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- The Role of Women in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight
- Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is an example of medieval misogyny. Throughout Medieval literature, specifically Arthurian legends like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the female characters, Guinevere, the Lady, and Morgan leFay are not portrayed as individuals but social constructs of what a woman should be. Guinevere plays a passive woman, a mere token of Arthur. The Lady is also a tool, but has an added role of temptress and adulteress. Morgan leFay is the ultimate conniving, manipulating, woman. While the three women in this legend have a much more active role than in earlier texts, this role is not a positive one; they are not individuals but are symbols of how men of this time perceive women as passive tokens, adulteresses, and manipulators.
- Guinevere from the very beginning of the legend is portrayed as a passive, typical lady of the court. In stanza four, the author describes Guinevere almost as a trophy or ornament of the court: "Queen Guinevere very gaily was gathered among them/....The prettiest lady that one may describe/She gleamed there with eyes of grey/To have seen one fairer to the sight/That no one could truly say" (74-84). Guinevere does not take an active role in the court. She does not have speaking role and basically just sits among the knights of the Round Table. Her passivity and silence could be the result of medieval anti-feminism. According to Bloch in medieval times what a woman wants is to speak. Medieval authors such as Andreas Capellanus, the supposed author of The Art of Courtly Love writes, "Furthermore, not only is every woman by nature a miser, but she is also envious, and a slanderer of other women......fickle in her speech,....a liar, a drunkard, a babbler, no keeper of secrets" (Bloch 54). Another example of this anti-feminism is Walter Map's, "Dissuasion of Valerius to Rufinus the Philosopher that he should not take a wife". The female character speaks, "I am forbidden to speak, and I cannot keep silence" (Bloch 55). Guinevere's passivity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight could be a reflection of these views as the author chose to suppress her voice in the text.
- Throughout the Sir Gawain text Guinevere is characterized as a pathetic, powerless lady:
- Well, [Morgan leFay] guided me in this disguise to your gay halls/ So that could see if you were all as superb and splendid/As the fame of the Round Table runs with renown/She produced this paradox in order to puzzle and perplex you/And to goad poor Guinevere halfway to her grave... (2456-2460).
- We as readers realize that many women of this era were objects of courtly love. However, in other Arthurian texts, Guinevere takes a more active role in the story and portrays an adulteress. In "Du Mantel mautaille" a knight arrives at King Arthur's court and brings with him a magic coat which is to fit the women who has been faithful to her husband or lover. Guinevere is singled out by the author as the "incarnation of unfaithfulness" (Bloch 95). In medieval literature, women are also portrayed as adulteresses such as the Lady in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.
- The second female role in this text is the Lady of the manor, Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert's wife. The Lady first appears in this text in stanza 18: "She was the fairest of all in her figure, flesh, and face/As well as her contour, complexion, and conduct--/Even more gorgeous than Guinevere, so Gawain thought" (943-945). Gawain immediately admires the lady as an object of beauty. She is a sexual object like Guinevere, however the two characters contrast in that the lady boldly makes advances toward Gawain. While Gawain is staying at the manor, the lady "stealthily" slips into his bedroom. She is extremely forward and confident: "'Good morning, Sir Gawain,' was her lilting greeting/'You're not a smart sleeper! I slipped in here with ease!/And I've caught you right here! If you don't cry surrender/I'll bind you to this bed---and that you may believe!" (1208-1211). At this point in the text, it would seem that the author is portraying the lady in a more positive light, despite that she is a nothing more than a sexual object. The lady confidently pursues Gawain, pressures him to please her, and has a rather substantial speaking role. However, we learn later in the text that the Green Knight is Sir Bertilak and he sent his wife to test Gawain. The green knight puts Gawain in an awkward position. If Gawain is to love this lady, he would be betraying his host. However if he does not act on her wishes, his behavior would be very unchivalric (1770-1775). The women is no longer a playful, confident woman but an instrument of her husband. She is doing as she is told and acts like a suspicious, cunning temptress.
