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Unit 5 - "Traditions in Symbol and Motif"

Page history last edited by Russell 10 years, 5 months ago

New project: "Gawain and the Attack of the Motifs"


RECENT PROJECTS:  Hero's Journey vs. Film ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?") project and the "Greek Values Art" ("The Odyssey") project


Tue-Wed, Jan 12-13


DUE TODAY: Answers to the five questions that begin class

HOMEWORK TONIGHT: Finish your Coat of Arms project - remember your SHIELD and the EXPLANATION SHEET

FOCUS TODAY: Symbols, symbolism, threes, motif


We will begin by addressing the five questions from the conclusion of last class. Quality answers will be constructed by the class as a whole.


  1. Why is it appropriate that the Green Knight is green? Give as many reasons as you can.
  2. Why is it appropriate that this story takes place at Christmas and New Year's?
  3. What is the significance of threes in the story? 
  4. What symbolism is contained in the three days of hunting and temptation?
  5. What symbolism is contained in the wound Gawain receives from the Green Knight?


QUIZ on "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"


Issues to consider:

q       If you are revising your “O Brother” work, then please complete it by the end of the week. To let me know you revised and I should update your grade, you must EMAIL ME otherwise I won’t know you did the extra work.

q       Your Coat of Arms projects are due next class. Bring a HARD COPY of your shield, family motto, and your explanation sheet that tells why you chose the symbols you did. You will ALL display your shield on the document camera, and give an explanation of what’s on the shield.

q       I am ABSENT next class, so a sub will be here as you share shields/mottos with each other.

q       To round out the term, you will do some more artsy stuff on Gawain (details to come) and we’ll watch select scenes from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to write a compare/contrast.


Answers to the five reading questions are found below. The answers represent all class input combined.

  1. Why is it appropriate that the Green Knight is green? Give as many reasons as you can.

A. His color aligns with spring, the season of renewal, so it makes sense that he is “natural” and wouldn’t die, even if his head is chopped off. B. Green is also symbolic of new life, so when his head is cut off he gets new life. C. He also shifts his appearance – when he’s the lord of the castle where Gawain stays, he looks different. Plants change their color and even shape in different seasons, so if you look at his different forms, it’s like he changes with the “seasons” or his purpose. D. His place of worship is the Green Chapel, but there’s no church there – it’s just an empty place in the middle of the forest surrounded by trees and hillsides. If his “chapel” is in the middle of nature, he naturally should be the color of nature = green.

  1. Why is it appropriate that this story takes place at Christmas and New Year's? (Symbolism of the new year and when the action happens)

A. The new year is when we feel we are finishing one chapter of our lives and starting another, so we make resolutions and think about what we’ll do with this “new beginning.” So the celebration at Camelot celebrates an ending and new beginning. B. It’s also relevant for the Green Knight, because he doesn’t die, but his life begins anew with the head chopped off. C. Gawain gets a new beginning because he gets a new quest (has to go find the Green Chapel). D. Later, when Gawain meets the GK in the forest, Gawain gets new life after he is forgiven of his sin by the Green Knight. E. Christmas celebrates Christ’s birth, and for Christians (like Arthur and the knights) that means a new life w/ Christ in the world.

  1. What is the significance of threes in the story?  (links between the three axe strokes and the three days of temptation)

Axe strokes

Days of temptation

One – GK stops b/c G was honest on the first day, yet G flinches showing he’s not fully prepared

One – He’s honest by giving the kiss to the lord after the woman seduces him; he’s not prepared for her – she surprises him

Two – GK stops again b/c G was honest on day 2 (giving the kiss), doesn’t flinch b/c he was prepared

Two – He’s prepared for her, still gets a kiss but doesn’t give in to her seduction

Three – G takes a blow to represent his sin, yet he’s not killed b/c it was fear for his own life; his blood in the snow shows his stain/fault that stains the purity

Three – G is prepared, she tries to seduce him physically again, she tells him about the sash to save his life, he takes it, but doesn’t give it to the lord (breaking the agreement)

  1. What symbolism is contained in the three days of hunting and temptation? (links between the animals hunted and Gawain)


Gawain behaviors

Deer – Runs away, hides, flees

Unprepared for the lady and has to “retreat” but defends himself verbally

Boar – More difficult opponent

G is more prepared, and a more diff. Opponent for the woman; again defends himself verbally

Fox – Tricky, sneaky, got away by dodging, but he was still caught, thief

He avoids her demands by making excuses (dodging) repeatedly; yet he takes the sash and doesn’t tell the lord, so he’s “stolen” the sash

  1. What symbolism is contained in the wound Gawain receives from the Green Knight? (blood in the snow, scar that’s left behind, Gawain’s failure vs. success)

The slight injury and the blood in the snow both symbolize … his one sin and fault. He gives in to the fear that he will lose his life and sins by taking the sash and breaks his vow to the lord. The snow on the ground symbolizes purity, so the blood on the snow represents his failure to remain pure – he stains the purity. The scar he will have also symbolizes his small fault/sin of cowardice.


