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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Question of Masculinity in
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

by Fred Griffiths

        Vern L. Bullough's article, "On Being a Male in the Middle Ages," addresses how vital it was for a man living in the middle ages to be sexually active in order to maintain a masculine identity by explaining:

Quite clearly, male sexual performance was a major key to being male. It was a man's sexual organs that made him different and superior to the woman. But maleness was somewhat fragile, and it was important for a man to keep demonstrating his maleness by action and thought, especially by sexual action. It was part of his duty to keep his female partners happy and satisfied, and unless he did so, he had failed as a man. (41)

If we are to use this reference to explain what constitutes maleness in the middle ages, then the question naturally arises as to how Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight retains his masculine identity while abstaining from sex. I believe the answer to this can be found by looking at the structure of the story, in which we will find that Gawain is surrounded by father figures who create a superego that requires Gawain to repress his sexual desires. At the same time, these parent figures are testing Gawain's ability to abstain from sexual intercourse to see if he is worthy of a courtly masculine title. Therefore, the only way Gawain can achieve and maintain this masculine identity is to abstain from sex.
        We should begin our observations into the question of how Sir Gawain's masculinity works by focusing on the Green Knight. The Green Knight, the first father figure introduced in the story, tests Gawain's masculinity. Before the Green Knight can test Gawain, though, he must prove that he is in a position to pass judgment. Clare R. Kinney in her article "The (Dis)Embodied Hero and the Signs of Manhood in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" explains: "To support his assertion that the Green Knight is as much man as 'etayn' [assumed to be Gawain in the original text] he describes the stranger's well-proportioned male body, with its broad shoulders, slim waist, and flat stomach" (48). Kinney presents a good foundation for the Green Knight's role in the story, but she fails to see that as the tester of Gawain's masculinities the Green Knight must prove that he is more of a man than Gawain, not just his equal. The Green Knight validates his superior masculinity by proving that Gawain can not stop him from being a man. This is evident in this passage, which takes place after the Green Knight has had his head cut off by Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Yet the fellow did not fall, nor falter on whit,
But stoutly sprang forward on legs still sturdy,
Roughly reached out among the ranks of nobles,
Seized his splendid head and straightway lifted it. (433-436)

As you can see from the above quote, the Green Knight did not show any signs of being less of a man even though Gawain had cut off his head. This enforces the Green Knight's fatherly identity since, according to Freud, a child has a fear of being castrated by his father for wanting to engage in a sexual relation with his mother. The Green Knight has proven that he is a father figure for Gawain by showing that he can never be castrated by his son. Therefore, as a father figure that is in possession of a masculine identity above that of his child, the Green Knight gains the position of tester.
        We have came to a point in which we should digress a bit and look at how, scientifically, sexual urges are formed and repressed. Freud theorized that there are three parts of the psyche that make up our sexual urges and repress them: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is that part of the psyche which is unconscious. The id is governed by instinctive impulses that seek satisfaction in accordance with the pleasure principle. The ego is that part of the psyche that responds to the outside world, thus mediating between the primitive drives of the id and the demands of the individuals social and physical environment. The superego is the part of the psyche, which represents the conscience, formed in early life by incorporating the standards of parents and other models of behavior. Returning and tying Freud's theory in with my argument on Sir Gawain's masculinity crisis, we can see that Gawain is having a conflict between his superego and his id. The parental teachings of Gawain's superego are telling him to repress his urges or else his father will castrate him. On the other hand, as Bullough said, "it was important for a man to demonstrate his maleness by action and thought, especially by sexual action" (41). Society is saying Gawain should dwell in his id to be given a masculine label while his superego is saying to abstain from sex to keep his masculine identity. Therefore, the question arises as to which road Gawain will take when he leaves the family setting in the next section.
        A year after the Green Knight has left Sir Gawain prepares to leave the castle to search him out. It is in this section that the second father figure, King Arthur, presents his role: devising some restraint to keep Sir Gawain from engaging in any of his sexual desires. A critic could argue that King Arthur has no role in protecting Sir Gawain because it is Gawain who asks for his armor, "He dwelt there all that day, and at dawn on the morrow asked for his armor. Every item was brought" (566-567). But I believe that this only strengthens my argument that Gawain is the child doing what the father would force him to do anyway. This is true not only of the armor of which they brought "every item" but also of the shield, "Then they showed him the shield of shining gules, with the Pentangle in pure gold depicted thereon" (619-620). By supervising Gawain and making sure he is prepared, Arthur, since he essentially is in charge, is the one who is making sure Gawain is prepared. When we look at this section thinking that Arthur is the father figure whose job it is to force Gawain to abstain from sex, we can realize that Arthur is forcing Gawain's repression by locking him within his armor and giving him a shield to protect him from the desires he may face. Furthermore, if we are to believe Bullough's argument that masculinity in the middle ages was maintained by "keep[ing] his female partners happy and satisfied...." (41) and my argument that Arthur's parental role is to eliminate Gawain's ability to have sex, then we should look for the ways that Arthur prepares Gawain for this venture out into the world, focusing on what he devises to make it physically impossible for Gawain to live up to society's view of masculinity. Therefore, it makes sense that this ceremony in which Gawain puts on his armor would be controlled by King Arthur and that indeed it is his job to make sure that Gawain is prepared to venture out into the open.
        After Arthur has prepared Gawain for what he will face away from the family he throws Gawain his lance. To understand the importance of giving Gawain his lance after he had put on his armor, we again need to look at another of Freud's theories. Freud argued that our minds create associations to express our unconscious fears and desires and their importance to the situation. The preparation section of the tale ends with an association that symbolizes that Arthur recognizes that Sir Gawain is ready to leave by allowing him to leave with a large part of his masculinity, his penis. The text states:

