In her paper, 'A Bad Girl will Love you to Death", Janet Knepper gives a poignant exploration of a rather sad and pitiable character in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur. In a way, it seems as if the reader is led to devalue the Maid of Ascolot (MoA) as a character. As Knepper mentions, the MoA's "effictio is truncated and dismissive ... No blond hair, no shining grey eyes", none of the formulaic descriptors readers come to expect from the blazon; "the Maid's effictio basically just gives her a red face." On top of this diminished and vague physical description, the MoA's "histrionic passion" and her actions are excessive and off-putting, which seems to me a rather smart move on the part of the writer, for the reader is put in the same uncomfortable position as Lancelot who can but awkwardly deny her advances. (Knepper 230).
Lancelot is put in an unfair position for the MoA states "her love as a case of life or death"(230). Unfortunately, as we find out later, this is truly the case, for she arrives in a boat with a letter expressing the outcome of unrequited love. But while she yet lives, she is "an object of pity" for Lancelot, and this pity is what ultimately causes the drama between Lancelot and Gaynor, because he gives up his armor and shield at the MoA's request. Knepper says that "these requests cause disruption and confusion in the sign-system of courtly love and chivalric identification." Indeed, this confusion transfers to Gawain's confusion, for why else would the MoA possess Lancelot's equipment? Knepper makes a similar statement saying the Maid "deliberately misuses the signs of courtly culture, and her manipulations and lies cause grief and disruption," and even Gawain is, as a result, shamed by this, for he is made to report a falsehood which he believes to be true.
After thinking more deeply about the Lady of Ascolot's role in the story it becomes a bit difficult to feel pity for her for the severe amount of disruption she causes.
I agree with you that Knepper does an excellent job at identifying how the structure of the MoA's appearance within the text and her descriptions (or lack there of) create a devaluing of her character. Her disruptions to the courtly sign-system carry consequences, and your point about how this transfers to Gawain is great. In many ways he is "duped" into associating the MoA with Lancelot as his lover. As you ask, why else would she have his armor? Therefore, Gawain who continues to operate according the courtly and chivalric sign-system is left to make nothing but false claims because again, why would he assume anything differently? I think this begins to raise an important question about the integrity of the sign-system if it can become this disruptive, this quickly, and the cultural ideals and customs it defines. Gawain is shamed for assuming something that the culture expects, and this is highly problematic. Similarly, I agree that the MoA is highly disruptive, if still a pitiable character. I really enjoyed Knepper's analysis of how the boat scene itself offers a literal disruption to the critical point in the romance's plot Given that Gaynor and Lancelot are bound to each other as the romance's courtly couple, I find it intriguing that the MoA is overtly inserted into this scene where Gaynor's life is at stake and Lancelot is nowhere to be found. But I think in some ways the MoA stills garners the audience's sympathy. As Knepper points out, in death she is finally able to enter into the courtly sign-system as both the adventure knights seek in romances and as the fair courtly lady worthy of such attention, effictio included. And yet, the fact that she gains this praise and attention as a corpse is troubling and calls attention back to something rotten at the center of this courtly culture. This is even more true considering how her death is only useful as exoneration for Lancelot--nothing more and nothing less.