The portrayal of women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reveals the sociological and historical dimensions that characterized the period in which the poem was set. Propp outlines thirty-one functions that characters in fairy tales may take, categorized in seven dramatis personae villain, donor, helper, princess/sought-for-person, dispatcher, hero, and false hero (Dogra, 2017). Focusing on Lady Bertilak, the fairy tale rewritten herein indicates how romance, betrayal, and loyalty intertwine in the interaction between the lady, her husband, and the hero.
Rewriting the Fairy Tale: Loyalty in Marriage
Lady Bertilak is married to a renowned hunter by the name of Sir Bertilak. Since their marriage, the lady has known her place to be at home caring for children and preparing the food brought in by her husband, although sometimes they have had to sleep hungry. She is the typical woman of the 14th century who is characterized by loyalty, submission, and hard work at home (Asbee, 2019). Although she has never complained about her quality of life, there are moments when she wonders how it would have been having him been married to one of the rich men. At this point, it is difficult to describe her reasons for sticking with her husband through the tough times in life. It could be she has never known a better man or the fear of breaking the social fabric that has bound the community together for decades.
The socio-economic conditions seem to be changing from bad to worse, whereby people of all ages are being forced to find some meaningful work. According to Dogra (2017), Propp’s absentation function is evident in this case, whereby the lady’s husband is the actant, leaving home occasionally to hunt, with no assurance of returning home. It is Friday evening, and the week has been hard enough, a situation she hopes will change soon. Before long, Sir Bertilak arrives with two rabbits, putting a smile on his wife’s round and smooth face. Before she could rise to welcome her husband, the lady notices a man on a horse behind her husband and wonders who he could be. In times such as this, a random visit is quite questionable.
Hope has proved so vital in these challenging times that the lady begins to imagine the visitor as a fortune carrier sent to redeem the family. Although she cannot be described as a religious person, the lady has learned to believe in supernatural forces. Following his wife’s gaze, Sir Bertilak turns, and at first, he does not recognize the newcomer, but as he draws nearer, Sir Bertilak knows the time has come to execute his appointed duty. At this point, Propp’s trickery function comes into play (Dogra, 2017). Sir Bertilak plans to trick both his wife and the visitor into accomplishing his mission. One thing to note is that since women have been viewed as weak vessels, men have been reluctant to entrust them with big secrets (Burrow, 2019). The lady does not know that her husband has been working with an old woman in the village, planning to capture the very man approaching their house and submit him to an enemy troop.
Temptations are believed to reveal a person’s true identity and show where their loyalty lies. Sir Bertilak and his wife welcome the visitor warmly, and the lady hurriedly prepares a meal that the family takes joyfully. After the dinner, the visitor lies to the family of being a sojourner, looking for a hidden treasure, and that he needed to spend the night, featuring him as the actant in Propp’s trickery function. Sir Bertilak does not intend to let him go and craftily tells his wife that the man is good-looking and it would be good if she tries to lure him into staying a few days so that they may get to know him better. All the while, the lady does not know that she is being used to fulfill her husband’s secret mission.
Acting out of ignorance and submission, the lady falls into the trap and seduces the visitor with warm tea while talking to him so nicely that he does not realize the time passing so fast. When he attempts to leave, the lady embraces him, giving him a peck that gets him back to the seat. To seduce him further, the lady brings out a gold watch and gives it to him as a gift, a plan that had been initiated by Sir Bertilak. Romance has been used to trap many heroes rendering them helpless (Brown, 2019). The watch, in this case, was the trap through which the visitor fulfilled Propp’s complicity function as the actant (Dogra, 2017). At this point, the lady and the man both imagine that they would get away with a little secret, although both are unaware of Sir Bertilak’s scheme.
