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The Role of Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written at the later end of the 14th century by an anonymous poet, is a part of the Alliterative Revival, and the beginnings of the Romantic period of writings. While Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can loosely be considered an epic poem like the well-known Beowulf saga, by the time it was published in the early middle ages, major changes to literature had started to occur.
By this era, the role of women in literature was changing radically. For the first time, women began to be depicted as major players within literary works. For although Beowulf had a female antagonist, (the monster Grendel’s mother), she was really a sea-monster and can hardly be considered a woman. In Beowulf and similar texts, women existed only as mothers and brides, ornamental rather than instrumental to the story. Within Gawain, woman exist in a pivotal role, they are powerful, often working behind the scenes to engineer the plot of the story and the hero's quest.
While the women of Gawain act as vehicles through which to move the plot along and mastermind the story, they also help to bring new themes and elements to the foreground. The women of Gawain spend a considerable amount of time “testing” Gawain’s chivalrous character. Without this form of testing or challenge, the overall importance of this element of chivalry would not be so strong.
Though Beowulf may represent the epitome of the Heroic ideal, it is within Gawain that the concept of hero is expanded upon to create the concept of chivalry, and “truth.” In Gawain, there is a romantic ideal of “truth," which encompasses mind, body and spirit, as well as righteous action and adherence to a specific religious and moral code. The older Heroic ideal, while perhaps embracing some similar principles, did not have nearly the amount of specification in regards to the proper conduct, dealings, and mentality of a good or “truthful” hero.
Within Gawain, women are often represented by the Virgin Mary, insinuating a reason to remain faithful to this “truth,” a sense of purity and faultless action. Yet they are also characterized by the more devious beings like Morgan le Fay, who seeks to subvert this noble ideal. Women are thus the epitome of good morality, the test of faith, but also source of necessary conflict within the plot. No matter the role, the women of Gawain mark a significant change in the role of women within Middle English literature.
More on Women in Medieval Literature
- The Women of Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach
Overview and plot summary of Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval text Parzival. Also examines the roles and significance of two of the strongest female characters in the work, Belacane and Herzeloyde.