Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Yvain the Knight of The Lion: A Gender Analysis
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by James J. Wilhelm and Yvain the Knight of Lion by Chrétien de Troyes are both Arthurian stories that focus in on the chivalrous tales and adventures of two very brave knights, Gawain and Yvain. Although the stories are very different in their adventures and in their conflicts, key elements and roles occur within both stories. In many Arthurian romances, chivalry is a main component of what drives the story along and gives reason and logic behind the way the knights and how Arthur’s court is organized. But it is not only a man’s world in Arthurian romances. A key element of these stories are women. A large part of chivalry is to love and take care of the women around you. The whole point of fighting as a knight is to defend the king and the lady that knight loves, or just women in general. In many romances women tend to be the one being rescued or need to be defended because the female roll is normally depicted as weak and helpless, however in the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and in Yvain the Knight of the Lion female characters are not always the damsel in distress. Although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Yvain the Knight of the Lion express femininity in different ways, both texts show the reversal of gender roles by giving female characters more empowering parts such as Morgan the Fay, the Host’s wife, Lunette, and the ladies in the woods who help Yvain.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the main conflict arises when Arthur’s court is challenged by the Green Knight who is sent by the powerful, Morgan the Fay. Gawain steps up to the challenge and chops the Green Knight’s head off; little did he know the Green Knight would be able to pick his head up and challenge Gawain to the same fate a year later. Gawain, being a man of his word, agrees to the challenge, and plans to journey out and find the Green Knight’s chapel a year later. Along the way to meet the Green Knight Gawain stays at a kind Host’s castle where he encounters the Host’s wife seducing him and testing his truthfulness.This is the first instance where we see a strong female character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While the host is out hunting, the host’s wife is hunting Gawain. Because Gawain is a guest in their home he is resting comfortably in bed when the Host’s wife lets herself into his chambers and attempts to seduce Gawain and tries to get him to sleep with her. The Host’s wife tells Gawain “‘My husband and his hangers-on are hunting far away. The servingmen are sleeping downstairs with the maids. The door is slammed shut, and the bolt has been sprung; now I have in my house the hero whom all the world adores and I’ll employ my time while it endures, with an eye toward gathering tales. My person is your pleasure, your every wish to avail; hospitality makes me your servant, and in nothing shall I fail’”(Wihelm, 442). Here it is clear to see how this female character is seducing Gawain, and not allowing him to leave the bed because she wants to sleep with him. This is a direct example of how gender roles are reversed in this story because this female is taking over a persona that is normally very masculine. Normally a man would be flirting with or seducing a woman, because men are typically considered ‘in control’ or ‘in charge’ of sexual activities, however this is not the case for Gawain.
While the wife is trying to seduce or ‘hunt’ Gawain, the Host himself is out hunting which creates a very interesting parallel and cinematic comparison within the text and between the two scenes. The description of one of the hunting scenes that the text provides is “They let the harts with their high heads pass safely by, as well as the bucks with their broadly branched antlers, since the free-giving lord had forbidden in the off-season any man to molest one of the masculine deer. The hinds were hemmed in with a ‘Hey!’ And a ‘Ho!’ While the does were driven with a din to the glades” (Wilhelm, 440). This scene is significant because it is a symbol of the seduction scene between Gawain and the Host’s wife. The doe being hunted is representative of Gawain and the hunter is representative of the Host’s wife which is a direct example of a reversal of gender roles, and this also empowers the Host’s wife because she is holding the power in the situation and is the one initiating and harassing Gawain for sexual purposes.
Another very powerful female character who emerges in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who is also really behind the entire story, is Morgan the Fay. Morgan the Fay is a powerful, magical women who actually lived on the Host’s property and is a lover to Merlin. Morgan the Fay put the Host up to being the Green Knight in order to scare the Queen of Camelot, Guinevere. Queen Guinevere symbolizes the perfect, Arthurian lady, she is poised and beautiful and is often the damsel in distress, and is seen in the same light in other Arthurian Legends, such as Lancelot, or The King of the Cart by Chrétien de Troyes. Obviously if Morgan the Fay is attacking or if she dislikes Guinevere, she is attacking the ideals of chivalry and how woman are perceived through them. Guinevere and Morgan the Fay are opposite characters, one is the Queen of Camelot, yet has no real influence and simply surrenders to the societal pressures of being a married woman; while the other is an independent, powerful, magical woman who does not stand for chivalric ideals. Overall Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a text that fully embodies the idea of gender reversals and has many strong-willed, female characters.
In Yvain the Knight of Lion gender roles are also reversed. Throughout Yvain the Knight of Lion, Yvain goes on a quest after hearing about another knight’s tale about traveling to a distant place where he encountered a battle with a red knight and where he ultimately lost the battle. Hearing about this Red Knight, Yvain decides to set out on his own quest to try and defeat him. After arriving to the correct field and going through the same motions as the previous knight, Yvain lures the Red Knight out to a battle. During the battle the Red Knight gets wounded and retreats back to his castle, Yvain chases the Red Knight right into his castle but when he first enters the castle one of the gates closes on the back on Yvain’s horse and kills his horse. Meanwhile another gate closes in front of Yvain, trapping the knight between his dead horse and a gate, within the Red Knight’s castle. While Yvain panics and worries about certain death, a female savior comes to Yvain’s rescue. Lunette, one of the Queen of the castle’s ladies, finds Yvain and tells him that the Red Knight has died due to his fatal wounds from the battle and now the rest of his court are coming to kill Yvain. Amazingly Lunette had a magical ring that she gave Yvain to make him turn invisible and save him from being killed by the Red Knight’s court. This is clearly a reversal of gender roles, in most romances, the women would be in certain peril and a big, strong knight would swoop in and save the day. But the opposite is going on in this scene. This is once again a situation where a strong female lead gives a magical gift to a knight. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the Host’s wife gives Gawain a magical girdle that later ‘saves’ his life, very similar to the scene between Lunette and Yvain. This is also an example of empowering women by giving them strong leading characters, Lunette saved the day, she kept Yvain from certain death and held all the power in the situation. However Lunette is not the only empowered female character who saves Yvain.
As the tale continues Lunette plays a big role in setting up Yvain and Laudine, the Red Knight’s widow. Lunette convinces her Queen of giving Yvain a chance, and they end up falling in love overnight, as in many romances, and proved their love by getting married. Later on in the tale Yvain leaves to go do his knightly duties and ends up breaking a promise to his wife. Because he is so lost and shamed without her he looses his mind and runs into the woods in a crazed haze. One day a Lady and her maids are wandering through the forest and find Yvain naked and dying in the woods. They recognize that he is from Arthur’s court and quickly realize he is Yvain. They nursed him back to health using magical ointment from Morgan the Fay, this is once again an example of how women are given important, empowering roles. These ladies selflessly save Yvain’s life and without them the story would have ended. Once again gender roles are reversed because the female characters have more dominant and authoritative roles.
Although both of these texts discuss gender roles and have compelling female characters, they do approach femininity and women as a whole differently. Towards the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, women are seen as sinful and evil. Gawain goes off on a rant about how evil and manipulative women are and how all great men are brought down by women because he finds out that the Host’s wife was really in on the entire Green Knight scam. On the flip side, in Yvain the Knight of the Lion women are regarded in a much higher light, mainly because they are the key saviors in the story. Lunette and the Ladies in the woods take on a knightly role by saving Yvain which makes them much more ideal rather than a character such as Morgan the Fay. Overall, both texts express femininity in different way but also show the reversal of gender roles by giving female characters more empowering parts such as Morgan the Fay, the Host’s wife, Lunette, and the ladies in the woods who help Yvain.
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