Compare three depictions of women in Beowulf, "Lanval", and "Sir Gawain and The Green Knight".

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Female characters are not very important to these three texts. The mother in Beowulf is portrayed as a violent monster and an obstacle for Beowulf to overcome, but nothing had to be done with her character or her actions. Lanval's lady is the main focus of "Lanval," and she is portrayed as the one with magical power and the ability to save Lanval from his enemies. She also has a fair amount of agency and does not hesitate to use it when necessary. In "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," women mostly represent temptation that Gawain must resist, as well as obstacles he must overcome in order to prove himself worthy of knighthood.

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Female characters do not figure strongly in Beowulf , which is basically an epic poem about an epic hero completing hypermasculine tasks to win the favor of other men. However, we do have Grendel's mother in this poem, though she is not exactly a human woman. What we see of...

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Grendel's mother is only vengeance and violence. When she realizes her son has been killed, she starts attacking Hrothgar's men to avenge Grendel. Beowulf volunteers to go to her lair and fight her, and she probably would have beaten him if it were not for the magic sword he is able to use. In this Old English poem, the female monster is brutally strong and loyal to her son.

In "Lanval" and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," we see depictions of courtly love common in the medieval period and in Arthurian legend, which both of these texts reference. One important female character in "Gawain" is the wife of the Green Knight/lord of the castle Gawain stays at during his quest. She attempts to seduce Gawain a few times, and his ability to resist is supposed to prove his purity and goodness. After his third refusal, she gives him a magical green girdle that he wears to protect himself from the Green Knight when the fight near the end of the poem. The lady is portrayed as clever but also as a temptress who tries to lead Gawain off course. She is mostly there as an accessory or an obstacle so he can prove himself good and worthy.

"Lanval" provides the strongest or most positive female character of the three works. This may not be too surprising, considering the poem was written by Marie de France, a French female poet. In the lay, Lanval is a young knight who begins an affair with a beautiful lady also known as the fairy queen. Their union is blissful, but the lady makes Lanval swear not to tell anyone about her.

Later, Lanval is tempted by Queen Guinevere, who says she loves him and wants to "go all the way." Lanval is in love with his lady and does not want to give in to the Queen, but he must give a valid excuse, so he claims to have another lover. Guinevere's pride is damaged, so she tells King Arthur that Lanval tried to seduce her, and the king tries him. It is the fairy queen, though, who saves the day and comes to reveal herself, prove Lanval's innocence, and take her lover away with her. This lady is depicted as the one with the most power and is portrayed in the most positive terms of any female characters in these three texts.

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Compare how women are depicted in Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale."

The three texts mentioned present women quite differently, in part due to their genre and in part due to their historical context.

Epics tend to dwell on male interests, with women presented as obstacles to the male hero's destiny. In Beowulf, we see women as tokens exchanged in marriage or as givers of gifts initiated by their husbands. One could take the passages dealing with women out of the text and retain almost every important element.

Sir Gawain is medieval romance. Some suggest that Eleanor of Aquitaine fostered a love of romance in her court (and beyond) as a covert way of presenting an alternative type of power to the male feudal system. In romance, the more feminine courtly code is opposed to the militaristic chivalric code. In this poem, Gawain is placed in a position where he must uphold courtly codes and hospitality with the castle's mistress, Lady Bertilak, while her husband goes out to hunt. The challenges he confronts successfully help define his heroism every bit a much as killing in battle might.

In this poem, women also have an alternative power that extends beyond their control in domestic or romantic affairs: they also have access to magic. Morgan le Fay appears in this story, as she so often does, to create an alternative not available to typical male figures. In fact, at the end of the poem, we see that Morgan seems to have masterminded the entire plot as one of her customary attempts to weaken Arthur's court and harm his reputation.

In The Canterbury Tales, accusations of sorcery are among the many misogynistic claims Chaucer's Wife of Bath confronts. In her tale, the woman is able to work magic, providing a type of wish fulfillment for the rapist knight. However, the important element in Chaucer's presentation of the Wife is her obvious intelligence, her business acumen, her keen understanding (even at 12) of the way in which women are made to be commodities in the feudal marriage system, and her resistance to how the Church "mis-treats" women in Biblical texts.

The Wife's prologue—which is an Apologia of her life in marriage and a witty refutation of Church teachings on gender—browbeats the pilgrims in such a way that Harry Bailey finally insists that they let her speak. Her prologue seems designed to carve out a space in which her voice refuses to be silenced by the more argumentative male pilgrims.

The same happens when the rapist knight is complaining about marrying an old and ugly woman, even though he promised he would if she saved his life. Through intelligence and rhetorical finesse, the Wife works her own magic and gains the upper hand.

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