Since men and women have approximately the same mental bandwidth, if women were biologically and physically stronger than men, would societies, starting from the first century, have developed into matriarchies rather than patriarchies? As Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is set in the fourteenth century, all activities are conducted around a highly patriarchal society. However, in this chivalric romance, the Pearl Poet presents three female characters, Mary, Lady Bertilak, and Morgan le Fay, with influential and authoritative personalities, differing from the stereotypical dependent women from that period. Although these three women are dominant over men in a chivalric society, Sir Gawain favors Mary over Lady Bertilak and Morgan le Fay as the former is a spiritual figure who lacks direct physical control over him unlike the latter who use their physical presence to manipulate Gawain, restricting his freedom and swaying his decisions.
Rather than being physically present, Mary exists in Gawain’s mind, thus Gawain appreciates her existence as she is not tangibly overpowering his independence. The Pearl Poet heavily emphasizes Gawain’s devotion and love for Mary throughout the poem. When he first retrieves his shield before he embarks on his journey, “[h]is one thought [i]s of this, past all things else, / [t]hat all his force was founded on the five joys / [t]hat the high Queen of heaven had in her child” (SGGK 2:645-47). Gawain has an illustration of the Queen of Heaven, Mary, on the inside of his shield because he respects Mary’s purity as she birthed Jesus. He is always looking at Mary as his shield is most of the times at eye level.
Mary, an innocent and moral woman, never attempts to trick Gawain, leading him to trust her throughout the entirety of the work. Although a representation of her presence is always with Gawain, he does not feel threatened as she helps him remain chivalrous; the image on his shield constantly reminds him first and foremost that he is a knight who has to act with proper conduct. Furthermore, the singularity developed through the phrase “his one thought” forms the idea of Gawain trusting and feeling comfortable with only one woman: Mary. Throughout his entire adventure, rather than hoping to gain his self-governing identity back, like he does with the other women, “[h]e prays with all his might / [t]hat Mary be his guide” (2:738-39). The slant rhyme of “might” and “guide” portrays the intimacy he feels with Mary.
Instead of fearing Mary, Gawain looks up to her while asking her to guide him through his journey since she is not physically present with him. As the rhyme is not perfect, neither is Gawain’s relationship with Mary. Due to Mary’s divine presence, she is not able to communicate with him, and in their bond, Gawain is the one who is verbally interacting, creating an indirect and unrequited connection despite Gawain’s ongoing love for her in comparison to the other women mentioned. As Gawain’s physical interaction with Mary is nonexistent, he feels the robust connection with her in only his mind, limiting the amount of conversation between them, yet expanding on his positive thoughts of her. Unlike Mary, Lady Bertilak is physically present with Gawain, allowing her to trick him into falling into a trap of blindly following the chivalric rules and eventually pressuring him to obey her rather than his own moral conduct.
Gawain proudly refuses a ring she hands him at first as he is sticking to the chivalric code by despising pecuniary reward, but as Lady Bertilak mentions the girdle, Gawain’s fear of death overrides his conscious thought of remaining chivalrous. Rather than denying the girdle like he does with the previous gifts, he accepts it, hoping that it can save his life. While he has not yet broken the code, Gawain values his life more than his honor, unlike how a virtuous knight should act. Small increments of his ignoring the tenet of conducting oneself with integrity regardless of the circumstances, even death, due to the distractions caused by the pranks Lady Bertilak plays on him, eventually lead up to his conversation with Lady Bertilak’s husband, Lord Bertilak, where he dismisses the girdle and mentions nothing about it, actually breaking the chivalric code. While feeling internally guiltily, he boldly states that “all that [he] owe[s] is openly paid” (4:1941). The tone that comes across while he is trying to avoid this discussion by concisely and quickly speaking signals his shame felt from the direct lie.
While Gawain still believes that he is thinking one step ahead of Lord Bertilak and Lady Bertilak, Lord Bertilak immediately confesses his wife’s tests that Gawain had failed. He openly explains to Gawain that “[his] wife it was that wore it; [Lord Bertilak] know[s] well the tale, / [a]nd the count of [Gawain’s] kisses and [his] conduct too, / [a]nd the wooing of [Lord Bertilak’s] wife” (4:2359-61). The idea of Gawain suddenly realizing that he has lost his will to listen to only himself, as Lady Bertilak has full control over him, is developed through alliteration of words starting with “w”s that make whoosh and whish noises. A commonly associated word starting with the letter “w” is “wind.” Wind moves objects from their original location to a new and unfamiliar place as they have no ability to stand their ground and stay.
Similarly to the state of inanimate items when there is gust, Gawain undergoes a state of frustration and perplexion during all of the seductions as he is unable to make decisions upon what he thinks is right as he is influenced by Lady Bertilak’s actions. He finally realizes the truth of the scenario only when Lord Bertilak openly states how Lady Bertilak transforms him from being a chivalrous knight to a naive one, in Gawain’s perspective, the opposite of what Mary would do. As she heads all of the tests Gawain undergoes, similarly to Lady Bertilak, Morgan le Fay attempts to trick Gawain, further causing him to become the victim of her acts of deceit, leading him to forget his chivalric moral standards. Gawain is introduced to Lady Bertilak and Morgan le Fay at the same time, but his initial reactions to them based on their appearance are parallel to the amount of trouble they cause Gawain. Morgan le Fay’s dull face, composed of “two eyes and the nose, the naked lips, / [a]nd they unsightly to see, and sorrily bleared” (2:962-63), matches her cunning personality.
When conducting tests on others, and elderly face that is indecipherable and blank is necessary to execute the actions effectively so that no bias or signs of trickery is portrayed through any emotions given off. Gawain recognizes her ugly, but not deceptive, personality at first glance through her appearance. As Morgan le Fay has power also over Lady Bertilak, in comparison, the Pearl Poet’s description of Gawain’s interpretation of their physical appearance shifts from the “gay lady” (2:970) describing Lady Bertilak to the older and unattractive women, Morgan le Fay. Morgan le Fay’s appearance is able to match her personality when Lord Bertilak explains to Gawain that his wife was not the only person behind his tests, but so was Morgan le Fay, who in fact composed the plan. Lord Bertilak explains that to Gawain that “[Gawain] lacked, a little loyalty in there, / [b]ut the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either, / [b]ut that [he] loved your own life; the less, then, to blame” (4:2366-68), continuing with the idea of Gawain breaking the chivalric code and instead caring more about his life than his honor.
Once Lord Bertilak confesses his, his wife’s, and ultimately Morgan le Fay’s, tests on him, Gawain’s chivalry figuratively tears him apart. From behaving confidently and courageously to trusting his life to a material item, the girdle, Morgan le Fay’s tricks cause Gawain to lose his chivalrous behavior and instead, blindly follow what the women, Lady Bertilak, specifically, tell him, thus altering his personality from independent and chivalrous to weak. As Gawain’s self-governing attitude shapes his chivalrous behavior, he trusts Mary over Lady Bertilak and Morgan le Fay because Mary’s missing physical appearance allows him to freely act based on what he, only, thinks is right. Although Mary has the ability to indirectly influence Gawain’s actions, that idea does not bother him as much as women physically overpowering him. In many individual’s minds, masculinity is defined as physical strength, which is important for manual labor, and that is what used to fuel society, but with innovations that have recently advanced culture, the Pearl Poet’s depiction of a matriarchy could be integrating into the present-day society. Women still bear children, thus often times are physically weaker than men, but if they continue to surpass men in intellectual capabilities, this modern society could transform so that it is filled with powerful women like Mary, Lady Bertilak, and Morgan le Fay.