Although feudalism-alongwith chivalry-would eventually fall for other reasons, including a decreasein cheap human resources due to a drop in population caused by plague epidemicsand the emergence of a mercantile middle class, the Gawain author perceiveda loss of religious values as the cause of its decline. Gawain and theGreen Knight presents both a support of the old feudal hierarchies andan implicit criticism of changes by recalling chivalry in its idealizedstate in the court of King Arthur. The women in the story are the poet’sprimary instruments in this critique and reinforcement of feudalism. Thepoet uses the contrast between the Virgin Mary with Lady Bertilak’s wifeto point out the conflict between courtly and spiritual love that he felthad weakened the religious values behind chivalry. The poem warns thata loss of the religious values behind chivalry would lead to its ultimatedestruction.
Although superficially Sir Gawain and theGreen Knight appears to be a romantic celebration of chivalry, it containswide-ranging serious criticism of the system. The poet is showing Gawain’sreliance on chivalry’s outside form and substance at the expense of theoriginal values of the Christian religion from which it sprang. The firstknights were monastic ones, vowing chastity, poverty and service to God,and undertaking crusades for the good of their faith. The divergence betweenthis early model and the fourteenth century knight came with the rise ofcourtly love in which the knights were led to their great deeds by devotionto a mistress rather than God.
The discrepancy between this and the church’smistrust of women and desires of the flesh is obvious, and the poet useswomen in the story to deliver this message. In contrast to reality at thetime, women in the story are given great power: Mary, when properly worshiped,gives Gawain his power, Lady Bertilak operates alone in the bedroom andsinglehandedly taints the chevalier, and Morgan the Fay instigates theentire plot, wielding enough power. The author is using them as a metaphorfor other anti-social forces and dangers outside the control of feudalismand chivalry, drawing upon biblical and classical examples in his audience’sminds of where femininity is linked with subversiveness. Lady Bertilakis clearly seen in the Biblical role of the temptress, the Eve who ledAdam astray–in Gawain, she represents the traditional female archetypesof courtly love, disobedience, lust and death. Eve’s antithesis is theVirgin Mary, who is the only women who achieves motherhood while maintainingher chastity; she represents spiritual love, obedience, chastity, and lifeThat Gawain is Mary’s Knight is made clearas 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 ofhardships, and is finally brought to the point of despair. Alone and freezingin the forest, he prays to Mary for shelter and a place to say mass onChristmas Eve. She answers his prayers and leads him to Bertilak’s castle;however, his arrival at Bertilak’s court throws him into a totally differentworld.
Here, Gawain impresses courtiers of Bertilak’s castle with his prowessin the field of courtly love rather than the feats of daring or his upholdingof his honor, traits that would draw compliments in Arthur’s court. Camelotis portrayed in its youth, long before it too is tainted by Lancelot andcourtly love; Arthur is young, “child-like (86)” and the “fine fellowshipof Camelot was in its fair prime. ” The analogy is obvious: Arthur’s courtembodies chivalry’s pure roots, where martial exploits were the primarysubject of interest, whereas Bertilak’s castle represents the low pointof the degeneration the poet perceives chivalry to have undergone. The Lady’s association with courtly lovealso ties this aspect of chivalry with degeneration and sin. Immediatelyupon his arrival in Bertilak’s court, the separation between courtly lovereligion is clear: Gawain at Mass is “in serious mood the whole servicethrough”(940). This serious mood is immediately forgotten with the sightof the Lady, whom he immediately focuses on at the expense of .