During the Medieval era in England, a time of religious and social change, the Catholic Church actively sought to out-root the pagan influences - or at least try - and introduce new cultural norms and understanding of nature and the environment. Paganism and it's pantheistic and animistic sub-parts defined pre-Christian England since man first inhabited the island. These ideas contrast strongly with the Christian “justifications for dominating nature” (Kline 3). “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” highlights this social/religious transition and conflict through the Green Knight and his juxtapositions throughout the tale with Sir Gawain. Thus the tale portrays the differences in the new and old orders and makes a definitive statement about each through the allegorical and symbolical representations of the Green Knight.
Most superficially and thus most notably to the reader, the Green Knight enters the tale “in guise all of green [including] the gear and the man” (line 151). Throughout the tale the Green Knight and all things that are part of his charade - the belt, the Green Chapel and his horse - in fact carry through this color theme. Thus, the Green Knight serves as a symbol for nature and thereby pantheistic pagan ideals. In contrast Sir Gawain who’s attire “all ranged on the red the resplendent studs” (line 603) and who’s “shield...shone all red” (line 619) represents the polar opposites of the Green Knight. The contrasting red symbolizes blood, and through this the Christian association with sin. From this symbolism, the greater struggle of traditional paganism over new Christianity becomes clear through the Green Knight as he challenges Sir Gawain.
The tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” not only highlights the clashing of these
two traditions in this era but also clearly shows the Green Knight as a clear winner, and greater force throughout the tale. At the beginning of the tale the Green Knight rides his horse into the Arthurian feast: “half a giant I hold him to be” (line 140). No man would be allowed to ride their horse into the mead hall unless, of course, they demanded greater power than the king of the hall. Clearly, the Green Knight, by his great stature and by his commanding demeanor demands such power. Thus, the symbolism established through the color contrasts and themes further entrenches itself by the entrance of the Green Knight and the respect that he commands from all of the knights and the king Arthur himself: the Green Knight arises from the tale as unmistakably greater than any other man in the court of the greatest British king. This superiority is carried through until the end of the tale when even though Sir Gawain is a celebrated hero, he ostensibly feels different for the “sore loss... [and] / ...cowardice and coveting that” he suffered at the Green Chapel (lines 2506-2507). Ultimately, the Green Knight wins the “battle” even though Sir Gawain’s life is spared.