Sir Gawain's Mentors

by Frances Vargas Gibbons

April 21, 1998


This essay approaches Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the perspective of Adult Development Psychology and finds that the Green Knight and his wife are virtually perfect prototypes of what a good mentor should be. They function as Gawain's mentors during his Early Adult Transition period. Through purposeful confinement and a reenactment of the oedipal situation the Green Knight and his wife refine and expand Gawain's hermeneutic skills, thus increasing the young man's capacity for self-protective interpretation. As they turn Gawain into a more adroit handler of his innate qualities, the Green Knight and his wife also help him mature into acceptance of human limitation, sinfulness, and perishability. Through their complicitous behavior on his behalf, they offer a model of marital contentment and loyalty, as well as an example of adult generativity.


Sir Gawain's Mentors 1

   Examined from the perspective of the Psychology of Adult Development,2 the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight yields some interesting and useful insights. Variously interpreted as a vegetation deity, a fiend-like creature and even death itself,3 the Green Knight is, in fact, one of literature's greatest mentors. He is a mentor in advance of his time, who is so intuitively in tune with the nature of his role, that he functions, not alone, but in conjunction with his wife4 to assist and guide the young Sir Gawain during his Early Adult Transition.5 The Green Knight and his wife, the Lady, succeed in helping Gawain move from complete dependence on his original group, to a stage where the apprentice adult can begin to build a Life Structure for entering Early Adulthood. Through purposeful confinement and a well orchestrated reenactment of the Oedipal situation, they help Gawain mature into adult acceptance of human imperfection, sinfulness and perishability; making him realize the impossibility of clinging to his Dream6 of perfect virtue and flawless knightly service to the pentangle. In addition, the couple's complicitous behavior on Gawain's behalf also offers a model of marital contentment and loyalty, as well as an example of adult generativity.7

I. Mentor and "Mentee"

   Marie Borroff, who sees maturation as the theme of the poem, regards the Green Knight, not as an educator, but as a judge who represents both absolute and temporal reality. She comments that the Knight undergoes a process of "demystification" which makes him less green and awesome as Gawain's development progresses (107). The Green Knight's dual nature is, of course, a requisite. As someone who "represents an illusory perception" of reality but who also "belongs to the real world as medieval human beings experienced it and as we experience it" (108), Bercilak/Green Knight is perfectly qualified to be a mentor because he offers a perfect surface for the projection of youthful fears and wishes. He is there when needed as someone who, in accordance with Daniel Levinson's definition of a mentor, represents "the superior qualities a young man hopes someday to acquire" ( . . .Man's Life, 333). Marie Borroff has called attention to the suspension of the passage of time which lasts for eighty-five lines while everybody within, and outside, the poem "is made to stare fixedly at the Green Knight in admiration and amazement for over four minutes"(144). All very reminiscent of what still happens when teachers meet their classes for the first time and there is some version of a prolonged instant of staring "fixedly," in dread, "admiration and amazement." Educators both in their teaching and mentorial modes are awesome, nearly supernatural creatures because on them the young project their larger-than-life aspirations complete with their concomitant fears. 8

    And indeed, when the Green Knight "þer hales in at þe halle dor" ["hurtles in at the hall-door"] (136)9 of Arthur's court it is in response to their child-like ["childgered"] yearnings for "sum auenturus þyng an vncouþe tale" ["some far-born tale"] (93). A giant all in green with red eyes and bristly green brows (304), he is an answer to their equally green desire for the extraordinary, the portentous, the magical.10 Peter Rudnytsky has pointed out that Bercilak's castle is also an "apparition [which] comes as a wish fulfillment." Rudnytsky also asserts that Gawain inevitably reaches the castle at the end of this essentially psychological journey, because he knows its location unconsciously from the very beginning (73).11 I would add that this would be the case with most "mentees" or pupils.

