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Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The treatment of women in medieval literature is a great topic for a research paper. One of the best examples of Medieval Literature and how women are portrayed can be found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature tells us, “Of the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight…nothing is known for certain”. What is known is that he was a contemporary of Chaucer, living “in the northwest Midland area…at least 150 miles distant from London”. Women in Sir Gawain and the Green KnightThe basic premise of the poem is quite simple: a mysterious green knight comes to Camelot with a challenge; any of the knights of the Round Table can strike at him with his axe, “So long as I shall have leave to launch a return blow”. Gawain, naturally, cuts off the knight’s head, but the now headless knight gets back on his horse and reminds Gawain to come to the Green Chapel in a year and a day for the return blow.

The character of the lady serves as the antithesis to Sir Gawain. The lady also brings to light the role of chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. “Lady Bercilak is the anima, the female counterpoint to the hero, with whom he must relate”.  The question then arises as to why Gawain needs a female counterpoint. Potkay and Evitt argue that the poem is a “feminist rewriting of the Tristan myth,” and a puncturing of traditional chivalry.

Of course it turns out that the Lady acts this way because Morgan le Fay, hoping to test the knights of Camelot, has set up the whole situation. “The end of all the Lady’s and Morgan’s activity is to make Gawain realize that the female-dependent integrity he values is a sham”. These women are fully in control of the situation; they are able to tempt and shatter Gawain’s purity (the Lady gets him to tell a white lie, a minor sin), but the source of their power is otherworldly. Morgan le Fay is the great sorceress of the Arthur legend, the equivalent of Merlin.

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