Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th century poem by an unknown author, describing the adventures of the knight Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur. The work continues the tradition of Arthurian chivalric romances and most fully reveals Gawain as a character (Florschuetz 158). In addition to the protagonist in the poem, there are some other characters: the brave Bertilak, who turned out to be the Green Knight, the Lady of Hautdesert and Morgan le Fay. The female roles are either taken from many other classical medieval works, or very similar to them, but their purpose is extremely unusual and atypical for the literature of the time.
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The Lady of Hautdesert, who appeared in the poem as Bertilak’s wife, has an important role to play. Gawain is fascinated by her, he even puts her beauty above the beauty of Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur (Tolkien 83). The Lady of Hautdesert, possessing natural persuasiveness and charm, challenges Gawain, inviting him to justify his reputation as the most loyal and courteous knight. From the point of view of the protagonist, she seems to him a seductress, but from the work it turns out that Lady Bertilak is a faithful wife. She was the initiator of the relationship with Gawain, persuaded him to break his promise, giving his green belt, but all these actions were the result of a collusion with her husband, Bertilak.
The Lady of Hautdesert evolves over the course of the poem’s plot. At first, she appears as the ideal of beauty. After that, Lady Bertilak becomes the cause of concern for the knight Gawain – she shows him various signs of attention in secret from all the courtiers, including her husband. Gawain finds himself shackled by a sense of duty, parenting and religious laws, which ultimately leads him to mourn women’s tricks and how they suppress strong men (J. Burrow 110). Nevertheless, at the end of the poem, the Lady of Hautdesert is shown as a humble wife who was never empowered. However, the character of Lady Bertilak confirms the fact that in the Middle Ages there were strong and attractive women who know exactly what they want.
Morgan le Fay appears in the poem with the mistress of the castle. The description of a beautiful young woman in contrast to the image of an ugly old woman is a classic technique of poets of the Middle Ages (J. A. Burrow 362). Morgan occupies an honorable position in the castle and, as it turns out from the plot, plays the role of the shadow engine of the whole story. Unlike Lady Bertilak, she is endowed with power, because even Bertilak calls her “Goddess Morgan”. In various interpretations, one can find a comparison of the character of Morgan le Fay with a distant and threatening image of a mother or a mythical figure of a wise old witch (J. A. Burrow 367). In confirmation of the latter, she has magical abilities, so it is not surprising that she has great influence on the Bertilak couple.
There is an idea that Morgan le Fay and Lady Bertilak are two sides of the same character, like Bertilak and the Green Knight. Indeed, both women seek to lead the situation, one of them – staying in the shadows, like the Green Knight, the second – coming to the fore. Despite the fact that the main characters in medieval novels were men, women always accompany them on the way, inspire them to feats and protect them, pacifying their courage. However, in this poem, women are revealed in the role of checking the loyalty and purity of the knight, with the goal of finding a gap in his impeccable behavior. For such a test, they themselves really possess all the knightly qualities: courage, dedication, and loyalty.
Burrow, John Anthony. A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Routledge, 2019.
Burrow, John. “The Conclusion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Three Knightly Verdicts.” Essays in Criticism, vol. 67, no. 2, 2017, pp. 103-115.
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Florschuetz, Angela L. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Canonicity, and Audience Participation.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 30, 2019, pp. 156-173.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, et al., eds. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford UP, 1967.