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Gawain is one of the most important knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, and in many tellings is the son of Morgause, nephew to Arthur and half-brother to Mordred, Arthur’s son. Scholars suggest the character comes from the Welsh tale, the Mabinogion, and its associated character, Gwalchmei.
Early Arthurian legends, as told by Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzival, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished Perceval, mark Gawain as an important figure. Especially in the two Parzival tellings, which are Grail legends, he is cast as the hero on the physical or profane quest, rather than the spiritual or sacred quest undertaken by Parzival.
In fact, Wolfram’s version of Gawain’s quest is an extraordinarily heroic epic, where he will gain honor as a knight and the love of a fair lady. The episode featuring the Wondrous Bed is a tale not to be missed.
Several English legends also surround the knight. The best known is the tale of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight one of the earliest known works in Middle English, difficult to translate since it was written in the West-Midland dialect. Famous translators of the work include J.R.R. Tolkien.
In the story, Gawain is invited to take place in a beheading game, where he must behead a knight and then show up at the knight’s castle a year later to suffer the same fate. The Green Knight is enchanted, however, and once beheaded, merely picks up his head and reminds Gawain of his promise. Gawain keeps his promise, which includes a three-day flirtation with a married lady that is exceptionally comic. All ends well for the chastened man.
Another early piece English piece which features him is The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. In the piece, the hero must come to understand the “loathly lady,” a woman who can be ugly and beautiful, depending upon day or night, much like the modern Shrek story. This frequent figure of Arthurian myth proves his importance to the Arthurian legends. Only the most important heroes are challenged by the loathly lady, and win the sometimes fair lady’s heart.
Gawain unfortunately became the butt of jokes in many French tellings of Arthurian myths, perhaps because of his very English and Welsh origins. He was also cast as murderous and completely lacking in social niceties. Discovered works like Green Knight have restored him to his past glory.
By the English and the Germans he is treated as sometimes impulsive, but kind. Gawain is particularly brave, and perhaps the most adept knight of the Round Table, save Lancelot. Some legends report his death at the hands of his half-brother Mordred, while others report him being opposed to Arthur’s defense of Guinevere when her affair with Lancelot is exposed.
T.H. White must be considered in the modern view because he addresses the knight’s origins, his relationship to his brothers, and his complex relationship with Arthur as his uncle. White casts him as Scottish, and the neglected son of Morgause. He deeply loves his brothers, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravaine. It is Lancelot’s accidental slaying of Gareth that moves Gawain to oppose Lancelot and join with Mordred’s schemes. Mordred fully intends to kill the knight and uses him as a tool, and Gawain is smart enough to recognize this, but not to prevent it.
White presents Gawain as too passionate for his own good, and often regretful of his hasty actions. However he also shows him as an object of respect by the other Round Table Knights and by the King and Queen.
Other modern retellings include an opera based on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . To the English and Scottish, and to many others, he remains a beloved figure. Though some later French writers may have attempted to destroy his glory, Gawain emerges in the modern world as a character well worth respect for his heroic deeds, and perhaps all the more lovable for his faults.