   As befits a good mentor, the Green Knight is a superb diagnostician and exemplifier. Sarah Stanbury remarks that "the knight's demande is followed by his attempts to evaluate and isolate"(96).12 This evaluation of the awe-stricken youths, reveals the conventionality and collective nature of their Dream as well as their hermeneutic shortcomings. The Green Knight declares his peaceful purposes and calls attention to his soft attire, and his lack of metal (265-271) and, holding a holly bob in one hand and an ax in the other, offers the young men a choice. He discovers that, despite the coherence between his words and his attire, the young men respond totally in accordance with the expectations of chilvaric manhood, and fail to interpret the situation to their advantage. Arthur chooses the ax, which commits them to combat with the Green Knight, instead of the branch of peace.13 And Gawain, claiming to be dispensable, on the grounds that his being Arthur's nephew is his only merit, uses the weapon. The Green Knight then brutally demonstrates to them what they have done. By having his head removed, he impresses upon them the peril in which they have placed themselves. And by surviving decapitation he illustrates what they are not. They are not supernatural and cannot survive beheading. They are flesh and blood, not solely desire and aspiration. And though this all inheres a promise of their eventually attaining the ability figuratively to lose their heads in intellectual pursuits: of some day being able to play "head games" safely,14 the promise is obscured by the horror of the moment. The Knight's division into two parts is a metaphor for what Clare R. Kinney would call the youths' disembodiedment--for their superegos operating in separation from the rest of the psyche and in disregard of the body.15 It is the representation of their immaturity which makes them so recklessly idealistic. The Green Knight's messages are directed most forcefully to Gawain who has cut the Green Knight's head off and must risk losing his own a year hence.

   Through the loss of a head and the imperilling of another, Gawain becomes the Green Knight's pupil, his "head son,"16 and it is specifically for Gawain that the Green Knight designs his educational program. He brings Gawain out of his original milieu, and eventually fulfills, with Gawain himself, the promise Clare R. Kinney has detected that "the poem that contains Gawain can also envision a knight-hero who, rather than constructing an exclusive and alienating ideal of chivalric manhood, might reimagine himself in terms of a fallible--if nevertheless admirable humanity . . ."(54). He removes him from the rigidified realm of knightly service, takes him out of the wilderness of what Shoaf calls "the surfeit of signs"(153) and forces him away from the constraints of prescribed Dreams and responses, to place him in a series of intelligently controlled, ever-narrowing enclosures with the purpose of increasing the concentration that is to lead to greater self-awareness and development. These objectives are to be attained by employing what Stanbury calls "a sensory epistemology" (106), by causing Gawain to use not only his (well-indoctrinated and conventional) mind, but also by making it easier for him to absorb information with all his senses as young children do.

II. The Confinement

    The castle which "eft a ful huge he3t hit haled vpon lofte" ["a long way aloft it loomed overhead"] (788) and seems "pared out of papure" ["cut of paper"] (802) is offered to Gawain as a place to have in his power (836), but turns out to be the first of the confining structures in which all of his actions are meticulously prescribed by Bercilak. The castle is the place in which Gawain is invited to "Dowellez whyle New 3eres daye" ["Tarry till the fourth day"] (1075), and then explicitly asked to obey Bercilak's instructions to spend time with the Lady, and to lie in bed late (1090-99).

   Bercilak welcomes Gawain in line 834, and by line 853 he has already brought him to:

. . . boure, þer beddyng watz noble,
Of cortynes of clene sylk wyth cler golde hemmez,
And couertorez ful curious with comlych panez
Of bry3t blaunner aboue, enbrawded bisydez,
Rudelez rennande on ropez, red golde ryngez,

. . .  a bower where bedding was noble,
With heavy silk hangings hemmed all in gold,
Coverlets and counterpanes curiously wrought
A canopy over the couch, clad all with fur,
Curtains running on cords, caught to gold rings (853-57)

These lines teem with the imagery of sumptuous imprisonment. The hangings are of silk, but the main trait of the fabric is negated by the modifier "heavy." The proximity of "hangings" and "hemmed," and the phrase "caught to gold rings" imbue the lines with a measure of menace and claustrophobia. And gold lends luxuriousness to the setting, but it does so by hemming and by encircling. Canopy and curtains complete the setting destined to surround and isolate Sir Gawain. For as Peter Rudnytsky has observed, "Gawain's field of battle is consummately inner space" (83).

    To the encircling of the castle and of the bed, the Lady is added to provide the additional enclosure of the feminine. She very much resembles the bed in beauty and opulence, and she makes it clear that her function is similar. She jokingly--but rather firmly--exercises her role as confiner: "I schal bynde yow in your bedde, þat be 3e trayst" ["I shall bind you in your bed, of that be assured"] (1211), "I schal happe yow here þat oþer half als, And syþen karp wyth my kny3t þat I ka3t haue;" ["I shall hem and hold you on either hand,/ and keep company awhile with my captive knight"] 1224-25). But it is clear that this imprisonment, whatever its potential dangers, is not to be permanent or harsh. He is to be captive only "awhile" and it is not really a captivity but a "hemming." He is to be "captivated" by the Lady's charm, "hemmed" by her beauty and assertiveness into a defined border, into a clearly delineated boundary where his exposure can be relevantly limited. Gawain's new milieu is to be a confined one, and it will be "con un fin," with a purpose.