When Sir Bertilak gets back home, the lady lies to him that they did not interact beyond the formal level as she fears betraying her husband. The visitor confirmed it, insisting that he needed to leave the following day to continue with his journey. In reality, the deception reflects the lady’s inner desire to cheat on her husband in the hope of getting a better life (Brown, 2019). Tides turn as the husband discovers that the watch has been given to the visitor as earlier agreed and notices that his wife might be planning to betray him. In a confrontation between the two men, the visitor feels guilty remembering his sworn promise to preserve the integrity of the local army to which he served for ten years before quitting due to an injury on his left leg. At the moment, he is being sought by the enemy troops as a punishment for the role played alongside his colleagues in advocating for more involvement in the government.
As the visitor attempts to explain how he got the watch, the lady plans her escape knowing that if she stays, she will be beaten up for discipline because of lying. At this point, the man senses Sir Bertilak’s constant pacing implying that he is delaying the visitor for an impending encounter. Having served in the army, the man senses danger and looks outside the window to see a group of men approaching the house. At this point, he hits Sir Bertilak with a club and jumps out of the window through the back of the house, after which the lady opens the backdoor and follows him out. Propp’s departure function is fulfilled at this stage, with the visitor as the actant (Dogra, 2017). As they flee, the lady keeps wondering about her husband’s fate, but she seems to have no empathy, especially after learning that he planned to capture their visitor, with whom she has fallen in love.
After spending the night in the cold, they come to an isolated building in which they find an old lady. The lady happens to be the traitor who had employed Sir Bertilak to arrest the visitor. The lady offers them a cup of tea with the magical power to make them forget each other. Indeed she turns out to be a sorcerer and succeeds at arresting the man, leaving lady Bertilak stranded with nowhere to go.
After the arrest, the old lady restores the lady’s memory, enabling her to return home in line with Propp’s function of offering magical agents (Dogra, 2017). She is lucky to have survived the ordeal, and she quickly runs home to her husband, hoping to apologize and be accepted back. However, she finds her husband dead, increasing her woes and dilemma. She is left wondering where to start as she is torn between getting married to another man for support and living by herself, the latter being a difficult decision. She hopes that somehow the visitor would escape from his captors and come to her rescue from the tough life.
A Reflective Commentary
This fairy tale applies four main features of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: loyalty, romance, testing, and betrayal. These features shaped the plot establishing connections between the characters. This tale entailed three main characters: the lady, Sir Bertilak, and the visitor, who happens to be the hero. In developing the story, each character was given specific traits in line with those evident in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The lady was portrayed as a royal woman typical of the 14th-century housewife characterized by submission. In the pursuit of happiness and soft life, the romance and betrayal features influenced the story’s structure showing the lady’s desire to cheat on her husband and escape her reality through betrayal. The lady and the visitor were both tested, each failing the test similar to the lady Bertilak and Sir Gawain in the original tale.
Actants and Functions
In a fairy tale, characters play different roles at different times in the storyline. The actants represent the individuals responsible for various functions, according to Dogra (2017). In this tale, Sir Bertilak is the actant in the absentation factor where he leaves home occasionally for hunting. Propp argues that characters can take more than one role, implying that a function can simultaneously be directed towards two or more individuals. As shown, the trickery function implemented by Sir Bertilak affected the lady and the visitor at the same time. The lady is the actant in Propp’s romance function, exemplified through her relationship with her husband and her role in seducing the visitor through romantic moves. After betrayal, the visitor leaves the Bertilaks, being the actant in the departure function. In each of these functions, the characters act as either the hero, the villain, the helper, or the false hero.
Advantages and Constraints
Constructing a tale on the basis of the original character role is beneficial in shaping the story. It aids in developing a clear pattern and limits irrelevant details. The primary constraint here is the limited roles that can be assigned to the characters chosen. For instance, the lady could only be used as a housewife who tricks the hero, following her husband’s instructions. From the tale, it is evident that fairy tale tropes differ from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in that the latter presented a mixture of mythical motifs which seem to interlink while the former centers on one motif.
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Dogra, S. (2017). The thirty-one functions in Vladimir Propp’s morphology of the folktale: An outline and recent trends in the applicability of the Proppian taxonomic model. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, 9(2). Web.