The Gender Roles and Their Portrayal
Gender in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is caged within a static binary composed of the masculine and the feminine; relative opposites within which individuals are expected to conform to a certain quota of behaviors – for to fit into neither category would seemingly render a character useless to the plot: a celebration of masculine virtue. As a late Arthurian narrative, the poem appears much like its counterparts – posing Gawain of King Arthur’s court, an apparent epitome of this masculine virtue and chivalric value, in contest with the mysterious and similarly brawny Green Knight, later known as Lord Bertilak – creating an image of absolute, impenetrable masculinity. Interestingly, despite the constructions of masculinity retaining the narrative limelight, females appear to act as the architects of the plot of the poem, using their femininity, both through love and scorn, to dictate the actions of the masculine characters surrounding them. Not only does this confirm the static binary by making gender relative to narrative role, where the females generate plot and the male follows suit, there is, in addition, a contrasting blurring of what it means to be innately masculine or innately feminine. The blurring of binary behaviors warps the importance of gender within the poem as well as its appearance as a key theme throughout, essentially rendering the celebration of masculine heroism as null since it celebrates feminity equally if not subtly more so in the ultimate reveal of Morgan le Faye’s successful deceit of Gawain.
Masculinity has an undoubtable link with Arthurian literature, and could be described as thematically key to the construction of an Arthurian narrative such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The chivalric male protagonist, who remotely follows a variant of the earlier epic heroic code, takes part in a quest, which is normally centered around romantic interest, in order to win the favour of the court and the lady in question; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight loosely follows these principles. Gawain is almost immediately introduced to us as possessing the characteristics which wholly create the desirable chivalric male: ‘Gawain was for good knowen’, since his behavior is ‘so cortays, so knyghtyly’ – later displayed through his armor, ‘ful awles’, and then his actions. The depiction of Gawain as a knight is relatively stereotypical in this way, bringing together all the masculine aspects of chivalric knighthood, represented by the ‘fyve pointes’ of the pentangle; having the ability to fight well whilst being a devoted follower of Christianity. It is emphasized by the poet that the ‘pure fyve [virtues] were harder happed on that hathel then on any’ – he is the epitome of masculinity – essentially, chivalrous representatives do not get much better than Gawain. Gawain’s armoring is described at great length, and we are introduced to Gawain in great detail – much more than any other male throughout the poem besides the Green Knight, later known as Bertilak, who represents masculinity through his lordship. There is, therefore, great weight given to Gawain’s character, as if as readers total reliance is given to him to convey what masculinity in terms of Arthurian literature is – there is in fact little inclusion of other male characters, and even King Arthur himself is side-lined to closer bring the focus on Gawain, the ‘gentylest knight of lote’, and his gendered representation. The representation of gender is narrowed by this process. The Green Knight, Lord Bertilak, is the only other reliable representative of masculinity, since his character too is given significance by the poet, known as a ‘lede of lordeschyp a lee of ledes ful goode’. Bertilak’s character, both as himself and as the Green Knight, is recognizably ‘sturne’, which conveys a similar masculine strength and power possessed by Gawain both during the challenge of blows and in his return to Arthur’s court. Bertilak’s ‘huntes’, like Gawain’s quest, is representative of his masculine characteristics – portraying violent strength and power over the natural world. The hunt, alike the battle, is a recurring theme in Arthurian literature and therefore directs us towards the belief that masculinity is constrained and dictated by the genre. The exchange between Gawain and Bertilak as the Green Knight acts as the plots central aspect, and the entirety of the narrative is almost purely dedicated to the challenge of blows between them, giving further centrality to masculinity and the behaviors expected of masculine characters for them to have significance. The focus on masculinity appears to be impenetrable since, despite the occasional interruption, the main focus of the poem is continually brought back to the masculine struggle to do what is expected of them as male members of society: display ultimate strength, resilience and virtue in all situations, as Gawain attempts and Bertilak undoubtedly possesses, having an understanding which allows him to forgive Gawain for his failure at relative male perfection; the ultimate achievement in a male orientated, Arthurian world.
Femininity is posed as the obvious counter to masculinity in the Arthurian world, where the binary appears strict and there is little or no deviation between the two gender spheres. Once again, femininity within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight follows a set of stereotyped ideals that masculinity does, but the basic principles of these ideals are very different – instead of the hero, they are the ‘damsel’, sometimes in distress, yet most commonly a tempestuous lover. Arguably, Lady Bertilak is the sole representative of femininity throughout the entirety of the poem, since she is the only female character to be graced with personality, having the ability to engage in conversations with her male counterparts. Her character also embraces the flirtatious womanly nature expected of the Arthurian ‘lover’, acting as a temptress to Gawain from her initial entry with her brest bare displayed’, and through the bedroom exchange: eager for Gawain to teach her of ‘wyt while [her] lord is fro’. Her beauty is central to her power, and this is emphasized by the poet in the constant reminders: ‘hit lady, loveliest on lyve to beholde’. The appearance of femininity, in contrast, is much subtler than that of masculinity not only because the appearance of female characters is lesser, but also because it doesn’t appear on the surface that femininity displays the same power and strength as masculinity; femininity seems relatively weak since it is based on often difficult to see emotional and mental qualities instead of physical attributes like Gawain and The Green Knight. The power of femininity lies within its ability to control – the prime example of this within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is Lady Bertilak’s persuasion of Gawain in the bedroom, and Gawain’s subliminal acceptance of her terms without fail, even putting her desires before his own – accepting her request to lie about the girdle despite it causing a risk to his chivalrous reputation. Women in the Medieval Era would have been viewed as closely linked with the sin of Eve in the Garden of Eden, and this stereotypical image of temptress is followed and represented by Lady Bertilak as part of her binary gender. Morgan le Faye, introduced at the poems conclusion, yet not sharing the same influence as Lady Bertilak due to her lack of physicality, also appears to use her femininity through her successful temptation and use of other characters for narrative development. Morgan le Faye, although it does not appear she uses her feminine nature for sexual temptation like Lady Bertilak, as her character is not physically met within the story, definitely possesses the ability to control the masculine using her femininity. Interestingly, this makes masculinity appear relatively feeble. The mental strength of masculine characters is not explored, as previously seen, the focus is on their chivalric virtue rather than their intelligence as such, both sexually and not. Females, like Lady Bertilak and the briefly mentioned Guinevere, are constructs of their place within the hierarchy which means that, even if their power exists it is not necessarily recognized as equal; it does not share the same clarity is nature as that of masculinity. This is what separates the masculine and the feminine into two separate gender binaries. The ‘flesch’ and ‘lere’ of the female carry importance, they must perform in order to emphasize these qualities; achieving the ultimate goal of femininity by having such charm as Lady Bertilak. Yet, their performance is not passive as may be expected, it is instead an extremely active process.
