“La Belle Dame Sans Merci?”: Gawain’s Knightly Identity and the Role of Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
By Cecilia H. C. Liu
Paper given at the Fu Jen Fourth Annual Medieval Conference: Chivalry and Knighthood in Middle Ages (2003)
Abstract: It is easy to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a romantic celebration of chivalry, but this romance contains a more wide-ranging, more serious criticism of chivalry than has heretofore been noticed. Given the mistrust of women by the church in the fourteenth century, the placement of the women in the romance becomes a critical medium for educating women the traditional hierarchies, rules and virtues. Interestingly, the women appear as subversive roles to wield great power. In the Temptation scenes, Lady Bercilak is operating unassisted against Gawain as the hunter and aggressor. Thus his knightly identity is threatened in the bedroom scenes of seduction, in which the Lady appropriates the knight’s position as active courtly lover; and that feminization repeated in Gawain’s acting like the woman who kissed him, precipitates a textual vision of violent dismemberment. Morgan is the instigator of the plot which begins the story. However, the poet never intends to present a world where women are powerful; rather, these women constitute a metaphor for other anti-social forces and dangers outside the control of feudalism and chivalry. At the end of the romance, the power the women hold is re-appropriated by the men in order to support the male social order.