III. Reenacting the Oedipal Situation

   The Lady's husband, whom Gawain knows simply as his host at the castle, sets further conditions for this confinement, making it impossible to doubt the Oedipal nature of the situation. The host will go hunting everyday while Gawain lies late and rests, and he bids the young man: "a forwarde we make:/ Quat-so-euer I wynne in þe wod hit worþez to yourez,/ And quat chek so 3e acheue chaunge me þerforne" ["agree now to this:/ Whatever I win in the woods I will give to you at eve,/ And all you have earned you must offer to me;"] (1105-07). This Exchange of Winnings agreement is a call to alertness: the mentor's safeguard against misunderstanding and the possible failure of his educational program. By making Bercilak the recipient of anything Gawain receives, the agreement precludes sex of any type. Rudnytsky has written admirably about this play as a "quintessential family romance" (72) and has noted its affinity to Oedipus the King reminding us, even of the fact that "in Caradoc, the French romance held to be the source of the beheading game in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the challenger in fact proves to be the hero's disguised father, thus presenting in undistorted form the psychological reality in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."(75). This being the case, sex with the Lady would not just be adulterous but also incestuous, and it would only lead to equally incestuous homosexual sex with Bercilak. Confronted with this potentially treacherous situation, Gawain has no choice but to begin refining his hermeneutical skills as a prerequisite for the acquisition of self-protective behavior.

   During his first bedroom encounter with the Lady, Gawain immediately begins to put his mastery of "the pearls of impeccable speech" to superb use. Rather than continuing to feign sleep, he determines it wise "To aspye wyth my spelle in space quat ho wolde." ["To try her intent by talking a little"] (1199), and he emerges triumphant because "Þe freke ferde with defence, and feted ful fayre --" ["With feat words and fair he framed his defence"] (1282). The substance of this defense was the concept of generosity. In reciprocation, and artful imitation, of Bercilak's benevolence (communicated as much by the strict rules of the Exchange of Winnings as by his gracious welcome), Gawain wilfully construes the Lady's words and actions as courtesy. (1267). This occurs in almost complete disregard of what appears to be happening. The Lady has made it clear that they have the perfect circumstances for adultery: "And now 3e ar here, iwysse, and we bot oure one" ["And lo! we are alone here, and left to ourselves"] (1230) and has proclaimed: "3e ar welcum to my cors,/Yowre awen won to wale,/Me behouez of fyne force/ Your seruaunt be, and schale." ["My body is here at hand,/ Your each wish to fulfill;/your servant to command/I am, and shall be still] (1237-40). But to no avail, for Gawain acts as though "love-talking" is whatever allows him to refrain from an act of perfidy against his host, which could result in his destruction, or, at the very least, lead to the "homosexual sex" which is, as Carolyn Dinshaw has remarked, a "hypothetical fulfillment . . . of the interlocking plots the Lady and Bercilak play out" (206).17 He replies by claiming to aspire to her praise (1247), and by humbly reiterating that she is acting according to her "beneficence noble"(1264). The Lady relents, she has no way of combating Gawain's tenacious insistence on her generosity.

    The Lady's very acceptance of Gawain's cunning deflection implies that there was enough vagueness in the language, and in the situation, to warrant his interpretation.(18) And, indeed, there is an abundance of ambiguity regarding Bercilak's wife and her role. During the second bedroom encounter "Þus hym frayned þat fre, and fondet hym ofte,/ For to haf wonnen hym to wo3e, what-so scho þo3t ellez" ["Thus she tested his temper and tried many a time,/ Whatever her true intent, to entice him to sin"] (1549-50). Her true intent has not been directly revealed by anyone19 and can, therefore, be variously construed. This is precisely what Gawain is "intent" on doing. He claims, during the second bedroom meeting, that he cannot talk the language of love "And touch upon its texts, and treat of its themes/ To one who wields more power/ In that art" (1541-42) than he can ever expect to attain. And he escalates this type of behavior during their last bedroom episode.

