In the fourteenth century, chivalry was in decline due to drastic social and economic changes. Although feudalism-along with chivalry-would eventually fall for other reasons, including a decrease in cheap human resources due to a drop in population caused by plague epidemics and the emergence of a mercantile middle class, the Gawain author perceived a loss of religious values as the cause of its decline. Gawain and the Green Knight presents both a support of the old feudal hierarchies and an implicit criticism of changes by recalling chivalry in its idealized state in the court of King Arthur. The women in the story are the poet’s primary instruments in this critique and reinforcement of feudalism. The poet uses the contrast between the Virgin Mary with Lady Bertilak’s wife to point out the conflict between courtly and spiritual love that he felt had weakened the religious values behind chivalry.
The poem warns that a loss of the religious values behind chivalry would lead to its ultimate destruction.
Although superficially Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appears to be a romantic celebration of chivalry, it contains wide-ranging serious criticism of the system. The poet is showing Gawain’s reliance on chivalry’s outside form and substance at the expense of the original values of the Christian religion from which it sprang. The first knights were monastic ones, vowing chastity, poverty and service to God, and undertaking crusades for the good of their faith. The divergence between this early model and the fourteenth century knight came with the rise of courtly love in which the knights were led to their great deeds by devotion to a mistress rather than God. The discrepancy between this and the church’s mistrust of women and desires of the flesh is obvious, and the poet uses women in the story to deliver this message.
In contrast to reality at the time, women in the story are given great power: Mary, when properly worshiped, gives Gawain his power, Lady Bertilak operates alone in the bedroom and singlehandedly taints the chevalier, and Morgan the Fay instigates the entire plot, wielding enough power. The author is using them as a metaphor for other anti-social forces and dangers outside the control of feudalism and chivalry, drawing upon biblical and classical examples in his audience’s minds of where femininity is linked with subversiveness. Lady Bertilak is clearly seen in the Biblical role of the temptress, the Eve who led Adam astray–in Gawain, she represents the traditional female archetypes of courtly love, disobedience, lust and death. Eve’s antithesis is the Virgin Mary, who is the only women who achieves motherhood while maintaining her chastity; she represents spiritual love, obedience, chastity, and life
That Gawain is Mary’s Knight is made clear as he is robed for battle; the pentangle represents the five joys of Mary, and he has “that queen’s image / Etched on the inside of his armored shield” (648-649). As long as he is solely focused on his quest for the Green Knight, he derives his prowess and courage from his special relationship with Mary. On his journey to look for the Green Knight he is beset by a number of hardships, and is finally brought to the point of despair.
Alone and freezing in the forest, he prays to Mary for shelter and a place to say mass on Christmas Eve. She answers his prayers and leads him to Bertilak’s castle; however, his arrival at Bertilak’s court throws him into a totally different world. Here, Gawain impresses courtiers of Bertilak’s castle with his prowess in the field of courtly love rather than the feats of daring or his upholding of his honor, traits that would draw compliments in Arthur’s court. Camelot is portrayed in its youth, long before it too is tainted by Lancelot and courtly love; Arthur is young, “child-like (86)” and the “fine fellowship of Camelot was in its fair prime.” The analogy is obvious: Arthur’s court embodies chivalry’s pure roots, where martial exploits were the primary subject of interest, whereas Bertilak’s castle represents the low point of the degeneration the poet perceives chivalry to have .