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 Lady "found such solace and satisfaction seated together, in the
discrete confidences of their courtly dalliance" (1011-12). When Gawain
was alone in the forest, fearing death, he could only think of one thing,
that Mary should lead him to a place to say mass on Christmas. Now, instead,
the Lady has drawn him away from Mary and made him forget the significance
of the day.

The bedroom, however, is the true testing
ground. From the first day of their bedroom sessions, the Lady subtly establishes
a bargain of her own with Gawain; one based on his prowess in courtly love.

By becoming her knight Gawain has entered into another bargain, but now
Gawain's bargain is with a woman rather than a man, and his ability to
please her with his talk is being tested rather than a "true" chivalric
value such as loyalty, valor or truthfulness. This bargain, compared with
Gawain's exchange of winning bargain with Bertilak and beheading game Bargain
with the Green Knight, highlight the conflict of values in chivalry. In
contrast to Arthur's classic values, the Lady believes that "the choicest
thing in Chivalry, the chief thing praised, / is the loyal sport of love"
(1512-13). This points out a serious conflict; in the game of courtly love,
a man is forced outside of the traditional male hierarchies, placed on
equal footing with a woman, and not subject to the feudal loyalty system.

Above all, unlike the other contests established by men where the rules
are clearly defined, the Lady's game is ambiguous.

It is meaningful that the bedroom scenes
are juxtaposed with scenes from Bertilak's hunts. It seems as if this is
what the Gawain poet intended to suggest when he positioned the bedroom
scenes within the hunt scenes. The hunt scenes show an unambiguous world
of men and an appropriate venue for male chivalric action. The men are
outside, in vigorous, heroic, manly pursuit, training for what is really
the purpose of chivalry--the defense of the land and the service of the
Church. Clear hierarchies and rules are meticoulously explained; the lord
is in the lead, the boldest and most active, and detail is spent in each
hunting scene describing the rules of carving and distributing the days
spoils. While the hunt is going on Gawain is lying in bed, and this is
mentioned in each hunting scene to emphasize the contrast. In contrast
to the hunt scenes, Gawain's situation seems too pleasurable, bordering
on the sin of luxury and representing a private world outside of the traditional
hierarchies, rules and loyalties. The Lady is not just suggesting certain
moral associations to the reader; she is a real temptress testing his chastity
and a real object of courtly love, testing his courtesy. As she presses
him more and more aggressively as each day passes, the conflict between
his spiritual love and courtly love becomes apparent, for he is "concerned
for his courtesy, lest he be called caitiff, But more especially for his
evil plight if he should plunge into sin, and dishonor the owner of the
house treacherously" (1773-75). While he is able to see that his chastity
is more important than his courtesy, he is still desperately trying to
balance the two. It is this inability to make a clear and unambiguous choice
between the two that leads him to accept the girdle. Despite Mary's credit
in saving him from sin, for "peril would have impended Had Mary not minded
her knight" (1768-9), Gawain still disavows her. When the Lady directly
asks him if he has another love, Gawain, instead of citing his devotion
to Mary, answers, " 'I owe my oath to none, nor wish to yet a while'"
(1790-1). His devotion has been lost in his bargaining.

This loss of devotion and faith is his
undoing for it was his faith in Mary, through the contemplation of her
five joys and her symbol on the back of her shield, which gave him his
prowess and courage. With a weakening of his faith in her, which we can
read as a weakening of his spiritual faith as well, he is prey to the Lady's
offer of another token to protect him, the girdle. In this way he becomes
guilty of the sin of cowardice, as Gawain himself names it when his failings
are revealed to him by the Green Knight. Gawain has traded the protection
of a holy figure and his patron, the Virgin Mary, for a sorceress' protection.

Viewed in the ultra-Christian perspective of the author, Gawain is trading
divine protection for small comfort under the protection of black magic,
in effect making a deal with the devil.

In addition to this, Gawain's acceptance
of the girdle weakens the feudal system by forcing him to conceal it from
his host and in the process break his agreement with Bertilak. While he
has upheld his bargain with the Lady, and performed with spotless courtesy
in the game of courtly love, he has had to break his word and disobey the
Lord to do it, in a sense choosing Eve's disobedience over the obedience
of Mary. Here the poet most strongly criticizes the changing face of chivalry;
in his opinion the game of courtly love will ultimately break the male
social bonds which hold feudalism together. Only the traditional Christian
hierarchies, from which chivalry was born, can provide the framework with
which chivalry can survive. This is reinforced by the final exchange between
Gawain and the Green Knight where the poet shows the way he feels feudalism
should work--by banishing courtly love and women from the code of chivalry.

The men re-appropriate the power the women seemed to hold in order to support
the male social order. First we see that the outcome of the beheading game
rests on his performance of the exchange of winnings game. Second, the
Green Knight reveals that the Lady acted at his behest and thereby appropriates
the power she seemed to hold. Later in the scene, he reveals that Morgan
sent him to Arthur's castle in the guise of the Green Knight; however,
by the time he reveals this, he has already appropriated the plan for his
own purposes. It is also possible that the exchange of winnings game, which
becomes the basis for the judgment, is his own invention since he does
not attribute this to Morgan. This enables him to then turn her plan, which
was hatched for destructive purposes, to a noble and elevating test which
serves the high moral purpose of teaching Gawain a lesson--hold true to
the ideals of the Christian doctrine as a support for the chivalric code.

Gawain, in his confession and absolution,
goes through a similar shifting of power and blame. When the Green Knight
first reveals Gawain's failure of "cowardice and covetousness" (2374),
Gawain shows deep shame in his own actions. However, upon his absolution
he shifts the blame from himself to women, becoming one more man unwittingly
duped by women and led into sin. In this way he displaces the blame and
is able to regain his power within the story by returning not as a failure
but as a fully reinstated knight of honor. As he is shifting the blame
to women, he comes to the realization that chivalry does not hold the path
to perfection and therefore discards courtesy and renounces women. He concerns
himself instead with his sins of cowardice and covetousness. He refuses
to return to the castle to make peace with Bertilak's wife and Morgan,
despite his kinship with latter, effectively banishing them and eliminating
the internal conflict generated, are eliminated. Power is back in the hands
of the appropriate authority, and Gawain's loyalties are redefined.

This shift in blame can be traced by the
girdle's changing symbolism. First, as a symbol of female sexuality, the
lady offers it as a love token under the pretense of its life saving powers.

In this way it undergoes its first transformation, from love token to token
endowed with the magic to protect his life. When the confession and absolution
scene occur, it becomes a possession of the Green Knight, who then redefines
it as a token "of the great adventure at the Green chapel" (2399); at this
point Gawain takes it up as a symbol of his shame. Thus courtly love turns
is revealed to be dark sorcery, which to accept is shameful. However, with
its conquest comes absolution and honor.

The message being sent by the author goes
deeper still. Upon his return to the round table, the girdle is adopted
by he entire court. Although this appears to be a symbol of Camelot's solidarity,
it is also symbolic of how Arthur does not take Gawain's lesson to heart.

The poet's audience was familiar with the legend of Camelot's fall, and
knew its destiny to be degeneration at the hands of Guinevere, Morgan and
Lancelot, emblems of courtly love. The poet's allusions to Troy reinforce
the similarity between the two emblems of civilization torn apart by the
discord caused when men covet women. Women and feminine symbols are the
author's scapegoats in assigning blame for the end of the feudal economy
and way of life, a simple, tangible, recognizable enemy that he blames
for the end of an era, which, in reality, was brought to a close by sweeping
socioeconomic factors beyond the control of men.