   He claims, during the second bedroom meeting, that he cannot talk the language of love "And towche þe temez of tyxt and talez of armez/ To yow þat, I wot wel, weldez more sly3t/ Of þat art" ["And touch upon its texts, and treat of its themes/ To one who wields more power/ In that art"] (1541-43) than he can ever expect to attain. And he escalates this type of behavior during their last bedroom episode. On the third meeting, the Lady's bosom is all but bare, and her back as well (1741), and Gawain experiences the peril of feeling "Wi3t wallande joye warmed his hert" ["his heart swell swiftly with surging joys"] (1762) at the sight of her beauty, For the Lady "depresed hym so þikke,/ Nurned hym so ne3e þe þred, þat nede hym bihoued/ Oþer lach þer hir luf, oþer lodly refuse." ["hemmed him about,/ Made so plain her meaning, the man must needs/ Either take her tendered love or distastefully refuse"] (1770-72). But "With luf-la3yng a lyt he layd hym bysyde/ Alle þe spechez of specialté þat sprange of her mouthe." ["With a little fond laughter he lightly let pass/ All the words of special weight that were sped his way"] (1777-78). And he went on, once more, to emphasize her generosity and his inability to reciprocate: "For 3e haf deserued, for soþe, sellyly ofte/ More rewarde bi resoun þen I reche my3t" ["For your deeds, beyond doubt, have often deserved/ A repayment far passing my powers to bestow"] (1803-04).

IV. Mentor Seductress and Mother

   Gawain successfully capitalizes on ambiguity, he relies on what Rudnytsky refers to as "the maternal cast to [the Lady's] seductiveness" (78) to give the ostensibly sexual advances his own unique interpretation. The Lady, having failed, as intended by the mentorial scheme, to entice him to adultery and disloyalty, and having also failed to tempt him into a sin of greed (he turned down the costly ring), proves that interpretations can have constitutive powers and becomes truly generous. Shapeshifting, as she necessarily has to in response to her pupil's needs, she offers Gawain the ultimate gesture of generosity; she completely fulfills the meaning of "gen" by becoming generative and giving him the gift of life. She takes off her girdle, an item which was wrapped around her reproductive middle, and causes Gawain to accept it by pointing out that it will prevent his death. In the successful resolution of this Oedipal situation, the girdle is a talisman whose erotic content adumbrates the triumph of Eros over Thanatos, of the forces of life and development over stagnation and/or death.20 Blazing with similarities to the lace around the Green Knight's ax (217-220, 1832-33), it is a green and gold token which inheres a mother's assurance that father is not as destructive as he looks (or as the son in his unconscious guilt feels he ought to be).

   The girdle emerges from beneath the Lady's cloak to replace the pentangle's endless and perfect knot, precisely because, as Shoaf has demonstrated, it ties a knot that can be loosened, the girdle acquires meaning "only as you tie it and untie it" (Commercialism, 75). The girdle's ascendancy indicates that the rigid devotion to knightly service is being replaced by the more flexible and realistic behavior of a mortal.

   It appears that Gawain has learned to be more discriminating in his reading of the world around him and that he has become very adept at using his interpretative powers advantageously. As soon as one construes the girdle as mainly a gift of life,21 it seems clear that Gawain has been cleverly reading more than one dimension of the Lady's femininity and that he has privileged the reading which offered him what he most needed. Indeed, the Lady adumbrates, from the very beginning, the mentorial surrogate mother of the final moments of the last bedroom scene. Before she ever appears, it has been made clear that her husband is of middle age (844) which could justify the guess that she is no longer "as the flowers of spring" (866). When she does make her entrance, we are not told her age, only that the old crone was "older than she--an ancient" (948). So, when her youth is emphasized, it is in contrast with extreme old age. She is said to be fair, her beauty excelling even Guenevere's, but her freshness is wintery "Schon schyrer þen snawe þat schedez on hillez" [" the first snow fallen upon hills"] (956).

    But the probable age difference is not the strongest indication of the preponderance of the maternal in the Lady. Her deportment with Gawain is consistently and genuinely kind, and she accepts all of Gawain's responses with very good humor and grace, almost with tenderness. On their last meeting, she is arrayed as if determined to see the sexual prevail, but she opens a window (1743) to point out that "Þis morning is so clere" ["The morning is so clear!"] (1747). Her providing this aperture into the world of light (the Spanish expression for giving birth, "dar a luz," comes to mind) is a summoning to a new life. As the first hint Gawain has had of the outdoors since he agreed to seclusion in the castle, this is also a reminder of the pleasures to be had if he averts the present peril. Gawain, in dread "þat destiné schulde þat day dele hym his wyrde" ["Of that day when destiny shall deal him his doom"] (1752), "Swenges out of þe sweuenes, and swarez with hast" ["[b]reaks from the black dreams, and blithely answers"] (1756). Of course, he has to contend with the Lady's partially unclothed self as the greatest danger. But the nakedness also stresses the value of life and its potential for precious bliss (1764). And, in the context of her providing the aperture to light, the naked breasts could be construed as tokens of her nurturing impulses. All together, it seems that the Lady's releasing of the knot (1830), in pointed echo of the untying (and re-tying) of connection which is birth, is the act for which she has been preparing herself and Gawain in the "confinement" of bed and of bedroom.

