Marxist and Psychoanalytic Criticism of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
On one hand, we might be hesitant to apply critical theories to ancient and medieval poems and stories. After all, critical approaches such as those used by Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx would not arise until the late Nineteenth Century. Yet, central to both Freud and Marx’s ideas is a central assertion: that their ideas are not pertinent in a certain time period, but rather universal principles of human behavior and motivation.
Thus, a poem like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, thought to have been written around the Fourteenth Century, should provide excellent material by which to apply these more modern theories and think about their universality. And in fact, both Freud and Marx do appear in Gawain, if we think about Marx’s class consciousness and Freud’s sexual repression with regard to the poem. Marx’s criticisms appear in the opening section of Gawain: Their reckless jokes rang about that rich hall till they turned from the table to the tournament field
and jousted like gentlemen with lances and laughs, then trooped to court in a carolling crowd. For the feast lasted a full fifteen days of meals and merriment (as much as could fit) (Anonymous). The poem depicts the bourgeois (“having” class) at ease in their castle, and the story reflects their fears to have their “party” broken up by horror, especially power and privilege horror (Dartmouth). The green knight might be seen as a revolutionary member of the proletariat, who stands up, challenges the ruling class, and expects a change in their lifestyle.
Of course, because the poem is written from a poet in the ruling class, glorifying Arthur and his knights, we see the proletariat as the enemy, as the mysterious, inhuman force that breaks into their social world and expects something of them. The luxury of the ruling class allows the “horror” of this mysterious knight to not be a bringer of war or challenge, but rather, of their ideal idle state. The green knight, however, is deprived of its horror when it asks to play a “game,” True knighthood is known here, or so the tale runs, which is why I have come calling today. You may be sure by this branch that I bear
that I come in peace, with no plans for battle. I have a hauberk at home, and a helmet too, and other weapons I know well how to wield. Yet as war is not my wish I am wearing soft silk, but, if you are as bold as men believe you to be, you will be glad to grant me the game that is mine by right (Anonymous) The bourgeoisie imagines the world as they would like to see it: a civil, tame world of knighthood and courtesy (me might translate this into modern language as social manners and gestures)—they wholly deny the true nature of reality, according to Marx, as a series of class struggles (Dartmouth).
In Gawain we are almost wholly tied to the inside and glory of the castle and the knights—never do we speak about the workers who built that castle, probably at the expense of the rich, nor the servants that prepared and toiled to create an excessive meal that they would never enjoy. Marx raises these sorts of questions about the text. Freud’s psychoanalytic theories ask us to look for the pathological in literature—Freud saw neurosis in the expression of everything, from our common fidgeting to the slips of our tongue.
For example, a person who loves to build tall structures but cannot quite say why might suffer from sexual insecurity—their mind, often unconsciously, will express this anyway. Freud’s theories are also at play in Gawain, seen in Arthur’s “sexual insecurities” manifesting themselves in need for elegance, ostentation, and order (Dartmouth). Gawain’s acceptance of the Green Knight’s challenge reflects his castration fears. Arthur’s castle and the feasts enjoyed inside are elegant displays of power: …the dais, which was dearly adorned
with sides of fine silk and a canopied ceiling of sheer stuff: and behind her shimmering tapestries from far Tarsus, embroidered, bedecked with bright gems that the jewelers would pay a pretty price for any day. (Anonymous) According to Freud, we can never read this passage merely as reflecting the Knight’s enjoyment of expensive things—rather, Freud asks us to read them as the expression of problematic, unconscious desires. In this case, we might speculate about why the knights—and especially Arthur—need to surround themselves with such orientation.
Freud would say the answer lies in insecurity about ones own sexual capability—the external glamour calls attention away from the fact that Arthur and his knights are sexually incapable, or even perhaps impotent. The use of large phallic objects like a sword and public displays of courage (such as confronting and challenging the Green Knight) also support this idea. The Green Knight’s challenge also lends itself well to a Freudian reading: “My name is Gawain,” he said, “I give it in good faith, as I will give you a blow and bear what comes after.
At this time in twelve months I will take a blow back from what weapon you wish, but from no other knight alive. The other answering spoke,”Sir Gawain: good. I derive great pleasure from the stroke your hardy hands will drive. ” (Anonymous) The Knight challenge is as follows: you may attempt to cut my head off with this axe, but twelve months later, I will expect you to let me do the same to you. The image of the cutting off of the head relates itself well to a “castration” reading (Dartmouth).
His suggestion seems foolish, and Gawain’s foolish desire to show off gets him in trouble—again, we might ask ourselves why Gawain felt the need to accept the Knight’s challenge. Our answer may lie in his neurotic—perhaps sexually related—need for attention and social approval, needs driven by his sexual dysfunction. Both lenses are very different but share a common aim: both look beneath the surface of the poem and the character’s actions to determine what motivates them.
In the Marxist critique, we see privilege and power as those motivations; with Freud we see neurosis and the expression of a sexual dysfunction. Freud is more useful to me because—no matter what the characters action, we can determine their motivation based on sexual needs. The idea seems more credible than Marx’s “privilege” argument, which seems strange—is not power something that both the rich and the poor dream of? Could not this poem of glory be thought up by even the poorest ruling class, as a temporary means of escaping their turmoil?
These are important questions to ask. Works Cited Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. http://etext. lib. virginia. edu/toc/modeng/public/AnoGawa. html. March 30th, 2009. Dartmouth University, “Writing the Academic Paper” Institute Writing Rhetoric, Dartmouth University. http://www. dartmouth. edu/~writing/materials/student/ac-paper/topic. html. March 30th, 2009.Sample Essay of EduBirdie.com