In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, courtly love is used to test the loyalty and faith of Sir Gawain. One definition of courtly love was a code of behavior that defined the relationship between aristocratic lovers in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Influenced by contemporary chivalric ideals (Encarta Encyclopedia). Although courtly love was a part of chivalry, it also helped to define it. Since this was during the time of the Crusades, strict adherence to Christian morals was required of a knight.
Chivalry was the code of conduct by which knights were supposedly guided. In addition to military prowess and valor and loyalty to God and the knight's feudal lord, it called for courtesy toward enemies and generosity toward the sick and oppressed, widows, and other disadvantaged people (Encarta). Incorporated in the ideal of chivalry was courtly love, which was romantic devotion for a sexually unattainable woman, usually another man's wife. It was a way of defining adultery in a time when marriages were primarily arranged for profit or military advantage. Courtly love was a strong element in the Arthurian legends, which Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a part.
The Arthurian legends also had very strong moral conflicts between Christian and pagan beliefs. This is evident in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the Gawain act of putting his trust in a pagan charm and not in the Virgin Mary. Chivalry itself is a conflicting concept since it consists of both pagan and Christian principles. Although on one hand, chivalry promoted virtuous actions towards others such as kindness and compassion, but chivalry also promoted the sin of infidelity. At the time, society encouraged knights to become involved platonically with married women, but with the rise of the Catholic Church, these ideals were being challenged. This may, in fact, be the primary cause for this work.
When the dilemma of whe the or not to give Lord Bercilak the Green Girdle arises, Gawain, an ideal knight who remains fallibly human, is torn between the codes of courtly love and the other ethics of chivalry. In addition to the battlefield, the tournament became an arena in which the virtues of chivalry could be proved. The test of chivalry placed on Sir Gawain was administered in two parts; the first is to behead the Green Knight and let him retaliate a year later at the Green Chapel, and the second was being tempted by Lord Bercilak wife into an committing adultery. Although these events seem unrelated, they are joined by the fact that, unknown to Sir Gawain, Lord Bercilak is the Green Knight.
In the end, Sir Gawain wears the girdle to remind him of his shortcomings, but the court also wears a green sash to represent his courage. In understanding the concept of courtly love and how it is important to understanding Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, adoration of the Virgin Mary also played a part. Mary on one side represented spiritual love, chastity, obedience, and life. The Virgin Mary is a prime example of the model of female behavior.
She represents humility and obedience to God. She is virtuous and untainted by sexuality, chaste, but also a mother. She is a giver of life without sin. It is evident that Sir Gawain has a special relationship with Mary.
It seemed that as long as Gawain is facing dangers that grow out of his agreement with the Green Knight, which does not test his opposing loyalties in love, his spiritual faith is clear and unwavering. When he was on the journey to find the Green Knight, he encounters several challenges and is finally at the point of utter hopelessness. From the pit of his despair he prays to Mary that she may bless him with shelter and a place to go for Christmas mass. Lady Bercilak was an archetypical of courtly love and a biblical temptress. Given this mistrust of women by the church, the placement of the women in the story must be a critical medium for delivering this message. Interestingly enough, the women in this story appear to wield great power.
Bercilak's wife has become the hunter and aggressor. Morgan is the instigator of the event with which the story begins and is given supernatural powers that can cause Lord Bercilak to defy death. Nevertheless, I dont think the author intended to present women as powerful, but rather these women embody an allegory for the dangers and anti-social forces outside the control of feudalism and chivalry. The medieval world gave this idea the feminine gender because of biblical and classical models of all things dissident to be female. She persuades him to make a bargain with her, but now this bargain is with a woman rather than a man, and his ability to please her with his talk is being tested rather than the other bargains that test his loyalty, valor and truthfulness. In the game of courtly love, a man is forced to leave his dominant role and stand on equal footing with a woman.
Unlike the other tournaments, established by men, where the rules are clearly defined, the Lady's game is ambiguous. We can see this as the seduction progresses. The author is setting up the different bargains, or games, to ask the question, which is the most important value of chivalry If you were to ask the Lady, it would be courtly love. In my opinion, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a metaphor for the constant tug of war that went on between the Church and the pagan ideals still present in society. Since courtly love is in itself a sinful act, it is the part of chivalry that represents the pagan, or evil side, and the loyalty and faith and trust in God, and or a Lord, represents the Christian influences surfacing.
The basic struggle that Gawain has in this story is that between good and evil. Courtly love is the representation of lust and immorality in the game of love. Spiritual love is the good, or the holy. I believe the function of courtly love in understanding Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is to demonstrate the need for change in the fabric of the social order, and how putting your trust in objects that are of magic or of the devil will only bring about destruction, not to mention the blatant statement that woman are inherently evil and can not be trusted. Courtly love was a good avenue for this intention because it embodies all that the church is fighting to remove from the medieval society.
Bibliography Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia - 2000 345.