- After the Green Knight confronts Gawain about the girdle his wife gives him, Gawain is quick to shift the blame to the lady, calling all women tricky and manipulative:
- But it's no great wonder whenever a woman outwits/A man and leads him away to mourning or to madness/For Adam himself was led astray by a woman/And Solomon by several, and so too was Samson/(Who was doomed by Delilah), not to mention David/Who was blinded by Bathsheba and suffered a bitter fate/These were all laid low by women's lies. What great luck /If a lord could simply love them and not believe them! (2414-2421).
- This lady becomes yet another scapegoat for men. While this women did play a much more active role in this legend than other female characters in earlier Arthurian texts, the author ultimately portrays her as a temptress and an instrument of men.
- This role of temptress and adulteress is common throughout Medieval literature and dates back to Genesis and the Creation story according to Bloch, "The view of woman as the one who through speech sowed discord between man and God lies at the core of the narrative of the Fall, the Old Testament association of the feminine and verbal allurement" (15). In the medieval world, women will ultimately be unfaithful. Jean de Meun's Roman de la rose discusses women's ability to be unfaithful, "If a woman is beautiful, all desire her, and she will in the end be unfaithful; yet if she is not beautiful, she will need all the more to please and, again, will eventually betray" (17). This occurs in this legend. When we are first introduced to the lady in stanza 18, she is accompanied by another lady, "[The Lady] crossed over the chancel to encounter the chevalier/With another lady leading her by the left hand/Who was far more aged -- an ancient one, she appeared --/.......I must tell you that these two were totally unalike/For the younger one had spirit, the senior one was seared/A perfect pink complexion suffused the one/While the rough, wrinkled cheeks rolled down upon the other" (946-953). Later in the text, the beautiful lady is the one who tempts Gawain and is unfaithful to her husband.
- Morgan leFay is most powerful female role in this legend. Under the tutelage of Merlin, Morgan becomes a powerful sorceress. The Green Knight turned to Morgan for a proper disguise. She developed this entire scheme to test Gawain. The author praises Morgan:
- The mighty Morgan the Fay, who lives on my manor/Whose mastery of magic is manipulated with craft/.....Therefore Morgan the Goddess/Rightly is her name/Nobody's so wild against her/That she can't make him tame-- (464).
- She is powerful, but again like the Lady, she is suspicious and a manipulator. She might be all-powerful, but she is still marginalized in this legend. Sheila Fisher, author of "Leaving Morgan aside: women, history, and revisionism, describes Morgan leFay's role:
- Morgan and her marginalization are the means to the poem's end, because women are centrally implicated in the collapse of the round table and the end of the Arthurian Age......To deny the female would be to save the kingdom (133).
- Morgan like the Lady are scapegoats for the knight's failures. In the tradition of medieval misogyny, Morgan portrays an "agent of destruction" (135).
- The Medieval era is primarily known for chivalry, knighthood, and masculinity. Women as we see in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are on the periphery, afterthoughts, and scapegoats. Male characters in many Arthurian legends are individuals, Medieval authors develop their role, describe their heroic efforts, illustrate their masculinity. However, women, like Bloch argues, are denied individuality. Guinevere, the Lady, and Morgan leafy portray the misogynist sentiment of the era. People believed that women were bound to unfaithful, loud, liars, slanderers. Such views are reflected in each of the roles these women play. Guinevere is a token of Arthur's wealth and silenced by the author. The Lady is bound to be an adulteress because of her beauty. And Morgan leafy while she might be an all-powerful sorcerer, she is a ultimately a manipulator and scapegoat.
- Works Cited:
- Bloch, R. Howard. Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Volume One. General Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 1993.
- Works Consulted:
- Bennett, Michael J. "The Historical Background" in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, pp. 71-90. Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, editors. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997.
- Putter, Ad. An Introduction to the Gawain-poet. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996.
- Riddy, Felicity. "Jewels in Pearl" in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, pp. 142-55. Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, editors. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997.
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