Women, Courtly Love and the Creation Myth in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a great epic written in fourteenth century Europe by the Pearl poet, emphasizes the opposition of Christian love to Courtly love in the 13th century through the dilemma of Sir Gawain, one of the great knights of the Arthurian round table. By examining the women in the poem, Gawain's dilemma becomes a metaphor for the contrast of these two distinct types of love. The poem looks upon the Virgin Mary as the representative of spiritual love, obedience, chastity, and life (Warner 9). In contrast, Morgan le Fay and Bertilak's wife appear to be representing courtly love, disobedience, lust and death. This conflict between courtly love and spiritual love demonstrates the drastically weakened religious values behind chivalry. An interesting parallel to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the story of original sin in the Garden of Eden. Gawain's temptation correlates to the temptation of Adam, which is rooted in the sins of the flesh. The women in the story seem to accentuate the downfall of Gawain, which mirrors the downfall of Arthur's court, as well as man's fall from grace in the garden.
Originally, the first duty of a knight was to be at the service of his church. However, with the rise of courtly love, knights began to give their devotion to their mistress rather than God. This elevated the church's mistrust of women and the flesh. The characterization of Bertilak's wife is not unlike that of Eve, a temptress who would bring both happiness and despair to her man. One interesting twist to this story is that, like courtly love, possession of power seems to be shifted into the hands of the women. The wife of Bertilak operates unassisted against Gawain in the bedroom as the hunter and the aggressor. The great feminine power in the story, however, comes from Morgan le Fay, the evil stepsister of Arthur. She is strong enough to move into Bertilak's castle, turn him green and order him to walk and talk with a severed head.
The Virgin Mary also plays a prominent role in the tale. It seems as if Mary and Gawain have a relationship based on a special untainted Christian love. That Gawain is Mary's knight is made clear in the scene where he is robed for battle. "That all his force was founded on the five joys that the high Queen of heaven had in her child. And therefore, as I find, he fittingly had on the inner part of his shield her image portrayed, that when his look on it lighted, he never lost heart" (Adams, 215). This is referring to both the pentangle on the inside of his shield which represents the Five Virtues of Gawain and the carving of Mary on the inside of his shield which gave him faith and courage. Gawain's shift in faith from Mary to the Green Girdle at the end of the story dictates his downfall.
Gawain's temptation begins upon entering Bertilak's court, which is a totally different world to him. Although he is initially in a serious mood, he drops his guard at the sight of Lady Bertilak. All he wants to do is to escort her down the aisle and admire her loveliness. "When Gawain had gazed on that gay lady, with leave of her lord, he politely approached; to the elder in homage he humbly bows; the lovelier he salutes with a light embrace. He claims a comely kiss, and courteously he speaks; they welcome him warmly, and straightway he asks to be received as their servant, if they so desire" (Adams, 222). Strolling down the aisle beside Lady Bertilak is an older woman who serves as a standard for comparison, accentuating her beauty. "But unlike to look upon, those ladies were, for if the one was fresh, the other was faded" (Adams, 222). This comparison is a reminder of the moral statement associating women with sex, sin and death. Decay of the flesh is sometimes a perceived as spiritual decay, as with Eve who was cursed to have...
Cited: Abrams, M.H. "The Norton Anthology of English Literature." New York:
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
De Roo, Harvey. "Undressing Lady Bertilak: Guilt and Denial in Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight." The Chaucer Review 27 (1993): 305-24.
Warner, Marina. "Alone of all Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary".
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976.
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