Individuation in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Individuation in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain is, undoubtably, the most varied of the Arthurian characters: from his first minor appearance as Gwalchmei in the Welsh tales to his usually side-line participation in the modern retelling of the tales, no other character has gone from such exalted heights (being regarded as a paragon of virtue) to such dismal depths (being reduced to a borderline rapist, murderer, and uncouth bore), as he. This degree of metamorphosis in character, however, has allowed for a staggering number of different approaches and studies in Gawain.

The greatest part of these studies have involved the middle-English text Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Extensive work has been done on this alliterative four-part poem written by an anonymous contemporary of Chaucer: feminists have attacked his diatribe against women at the end, or analyzed the interaction between Gawain and the women of Bercilak’s court; those of the D. W. Robertson school seek the inevitable biblical allusions and allegory concealed within the medieval text; Formalists and philologists find endless enjoyment in discovering the exact meaning of certain ambiguous and archaic words within the story. Another approach that yields interesting, if somewhat dated, results, is a Psychological or Archetypal analysis of the poem. By casting the Green Knight in the role of the Jungian Shadow, Sir Gawain’s adventure to the Green Chapel becomes a journey of self-discovery and a quest - a not entirely successful one - for personal individuation.

The Jungian process of individuation involves “. . . a psychological growing up, the process of discovering those aspects of one’s self that make one an individual differe...

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... until he does complete his quest of individuation, he shall never be nor feel whole.

Works Cited and Consulted

Anonymous, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, eds. Abrams, et al. (New York: Norton, 1993), 200.

Carl Gustav Jung, “The Principle Archetypes” in The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, ed. David H. Richter (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 666.

Guerin, Wilfred L., et al., eds. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1992.

Lacy, Norris J. and Geoffrey Ashe. The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland Publishing, 1988.

Stephen Manning, “A Psychological Interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, eds. Donald R. Howard and Christian Zacher (Notre Dame: Notre Dame UP, 1968), 279.

In this essay, the author

  • Analyzes how the archetypes arise in the text under various guises, such as sir gawain and the green knight, guenevere and lady bercilak.
  • Analyzes how the poem is structurally composed of two distinct plots: a beheading contest, used as the framework for sir gawain and the green knight, and an enmeshed seduction story.
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