Aaron Samson Comp Lit.

7 Section A06 17 April 2007

Women in Gawain: The Assumption of a New Role
Christian themes were highly prevalent in medieval literature, often dictating the morals and values of the religion. Women had a special place in these themes, and often took the form of a temptress or a trickster, leading noble men astray from their Christian and chivalric moral codes for their own personal gain or amusement. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lady Bercilak and Morgan le Fay both participate in acts that could potentially lead Sir Gawain astray. Because their actions are seen as tests of the character and nobility, however, they assume an atypical role which redeems them by illuminating the virtues of the two moral codes that Sir Gawain lives by. Sir Gawain’s virtues and moral codes are illustrated through the literary depictions of his shield, which represents the coming together of his two moral codes: his religion, and his chivalric duties. A shield is a physical metaphor of knighthood and the code that Gawain must adhere to while he retains that rank. The chivalric code that Sir Gawain must adhere to as a knight values his king above else, followed by his fellow knights. Here he maintains his senses of honor, nobility, and courage by participating in acts of valor, and protecting his king above all else. The second part of the code that Gawain must adhere to pertains to women; knights are expected to be respectful of all women, participating in courtly love while always upholding and maintaining the honor

of the women. The symbols on Gawain’s shield represent the Christian virtues that Gawain’s make up Gawain’s second moral code. The gold pentacle is a Christian symbol that stands for purity and truth, while the portrait of the Virgin Mary is a constant reminder of his Christianity and its according principles that Sir Gawain is said to live by. The first test to Sir Gawain’s moral codes is provided by Morgan Le Fay, who sends the Green Knight as a challenge. The fantastic appearance of the knight scares the knights, forcing King Arthur to save the image of his court and meet the Green Knight’s challenge. At this point, many of the nights have already defected from their initial chivalric responsibility, which is to protect the king and his honor. Gawain rises to the test, putting his fear aside to live by his morals and protect his king. When the first half of the game is finished and the Green Knight leaves, Gawain is faced with another challenge: he must sacrifice his life or, or sacrifice his chivalry by backing out of the game. It’s easy to see this test as malicious in nature, but its ambiguity and peaceful nature turn defies those initial ideas. The Green Knight did not appear under evil circumstances; in fact he “wore no helmet and no chain mail either,/ Nor any breastplate, nor brassarts on his arms/ He had no spear and no shield for thrusting or striking…” The knight never chooses Gawain to play the game; nor does he tell him how he should strike, giving Gawain the ability to pick his own future. Arthur recognizes this when he tells Gawain to “take care…how [he] makes [his] cut…” King Arthur recognizes that a smart cut will be able to be endured, while a deadly one may be returned with full force.

When Gawain decides to decapitate the Green Knight, he has chosen his own fate, turning Morgan Le Fay’s game into a true test of his character and his adherence to his chivalric values. Morgan Le Fay assumes an atypical role by testing the Green Knight, instead of trying to lead him astray. The equivalent can be found in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, when two angels came to earth to find virtue in the two cities. The circumstances were relatively the same, in that the people could either choose to be righteous, or sinful, but ultimately they chose their own fate. In this way, Morgan Le Fay defies the typical role given to women in classical literature by giving Gawain the chance to illuminate his virtues and adhere to his morals, instead of tempting or tricking him into a violation of his morals. By facing his death both against the Green Knight and again in nature, his true nobility becomes illuminated by his quest and the values that he stands for and represents are reaffirmed in his representation of them. Gawain’s second test comes in the form of seduction and temptation from the Lady Bercilak. Until the end of the poem it would seem that the Lady appears in the traditional role of women in classical literature, however when the Green Knight reveals that he sent his wife to test Gawain she assumes a new role. The Lady Bercilak attempts to lead Gawain astray by pitting his chivalric and Christian codes against one-another, not in the hopes that he will defy them but find a way to overcome the temptation and prove his valor. In the end, Gawain finds a way to overcome his temptation, while giving the lady the respect and honor that she deserves, while maintaining his Christian values by not concealing anything from his host, and not being an adulterer.

Lady Bercilak does assume the Eve archetype in her last encounter with Gawain by giving her belt, but the recognition that Gawain is human redeems both characters. When Lady Bercilak gives Sir Gawain her belt, she is essentially reenacting the Adam and Eve story. She is still testing him, for under his agreement with the host, he would have to give the Lord Bercilak the belt that he obtained. However the Lady gives Gawain something that she knows he cannot refuse, and tempts him with his own life. When this is revealed in Gawain’s final encounter with the Green Knight, Gawain repents through words and does penance through the Green Knight’s axe, and asks to wear the belt forever as a reminder. Even in Gawain’s mistake his virtues are revealed, for he adheres to the Christian moral code; because he is man he is only a man he will never be perfect, however he confesses and repents his sins, while paying penance in the form of pain from the axe and embarrassment from wearing the belt. This illumination takes Lady Bercilak out of the Eve archetype, for her test ended with Gawain’s enlightenment. Morgan Le Fay and the Lady Bercilak both test Sir Gawain in different ways, however their tests result in an illumination of Gawain’s virtues and nobility, while serving as an enlightening experience to Gawain himself. Gawain’s enlightenment comes with the recognition that as virtuous as he is, no man is perfect. Gawain’s eagerness to do penance for such a meager sin illuminates how virtuous he is. Both Gawain’s enlightenment and the illumination of his virtues could not have come without the intervention of Morgan le Fay and Lady Bercilak; the results of these two women’s interventions provide a sharp contrast to the normal function of women in classical literature in which men are tempted into sin through the evil natures or selfish ministrations of women.

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