Then they showed forth the shield, that shone all red,
With the pentangle portrayed in purest gold.
And why the pentangle is proper to that peerless prince
I intend now to tell, though detain me it must.
(Sir Gawain and the G. K. 2.619-623).
Long before the narrator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight placed the pentangle on the shield of “that peerless prince,” it was an object of importance, and has enjoyed a place in the philosophical and theological forums of many cultures. The earliest found depiction of the pentangle, located on a piece of pottery found in the ruins of the ancient city of Ur, dates back to around 900 BCE, placing it well within the early Babylonian period (Stone, 135). The Pythagoreans where fascinated by its mathematical and geometrical implications and spent much of the 3rd 4th and 5th centuries BCE trying to unlock its mysteries. In fact, most all Greek geometry, mathematics, and architecture are based on the perfect harmony found in the pentangle. The neo-Platonists and the Gnostics could not resist the call of the pentangle, and tied many of their studies and mysteries to this eminent symbol. However, the pentangle gained its most prominent state in the Middle Ages when Christianly and Islam adopted this symbol as a major part of their religions, both using it as a symbol of harmony, virtue, and idealism (Hulbert, 722).
The regular pentangle is formed from a regular pentagon, either by drawing its diagonals or by extending each edge until it meets other edges that are not its immediate neighbors. The edges of the regular pentangle divide each other so that the ratio of the larger part to the smaller part is equal to the ratio of the whole line to the larger part (Cundy & Rollett, 68-77). This ratio, (1 + square root of 5/2), was named by the Pythagoreans as the ‘golden section’ and is commonly represented by the Greek symbol Phi.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the narrator employs the pentangle to illustrate the central conflict within the story, which is Gawain’s inner fight, rather than his ordeal with the Green Knight. Each of the five points of the pentangle represents a set of Gawain’s virtues: his five senses, for he is “faultless in his five senses;” his five fingers “Nor found ever to fail in his five fingers;” his fidelity, “his fealty … fixed upon the five wounds that Christ got on the cross;” his force, “founded on the five joys / That the high Queen of heaven had in her child;” and the five knightly virtues: friendship, generosity, courtesy, chastity, and piety (lns. 640-54).
During his stay at the host’s castle, each of his five five-fold virtues represented in the five points of the pentangle fail him. Gawain’s physical abilities (his five senses and his five fingers) begin to fail him in line 900 when the “wine goes to his head” and continue to fail as he spends the majority of his time in bed or lounging around the castle. Although Gawain frequently calls on Jesus and Mary for aid in the wilderness, once inside the court, his piety fades to the background, and his fidelity to the five wounds of Christ and five joys of Mary slips into obscurity. Then with his physical and spiritual virtues wavering, Gawain’s five knightly virtues also fall under careful inspection and begin to falter.
This portrayal Gawain’s quest in terms of the pentangle successfully compares the perfectly balanced knightly ideals represented in the pentangle itself, to the reality of Gawain’s life and actions that we see while he is in the castle. Even Gawain, “the greatest knight of all” falls short of the pentanglean ideal, reminding the reader that no one can reach perfection. However, instead of becoming bitter at our shortcomings and failures, we should learn from our mistakes. A message, not only particularly important to a culture in which the leaders did all they could in order to gain personally, often using the chivalric codes only when by doing so would serve their own purposes, but also to anyone in any age who meets with the disappointment of not “measuring up” to the pentangles in their lives.