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 children and grow old as punishment for her sins.
The moral decline of Gawain can be clearly seen following his association with the Lady. On Christmas morning, for example, instead of finding comfort in the spiritual meaning of Christmas, Gawain finds comfort being seated with the lady. The bedroom scenes, however, depict the true moral battles of Gawain. During the three-day period, there is a spiraling trend. The events keep happening in the same way on a higher and higher level until Gawain is forced to give in to her desires. While he is able to see that his chastity is more important than his courtesy, he is still desperately trying to balance the two (DeRoo, 314). His inability to choose between them leads him to accept the girdle. While Mary, representing his spiritual love and faith, saves him from losing his chastity, great peril between them stood, unless Mary for her knight should pray (Adams, 241). Gawain still denies his love for her when faced with the love of the lady. Gawain s loss of devotion is the key to his downfall, for it was his faith in Mary, which gave him strength and courage.
By giving up the pentangle in exchange for the girdle, which supposedly has magical powers that will protect him, Gawain becomes torn between chivalry and religion. At this point things start to get a bit knotty : Gawain, religion and chivalry become equivalent, intertwined and interdependent. The concept of knots can also be applied to the icons in this story. The pentangle is a knot that has no beginnings or end, symbolizing Mary as bearing complete and unbroken love. The girdle, on the other hand, is not endless, but is broken and needs to be tied and untied, which symbolizes Lady Berthelac s love for Gawain (DeRoo, 323). The consequence of Gawain s acceptance of the girdle is that he must not tell Bertilak that he has acquired it, which violates their agreement. While he may be wining in the game of courtly love, he is failing the test of loyalty and honor miserably. Looking at Mary as a symbol of obedience and Eve as one of disobedience, Gawain has chosen disobedience, proving that courtly love will break male social bonds and cause a society to crumble.
These broken social bonds, however, are reaffirmed with the banishment of courtly love at the end of the story. Because of the outcome of the beheading game is dependent on Gawain s behaving regarding the exchange of winnings agreement, there is an implication that the power has been shifted back to the men. When the power is shifted, Bertilak changes the purpose of the game from destroying Arthur s court to prolonging its existence by teaching Gawain a lesson, which may then be carried back to the other men.
Although Gawain has clearly learned a lesson and has taken up the girdle as a symbol of his shame, the other knights have not. They laugh at Gawain and wear the girdle as a symbol of honor. This leaves the entire court open to the dangers of chivalry and courtly love, eventually causing Camelot to fall. This parallels the creation myth in that God warned Adam not to eat the apple just as Gawain warns the other knights of the dangers of courtly love.
The fall of man and the fall of Arthur s kingdom can be paralleled in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for many reasons. In the story Gawain takes on a transition from a knight to an almost god-like figure to the knights. He is the best and most virtuous of the knights of Camelot, but he is not perfect. Gawain must learn from his imperfections in order to reach a higher moral level. When God created man, he created him in his own image, but for God to make a being to whom he would still be superior, he must give this being a flaw, the flaw being temptation. Gawain serves as both the Adam figure in the beginning, flawed by pride and temptation, and a God figure in the end, overcoming his flaws and warning others not to take the forbidden fruit. The women in this tale serve as a medium for comparing the spiritual journey of Sir Gawain to the creation myth. With Mary as a symbol of perfection and Lady Bertilak as an Eve-like symbol of temptation, the fact that he is torn between them displays his humanness just as Adam was torn between the word of God and the love of Eve. In this case, Morgan le Fay would probably be considered the serpent in the garden, the instigator of the conflict in the story. Because of the story of Eve, women were frequently looked upon in medieval times as cunning, untrustworthy and generally evil. Women in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are looked upon with the male concept that flesh is evil and will lead to man s downfall, which is highlighted by the contrast of Courtly love to Christian love.
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
Green Knight.” The Chaucer Review 27 (1993): 305-24.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976.