The Role Of Women In Sir Gaiwan

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The Role Of Women In Sir Gaiwan And The Green Knight Essay, Research Paper In the Fourteenth Century, Feudalism and its offspring, chivalry, were in decline due to drastic social and economic changes. In this light, _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_ presents both a nostalgic support of the feudal hierarchies and an implicit criticism of changes, which, if left unchecked will lead to its ultimate destruction. I would suggest that the women in the story are the Gawain poet’s primary instruments in this critique and reinforcement of Feudalism. By positioning The Virgin Mary (as the singular female archetype representing spiritual love, obedience, chastity, and life) against Morgan and Bertilak’s wife (who represent the traditional female archetypes of courtly love,

disobedience, lust and death) the Gawain poet points out the conflict between courtly love and spiritual love which he, and other critics of the time, felt had drastically weakened the religious values behind chivalry. As such, the poem is a warning to its Aristocratic readers that the traditional religious values underlying the feudal system must be upheld in order to avert destruction of their way of life. It is easy to read _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_ as a romantic celebration of chivalry, but Ruth Hamilton believes that “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains a more wide-ranging, more serious criticism of chivalry than has heretofore been noticed” (113). Specifically, she feels that 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. As she shows, “the first order of knights were monastic ones, who took vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. The first duties the knights undertook, the crusades, were for the Church” (113). The great divergence in the two came with the rise of courtly love in which the knights were led to great feats of bravery and uplift by devotion to a mistress rather than God. Given the Church’s mistrust of women and the flesh, the contradiction seems clear. Hamilton tells us there was a mass of clerical writings in the Fourteenth Century that were critical of chivalry and show the split between chivalry and the church during that time. Given this mistrust of women by the church, the placement of

the women in the story must be a critical medium for delivering this message. Interestingly, the women appear to wield great power. Bertilak’s wife is operating unassisted against Gawain in the bedroom as the hunter and aggressor. Morgan is the instigator of the plot which begins the story, and she is strong enough to move into Bertilak’s castle, turn him green and order him to walk and talk with a severed head. However, the poet never intends to present a world where women are powerful; rather, these women constitute a metaphor for other anti-social forces and dangers outside the control of feudalism and chivalry which a medieval world genders female because of a set of biblical and classical models which establish anything subversive as feminine. Much of the identification

of women with subversion is accomplished through the operation of the major medieval archetypes. Lady Bertilak is clearly seen in the Biblical role of temptress. The Biblical archetype began with Eve and as Maureen Fries shows “Eve became known as the source and symbol of lust and the dangers of the flesh; it was she who led Adam astray” (27). In Gawain’s anti-feminist tirade, Gawain actually places her in a long line of other biblical temptresses including Delilah and Bathsheba (1216-19). But Lady Bertilak is also strongly associated the romantic archetype of “courtly love”. As such, Fries says, the Lady “becomes the ambivalent mirror in which the knight pictures his own potential for moral achievement or moral failure in terms of the male warrior ethos such