Fri and Mon, Jan 8 and 11


DUE TODAY: Nothing in writing

HOMEWORK TONIGHT: Need to revise/improve your "Hero's Journey" project that focused on the "O Brother" film? Then do it before next class, when your improved version is due.

FOCUS TODAY: The significance of threes, Gawain's cruel lesson


Today's lesson focuses on the meeting of Gawain with the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. You will discover more about why the Green Knight is green, and how the symbolic green color relates to this strange being. In addition, remember that it is New Year's Day - a day for new beginnings. AND as if that weren't enough, there is the significance of threes here again - just like the three days of hunting. Ultimately, we have to investigate whether Gawain has a right to call himself a knight given everything that has transpired in the last year and a day.


Questions to add to your MSWord document:

  1. Why is it appropriate that the Green Knight is green? Give as many reasons as you can.
  2. Why is it appropriate that this story takes place at Christmas and New Year's?
  3. What is the significance of threes in the story? 
  4. What symbolism is contained in the three days of hunting and temptation?
  5. What symbolism is contained in the wound Gawain receives from the Green Knight?


Wed-Thu, Jan 6-7


DUE TODAY: Seven reading questions from last class

HOMEWORK TONIGHT: Complete the Hunt Comparison Sheet (pdf) and Shield Worksheet (pdf)

FOCUS TODAY: More on symbols, symbolism, Gawain's shield, "The Hunt"


Brief discussion of question 7 from last class: Why, of all colors, is the GK green?


Before we begin our reading today, it is important to grasp some basics concerning symbolism. Therefore, look at some common symbols in literature. (This link is blocked at school. The direct address is http://www.scribd.com/doc/6472314/Symbolism-in-Literature ... Please recognize that although there is good information here about symbolism and common symbols in literature, you are leaving my web site and may see advertisements for products and information you may not be interested in). Notice any that seem familiar? Even if you aren't a person who reads all the time for pleasure, it's likely you've heard of many of these.


Gawain's shield (the pentangle)

As he gets ready to fulfill his promise to find the Green Knight, the poems pays a great deal of attention to Gawain's preparations and attire. The pentangle is an important shape in the poem, representing both the "endless knot" as well as "five fives"—five points of five where Gawain excels—another example of symmetry within the work. The pentangle represents Gawain's aspirations for balance and symmetry as a true knight.


You will follow along with the poem using the Shield Worksheet (pdf).

First we discovered the new meanings of red, and added gold to our list of colors from last class.


Gawain and the "five fives"

Gawain aspires to all the secular virtues and the virtues of knighthood:

  • Faultless in his Five Senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste)
  • In his Five Fingers he failed at no time (he is dexterous and able in combat)
  • Faith in the Five Wounds Christ received on the cross (one in each limb and the spear wound in the abdomen)
  • Five Joys the Virgin Mary had in Jesus (These are not listed in the poem, but are offered as background: Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption)
  • And, finally, the Five Knightly Virtues (exact wording depends on translation, so several synonyms are offered)
    • free-giving (or generosity or frankness)
    • friendliness (or brotherhood or fellowship)
    • chastity (or purity or cleanness)
    • chivalry (or courtesy)
    • piety (or compassion)


Consider everyone's behavior to this point in light of the knightly virtues as described through the description of Gawain's shield. How have they behaved, or not behaved, in light of these mandates?


Now that he's suited up, let's catch up with him as he stops to rest on his journey. He finds a castle and requests shelter. The master of the castle reports that Gawain should relax b/c the Green Chapel is not far. The master lives there with his wife, a lovely lady, and Gawain is told to just make himself at home each day while the master goes hunting. There is a hunt OUTSIDE and a hunt INSIDE on each day.


Use the Hunt Comparison Sheet (pdf) to track the two types of hunting (and tempting) that occur in the three days Gawain stays at the castle. Here is an overview of the action:


In the third section of the poem, Bertilak proposes a game to Gawain in which the two men exchange the winnings each man yields: Bertilak in his hunt for "game" outdoors and Gawain in his pursuit of rest indoors. The poet juxtaposes the scenes of the hunt outdoors with scenes of Gawain's temptations by the beautiful lady, Bertilak's wife. Gawain's adherence to courtesy and the rules of courtly love, his devotion to the Madonna, and his oath of knighthood are all tested.