V. The New Gawain

    However, this is not a physical birth, but rather, an intellectual and psychological rebirth, what we now simply call an education. Throughout the mentoring process, the physical has been systematically and insistently stressed to help Gawain realize the limitations which mortality imposes on us, to make it impossible for him to forget the finite nature of all life on earth. After each day of exposure to the sexual and maternal aspects of femininity, Gawain exchanges the kisses, his partial gifts of life, for carcasses: a deer's ribs (1378), a boar's huge head (1633), and a foul fox pelt (1944), all grim reminders of his own impending assignation with the ax. The hunting of these animals is an activity that Gawain has been barred from, he sees only the results. And, as Stephen Manning has pointed out, he has been "the object of the love-hunt of Lady Bercilak" and can only expect to survive if he becomes "not the prey, but the hunter" (284). The slaughtered animals call attention to what happens to prey, they illustrate what can befall any living being as a result of insufficient skill or faculty.

    Gawain's fighting skills have never been in question but during the period of secluded education he has learned, from his own reaction in accepting the girdle, that he wants to preserve his life. This is why his shoulders shrank (2267), as he finally confronted the Green Knight's ax. This also brings him to the momentous admission "Bot þa3 my hede falle on þe stonez,/ I con not hit restore." ["But if my head falls to the floor/ There is no mending me!"] (2282-2283). And it all leads to the confession (and acceptance) of his human frailties and limitations, to his acknowledgement of the fact that his desire to live led him to cowardice and other behavior not belonging to knights (2379-2381). His antifeminist fulminations also make some sense in this context (2415-2429). The girdle is both a life-saver which elicits gratitude (and its coeval resentment), and it is also the emblem of the desire for life which results in cautiousness. It represents the omnipresence of women; the awesome power they exert which, in this case, makes Gawain "softer" by forcing on him the wisdom of embracing life instead of needlessly courting death.

   Now, not solely a knight, but also a complex and self- protective human being, who has subjected his conventional Dream to reality testing, Gawain has such a desire to live that, though he seems not to connect the green girdle with the Green Knight (and the Green Knight with Bercilak), he wears the green girdle in full view, "þat gay wel bisemed,/ Vpon þat ryol red cloþe þat ryche watz to schewe" [". . . so goodly to see,/ That against the gay red showed gorgeous bright"] (2035- 36). He does this, not as Stoddard Malarkey and J. Barren Toelken maintain "to help objectify his defection from the virtues of the pentangle" (243), but out of an unconscious motive.22 And, indeed, the Green Knight sees the girdle and declares it his property: "[f]or that is my belt about you, that same girdle" (2358).

   By the time of his assignation with the ax, Gawain has already made the two important choices of interpreting the Lady's behavior self-protectively and of accepting from her the gift of life. His third choice, of visibly wearing the girdle, proves equally crucial and indicates that Gawain has succeeded in connecting the Lady with the Green Knight and with Bercilak and in intuiting their purposes. For it is the Green Knight's claiming of his girdle which provides the opportunity for a happy conclusion to this mentorial relationship. The girdle speaks to Bercilak the language of kinship by identifying Gawain as his and the Lady's surrogate son, but it also reveals the young man's sin of failing to restore the item in the Exchange of Winnings. Transformed into a sort of "fig leaf," the girdle divulges the young man's infraction. In a gratifyingly enlightened scene, whose echoing of the Biblical genesis merits separate treatment, the poem does something very advanced for its time: Bercilak, placed by this "fig leaf" in the unenviable position of ultimate judge, rises above the strictures of his role and does not reject the errant child. On the contrary, Bercilak accepts and comforts his young pupil and surrogate son because, as he so well knows, it was Bercilak's scheme (2360), and Gawain only sinned because he "loved his life" (2368). Furthermore, when Gawain responds with harsh self-evaluation and sincere self-condemnation, Bercilak laughs and exonerates him, he declares Gawain "polished as the pearls of impeccable speech" (917).

