|Psychoanalytic approach to the
quest in Sir Gawain
It’s easy to associate Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with one of Jung’s archetypal motif patterns: the hero and the quest. Through lots of difficulties or challenges, Sir Gawain reaches the higher ground of knighthood, and also proves himself worthy of a courtly masculine identity. It still seems quite daring and risky to apply psychoanalytic approach into the text itself, especially it comes with the Oedipus complex. But if we put Freud’s three psychic zones and Sir Gawain’s conflict together, or related his fear of castration with his fear of being beheaded, the applying of psychoanalytic approach is acceptable. Within the connections mentioned above, we can see how the father figures function and how a knight’s masculinity is maintain by abstaining from sexual desire in medieval period.
Sir Gawain is similar to any other hero we see in mythology, who is predisposed to response any obstacles coming upon them, and is thus getting mature both physically and mentally. So the process of being a real knight is similar to the process of being a real man in Freud’Stheory of child development. A boy in the process of being a man will confront a threat of being castrated by his father for to engaging in sexual relation with his Mother. Submitting to the ‘reality principal’, the boy represses his incestuous desire, identifies with his father, and is led to the manhood. One of the father figures within this text obviously is the Green Knight, who appears as the authority of the nature power to test Sir Gawain’s ability in masculinity and ability in abstaining from sexual temptation. Before the Green Knight is qualified to test Sir Gawain, he must prove that he is more a man than Sir Gawain. If we assume that being beheaded here is the another form of castration. That he lets his head cut off by Gawain first is the showing of his superiority in masculinity. After Green Knight’s head is cut off, he “seized this splendid head and straightway lifted it”. From the passage, we see he is not less a man, and is never afraid of being castrated by his son, which reinforces the Green Knight’s father figure.
Since the Green Knight, a father authority is under the disguise of Bertilak, we can assume that his mistress becomes the mother figure. While the Green Knight is out there hunting, Sir Gawain has to decide whether to put aside his fear of castration and give in the sexual seduction or to repress his own desire. Obviously, he controls his libido drive very well. He accepts Mrs. Bertilak’s girdle not because he is unable to resist the sexual desire from the mother figure, but because the girdle could protect him from being killed. His success in the test of abstaining from sexual activities symbolizes his coming to a role of manhood or knighthood.
Back to Freud’s argument about three psychic zones, it’s obvious that Sir Gawain is struggling between his id and superego. The superego from the parental figures or the authorized roles in the society contains the contemporary value and morality. Superego here in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is that a man has to maintain his identity of masculinity by resisting from the sexual desire. We usually don’t indicate the certain roles or places as the superego. The superego is formed by the values and behaviors of the authorized ones or the parental figures in the society. And it’s the certain social code or moral principal for people to follow. Generally, there are three father figures, and their teachings are served as the superego within the text. Besides the Green Knight, King Arthur and Jesus are also taken as the power of superego. Moreover, there is an interesting parallel between the Green Knight and King Arthur. One is the representative of nature power in name of the nature law, and the latter is the authority among the tribes representing the courtly law. And what I meant for Jesus as being a father figure, I actually indicates the importance of the religious virtues in the middle age. From the armor Sir Gawain puts on before the venture, we can see there is the portrait of Virgin Mary. It’s like a reminder for him to be careful about his own behavior, especially his sexual activities. Christ and Mary replace King Arthur and the Green Knight’s parent figures, and watch over Sir Gawain during his one-year wandering. So the text itself is a quest not only demanding physical strength, but also the mental maturity. The mental maturity includes his ability in self-control of sexuality. We can see at the end of the story, Sir Gawain fully developed in his personality and emotional behaviors, and his masculine identity by the superego.
Griffiths, Fred. “A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Question of Masculinity in “Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight.” Anthology of Middle English Literature (29
April 1996): n. pag. Online. Internet. 1 Nov. 1999.
Harmon, Willam, and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. New Jersey:
Prentice Hall, 1996.