Now Gawain was ready and gay;
His spear he promptly caught
And gave them all good day . . . (666-68)

In Freudian terms, by throwing the spear to Gawain the other characters are presenting a phallic association to show that they acknowledge Gawain is prepared to face the challenges as a man.
        After Gawain has left the castle he ventures all over England looking for the Green Knight. The text explains:

He rode far from his friends, a forsaken man,
Scaling many cliffs in country unknown.
At every bank or beach where the brave man crossed water,
He found a foe in front of him, except by a freak of chance. . . . (713-717)

I argue that Gawain has successfully passed the first of his trials in that he did not break his vow of celibacy he had made with Arthur. The text supports this argument by not having any references to Gawain's sexual desires being tested. Therefore, since it was never mentioned, Gawain has not given into his sexual desires and thus far has maintained his courtly masculine identity. Sir Gawain's temptations, though, are severe enough to warrant some stronger means of protection than his armor and shield. Gawain must discover other parental figures to protect him, which he does by praying to Mary and Christ. The reason Gawain asked Christ and Mary for help is that they are the only ones that he could possibly believe are watching him. Therefore, Gawain's superego is maintained during this stage by Gawain's belief that parents, Christ and Mary, are watching his sexual actions.
        Shortly after praying to Christ and Mary, Sir Gawain finds himself at the doors of a castle. He is met by a Civil Porter who greets him and asks why he is there. Gawain asks the porter to request the lord of the castle if he may stay at the castle to rest and eat. The porter says that Gawain is welcome at the court, and takes him to meet the lord of the castle, Bertilak. Bertilak welcomes Gawain to his court saying, "You are welcome to dwell here as you wish" (845). Bertilak goes on to explain that the Green Knight lives close to his castle, and since Gawain has traveled so far, he is not prepared to meet the knight but should rest in his home. By offering a place to stay in this fashion Bertilak has become the fourth father figure of the story. Bertilak's job as father to Gawain is basically the same as Arthur, make sure that Gawain does not dwell in his sexual desires. Because of Bertilak's role, he concludes this evening by presenting a game in which he and Gawain will exchange whatever the other gains during the course of their day. Bertilak then tells Gawain he is to stay at home with his wife who will take care of him, which makes her the mother figure, while he goes out hunting. This allows Bertilak to make sure Gawain does not engage in his sexual desires because he will be safe at home where he cannot get in trouble. All this would be fine and dandy, Gawain's superego would be maintained, if Bertilak's wife did not want to have sex with Gawain so badly.
        So, the next day begins with Bertilak leaving Gawain in his wife's care. As soon as Bertilak has left, the lady goes to Gawain's room. Immediately she begins to tempt Sir Gawain. She directs her attack at society's ideology that sex defines masculinity. She explains that Gawain and she are utterly alone in the castle, therefore, his superego is not going to do him any good. She then says that she has heard so much about him and that it would be an honor to have sex with a hero such as himself. Finally, she says that her body is his and for him to do whatever he wants with it. Sir Gawain cleverly avoids her advances by saying that it would be a pleasure to please someone like her, but that he does not deserve the respect she gives him, because he is not the hero she thinks him to be. Gawain thus ends this day by giving the lady a courtly kiss so as not to insult her. Therefore, Gawain has suppressed his id by using clever words and phrases to build an ego to protect him. Bertilak returns later that day with a deer that he has killed which he gives to Gawain. Gawain accepts the deer but having acquired nothing himself that day to exchange agrees to continue the game the next day.