Arguably, both masculinity and femininity are required in order for the narrative construct to work – since it appears that both the masculine virtue and feminine intelligence are needed to reach a fully developed plot, causing the binaries to merge together through their reliance on one another for a successful narrative. Some characters begin to possess attributes that are both masculine and feminine, having both physical strength and mental competence, confusing the clear-cut ideal of gender within Arthurian literature which was reflective of the Medieval society and the hierarchical trappings that defined gender performance of the period. Unexpectedly on the basis of a prevailing medieval masculinity, females appear to drive the plot in its entirety. Dependence surrounds the female characters, as if the poet themselves requires females to make the events have some chronological link between them by leading the male protagonists between scenarios. In the poems conclusion, it is revealed that Morgan le Faye was successful in a plan to trick the Arthurian court when using Bertilak as the Green Knight, and in utilizing Lady Bertilak to deceive Gawain more specifically: ‘thurgh mygnt of Morgue le Faye’. Morgan le Faye’s character is able to use her understanding of femininity and the feminine role not only within society but also within narrative to undermine masculinity through the manipulation of chivalric encounters between characters. Though she does not carry out the work herself, her character is positioned at the top of a literary chain; having ultimate control over Bertilak, his wife and ultimately, Gawain. Female centrality appears as relatively unusual within a narrative that is distinctly masculine in purpose – a purpose to follow and make sense of the trials of knighthood, a trade dominated by masculinity. Instead of following the assumed, Morgan le Faye arguably becomes the real image of masculinity by removing the masculine nature of others for personal gain. Gawain, later understanding ‘the falssyng’, recognizes the deceit he has faced through female charm and curses the girdle, which he believes is representative of his masculine failure and of Morgan le Faye’s success and gain – since it is Gawain’s acceptance of the girdle, and therefore that of female control, which allows the female derived plot to continue, as if he is performing a role which he has been given. The agreement between Lady Bertilak and Gawain to keep the girdle a secret makes Gawain go against all of the masculine virtues that he believes in, and aims to achieve as if the feminine romantic aspect of knighthood and masculinity are more important than the heroic ‘code’ which the knight is expected to follow. Lady Bertilak’s girdle is symbolic of the power of femininity in this way; Morgan le Faye’s encourages the use of feminine power in order to seduce and take control of the male by subverting his values and virtues, and directing the heroic glory away from them, giving the limelight to the narrative women. The female adopts the virtues of the male that are left behind, such as their power and strength, which gives them aspects of both binaries – whereas the male adapts to the relative submission to female charm and narrative direction causing a gender coagulation which complicates the, what originally appeared to be, rigid binary. In other words, chivalric knighthood as the representative of masculinity cannot exist solely without its antithesis which is, however much it may be resented, base femininity.
In conclusion, neither masculinity or femininity is constrained to the stereotypical Medieval binary that immediately comes to mind when thinking about gender of the time. Despite the masculine characters expecting to fulfill the heroic and chivalric ideals of Arthurian literature, which at first sight they do, this is ultimately undermined and attempts are failed as they are proven to have faults with this masculine strength and virtue – mainly evolving from the fact that the masculine characters are following the lead of those who are feminine, both intentionally and unintentionally. Although it appears also that the female characters, such as Lady Bertilak, are performing the passive roles expected of the Medieval woman in following the command of her husband, the ultimate rule of Morgan Le Faye complicates this gender hierarchy and allows for the movement of women between the two gender binaries, embracing both the role that is given to them because of their gender and the masculine roles that they are able to obtain through the use of their female charm; ever moving away from the image of the Virgin Mary and the pre-fallen biblical Eve, and towards the scheming, intelligent and testing figure of Morgan Le Faye. The representation of gender, therefore, within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is mixed and often unexpected – as if the poet is attempting to follow the rigid binary set by early Medieval literature, yet taking a more ‘modern’ twist on it due to the composition of the poem being relatively late. Gender is represented as not unmovable set of rules by a subtly changing and evolving idea which can be used in many ways for the benefit and determent of various characters within narrative. Ultimately, gender is utilized by the author and the characters within to progress the storyline and emphasize other themes and meaning within the text.
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