Lady Bertilak is the wife of Sir Gawain’s captor, Bertilak. For three days in a row, she tries to seduce him. She only receives a few small kisses in return. In the oldest known manuscript of the poem, this scene is depicted on a full-page illustration.
The knight remains at the court after striking a bargain with Bertilak. While in the castle, Gawain is able to obtain kisses from Bertilak’s wife. At the end of each day, he offers up his kisses for the game that the host sought down.
Every day, the lady comes into Gawain’s room to tempt him. Every time, however, the knight refuses her advances. Lady Bertilak appears to be in command during every attempt to seduce Gawain, which is done through debate and smooth-talking.
In order to help Gawain escape death, the lady offers him a choice. The woman has a green girdle, which can save its user from dying. After asking for a token of love, the hostess explains the girdle to Gawain.
Hearing about it gave Gawain hope that he would survive his encounter with the Green Knight. This is all part of Morgan le Faye’s scheme to fool the knight into relinquishing his honor and teaching him a lesson.
Although the lady is merely a pawn in the hands of Morgan le Faye, she shines as an intelligent individual. She demonstrates a strong ability to read his thoughts and anticipate his replies in every conversation with Gawain. This implies that not only is she a beautiful woman, but she is also a brilliant debater. It’s easy to see why Morgan picked her for the diabolical scheme.
In our initial encounter with Lady Bertilak, the narrator informs us that “in complexion and features, she was the loveliest on earth; in figure, coloring, and behavior, she was superior to all others; and more beautiful than Guinevere it appeared to the knight” (942-944).
More beautiful than Guinevere, who we already know to be the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen? That’s quite a compliment! This lady also appears to be kind and polite, conversing amiably with our hero while dining on spice cakes and wine.
Seductress. The lady’s behavior changes, however, on the day her husband goes hunting. She enters Gawain’s room before he’s even dressed and playfully “traps” him between the bedclothes, telling him she’ll take pleasure in conversing with the knight who is most famous for a courtesy while under the house.
This conduct appears to be quite seductive. When Gawain replies, “ye are welcome to my body,” we can tell it’s not just a pleasant chit-chat she has in mind (1237).
Skilled Conversationalist. Lady Bertilak, on the other hand, is more than simply a wily siren: she’s also a wordsmith. She essentially forces Gawain to kiss her by informing him that he can’t be the legendary Gawain if he “spends so much time with a lady / Without begging a kiss, to comply with politeness” (1299-1300). With this, she slyly threatens his reputation for courtesy and good name while maintaining an air of extreme politeness. That takes some skill (and bravery!).
Never Trust A Woman? At the conclusion of Sir Gawain, when our hero learns he has been deceived by Lady Bertilak, he gives an impassioned anti-feminist speech in which he claims that even the holiest men have succumbed to women’s wiles, and it is better “to love women and not trust them” (2421).
However, viewed from another perspective, this may appear to be unjust. Although it is true that Lady Bertilak deceives Gawain in tandem with two other individuals – one of whom is a guy!
(That’s her husband, Morgan le Fay, and Gawain.) Gawain’s anti-feminist statement is a reflection of this era’s belief that all women are evil seductresses, which catches Lady Bertilak in its net. We can’t change medieval attitudes toward women, but at least we have a female seductress who is also intelligent and articulate in Lady Bertilak.