Gawain (English: //, Welsh: [ˈɡawain]; also called Gwalchmei, Gualguanus, Gauvain, Walwein, etc.) is King Arthur's nephew and a Knight of the Round Table in the Arthurian legend. Under the name Gwalchmei, he appears very early in the legend's development, being mentioned in some of the earliest Welsh Arthurian sources.
He is one of a select number of Round Table members to be referred to as one of the greatest knights, most notably in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In some spin-offs, Sir Gawain is the Green Knight. He is almost always portrayed as the son of Arthur's sister Morgause (or Anna) and King Lot of Orkney and Lothian, and his brothers are Agravain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Mordred. He was well known to be the most trustworthy friend of Sir Lancelot. In some works, Sir Gawain has sisters as well. According to some legends, he would have been the true and rightful heir to the throne of Camelot, after the reign of King Arthur.
Gawain is often portrayed as a formidable, courteous, and also a compassionate warrior, fiercely loyal to his king and family. He is a friend to young knights, a defender of the poor, and as "the Maidens' Knight", a defender of women as well. In some works, his strength waxes and wanes with the sun; in the most common form of this motif, his might triples by noon, but fades as the sun sets. His knowledge of herbs makes him a great healer, and he is credited with at least three children: Florence, Lovell, and Gingalain, the last of which is also called Libeaus Desconus or Le Bel Inconnu, the Fair Unknown. Gawain appears in English, French and Celtic literature as well as in Italy where he appears in the architecture of the north portal in the cathedral of Modena, constructed in 1184.
Gawain is known by different names and variants in different languages. The character corresponds to the Welsh Gwalchmei ap Gwyar, and is known in Latin as Walwen, Gualguanus, Waluanus, etc.; in French as Gauvain; and in English as Gawain. The later forms are generally assumed to derive from the Welsh Gwalchmei. The element Gwalch means hawk, and is a typical epithet in medieval Welsh poetry. The meaning of mei is uncertain. It has been suggested that it refers to the month of May (Mai in Modern Welsh), rendering "Hawk of May", though scholar Rachel Bromwich considers this unlikely. Kenneth Jackson suggests the name evolved from an early Common Brittonic name *Ualcos Magesos, meaning "Hawk of the Plain".
Not all scholars accept the gwalch derivation. Celticist John Koch suggests the name could be derived from a Brythonic original *Wolcos Magesos, "Wolf/Errant Warrior of the Plain." Others argue that the continental forms do not ultimately derive from Gwalchmei. Medievalist Roger Sherman Loomis suggests a derivation from the epithet Gwallt Avwyn, found in the list of heroes in Culhwch and Olwen, which he translates as "hair like reins" or "bright hair". Dutch scholar Lauran Toorians proposes that the Dutch name Walewein (attested in Flanders and Northern France c. 1100) was earliest, suggesting it entered Britain during the large settlement of Flemings in Wales in the early 12th century. However, most scholarship supports a derivation from Gwalchmei, variants of which are well attested in Wales and Brittany. Scholars such as Bromwich, Joseph Loth, and Heinrich Zimmer trace the etymology of the continental versions to a corruption of the Breton form of the name, Walcmoei.
Gwalchmei was a traditional hero of Welsh legend whose popularity greatly increased after foreign versions, particularly those derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, became known in Wales. The early romance Culhwch and Olwen written in the 11th century and eventually associated with the Mabinogion, ascribes to Gwalchmei the same relationship with Arthur that Gawain is later given: he is Arthur's sister's son and one of his leading warriors. However, he is mentioned only twice in the text; once in the extensive list of Arthur's court towards the beginning of the story, and again as one of the "Six Helpers" who Arthur sends with the protagonist Culhwch on his journey to find his love Olwen. Unlike the other helpers he takes no further part in the action, suggesting he was added to the romance later, likely under the influence of the Welsh versions of Geoffrey's Historia. Still, Gwalchmei was clearly a traditional figure; other early references to him include the Welsh Triads; the Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves), which lists the site of his grave; the Trioedd y Meirch (Triads of the Horses), which praises his horse Keincaled (known as Gringolet to later French authors); and Cynddelw's elegy for Owain Gwynedd, which compares Owain's boldness to that of Gwalchmei. In the Welsh Triads, Triad 4 lists him as one of the "Three Well-Endowed Men of the Isle of Britain" (probably referring to his inheritance), while Triads 75 and 91 praise his generosity to guests and his fearlessness, respectively. Some versions of Triads 42 and 46 also praise his horse Keincaled, echoing the Triads of the Horses. A tale recorded by 16th-century century Welsh scholar Sion Dafydd Rhys claims that Gwalchmai destroyed three witches by trickery.
