Psychoanalytic Approach to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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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.

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