The behavior of the animals and the people in the literal and metaphorical "hunts" are presented symmetrically. On the first day, the deer try to run away and hide (Stanza 47). Gawain was embarrassed and tries to feign sleep (Stanza 48). On the second day, the boar proves to be a formidable opponent alternately confronting, feinting and eluding them for the whole day (Stanza 57, 63, 64). Gawain, now ready for the lady, is also a formidable opponent. He firmly, but courteously, resists her (Stanzas 58-61). On the third day, as the men are tracking the wily fox, he is called "thief" (Stanza 69). This foreshadows Gawain's acceptance of the green girdle, which he should refuse if he is adhering to rules of propriety. The men track the fox (Stanzas 68) vigorously and the lady pursues Gawain vigorously (Stanza 73) offering him a ring, which he refuses. Gawain acts as a fox cunningly avoiding the lady's advances (Stanza 72).


After reading and discussing the third day's hunt (where the hunt for the fox outside relates to the hunt for Gawain's affections inside) we will start browsing for ideas on the FAMILY CREST assignment. The link for a great place to learn about family crests and HERALDRY is "The Meanings Behind the Symbols" at Fleur de Lis Designs.


Mon-Tue, Jan 4-5


DUE TODAY: Late hero's journey vs. film project 

HOMEWORK TONIGHT: Seven reading questions (listed @ end of this lesson below)

FOCUS TODAY: Symbols, symbolism, and symbolic colors, the Green Knight's challenge


Today we begin "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" one of the most wonderful of the tales surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. This piece, like "The Odyssey", was originally written in poetic format. It was also written in a form of English we do not use any longer. If you wish, use this link to find the original text in Middle English.


Features of the poem include:

  • Unique and effective use of alliteration. You will need to identify a line that uses alliteration and explain its purpose in the segment of the poem in which it's used.
  • Use of symbolism in colors, animals, and personal appearance. You will identify a symbol in the poem and explain its multiple levels of meaning.
  • A hero's journey, with a repeating motif of threes. You will identify challenges/trials faced by the protagonist and explain their place in the hero's journey.
  • Ultimately, you will create a personal coat of arms for you and your family, based on what you learn concerning symbol. For this we will consult "The Meanings Behind the Symbols" at Fleur de Lis Designs.




I will toss out some colors to the class groups and see what we come up with concerning colors and their typical meanings. You know: white, black, red, green, etc. With regard to this activity, sometimes wikipedia can come in handy for basic information: 


Now some formal definitions, which we can abbreviate in class. Both of these definitions come from the fantastic online literary terms dictionary by Dr. L. Kit Wheeler 


  • SYMBOL: A word, place, character, or object that means something beyond what it is on a literal level. For instance, consider the stop sign. It is literally a metal octagon painted red with white streaks. However, everyone on American roads will be safer if we understand that this object also represents the act of coming to a complete stop--an idea hard to encompass briefly without some sort of symbolic substitute. In literature, symbols can be cultural, contextual, or personal. (See cultural symbol, contextual symbol, and personal symbol.) An object, a setting, or even a character can represent another more general idea. Allegories are narratives read in such a way that nearly every element serves as an interrelated symbol, and the narrative's meaning can be read either literally or as a symbolic statement about a political, spiritual, or psychological truth. See also allegory, or click here to download a pdf handout contrasting allegory and symbolism in greater detail.


  • SYMBOLISM: Frequent use of words, places, characters, or objects that mean something beyond what they are on a literal level. Often the symbol may be ambiguous in meaning. When multiple objects or characters each seem to have a restricted symbolic meaning, what often results is an allegory. Contrast with allegory, leit-motif and motif. Click here to download a pdf handout contrasting allegory and symbolism in greater detail.


FINALLY! It's time to join King Arthur and his knights. As they celebrate Christmas, an enormous green knight bursts into the hall at Camelot, challenging anyone brave enough to a beheading "game." To follow along with our audio, you can use either the translation by Jessie L. Weston or the translation by W. A. Nielson. I think the Weston is better, but the paragraphs in the Nielson are numbered, so it's easier to find a specific spot.


READING QUESTIONS: (To turn in today or next class)

  1. Describe, in 3-5 sentences, Arthur's hall and what the lords and ladies are doing at this Christmas celebration.
  2. Based on how Arthur's hall is described (#1), what do you think the narrator want you, the audience, to FEEL about the setting? Think about the vocabulary being used: gallant, noble, rich, gay (happy without a care), glorious, comeliest, fairest, valiant. What kind of "picture" is the narrator trying to paint?
  3. The narrator goes into great detail about the appearance of the Green Knight. Based on how the narrator describes him, how are we supposed to feel about the GK?
  4. What is the "game" proposed by the GK?
  5. The GK's proposed game seems ridiculous, so what strategy does he use to get someone to "play?"
  6. Why is it that Arthur is relieved of the challenge, and Gawain takes it? What logic does Gawain use to take Arthur's place?
  7. BIG QUESTION: Why, of all colors, is the Green Knight green? 


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