        The next day begins much as the first day did with Bertilak leaving for another hunt and the lady again going to Gawain's bedroom. This day, though, the game begins when Gawain explains that he feels that words can protect him and that they must if he is to keep to the codes he seemingly is trying to follow, his chivalry codes. The lady responds to Gawain by trying to prove him wrong in his assertion that words can protect him by rearranging the argument she presented the day before. She explains that his honor and fame are known everywhere, but she has been with him twice now, and he has not had sex with her yet. She finishes this argument by saying that he must have sex with her because that is what a young hero with such a willing young woman at his disposal should do. Gawain replies that she is obviously better at the game of words than he is, that he still will not have sex with her, and gives her a kiss. The lady, realizing she has lost this day's argument, finally gives it up and leaves Gawain to rest. The lord returns latter that evening with a killed boar and again, in accordance with the rules of the game, exchanges it with Gawain. Gawain accepts the boar but explains that he did not get anything this day either. So, they eat, drink, and say that the next day they will again continue the game, exchanging whatever they get.
        The final day finds Bertilak out hunting and the lady going to Sir Gawain's room a third time. This time the lady enters his room with her breasts exposed, gets in bed with Gawain, and presents an argument that forces Gawain to either insult her or give into his sexual desires and have sex with the mother figure. The lady argues that if Gawain does not have sex with her that either he has another love at home or he is not interested in her. At this point the game has gone too far, Gawain is forced to make a decision: he is going to give in to his id and push aside his fear of being castrated by the father figure, or he is going to repress his id by maintaining self-control, practicing abstinence, and stopping the advances here which in turn will probably insult her. Gawain chooses to repress his id by saying that his life belongs to no one and will not for awhile, meaning he is to remain celibate at least for this part of his life. The lady explains that she is sad but accepts the courtly masculine values of abstaining from sex he has chosen to follow. She then kisses him and says that she must receive a gift from him. He responds by saying she deserves the most handsome item he owns but he has nothing to give her. Since he has no gift, she forces him to take one from her, her gold and green girdle. Gawain at first says he cannot accept it but does after she explains that it is a magic girdle which will protect him from the Green Knight. After Gawain accepts the gold and green girdle, the lady makes him swear to hide it from Bertilak when he returns to the castle. Gawain agrees to hide it and to show it to no one. The lord returns latter that day with a killed fox. The lord, as before, exchanges what he killed that day with Gawain, but Gawain hides the gold and green girdle he had received from the lady saying he did not get anything again. By hiding the girdle Gawain has thus broken his promise to exchange what he gets during the course of the day with the lord.
        The time for Gawain to face the Green Knight finally comes, and Gawain begins it by putting on his 'newly polished' armor, taking up his shield, and wrapping the girdle around his waist. The text explains that "Gawain wore the girdle not for its great value" (2037) but to "save himself when of necessity he must stand an evil stroke, not resisting it with knife or sword" (2040-2042). After preparing for the ominous swing of the Green Knight's axe Sir Gawain leaves the castle with Bertilak whom is coming to show Gawain the way. On the path to the Green Chapel, the Green Knight's lair, Bertilak tries to talk Gawain out of facing the Green Knight. Gawain understands that his masculinity is being tested by the Green Knight. Therefore, Gawain must face the Green Knight or else he will have failed the test before it has even begun by showing that he is afraid of being castrated by the father figure. So, Gawain explains that it is his duty to face the Green Knight. When Bertilak and Gawain get to the edge of the Green Chapel, Bertilak explains that he will go no further because no one ever comes out of there alive. Because of the danger Bertilak tries on final time to talk Gawain into turning back, it doesn't work. After Bertilak has left Gawain begins his decent toward the Green Chapel. Gawain's fear increases as he descends, he even compares the evil of the place to Satan and for the second part of the story prays to Christ that he will live up to his masculine identity. Finally, Gawain reaches the Green Chapel.
