In Arthurian literature, women certainly played important roles. They repeatedly and constantly prejudiced the protagonists of such stories in countless ways and also held a strong sway over the occurrences in the story and, accordingly, over the story line as well.
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In her work, To the Glory of Her Sex: Women‘s Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts, Joan M. Ferrante (p. 107) states that women did play a major role in courtly literature as well as in the production of it. The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not an exception.
Brief background of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a piece of medieval literature about one of the noblest knights and King Arthur’s nephew, sir Gawain. The poem is considered to be created at the end of the 14th century (Schweke, p. 4). In this period, the characters of women in literature were profoundly shifting from supportive to the major ones. Thus, women started to be portrayed as central characters in literary texts and contexts. In previous works, women were presented simply as mothers and betrotheds being regarded as a part of the ornate instead of contributory to the story line. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, women play a central role because they are influential, and in most cases, operate behind the scenes to contrive the scheme and intrigues of the story and the hero’s pursuit.
This paper will focus on the part played by the women in the middle ages. It will take a closer look at these women and elaborate on their roles in Arthurian literature. In this part, this paper will examine the old-fashioned romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In pursuit of this, it will bring to light the changing roles that the women played, with particular emphasis on the three main women characters of Guinevere, lady Bertilak and Morgan le Fay.
Women’s Roles in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
There is certainly a rich range of feminine models in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight even though none of them is as fully developed as Sir Gawain or the Green Knight. All of them, without exceptions, are very powerful figures though the Virgin Mary, to whom Gawain is dedicated is quite different. All of them are also ambivalent and contain both good and evil traits of character (Sax and Research & Education Association, p. 82).
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a classic example of medieval misogyny. Throughout medieval literature, Arthurian cycle in particular, the female characters are not depicted as persons but rather as social assembles of what a woman ought to be. Guinevere plays the role of a docile woman, a mere keepsake of Arthur. Lady Bertilak, in turn, is a tool to develop other characters and the story line as a whole, thus she has an added role of an adulterer and temptress. On the other hand, Morgan le Fay is the ultimate conniving, manipulating woman. The women in their roles in the text are not individuals but symbols that represent how men of that time perceived women as passive tokens, adulterers, and manipulators.
Throughout the course of his adventure, the protagonist comes into contact with each of the three major female characters, Queen Guinevere, the intended victim, Morgan le Fay, the contriver of the plot, and Lady Bertilak who executes everything. He fails completely to recognize what each woman stands for in the structural pattern of his adventure and the close relationship which exists in their triad. Sometimes, these three ladies are charming, but they can be appalling as well as described with a touch of comedy. However, they all perform superbly and always succeed in deluding Sir Gawain, while preserving an image of respectable ladies at court in different appearances. Thus, defying the simple view of women hitherto taken in literally works, these three figures are related and integrated to present a more humanized image of the courtly lady in their entity (Johnston Barron, p. 2).
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Women play the role of a central narrative impulse without whom there would be no story. In the poem, Morgan creates a testing carried out by Lady Bertilak, which makes them both build a plot by functioning as the central generators of systems of exchange (Weisl, p. 76). A woman character, according to Weisl (p. 76), has become a central narrative impulse without which there would be no story. In the poem, the woman stands for the narrative itself in the romance, she is the source of the narrative even when she is not actually in it. She is its motivator and ultimate goal, without which there is no story. Indeed, women are the motivating force in much of the poem. By functioning as the major aim of the hero’s quest and occupying a place at a great physical or physiological distance from the hero, the women create a narrative movement which the hero is to follow from the starting place towards them as the story progresses (Wolfzettel, p. 210). Morgan, is absent from the plot, yet she is the character who controls its movement.
The three ladies portray the stereotyped images of women. The poet makes the women oppose one another and develops a very complex relationship among them by means of structural parallels, analogies and contrasts. The trio represents the stereotyped images of the women according to three different traditions of the age: courtly, fork and ecclesiastical, From the point of view of those traditions, these three categories divide females into beautiful woman to be desired, undesirable woman to be avoided and desirable but dangerous woman to be warned against (Johnston Barron, p. 2).
Women also play the role of marginalized people in the poem. Romance which often places women at the centre of its plot and context can also marginalise them and take the women’s absence to a whole new level. In the poem, Mary and Guinevere merely function as symbols within the poem’s masculinised narrative while Morgan le Fay is pushed almost entirely out of the text (Weisl 75), although she is the impetus for the romance itself.
Certainly, women play a prominent role in this poem. They function not only as mediums to advance the plot along and engineer the entire story, but they also help in bringing new premises and elements to light. Their characters are not depicted as individuals but rather as social models of what the ideal woman ought to be. Additionally, the women are exhibiting a need to alter the roles that are traditionally assigned to them. They challenge the roles that tradition has predetermined to them by reversing the roles of women and men.
In conclusion, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight differs from the previous literally works which associate women only with mothers and betrotheds, so they are just adornments of the story as opposed to the role of catalysts to the movement presented in this piece. The poem changed the attitude towards females because they began to be portrayed as the major players within literary works.
- Ferrante, Joan M. To the Glory of her Sex: Women‘s Roles in the Composition of medieval Texts. Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1997. Print.
- Johnston Barron, William Raymond. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 2nd edn. revised, illustrated. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998. Print.
- Sax, Boria and Research & Education Association. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. illustrated. New Jersey: Research & Education Association, 1996. Print.
- Schweke, Jessica. Women in Arthurian Literature – A Survey of Women’s Roles as Represented in Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romance “The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)” and in the Poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”. Berlin: GRIN Verlag, 2007. Print.
- Weisl, Angela Jane. Conquering the reign of femeny: gender and genre in Chaucer’s romance. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1995. Print.
- Wolfzettel, Friedrich. Gender roles in medieval Arthurian romance: selected documents from the 17th International Arthurian Congress. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995. Print.