Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Role of Women


Gawain and the Green Knight: The Role of Women

In the fourteenth century, chivalry was
in decline due to drastic social and economic changes. Although feudalism-along
with chivalry-would eventually fall for other reasons, including a decrease
in cheap human resources due to a drop in population caused by plague epidemics
and the emergence of a mercantile middle class, the Gawain author perceived
a loss of religious values as the cause of its decline. Gawain and the

Green Knight presents both a support of the old feudal hierarchies and
an implicit criticism of changes by recalling chivalry in its idealized
state in the court of King Arthur. The women in the story are the poet's
primary instruments in this critique and reinforcement of feudalism. The
poet uses the contrast between the Virgin Mary with Lady Bertilak's wife
to point out the conflict between courtly and spiritual love that he felt
had weakened the religious values behind chivalry. The poem warns that
a loss of the religious values behind chivalry would lead to its ultimate

Although superficially Sir Gawain and the

Green Knight appears to be a romantic celebration of chivalry, it contains
wide-ranging serious criticism of the system. The poet is showing Gawain's
reliance on chivalry's outside form and substance at the expense of the
original values of the Christian religion from which it sprang. The first
knights were monastic ones, vowing chastity, poverty and service to God,
and undertaking crusades for the good of their faith. The divergence between
this early model and the fourteenth century knight came with the rise of
courtly love in which the knights were led to their great deeds by devotion
to a mistress rather than God. The discrepancy between this and the church's
mistrust of women and desires of the flesh is obvious, and the poet uses
women in the story to deliver this message. In contrast to reality at the
time, women in the story are given great power: Mary, when properly worshiped,
gives Gawain his power, Lady Bertilak operates alone in the bedroom and
singlehandedly taints the chevalier, and Morgan the Fay instigates the
entire plot, wielding enough power. The author is using them as a metaphor
for other anti-social forces and dangers outside the control of feudalism
and chivalry, drawing upon biblical and classical examples in his audience's
minds of where femininity is linked with subversiveness. Lady Bertilak
is clearly seen in the Biblical role of the temptress, the Eve who led

Adam astray--in Gawain, she represents the traditional female archetypes
of courtly love, disobedience, lust and death. Eve's antithesis is the

Virgin Mary, who is the only women who achieves motherhood while maintaining
her chastity; she represents spiritual love, obedience, chastity, and life

That Gawain is Mary's Knight is made clear
as he is robed for battle; the pentangle represents the five joys of Mary,
and he has "that queen's image / Etched on the inside of his armored shield"
(648-649). As long as he is solely focused on his quest for the Green Knight,
he derives his prowess and courage from his special relationship with Mary.

On his journey to look for the Green Knight he is beset by a number of
hardships, and is finally brought to the point of despair. Alone and freezing
in the forest, he prays to Mary for shelter and a place to say mass on

Christmas Eve. She answers his prayers and leads him to Bertilak's castle;
however, his arrival at Bertilak's court throws him into a totally different
world. Here, Gawain impresses courtiers of Bertilak's castle with his prowess
in the field of courtly love rather than the feats of daring or his upholding
of his honor, traits that would draw compliments in Arthur's court. Camelot
is portrayed in its youth, long before it too is tainted by Lancelot and
courtly love; Arthur is young, "child-like (86)" and the "fine fellowship
[of Camelot] was in its fair prime." The analogy is obvious: Arthur's court
embodies chivalry's pure roots, where martial exploits were the primary
subject of interest, whereas Bertilak's castle represents the low point
of the degeneration the poet perceives chivalry to have undergone.

The Lady's association with courtly love
also ties this aspect of chivalry with degeneration and sin. Immediately
upon his arrival in Bertilak's court, the separation between courtly love
religion is clear: Gawain at Mass is "in serious mood the whole service
through"(940). This serious mood is immediately forgotten with the sight
of the Lady, whom he immediately focuses on at the expense of Christmas'
meaning. Instead of finding solace in the meaning of Christmas, Gawain
and the