        Once Sir Gawain is inside the Green Chapel and has announced himself the Green Knight appears, wielding the instrument of delivering punishment if Gawain is found guilty of not living up to his masculinity, a four-foot axe. The Green Knight administers his test on Gawain by taking three swings at his head. The first two swings stop short of Gawain's head but on the third swing the Green Knight's axe swings full, nicking Gawain's neck, concluding the test.
        After the final swing, the Green Knight removes his helmet revealing to Gawain that he is also Bertilak. Bertilak explains to Sir Gawain that this was a test of his worth in terms of his courtly masculine identity. Obviously, Gawain passed the test because Bertilak says that he is "the most perfect Paladin on Earth" (2363). Jill Mann points out that "in referring both to his own challenge to Arthur's court and to his wife's temptation of Gawain: The trial both tests and enhances value" (296). Mann has an in interesting point; Bertilak guides Gawain through the three swings explaining that each swing represented a day with his wife. The first and second day Gawain lived up to his chivalry codes repressing the desires he had of having sex with the mother figure. It was only during the third day that Gawain did something wrong. Bertilak explains that it was not that Gawain accepted the girdle from his wife but that he did not give it to him at the end of the day in accordance to the rules of the game. Still, this is not enough to castrate Gawain since castration would reflect having given into his sexual desires of possessing the mother figure. Rather, Gawain had accepted the girdle not as a sexual activity but because it was said to be able to protect him from being killed. Gawain, on the other hand, does not believe this and returns home with a feeling that he will be disavowed by King Arthur and, therefore, wears the gold and green girdle as a sign of his failure. When he does return to Arthur, though, Gawain is told that he has not lost his masculine identity but is the ideal masculine male others will base their masculinity on. Therefore, everyone else in the room puts on gold and green girdles ending the story with Gawain assured of this masculinity identity.
        Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a complex tale that revolves around Sir Gawain's journey that tested his ability to repress his sexual desires. Gawain has been taught that in order to maintain a courtly masculine identity he needs to control his sexuality and how to do it. If Gawain fails he will lose his masculine identity as it stands in the courtly setting and be reduced to a common male who only thinks about sexually pleasing women. From the beginning of the story, all the people around Gawain understand the odds at stake, and the parental figures try to prepare Gawain for whatever he might face from the challenge. Gawain succeeds in the challenges presented in the open, where he expected to be challenged the most but almost fails in Bertilak's castle. Gawain almost failed because he did not realize that he was in danger of losing self-control in this situation until after the first day with the Bertilak's wife. Gawain almost losses control of his desires, but does not in the end, and this is why, as the Green Knight explains, he is not castrated/decapitated. By proving he has the ability to control himself and repress his sexual desires, Sir Gawain has proven his masculinity; he is a man.

Works Consulted

Appignanesi, Richard and Oscar Zarate. Freud for Beginners.
New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Bragg, Lois. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Elusion of Clarity."
Neuphilologische Metteilungen. 86 (1985): 482-88.

Bullough, Vern L. "On Being a Male in the Middle Ages."
Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages. Medieval Cultures; 7.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994.

Freud, Sigmund. Character and Culture. 1907.
New York: Crowell-Collier P, 1970.

Freud, Sigmund. The Origin & Development of Psychoanalysis. 1910.
New York: Henry Regnery Company, 1967.

Freud, Sigmund. Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. 1905.
New York: Crowell-Collier P, 1970.

Hedges, Warren. Personal interview. 26 November 1996.

Kinney, Clare R. "The (Dis)Embodied Hero and the Signs of Manhood in
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Medieval Masculinities: Regarding
Men in the Middle Ages. Medieval Cultures
; 7. Minneapolis:
U of Minnesota P, 1994.

Mann, Jill. "Prince and Value in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."
Essays in Criticism. 36 (1986): 294-318.

©1997-2010 Fred Griffiths. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium Through Express Written Permission of the Author.

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