Though often extensive detail may be condemned as mere flowery language, in understanding Sir Gawain and the Green Knight one must make special emphasis on it. In color and imagery itself, the unknown author paints the very fibers of this work, allowing Sir Gawain to discern the nuances of ritualistic chivalry and truth. His quest after the Green Knight is as simple as ones quest toward himself. Through acute awareness of the physical world he encounters Gawain comes to an understanding of the world beyond chivalry, a connection to G-d, the source of truth. He learns, chivalry, like a machine, will always function properly, but in order to derive meaning from its product he must allow nature to affect him. At the onset of Sir Gawain and the Green Night the unknown author goes to great length physically describing the opulence of Christmastime in Arthur's court.
For Camelot even Christmastide, a deeply religious holiday, is given significance based on its futile aesthetic veneer rather than inherent religious value. The dais is "well -decked" (Sir Gawain and the Green Night, 75), and "costly silk curtains" (76) canopy over Queen Guinevere. The Knights are described as "brave by din by day, dancing by night" (47), this is to say they are the paradigm of bravery and gentility. Both bravery and gentility are not indicative of the knights' humanity, his feelings and thoughts, rather how appears and acts. Dissimilar to King Arthur's opulent and boyish description, the Green Knight appears earthly, like an overgrown lumberjack in a debutante ball. His very entrance to the narrative aims to shatter Camelot's superficial relationship with earthly trials.
While Arthur seeks pleasure in hearing tales "of some fair feat" (92), the Green Knight undermines all formality known to be chivalrous challenging the king to a life risking game. With a "broad neck to buttocks" (137), (opposed to Arthur's' court depicted in the ever regal color red, ) the Knight is clothed in green, the color of nature. He appears with no armor other then his faith, merely a utilitarian woodsman's ax. While Green Knight is described like an animal who is said to have "wagged his beard" (306) yet understands the cyclical nature of life and truth of mans futility, it is only after Sir Gawain proclaims his lack of strength (though he says it at that point as a matter of chivalry) that he is able to begin his journey (in place of King Arthur) to learn about living. The Green Knights essence of reality is not entrenched in physical archetypes as are the Knights of Arthur's court. He appears with no armor to shield him from feeling the world, in fact his green appearance, though brawny in description, does contain undertones of green passivity.
He is neither depicted as spiritual blue, nor warm emotional yellow, rather the fusion of the two, devilish green. To live in a state of uncertainty is the antithesis of mid-evil chivalry. It is a knights' duty to know his place in society and to whom he serves, not to think or feel therefore when Gawain asks the Green Knight for instructions to find his home, the Knight gives no formal address, rather an experiential response. He says "If I tell you true, when I have taken your knock... you shall hear straightaway of my house and home and my own name" (398-399). This statement forces Gawain to live in the reality and emotion of the moment rather then set out on his quest upon social consequences. In search of the Green Knight, Gawain travels through the wilderness and comes to recognize his true subordination to nature and not merely social constructs.
It is amidst his battling of vicious beasts, cold rain, wild forests and more, where he begins to feel the mortality of mankind and the need to pray to a greater being that "Mary may be his guide" (738). This prayer and recognition of a larger force beyond him leads directly to the discovery of the Palace of Bertilak de Hautdesert. While the palace of Bertilak de Hautdesert' is fit for a king and lavish by design its very inhabitants hold a lesser value to the physical than do the people described in Camelot under king Arthur's dominion. The subjects to Bertilak de Hautdesert are more connected to nature than pageantry, as they are described as hunters and had "kneeled down on their knees on naked earth to welcome the warrior as best as they were able". (818-819). The poet never speaks of the members of the court in Camelot doing something "as best as they were able", prior to this occurrence we see no recognition of mans shortcomings and personal abilities in the eyes of the court.
The chivalry here is more steadfastly based on truths and reality than courtesy in Arthur's court. While in Arthur's court his courtiers seem to have no knowledge of the state of the world outside their personal reality Bertilak's courtiers are keenly aware of how ludicrous the "fast" food Gawain is given on the first night of his stay is. Even Gawain "confesses it a feast" (894) yet half in jest the courtiers proclaim, "Tonight you fast and pray; tomorrow we will see you fed". (897-898). Color once again plays an important role in understanding of the poem when the wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert becomes involved in the story. It is she who bridges the two possible understandings of the significance of the color red.
Red is both the color of royalty and lust. Bound by royal discourse, though she is "bedecked in bright red" (952), and has "blent white and red on cheek" (1206) her lust is not even true towards Gawain; she too is subject to the laws of chivalry. Ironically, the reader never does get to find out if she is romantically interested in Gawain because indeed the entire relationship between her and Gawain (after her master goes out of the palace on a "green" hunt) is set up to test his piety. She lures him to kiss her by manner of chivalry, but it is that same notion of chivalry, which ultimately stops him from absolute ruin and sin.
In attempt to foster their relationship she offers him her girdle, a clear symbol of her femininity. Though he initially refuses it, after being promised the girdle would safeguard his journey and in wearing it " no hand under heaven could hew him about" (1853). He recedes on his previous position and hides it in his possession. The symbol of the green girdle from then on becomes a personal reminder to Gawain of his earthly sin, and leads him to confess and then don a new color, the blue robe that "reached to the earth" (1928). The blueness of the robe, which often symbolizes heavenly and spiritual matter, is described as reaching to the earth; only after experiencing and feeling in his relationship with when the wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert is Gawain able to truly connect to G-d, hence connect within the world. Though he is told toward the end of the work, in Camelot, he need bear the symbol of the green girdle (which the perceive as a sign of conquest over the Green Knight, ) yet, he is insistent upon bearing the girdle because he believes that his sins should be as visible as his virtues.
Gawain's time in the wilderness, living nature, and his acceptance of the lady's offering of the green girdle teach him that though he may be the most chivalrous knight in the land, he is nevertheless human and capable of error. Through jest of a game the Green knight enlightens Gawain the short sights of chivalry. He comes to realize within himself that the system which bore him values appearance over truth. Ultimately he understands that chivalry provides a valuable set of ideals toward which to strive, but a person must retain consciousness of his or her own mortality and weakness in order to live deeply. While it is chivalrous notions, which kept him, alive throughout the test of the Green Knight, only through acute awareness of the physical world surrounding him was he able to develop himself and understand the Knights message.
From the onset of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the author relies intensely upon descriptive language to create ambiance and tonality, but it is only later in the work, upon Sir Gawain's development, that like Gawain, the reader is able to derive meaning from the descriptive physicality and understand the symbiotic relationship of nature and society..