The Unnamed Wife in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the green knight’s wife plays a pivotal role in the story. Yet, she is never given a name and it is unclear what motivates her actions. She could simply be following her husband’s orders to seduce this visiting knight. She could be under the tutelage of Morgan le Fay. Or she may be acting under her own guidance and using her sexuality to carry out her own desires or gain power. In light of this uncertainty, the unnamed wife’s role in the bedroom scene is also hard to decipher. As a woman she should be submissive, and yet it is Gawain who is forced to defend himself against her advances to which he eventually submits. The multiple readings of the wife’s role also inform the notions of Christian and pagan in the story. Female power and sexuality are aligned with the wife, Morgan le Fay and paganism, while Gawain seeks protection and chastity from Mary and Christianity. Despite the power the wife may gain from pagan traditions, she could also be perceived in a Christian, patriarchal context as a sexual object who is commanded by her husband’s authority. As a result the green knight’s wife represents the duality of Christian and pagan and its prevalence in medieval society.
In the bedroom scenes the wife appears to be playing the role of a submissive woman, but is in fact using her position to dominate Gawain, who is limited by his pledge to the Green Knight. The wife tells Gawain, “My body is here at hand, Your each wish to fulfill; Your servant to command I am, and shall be still.” Here the wife is literally submitting her body to Gawain to use as he desires. Yet, she is making this proposition in order to entice him to break his pledge. Gawain has promised allegiance to the lord of the household. “And your man to command I account myself here As I am bound and beholden, and shall be, come what may.” Because she is using her sexual power to manipulate Gawain, the offering of her body becomes a dominant act. She also refers to Gawain as, “my captive knight”. This suggests that Gawain is in the submissive position, which is not typically how a powerful, male knight is perceived. Oddly enough, this is the case in medieval society. The lord is the master and the knight pledges loyalty to the lord and his lady. In this sense the knight is actually in a lower social position than the lady, and this problemitizes the typical gender roles. For instance, Gawain must tell the wife, “I am yours to command, to kiss when you please” in order to live up to the expectations of a courteous knight. His social role as a knight causes him to submit to this cunning woman. The lady is able to exert control over Gawain while still appearing submissive, because of Gawain’s conflicting social and gender roles.
However, the gender roles and power relations between the wife and Gawain are further complicated when considering the wife’s...