The Gwyar (meaning "gore" or "spilled blood/bloodshed") in Gwalchmei ap Gwyar is likely the name of Gwalchmei's mother, rather than his father as is the standard in the Welsh Triads. Matronyms were sometimes used in Wales, as in the case of Math fab Mathonwy and Gwydion fab Dôn, and were also fairly common in early Ireland. Gwyar appears as a daughter of Amlawdd Wledig in one version of the hagiographical genealogy Bonedd y Saint. Additionally, the 14th-century Birth of Arthur, a Welsh text adapting scenes from Geoffrey of Monmouth, substitutes Gwyar for "Anna", Geoffrey's name for Gawain's mother. Other sources do not follow this substitution, however, indicating that Gwyar and Anna originated independently.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth and other early literature
A few references to Gawain appear outside Wales in the first half of the 12th century; for instance in his Gesta Regum Anglorum of around 1125, William of Malmesbury writes that "Walwen's" grave had been uncovered in Pembrokeshire during the reign of William the Conqueror; William recounts that Arthur's formidable nephew had been driven from his kingdom by Hengest's brother, though he continued to harry his enemies severely. However, it was Geoffrey of Monmouth's version of Gawain in the Historia Regum Britanniae, written around 1136, that brought the character to a wider audience. As in the Welsh tradition, Geoffrey's Gualguanus is the son of Arthur's sister, here named Anna, and her husband is Lot, the prince of Lothian and one of Arthur's key supporters. Gualguanus is depicted as a superior warrior and potential heir to the throne until he is tragically struck down by his traitorous brother Modred's forces.
Geoffrey's work was hugely popular, and was adapted into many languages. The Norman version by Wace, the Roman de Brut, ascribes to Gawain the chivalric aspect he would take in later literature, wherein he favors courtliness and love over martial valor. Several later works expand on Geoffrey's mention of Gawain's boyhood spent in Rome, the most important of which is the anonymous Medieval Latin romance The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur, which describes his birth, boyhood and early adventures leading up to his knighting by his uncle.
In French literature
Beginning with the five works of Chrétien de Troyes, Gawain became a very popular figure in French chivalric romances in the later 12th century. Chrétien uses Gawain as a major character and establishes some characteristics that pervade later depictions, including his unparalleled courteousness and his way with women. His romances set the pattern often followed in later works in which Gawain serves as an ally to the protagonist and a model of knighthood to whom others are compared. However, in Chrétien's later romances, especially Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart and Perceval, the Story of the Grail, the title heroes prove morally superior to Gawain, who follows the rules of courtliness to the letter rather than the spirit.
An influx of romances written in French appeared in Chretien's wake, and in these Gawain was characterized variously. In many of these "Gawain romances", such as Le Chevalier à l'épée and La Vengeance Raguidel, he is the hero; in others he aids the hero; sometimes he is the subject of burlesque humor. In the many variants of the Bel Inconnu or Fair Unknown story, he is the father of the hero.
