewish mysticism have illuminated the connections between these diverse traditions. Based on recent scholarship detailing the persistence of medieval paganism and non-Christian religious philosophies, and more enhanced readings of SGGK, it is my suggestion that the poem is neither a reaffirmation of Christianity, nor a tool of conversion, but a poem of religious synthesis in which paganism and other ideologies are presented as parallels to Christianity, not wholly appropriated or obliterated. Unlike recent critical studies that focus entirely on the Christian aspects of the poem, or on the Celtic motifs intertwined with the Arthurian tradition, this article seeks to trace the allusions to other extant medieval religious philosophies that may be a veiled criticism of medieval religious intolerance. The depiction of Morgan le Fay is crucial to interpreting the pentangle as a symbol of synthesis––where the rational mind and soul are not only attributed to Christianity, but also to paganism and Jewish mysticism in the Kabbalah. In its points and lines the traditions intertwine forming an ‘endless knotte’ of religious synthesis where Christian meaning is applied to a symbol with multi-layered significance. Taken in the context of the Green Knight, the extensive discourse on the natural world, and the portrayal of the tripartite goddess in Morgan le Fay, the pentangle becomes an ancient symbol to which Christian values and virtues have been applied, not to replace the pagan significance, but to reinforce the similarities between different religious traditions and perhaps challenge the contemporary persecution of other religious groups throughout Europe. This is not to deny the Christian symbolism of SGGK but to illuminate its relationship with the pagan and non-Christian past from which it draws its inspiration.

I would like to thank Lorraine Stock, Jean Jost, and Carolyn Craft for their helpful suggestions and input regarding this article, and Arthuriana’s anonymous readers for their insightful and extremely useful comments. I am also grateful to Rachel Frier for sharing her extensive research on the Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism.
[i] Gerald Morgan, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Idea of Righteousness (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1990).
[ii] Robert W. Ackerman, ‘Gawain’s Shield: Penitential Doctrine in Gawain and the Green Knight,Anglia 76 (1958): 254–65.
[iii] Albert B. Friedman, ‘Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ Speculum 35. 2 (April, 1960): 260–274.
[iv] Denver E. Baughan, ‘The Role of Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,EHL 17 (1950): 241–251.
[v] Some of these studies include but are not limited to: Ludo Milis, ed., The Pagan Middle Ages, trans. by Tanis Guest (Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 1998); and John Darrah, Paganism in Arthurian Romance (Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 1997). Milis argues that it is ‘wrong to present matters as though one religion, embodied in one church with one truth, had simply swept over and crushed paganism and superstition, liberating humanity from the polytheistic darkness,’ p. 6.