Christian elements in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Second Shepherds’ play
In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Christ is an overarching figure. We see this in Gawain’s faith when setting out to complete the deathly obligations he has made with the Green knight. Like Christ who knew of his own death following his pact with God. Gawain is tested on his chastity, when the keeper of the castle’s mistress tries to kiss him. It is through these temptations that one sees his reoccurring Christian belief that triggers his smooth evasion of the mistress’ seduction. Again, comparable to Christ who resisted the Devil’s temptations. Likewise in The Second Shepherds’ play, the theme of Christianity is expressed through the shepherds’ forgiveness in difficult times, ultimately foreshadowing the birth of a savior.
Gawain is firm about his faith in Christianity. His “faith was founded in the five wounds Christ received on the cross (199).” On Gawain´s armor, the star or pentangle represents the five joys of Mary, Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption. The conduct of the knights are modeled on the five joys of Mary, “friendship, fraternity, purity, politeness, and pity (199).” So Gawain’s armor is definitely a symbolic rendition of Christ on the cross. It reminds him of how to behave as a knight and that motivates him. When he is going through the mountainside and forests he constantly prays to God and says, “Be near me, in my need (202).” In this way he is asking the Lord to watch and protect him from the very harm he is expecting.
It is through the prior imperfections of Biblical figures that allows one to see Christ’s perfection. After finding out that Lady Bastilak seducing him was but an orchestration to test him, he says, “But no wonder if a fool finds his way into folly and be wiped of his wits by womanly guile (235).” Displeased with himself, he goes on to say that Adam fell because of a woman, that King Solomon had too many wives and so forth. Then finally, that David was fooled by Bathsheba and paid the price with sorrow. He references the imperfections of the men in the bible as if saying that a woman has inherent seduction capabilities that men, as a result, cannot control themselves towards. Still Christ was not mentioned directly but remains the overarching but invisible figure in this instance because he is a symbol of perfection. In this case, Gawain thinks his mistake were as bad as these men of the bible which harkens his Christian faith. His efforts of striving for the perfection of Christ is thwarted for the moment.
In The Second Shepherds’ Play, there is an overarching theme of Christ’s forgiving nature sprinkled throughout. The first sign of this is when the well-known sheep thief Gib, through self-pity, arouses the sympathy of the three Shepherds who let their guard down, befriends him and let him sleep amongst them only to wake up and find one of their sheep missing. When they come to the house of Gib and his wife Mak, the sheep was wrapped up in a blanket as a baby to deceive them. Again this arouses sympathy in the Shepherds. When the truth was revealed, the Shepherds give Gib a third chance when they decide to punish him slightly. Since the punishment for stealing sheep is to be hanged. This is not only because Mak and Gib have children to take care of but because the shepherds are good and humble, reminiscent of Christ. It is this that gave them the opportunity to witness the birth of Christ.
We see through the faith of the characters that Christ is the overarching figure in both tales. The Shepherds’ actions are symbolic of Christ’s forthcoming purpose on earth. Like Christ the three shepherds give people like Gib a lot of chances after they have known them to do wrong. Christ takes this a lot further through his repeated goodwill and acts of forgiveness, and through death on the cross saying, “Forgive them please for they know not what they’ve done.” His resurrection continues that embodiment of forgiveness in Christian faith. In the end, it can be presumed that Christ did protect Gawain as the Green Knight only nicked his neck instead of beheading him. The characters’ hardships and shortcomings are counteracted through either lessons learnt or a happy ending.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2012. 186-238. Print.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Greenblatt 186-238.
“Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play.” Greenblatt 450-476.