   The girdle has gone from female garment to fig leaf and, as his and the Lady's gift, is the ligature which Bercilak uses to preserve and symbolize the connection between Gawain and himself. For Gawain, it becomes the symbol of the new Life Structure which will take him from the Early Adult Transition into the Early Adult Era. For Gawain, the girdle eventually ceases to be need and becomes choice as it is knotted loosely, in ornamental fashion, under his heart. No longer a life-protecting device, but a baldric, this complex knot, which joins Gawain with his surrogate parents, will unite (among an overwhelming number of things) Gawain's idealism and his mortality; his superego with the rest of his psyche. And it will also connect Gawain's new self with Arthur's court in a situation, not just of independence, but also of relative preeminence as they all at court decide to wear "a belt worn oblique, of a bright green" (2517) in Gawain's honor.

VI. Marital Contentment and Generativity

   In addition, the girdle also represents and broadcasts the relationship between its two original owners, Bercilak and the Lady. The girdle as "fig leaf" did not just call for Gawain's indictment, but even more so for the Lady's. This very intimate article of clothing, wrapped as it was around the body of a younger and (presumably) more attractive male, was charged with an awesome semiotic power. Conventionally, it was so provocative a thing that any man could have "lost his head" at the sight of it. But since Bercilak and his Lady have been accomplices in the young man's education, the girdle is simply recognized and acknowledged as a emblem of their connection. Though Larry Benson believes that "the last minute revelation of Morgan's scheme is too week a foundation for this poem" (34), many scholars, among them Carolyn Dinshaw (205),23 accept Morgan as the author of what I see as Bercilak's and the Lady's educational plan. Sheila Fisher goes even farther. In "Leaving Morgan Aside: Women, History and Revisionism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." she brilliantly argues that the poem "deliberately leaves Morgan aside, positioning her at the end of the narrative when she is, in fact, its means: the agent of Gawain's testing." She asserts that Morgan's marginalization is central to [the poem's] revision of Arthurian History," (130 )24 and her essay is marvelously persuasive. Nevertheless, I dissent. My reading of the poem doesn't go along with the consensus and is somewhat compromised by Bercilak's attribution of his and the Lady's scheme (and of everything he is and owns) to Morgan le Fay (2445- 2462). I find support in the fact that Bercilak claims to owe his barony to Morgan (2445), but she lodges at his house (2446), like any dispossessed and unattached relative could. She turned him into a green marvel "to afflict the fair queen, and frighten her to death" (2459) but there is no evidence in the poem of this ever having come close to happening, or even of its having been pursued. In this poem, as a matter of fact, Morgan, like her obverse, the virgin, is merely emblematic: she never does or says anything. But she is a magician and, as such, helpful in attempting to explain the quirks of human perception, the mystery of intuition, the puzzling wisdom of the unconscious, and the endogenous human need to develop and to assist others in their growth. I suggest that Bercilak availed himself of this resource to explain to Gawain, and maybe even to himself, a situation which appears to have been much clearer to the poet.

   Bercilak and his Lady have a very special type of entwinement, of linking. In their laboring together on Gawain's behalf, the Lady and Bercilak are joined by a very flexible nexus. Their enlightened complicity in the pursuit of Gawain's education is like a contrapuntal composition; their two independent melodies play together to produce a work in which the original tunes soar in unison, but in complete distinctness. This music of male-female complicitous generativity, so sadly rare on the planet, pervades and embellishes the poem.

   Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells the story of a young man's successful journey into the Early Adult Era, with the help of two superb mentors. As a narrative of adult development, the poem goes beyond charm and beauty, and becomes exemplary. For the two mentors, so obviously contented in their own relationship and situation, devote themselves to Gawain's development disinterestedly,25 and with superb mentorial wisdom. They succeed in transforming Gawain, who originally defined himself as simply Arthur's nephew, into a more individuated being; into a young adult who is so aware of his frailties, and so sincere and stern in his self-evaluations, that he deserves and commands the respect and admiration of his own original group and is worthy of their emulation.


1 An earlier version of this paper was presented in the 14th Annual International Conference in Literature and Psychology, Las Navas del Marques (Spain), July 2-6, 1997.

2 Adult development psychology began with Carl Jung and his interest in the entire life-cycle. In the 1950s, the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson became the most influential theorist when he divided the life-cycle into eight stages of ego development. Roger L. Gould, Daniel J. Levinson, and Bernice Neugarten have continued working in this area, finding nothing which contradicts Erikson's theories and much that supports them. Daniel J. Levinson conducted extensive research, with both men and women, which he reported in his books of 1978 and 1996. He found that development continues throughout the life span, that developmental periods are linked to chronological age, that they occur in a fixed sequence, and that the sequence is not qualitatively hierarchical (one period is not higher or better than the preceding ones). The present study is Levinsonian particularly in spirit. Levinson believed (he died in 1994) that a greater understanding of the developmental needs of adults would force society to be more responsive and responsible in this respect. And he was a believer in the importance of good mentoring as well as a superb mentor himself.

