Distressing damsels: "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" as a loathly lady tale

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Chochinov, Lauren
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At the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when Bertilak de Hautdesert reveals Morgan le Fay’s involvement in Gawain’s quest, the Pearl Poet introduces a difficult problem for scholars and students of the text. Morgan appears out of nowhere, and it is difficult to understand the poet’s intentions for including her so late in his narrative. The premise for this thesis is that the loathly lady motif helps explain Morgan’s appearance and Gawain’s symbolic importance in the poem. Through a study of the loathly lady motif, I argue it is possible that the Pearl Poet was using certain aspects of the motif to inform his story. Chapter one of this thesis will focus on the origins of the loathly lady motif and the literary origins of Morgan le Fay. In order to understand the connotations of the loathly lady stories, it is important to study both the Irish tales and the later English versions of the motif. My study of Morgan will trace her beginnings as a pagan healer goddess to her later variations in French and Middle English literature. The second chapter will discuss the influential women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and their specific importance to the text. It will examine Queen Guinevere, Bertilak’s lady and Morgan le Fay. This chapter will also analyze three contemporary Middle English texts: John Gower’s The Tale of Florent, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and “The Weddyng of Syr Gawen to Dame Ragnell.” The loathly lady motif was popular at the end of the fourteenth century, which lends evidence to the argument that the Pearl Poet was familiar with the motif. Finally, the third chapter will provide an exploration of Gawain’s role as the loathly lady’s knight and the symbolism of Gawain’s shield and green girdle, the setting of Hautdesert and the Green Chapel, and the Pearl Poet’s emphasis on family relations. Ultimately, I argue that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an untraditional loathly lady story that uses the motif’s themes and symbolism to emphasize the poem’s feminine landscape and the importance of Morgan le Fay.
Medieval, Literature