This article is Part 5 in a series about The Grail Romances of the Middle Ages and the Individuation Process by Lans Smith
Gawain’s journey begins when a knight arrives at Arthur’s court and accuses him of having murdered his master. The knight challenges Gawain to combat, and he sets off on his journey, which progresses through a series of encounters with the feminine, moving from the personal to the archetypal.
Gawain’s first trial is to defend a young girl during a tournament, after which he is unwittingly lodged in the castle of the knight who challenged him to combat. While in this knight’s castle, Gawain is seduced by the young girl’s sister, and attacked by her courtiers. As a result, when the lord of the castle finds out that his offer of hospitality has been abused by his people, and that the man they have attacked is none other that Gawain, he makes a special deal: Gawain can go free to find the bleeding lance of the Grail King and return in one year for the joust to avenge the death of his master.
Gawain departs and endures a series of adventures that focus on his odd relationship with an abusive woman named Orgeluse (meaning pride). He comes first to a green meadow, where he sees a pony tethered to a battered shield hanging from a tree, and a disconsolate lady sitting nearby with a wounded knight lying in her lap (in the manner of the Pieta).
Gawain heals the knight, and then sets off after the man who had wounded him; the bloody tracks lead him to a splendid castle, which looks like it is spinning round (much like Glastonbury Tor), since it sits at the top of spiral pathway, lined with fruit trees.
From the top of hill, Gawain gets his first sight of Orgeluse de Logroys, his wife to be, “the fairest flower of all feminine beauty,” charming, shapely, and refined. She is sitting beside a spring flowing from the rock upon which the castle is built.
This is a marvelous epiphany of the divine – feminine sitting at the source of the water of life, at the end of the tortuous, spiraling ascent that leads into the labyrinthine difficulties of her domain. The terrain evokes a long association between the Great Goddess and mountains that goes back to the Minoan ladies of the maze, standing on peaks with lions on either side.
Gawain accepts her first challenge, crossing a little bridge into an orchard, to retrieve her pony – a Norwegian white mare – tethered to an olive tree. The white mare is associated with the Faerie Queen in the ballads of “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” and with the sovereign Goddess of the Land (Epona for the Romans, Macha for the Irish). So at this point Gawain is entering into the domain of the archetypal feminine.
This is even more clearly the case in the climactic adventure that comes next, when Gawain must liberate lords and ladies imprisoned by magic in the “Castle of Marvels.”
He does this by spending a night on “The Perilous Bed,” during which he is mauled by a lion. Since Gawain is associated with the sun, this detail evokes alchemical symbolism of death and rebirth.
The Castle is ruled by three queens, Gawain’s Grandmother, Mother, and Sister. The first two have been dead for years, indicating that this is the underworld, which Goethe called “The Realm of the Mothers”—here seen as archetypal images of the Triple Goddess. They take Gawain to a pillar polished like a mirror, in which Gawain sees his beloved Orgeluse in the company of another man.
Up to this point, Orgeluse has lived up to her name, being relentlessly abusive of her adoring suitor. Soon, we will know why she behaves that way, but this will come after Gawain’s last heroic task—which again evokes the symbolism of the divine feminine. He must cross and boiling river to confront a man guarding a tree from which Gawain must retrieve a sacred garland.
The scene recalls Frazer’s myth of the “King of the Wood,” in which a knight guarding a tree with the Golden Bough, in the grove of the Goddess Diana. Every seven years, that knight will be killed by a younger man, who will take his place as her consort.
In your journal, recall and reflect upon any experience of an abusive relationship you might have had.
Evans Lansing ("Lans") Smith, Ph.D., received a B.A. in English from Williams College, an M.A. in Creative Writing from Antioch International (London and Dublin), and a Ph.D. in Literature from The Claremont Graduate School. He traveled with the late Joseph Campbell.More Posts by Lans Smith