3 John Speirs sees the Green Knight as "a recrudescence in poetry of the Green Man" who in turn is "a descendant of the Vegetation god of almost universal and immemorial tradition" (219). H. A. Krappe considers the Green Knight "death itself ... the Lord of Hades" (209), while Dale B. J. Randall maintains that the knight's behavior is "fiend-like"(481).

4 The original mentor comes from Homer's Odyssey and HE is initially a SHE. The Goddess Athena appears to Telemachus "in the likeness of a stranger, Mentes, " (1.106-107) leaving him so transformed that he goes "among the wooers, a godlike man" (1.324-325), and provokes this response from Antinöus: "Telemachus, verily the gods themselves are teaching thee to be a man of vaunting tongue, and to speak with boldness" (Book I, L. 384-86). Athena reappears in Book II, L. 268, this time "in the likeness of Mentor, " once more to address Telemachus with the "winged words" of mature and encouraging advice. The Green Knight seems to intuit that mentoring, like parenting, is best when done by both female and male.

5 Peter M. Newton reminds us that in Levinson's theory, the human life cycle, is a skeletal structure formed by eras of approximately 25 years each. These eras are composed of periods through which the individual life structure evolves, and they are: the Early Adulthood Era, the Middle Adult Era and the Late Adult Era. Here we are concerned only with the Early Adult Era (20-40), specifically with the Early Adult Transition (17-22), a time in which the assistance of a mentor is crucial.

6 Peter Newton refers to the dream as "the visions in which youths invest their most passionate wishes" (3). Levinson (. . . Man's Life) capitalizes the word and states that in "early adulthood a man has to form a Dream, create an initial structure in which the dream can be lived out, and attain goals through which it is in some measure fulfilled" (331).

7 Erik Erikson defined generativity as the human concern with guiding the next generation and proposed that it was psychological in nature since it went beyond mere procreativity, and included productivity and creativity (Life Cycle, 67). He theorized that the strength to care emerged from the crisis of generativity and that failure to be generative resulted in a sense of stagnation and boredom (The Human, 607-608). Levinson says: "Erikson's ego stage of Identity vs. Identity Confusion reaches its culmination during the period we identify as the Early Adult Transition. His stage of Intimacy vs. Aloneness starts in the early twenties and runs through early adulthood. His next stage, Generativity vs. Stagnation, starts around forty and characterizes middle adulthood, while Integrity vs. Despair is the ego stage of late adulthood" ( ... Man's Life 322-323).

8 Daniel Levinson (1978) believes that a mentor "represents skill, knowledge, virtue, accomplishment-the superior qualities a young man hopes someday to acquire. He gives his blessing to the novice and his Dream. And yet, with all this superiority, he conveys the promise that in time they will be peers" ( . . . Man's Life, 333). I find the Green Knight's supernatural, shapeshifting nature metaphorically satisfying. It is a marvelous depiction of how the pupil's aspirations and fears can determine his/her perception of the mentor's superiority.

9All Modern English quotations from the poem are from Marie Borroff's new verse translation.

10 Richard Hamilton Green refers to the Green Knight's presence as "an ominous intrusion of a figure from another world who cannot be ignored, however much he offends against the social proprieties of the occasion." He claims that Arthur had not asked for anything "so mysterious, so fatal as this" (75). Perhaps, but the results indicate that the Green Knight was neither mysterious nor fatal. Since I am reading the Green Knight's supernaturalness as mainly his audience's projection, I believe that Arthur and his court got what they wanted and needed. If this is "an ominous intrusion" it is only so in the sense that Arthur's desires were unconscious. In this case, the Green Knight is from another world and definitely "offends against the social proprieties of the occasion."

11 Rudnytsky approaches the poem as a "quintessential family romance," in which Green Knight/Bercilak and the Lady/Morgan represent Gawain's split parental imagos. He finds similarities between this work and Oedipus the King because, in both, self- knowledge is gained through a recognition of infraction. He thinks that the marvels in the poem are presented in a psychologically credible manner.

12 Sarah Stanbury examines the role of visual acts in determining structure and description in this poem, in which reality is taken in according to an "ocular and psychic logic" (105).

