, Research Paper
During the 14th century, chivalry was in a decline due to drastic social and
economic changes. Feudalism along with chivalry will fall for many reasons, but the
author of Gawain blames the fall on the loss of religious values within the knights. The
author uses women in the story as the main instrument to reinforce feudalism, for
example: Lady Bertilak and The Virgin Mary are used to contrast the good and evil that a
knight has to face; courtly and spiritual love. With this, women are weakening the
religious values behind chivalry with their temptations towards sin, and the author warns
the audience that the loss of religious values behind chivalry will lead to its ultimate
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romantic celebration of chivalry. The
original thoughts of chivalry were Christian values such as poverty, chastity, service to
God, and all crusades that were taken by knights were to prove their faith in God. But as
time went on to the 14th century, knights began to lead their great deeds by devotion to a
mistress rather than their God. Men began to gain desire for the flesh of another, rather
then for the protection of their souls. The author shows that woman can be used as a
message to show the Church s mistrust of women. The author always portrays the evil
women, but tends to show that the Virgin Mary always comes out on top, and chivalry
will live on because good defeats evil.
Mary, representing the good, is prayed to by Gawain and in turn she gives him the
help to be strong and survive. She obtained her goodness by being the only woman who
ever achieved motherhood while maintaining her chastity. She represents spiritual love,
obedience, chastity, and life. Gawain uses Mary as a reassurance of protection. He has
that queen s image / etched on the inside of his armored shield (648-49) and he prays to
the image when he senses trouble. Also on his shield is the pentangle, or endless knot
(p. 147), which represents the 5 joys of Mary. Gawain strives to hold true to Mary and to
her wills, but he has many temptations to deal with.
Lady Bertilak on the other hand represents the evil and temptations that a knight
has to fight and avoid. Lady Bertilak works alone in the bedroom and in public before the
people of the castle at banquets and she single-handedly taints the chevalier, causing him
to break bargains and also to go against the good, and therefore breaking his vow of
feudalism. Within the bible and the book, Lady Bertilak represents the traditional female
example of courtly love, disobedience, lust, and death. She is everything that was made to
stop and destroy a male chevalier whose mission in life is to do all good and no evil.
Lady Bertilak uses her body to press him so hotly (p. 87) and showed him that he was
permitted to enter her, but Gawain s temptation was overridden by Mary s will, and he
replied to her:
Then gently, By Saint John,
Said the knight with a smile,
I owe my oath to none,
Nor wish to yet a while. (p. 88)
By Gawain saying this to Lady Bertilak, he not only courteously removed himself from
temptation, but he also dishonored Mary, for he said he doesn t owe his oath to anyone.
The constant fight of good and evil between the woman will remain with Gawain
throughout his entire journey.
Gawain went along his journey to the Green Chapel where he was to have his
head cut off. As he traveled during the Winter in the cold woods, he began to pray to
Mary; And thee Mary, Mildest mother so dear, that in some haven with due honor I may
hear mass and Matins tomorrow morning. (p. 49). By asking Mary for a shelter and
somewhere in which he could pray in Christmas Eve, Gawain believes that She
answers him by showing him to Bertilak s Castle, which will actually bring him to a
test of chivalry. When he arrives at the castle, he is thankful for the success he received
with finding a shelter. But, the moment that Lady Bertilak steps into the room, his fear of
living and praying to Mary is immediately forgotten and he now devotes his total
attention to the beautiful lady. There in Bertilak s castle, unlike in Arthur s, he tries more
to impress courtiers with his skill in the field of courtly love, rather than the feats of
daring or upholding his honor.
But Gawain s true challenge and testing ground come when he is alone in the
bedroom with Lady Bertilak throwing her body at him. This overpowers the bargains he
made with The Green Knight and Lord Bertilak, which were to prove courage and
chivalry, he now has a bargain of chastity, with a woman. He his being confronted with
sin from a beautiful lady who is half naked in front of him, yet to say no would be
discourteous to the host of the Castle, so Gawain is in a bind. An obvious conflict
between spiritual and courtly love is now apparent in Gawain for he is concerned for his
courtesy, lest he be called caitiff, but more especially for his evil plight if he should
plunge into sin, and dishonor the owner of the house treacherously, (1773-75). This
throws him from fear of dishonoring Mary, Mother of God, to the fear of being
discourteous to the host of the castle. Yet he bargains with Lady Bertilak. He doesn t
wish to dishonor Lady Bertilak or The Virgin Mary, so he accepts a girdle from the Lady.
Yet one of the determining factors in the acceptance of the girdle lays in the fact that it
holds a special power of immortality.
Gawain s acceptance of the girdle weakens feudalism and more specifically,
Logres. The girdle causes him to break his bargain with Lord Bertilak because Gawain
must hide the girdle because of its powers. At this point in the story, the author strongly
criticizes the changing face of chivalry. The author shows hints that the game of courtly
love will ultimately break the mal social bonds, which hold feudalism together. It almost
seems that the only thing that could save feudalism are the traditional Christian
hierarchies from which chivalry was born.
Then comes Gawain s final challenge. The Green Knight now faces him with the
taking of his life. When he arrives at the Green Chapel, Gawain is confronted with a
confession; the Green Knight admits that Lady Bertilak was used to tempt Gawain to
break his vow of chastity and his bargain with the host of the castle, one of which was
successful. The Green Knight goes on to tell Gawain that he instructed her [Lady
Bertilak] to try him [Gawain], and you truly seem to be the most perfect paladin ever to
pace the Earth. (p.109). So Gawain s whole fate in the beheading game rested in his
performance in the exchange of winnings game. With this newly obtain knowledge,
Gawain learns a less: hold true to the ideals of the Christian doctrine as a support for the
chivalric code. But after Gawain admits to his wrong doings, he pushes the blame from
himself onto women, saying he was unwittingly duped by women and led into sin.
Gawain tells the Green Knight of four Characters in the Bible and how [all] four fell to
schemes of women whom they used. If I am snared, it seems I ought to be excused. (p.
111) This displacement of the blame allows Gawain to regain his power by returning to
Arthur s court not as a failure, but as a fully reinstated Knight of Honor. Yet his refusal to
go and make peace with Bertilak s wife downs his courtesy, but his power is not back in
the hands of the appropriate authority (Mary), and Gawain s loyalties are redefined.
Gawain returns to the round table, and everyone in the court adopts the Girdle.
The acceptance is a symbol of how Arthur doesn t take Gawain s lesson to heart and how
men covet women, which causes civilizations or organizations to break. But in the long
run, good will overpower evil in the strong man. If he has the willpower to be faithful and
strive for chastity, he can overcome any obstacle. Women will always be there to distract
a knight from his mission, but if a true knight, no woman can stop him. Gawain can be
considered as an anti-woman tirade, but personally, I feel that the book discovers the
deep secrets of both sides of the woman.