Sunday, 13 November 2016

Gawain 619 - 669, The Meaning of the Pentangle

Then they showed him the shield, that was of sheer Gules
With the pentangle painted in pure gold hues.
He seizes it by the strap, about his shoulders sets,
That beseemed the chevalier seemly and fair.
And why the pentangle appends to that noble prince
I am intent to tell you, though tarry it me it should:
It is a sign that Solomon set somewhile
In betokening of Truth, by title that it has,
For it is a figure that holds five points,
And each line overlaps and locks with another,
And everywhere it is endless; the English it call
Overall, as I hear, the endless knot.
So forth it accords to this knight and to his clear arms;
For faithful five ways, and five times each,
Gawain was for good known, and as gold purified,
Voided of each villainy, with virtues purged,
evils antidote.
For this the pentangle new
He bears on shield and coat,
A friend of faith most true
And gentlest knight of note.

First he was found faultless in his five wits,
And the fighter never failed in his fingers five,
And all his faith on this sphere was in the five wounds
That were cut into Christ on the cross, as the creed tells.
And were-so-ever this man in melee was stood,
His whole heart was in that, nothing higher,
Than all his force he infused from the five joys
that the high heaven-queen had of her child;
At this cause the knight carefully had
In the inner half of his shield her image painted,
When he met that queens gaze his blade never failed.
The fifth five that I find the fellow had
Was Franchise and Fellowship before all things,
His Cleaness and Courtesy crooked were never,
And Pity, that passes all points, these pure five
Were harder hasped in that horse-lord than any other.
Now all these five virtues, verily, were fettled in this knight,
And each hooped in another, that no end they had,
And fixed upon five points that failed never,
Neither ever intersecting, nor sundered neither,
Without an end at any nook my finger could find,
Wherever the game began or came to an end.
Therefore on his shining shield shaped was the knot
Royally with red gold upon red Gules,
That is the pure pentangle named by people who
have lore.
Now girded is Gawain gay,
And last his lance right bore,
And gave them all 'good day -
He thought for evermore.

Tarry me it did.

Two things;

Firstly, I've heard a story of a knight with Mary painted on the inside of his shield before, about a post-Roman warlord in something called the 'Alleluyah Battle'. It does seem like the kind of thing a soldier or knight would do and I suspect either came from tales or from common usage of that time.

Secondly, we come now upon the Chivalric virtues, which are as deeply specific as the parts of armor and horse tack that frustrated me in the previous stanza, but much more complex in meaning and central to the poem.

All of these Civalric values have very knight specifict, period specific and faith specific meanings. A bit like the use of 'Gules' for heraldic red, they are not just a specific thing but a specific thing in a specific context. None of them translate directly or simply into modern english, although the words themselves are comprehensible.

So remember, when you see these qualities capitalized in this translation, they refer to something like.

Trawth - translated as 'Truth' with a capital T, but 'Trawth' is not exactly truth, it means a little more and has a more specific usage. Probably the closest I can get is 'The quality of keeping your word', or the quality of being wholely what you are entire'. 'Integrity'. Gawains 'Trawth' is directly connected to his 'endless knot', his interconnected qualities that make him what he is. To lose his Trawth is for his knot, his completeness, to fail, to be no longer what he is.

Fraunchyse - Generosity, giving-ness. What we might call charity.

Fellowship - Friendship, love of your fellow man, love of people generally.

Cleaness - Purity, moral and, for the Gawin poet, sexual as well.

Courtesy - Probably closest to the modern meaning.

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