13 R. A. Shoaf examines the role of the surfeit of signs in the succession of crises of interpretation which occur in the poem. He sees Gawain's judgment, and also the judgement of Arthur's entire court, as having been corrupted by too many signs. This excess does not just challenge everybody, but also makes it difficult for any of them to come up with adequately critical interpretations of the signs to which they are so relentlessly exposed, thus causing them to choose the ax instead of the branch of peace. The excess causes inhibitions which prevent the seeing of "alternatives of interpretation" and prevents the young men from being aware of "the plurality of codes at large in the world" (165). Shoaf's work prompted me to approach the poem as the story of superb mentors who, aware of this situation, set out to, among other things, establish conditions more conducive to the development and practice of more refined interpretive skills which are to lead to wiser choices and behaviors.

14 This promise also contains the possibility of joy in these "head games." It hints at the ludic dimension of intellectual and developmental pursuits, and it prefigures the situation of peers, gleefully (and also apprehensively) bouncing ideas around, in echo of Arthur's men kicking the Green Knight's head around. I owe this insight to Sarah Stanbury's associating the kicking of the head to a game of football (99).

15 Clare R. Kinney has written about the different "constructions of masculinities" in the poem and argues that the main actions of the characters are determined by diverse definitions of manhood. She asserts that "the narrative presentation of Gawain in the romance's first two fitts encourages us to think that to represent Camelot's manhood properly is to become disembodied" (49). Or, as I am suggesting, to be ready to sacrifice the body in obedience to the requirements of the superego.

16 This is a good place to recall that Athena, the first mentor, was born out of Zeus's head.

17 Although, of course, Gawain is also a true practitioner of courtesy since courtesy, as J. A. Borrow says, "is not praised as a virtue if it is without cleanness and loyalty" (50).

18 I fear that I may be paralleling Gawain's willfulness when I insist on seeing him as a modern fellow capable of original insight and novel responses. For courage to continue, I will appeal to A. C. Spearing who says that: Gawain "is a thoroughly self-conscious and articulate hero whose self-awareness is an essential part of the poem" (The Gawain Poet, 173-74).

19 The Lady's intent is not clearly revealed. In opposition to other critics, I take Bercilak at his word when he remarks "And the wooing of my wife-it was all my scheme" (2361). Her intent is mentorial, as is his. Why the seductiveness, then? Perhaps to acknowledge the facts that in the pursuit of knowledge and development we woo and are wooed, that ideas can be alluring, and that we use them in our attempts to acquire intellectual progeny.

20 My optimistic reading of this poem does not intend to obscure or ignore the difficulties inherent in any educational pursuit. The shapeshifting, confinement, sexual temptations and plain gore cannot but remind the reader of the precarious circumstances under which educational endeavors are conducted and of the subterranean forces that constantly threaten to obstruct or impede growth. In addition, the fact that it takes two devoted adults to help out a single youth can be dispiriting to many.

21 A. C. Spearing admits that "it has been shown convincingly that women's girdles in folklore and in medieval narrative have "clear sexual connotations." But he goes on to point out that the "'love of life' that caused [Gawain] to accept [the girdle] and break the Exchange of Winnings is undoubtedly connected, at a deep level, with the sexual instinct-the urge to reproduce" (Readings, 197-98), for which, of course, he first has to survive.

22 I don't believe that he defects from the virtues of the pentangle completely. He just becomes more humanized now that his adolescent sense of invulnerability is gone. His relationship to his knightly virtues is now more complex, it includes the recognition that infraction and death are inescapable.

23 Carolyn Dinshaw concerns herself with the exchange of kisses between Bercilak and Gawain, and the way in which the poem "can clear a space for deviant sexuality," only to close it up again. She is quite emphatic about the narrative being "motivated by the desire of one woman to get (at) another" (209).

24 Sheila Fisher argues that the poem revises the Camelot story through the marginalization of women, particularly that of Morgan's, whom Fisher regards as "the agent of Gawain's testing" (130). Fisher sees the Lady as "a stand in for Morgan" (135), and considers Bercilak's revelation of the Lady's complicity "rather suspicious" (135).

25 Although, if one agrees with Erikson that failure to be generative leads to boredom and stagnation, one could also say that Bercilak and the Lady have their own best interest in mind.

Works Cited

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-----. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Passing of Judgement." In The Passing of Arthur. Ed. Christopher Baswell and William Sharpe. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1988.

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------. "The Human Life Cycle." The Way of Looking at Things. Ed. Stephen Schlein. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1987. 595-610.

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-----. with Judy Levinson. The Seasons of a Woman's Life. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1996.

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-----. From Youthful Dream to Mid-Life Crisis. New York and London: The Guilford Press, 1995.

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Frances Vargas Gibbons "Sir Gawain's Mentors". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available June 18, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 29, 1997, Published: April 21, 1998. Copyright © 1998 Frances Vargas Gibbons