The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, supposedly written in the mid to late fourteenth century, shows the decline of both the code of Chivalry and of Feudalism. In a desperate effort to reinforce the ideals of Feudalism, the poet, evidently bias towards the Christian church and its values, use the female gender as the primary causes of this decay. At the time, the religious values were deeply weakened by the conflict between religious love and courtly love and also by an always underlying “Code of Chivalry” which had changed from a set of Christian to a set of immoral values.
This process of Christian decay was highly influenced by the rise of courtly love in which the knights were led to feats of bravery and devotion to a mistress rather than God. The world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, never intends to present women as powerful but rather, women are clear examples of the dark forces and dangers lurking beneath feudalism and chivalry. In the medieval world of the poet, women and their doings were to be mistrusted. Thus, HE provides a set of biblical and classical models to depict the female gender as a subversive force that causes doom to all men on earth.
The game of courtly love was breaking social bonds which hold feudalism together. In this game, men were forced outside of the traditional male hierarchies, placed on equal footing with a woman, and not subject to the feudal loyalty system. Throughout the poem, the warning is clear cut: this dichotomy between chivalric and Christian values will inevitably end in destruction of Feudalism and its set of values: Christianity. From the very beginning, there is a clear contrast between two iconic female figures. On the one hand, the Virgin Mary and all the positive moral values she embodies.
On the other hand, the female gender, descendants of Eve (iconic figure of temptress, symbol of lust and the dangers of the flesh), mainly represented by Lady Bertilak and Morgain Le Fay. Virgin Mary, frequently addressed as in the poem as holy Queen of Heaven, is the model of the female figure representing spiritual love, obedience to God, chastity, humility and above all the Mother of God. Mary is the only woman that embraces both motherhood and chastity. She is a life giver without sin, a virgin, untainted by sexuality (the source of all evil in the early Christian church). The Virgin Mary has a special relationship to Gawain from which he erives his prowess and courage. He is Mary’s Knight. “And wherever this knight found himself in stress of battle …he drew his strength from the five joys the Queen of Heaven had of her child. (p. 8). Accordingly the poet, Sir Gawain had that Queen’s image on the back of his shield: “and for this cause did he bear an image of Our Lady …that whenever he looked upon it he might not lack of aid” (p. 8). On his quest to look for the Green Knight and after being beset by a number of great perils, as he lies freezing in the forest, he prays to her find him shelter and a place to say Mass on Christmas Eve.
She answers his prayers and leads him to Bertilak’s castle. Upon Sir Gawain’s arrival to the castle, the poet describes Sir Gawain at Mass “sat gravely together [with the lord] throughout the service” (p. 11). Soon after, instead of finding solace in the meaning of Christmas, Gawain and the Lady “had much joy of each other’s company through her sweet words and courteous converse” (p. 12). We realize that he has forgotten the significance of the day and is consumed with his ‘luf-talk’. This scene is only a foreshadowing of the dangers of courtly love whereas the bedroom scene is the real proving ground.
By positioning the bedroom scenes and the hunting scenes in parallel and analyzing Lady Bertilak’s behavior, a clear message can be drawn: every descendant of Eve is both a source of moral disassociations and a real temptress that while playing their sport of courtly love will test every knight’s chastity and courtesy. His disavowal of the Virgin Mary is shown twice in this poem. Mary, representing his spiritual love and faith, saves him from losing his chastity, as the poet says, “Whenever this knight found himself in stress of battle he deemed well that he drew his strength from the five joys which the Queen of Heaven had of her child. (p. 8). When the Lady directly asks him if he has another love, Gawain answers, “By S. John no such love have I, nor do I think have yet awhile” (p. 21). His faith and devotion has been lost in his bargaining. In the bedroom scene, as Lady Bertilak presses him more aggressively, the conflict between his spiritual love and courtly love becomes apparent. He cannot make a clear cut choice between the two which leads him to accept the girdle. The second disavowal occurs there when he trades one symbol for another, the pentangle for the girdle. The weaknesses of the pentangle become apparent and he is forced to look for another symbol.
In other words, he has traded a Marian symbol for a secular symbol. On the other hand, Bertilak’s wife is a dynamic force and an instrument to Bertilak’s ultimate play. Whenever Lady Bertilak is present, there is an implicit warning; women may look beautiful, but they can also be the route to death and decay. As shown in this scene of lady Bertilak and the old woman, the two are compared, ‘For if the younger were fair, the elder was yellow. “(p. 11). Rather than just representing the passage of time, the comparison is a moral statement about women and their immediate association with sex, sin and death.
We will later learn in the poem that Morgain Le Fay, the old lady presented in this scene (another poisonous female figure in the poem), is the instigator of the whole story. The poet places both Morgain and Bertilak’s wife in order to represent the contradictory behavior of the traditionally archetypes of women involved in courtly love. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may seem to address women as possessors of great power. Throughout the story, Bertilak’s wife resembles a hunter operating unassisted against Gawain in the bedroom scenes.
Thus, Lady Bertilak is clearly seen in the Biblical role of temptress. She becomes a test for Gawain in which the knight puts on trial his own potential for moral success or moral demise. At the poem’s end, Sir Gawain elicits a tirade about women, all biblical temptresses, in which he becomes one in a long line of male victims unwittingly deceived by women “For so was Adam beguiled by one, and Solomon by many and Samson all too soon, for Delilah dealt him his doom; and David thereafter was wedded with Bathsheba, which brought him much sorrow. ” (p. 8). In this way he shows that women are to be blamed and is able to regain his power within the story by returning not as a coward but as a fully reinstated knight of honor. In doing so, it seems that he has decided to do without his courtesy and without women as well. He refuses to return to the castle to make peace with Bertilak’s wife and Morgain. Both are effectively banished. All the external threats they represent and the internal conflict they generated, are eliminated. Power is back in the hands of God and Gawain’s loyalties are reinstated.
As Gawain returns to his familiar environment, Arthur’s court (a safe place where the Chivalry code had shaped the values and actions of the Knights of the Round Table), he realizes that everything is not as it seems. Eventually, Arthur’s court is to experience its own moral decay as suggested with reaction to the Green Knight’s tale. They laugh at Gawain’s story and proudly take the girdle as a symbol of honor. While Gawain has clearly learned the lesson about the dangers of courtly love and wears the girdle now as a symbol of his shame, the other Knights of Arthur’s court have not.
By the time Gawain was written, the demise of Camelot was a common part of the lore. In time, Arthur’s court will face the fate of Troy, destroyed by the discord between men brought about by the desire to possess the most beautiful woman: Lady Guinevere. She is the ultimate female figure, another iconic figure, mischievously depicted by the poet as “a lovely lady… the queen gaily glad, sat on the high dais…fair she was to look upon; … a fairer woman might no man boast himself of having seen. ” (p. 1)