I chose to write about the role of women and their power in ‚”Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, I have always been interested in this topic because since ancient times women have been treated as inferior beings in comparison to men. According to some critics, ”In the middle of late 14’th century when Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written, as well as in the Arthurian era in which it took place, Christian traditions created a male-dominated society in which women had very little perceived power. The paradigm of women in this era was a delicate paradox- they were treated with idolatry and reverence, but were not respected as capable beings in their own right. Much of the chivalric code that knights prided themselves on was based on the assumption that women could not achieve much for themselves, and therefore men had to achieve it for them. However, the plot of this poem indicates that women had the ability to attain their needs and exert their influence as they desired.” Are the women powerful indeed? (St. Rosemary Educational Institution. Women & Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Analysis.)
The first feminine figure that appears in the poem is Gaynore, gaily clad upon the royal dais in the hall. The Queen, “with eyes of shining grey” stood out among all the people who were present at this feast. We could say that she is the only feminine figure that appears in the poem and whose behaviour and action’s doesn’t alter in any way the story. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Book 1 , Chapter ).
Moving on to the next part of this poem when Sir Gawain arrives at Bertilak castle, another feminine character makes her appearance, the host’s wife who has a different way of behaving and composure than the Queen. Her skin, her figure and face were fair. “Fairest was she in skin, in figure and in face”. She outshone queen’s Gaynore’s beauty ”That e’en Gaynore, the queen, might scarce with her compare”. When coming to greet our hero, unlike the dame who at her left hand stood, the young lady with her white pearls and her breast and throat displayed to sight was graciously displaying her beauty: “Her eyes, her nose, I see, and eke her lips were bare”. In my opinion, the author tries to point out the difference between the two women whose presence is of an outmost importance in the plot’s development, as we will later find out the host’s wife wants to definitely seduce Gawain who craves for her when he sees her, folding her within his arms and ”Gives her a comely kiss, as fit from courteous knight”. She uses her charm speaking and acting freely. “The lord, in laughing wise, he sprang unto his feet”. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Book 2, Chapters XVIII-XIX).
However, the old wrinkled lady fills the highest seat with the castle’s lord beside her. The dame is described as an ugly woman while Lady Bertilak is graciously displaying her beauty, Morgan’s clothes are covering her from head to toes ,”The other’s neck was veiled in gorget folded high,/ That all her chin so black was swathed in milk-white folds; /Her forehead all, I ween, in silk was rapped and rolled,/ Broidered it was full fair, adorned with knots enow”, till the only thing that you could see was the ”black bristly brow”. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Book 2 , Chapters XVIII-XIX).
On the other hand, the young lady seems to have a more modern way of thinking and conducting than that of a proper medieval court lady of that time. She chooses dear words and kind glances, conversing courteously in order to impress Sir Gawain. Even the atmosphere that surrounds them contributes to this seduction: “Sweet strain of trump and piping clear/ And drum doth sound amain.” She is a shrewd woman, as she can read people and when she is let down she accuses Gawain of discourtesy. It is interesting the fact that the lady’s name is not revealed, Her identity remains somehow unknown. Although Sir Gawain, at first, is glad and laughs gaily he declines the lady’s fair solace. Therefore, the fair lady steals into the knight’s room and goes to his bed waiting for him to wake up, but when he does he makes the cross sign and chooses his words wisely in order to refuse her. They start a battle of words which the lady seems to be very clever at, arguing and one can see that she does not act independently. She wants to convince him that she is “the brightest maid of maidens to his mind”, she kisses him freely. Nevertheless, the knight goes away thinking that. ”Better was never knight/ Entreated of fair dame / Old, or of beauty bright,/ Than he was, at that same” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Book 3)
To the idea mentioned above, another factor can be added, namely that Lili Arkin says in ”The Role of Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” that Gawain disavowal of the Virgin Mary is shown when he trades one symbol for another, the pentangle for the girdle. He gives up the symbol associated with the Virgin Mary and instead embraces the girdle which is associated with the Lady”. The Virgin Mary stands for integrity, love, chastity(she appears on the shield of Gawain in the inner part, it was used by believers as a source from where they could recharge their energy and from where they could gain the courage they needed) .Lili Arkin also says that‚ Gawain gets his power and the courage he needs from the special relationship that he has with Virgin Mary. By special relationship, she means the moment when he is at the point of despair and starts praying to Mary to help him and she listens to his prayers and leads him to Bertilak’s castle.
So far, having the role of a temptress in the poem, lady Bertilak has been given a lot of power and doesn’t accept a failure in her trying to seduce Gawain. She also represents the sinful woman, the traditional type of the courtly love full of lust and disobedience. She seems to be a more modern character whose behaviour and actions hardly seem to be those of a lady of her social status (she doesn’t wait like a proper lady for Gawain to make the first steps in order to seduce her, she attacks the prey herself). Moreover, the women in the story may deliver the message that there was a gap between the church and chivalry at that time.
It seems obvious that the women are in control of the power in a certain way when Bertilak confesses that the one that put all this cunningly plan into action , and the one who thought of this sort of‚”game” in order to frighten Gaynore and to test not only the loyalty and the courage of Arthur himself but also the one of his knights is Morgan le Faye. It is said that bassed on games and tests people can provide a measure of the individual’s inner worth. Morgan le Faye, Arthur’s step-sister (the old lady from Bertilak castle who dwelleth in his hall ), and a powerful sorceress trained by Merlin (she is also his mistress). ”She sent me in this guise unto King Arthur’s hall / To test your knightly pride, if it were sooth, withal, /T was she taught me the craft which ye so strange have found, /To grieve Gaynore, the queen, and her to death to fright/”. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Book 4 , Chapter XX).
Gawain and the Green Knight agree that their problems can be blamed on women. Gawain says that both lady Bertilak and the old dame should be honored because‚”Who thus their knight with craft right skilful did beguile /And yet small marvel’t is if one, thro’ woman’s wile /Befooled shall be oft-times, and brought to sorrow sore”. He also mentions some great men like Adam, Solomon , Saison and David , declaring that all of them had fallen prey to the women’s charms and their lives and fates were forever changed by them. So one could love them ,but they should never trust a woman . And Bertilak confesses that no matter how proud a man can be, Morgan can tame his pride.(Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Book 4, Chapters XVIII-XIX ).
On the other hand Lili Arkin thinks that the poet never intended to present to us a world in which women are powerful, saying that ,” 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”.( The Role of Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knigh)
In conclusion even if the poet never intended to present to us a world in which women are powerful , the way in which Bertilak and Gawain blame the women for having the ability and the craftiness they need in order to fool and to bring any man they want to his destruction shows how powerful the women are (even if we can’t truly blame only the women for their destruction since the men are also guilty, responsible for their own downfalls ) .The fact that Morgan is the one who plotted of this course of actions and she was strong enough to use a man (Bertilak) as her ”puppet” , and that lady Bertilak could make Gawain to fall into sin show us exactly their cunning nature.