The Paternal Function in Sir Gowther
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 16 (1999)
Symbols in fact envelop the life of man in a network so total that they join together, before he comes into the world, those who are going to engender him by flesh and blood’; so total that they bring to his birth, along with the gifts of the stars, if not with the gifts of the fairies, the shape of his destiny; so total that they give the words that will make him faithful or renegade, the law of the acts that will follow him right to the very place where he is not yet and even beyond his death; and so total that through them his end finds its meaning in the last judgment, where the Word absolves his being or condemns it. (Jacques Lacan, Écrits)
In the Middle English Breton lai Sir Gowther, the unlikely hero holds a sword to his mother’s heart and makes the following demand: “Dame, tell me in hye, / Who was my fadur, withowt lye, / Or this schall thoro the glyde” (220-22). The violence of this moment illustrates Gowther’s desperate desire for the “truth” of his paternity, and the aggressive urgency of his demand signals his readiness to accept the most startling account of his parentage his mother can produce. Yet ultimately, his mother has no definitive truth to offer him. Far from being able to tell her son who his father was, she can only describe the scene of Gowther’s conception (she was seduced by a man who looked like her husband) and assert that she believes Gowther’s father to be a “fend.” Her narrative, however, resonates so powerfully with Gowther that he sets off for Rome to “lerne anodur lare” (237).