In the Vulgate Cycle, he is depicted as a proud and worldly knight who demonstrates through his failures the danger of neglecting the spirit for the futile gifts of the material world. On the Grail quest, his intentions are always the purest, but he is unable to use God's grace to see the error in his ways. Later, when his brothers Agravain and Mordred plot to destroy Lancelot and Guinevere by exposing their love affair, Gawain tries to stop them. When Guinevere is sentenced to burn at the stake and Arthur deploys his best knights to guard the execution, Gawain nobly refuses to take part in the deed even though his brothers will be there. But when Lancelot returns to rescue Guinevere, a battle between Lancelot's and Arthur's knights ensues and Gawain's brothers, except for Mordred, are killed. This turns his friendship with Lancelot into hatred, and his desire for vengeance causes him to draw Arthur into a war with Lancelot in France. In the king's absence, Mordred usurps the throne, and the Britons must return to save Britain. Gawain is mortally wounded in battle against Mordred's armies, and writes to Lancelot apologizing for his actions and asking for him to come to Britain to help defeat Mordred.
Other medieval literatures
German and Dutch
The Middle Dutch Roman van Walewein by Penninc and Pieter Vostaert, and the Middle High German romance Diu Crône by Heinrich von dem Türlin are both dedicated primarily to Gawain, and in Wirnt von Grafenberg's Middle High German Wigalois he is the father of the protagonist.
English and Scottish
For the English and Scots, Gawain remained a respectable and heroic figure. He is the subject of several romances and lyrics in the dialects of those countries. He is the hero of one of the greatest works of Middle English literature, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where he is portrayed as an excellent, but human, knight. In The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, his wits, virtue and respect for women frees his wife, a loathly lady, from her curse of ugliness. Other important English Gawain romances include The Awntyrs off Arthure (The Adventures of Arthur) and The Avowyng of Arthur.
These glowing portraits of Gawain all but ended with Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, which is based mainly, but not exclusively, on French works from the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles. Here Gawain partly retains the negative characteristics attributed to him by the later French, and partly retains his earlier positive representations, creating a character seen by some as inconsistent, and by others as a believably flawed hero. Gawain is cited in Robert Laneham's letter describing the entertainments at Kenilworth in 1575, and the recopying of earlier works such as The Greene Knight suggests that a popular tradition of Gawain continued. The Child Ballads include a preserved legend in the positive light, The Marriage of Sir Gawain a fragmentary version of the story of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. He also appears in the rescue of Guinevere and plays a significant role though Lancelot overshadows him. In Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Guinevere is found guilty, however, Lancelot returns to help Guinevere to escape from the castle. Although, Mordred has sent to word to King Arthur, Arthur sends a few knights to capture Lancelot, and Gawain, being a loyal friend to Lancelot, refuses to take part of the mission. The battle between Lancelot and Arthur's knights results in Gawain's two sons and his brothers, except for Mordred, being slain. This begins the estrangement between Lancelot and Gawain, thus drawing Arthur into a war with Lancelot in France. While King Arthur is deployed to France, Mordred takes control of the throne, and takes advantage of the kingdom. Gawain wages two wars between Mordred and Lancelot. He is mortally wounded in a duel against Lancelot who later lies for two nights weeping at Gawain's tomb. Before his death, Gawain repents of his bitterness towards Lancelot and forgives him, while asking him to join forces with Arthur and save Camelot.
Sir Gawain in particular of all Arthur’s knights is known for his courteousness and compassion. In "Gawain: His Reputation, His Courtesy and His Appearance in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale," B.J. Whiting collected quantitative evidence of this quality being stronger in Gawain than in any of the other knights of the Round Table. He notes the words “courteous”, “courtesy” and “courteously” being used in reference to Arthur’s nephew 178 times in total, which is greater than the tally for all other knights in Arthurian literature. In many romances, he is depicted as a model for this chivalric attribute. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, Gawain receives the kisses of Lady Bertilak with discretion, at once not wanting to insult her by refusing her advances and not wanting to betray the hospitality of her husband.
The loves of Sir Gawain
Scholar M. Gaston Paris draws attention to the phenomenon that, since Gawain is known in multiple tales as “the Maidens’ Knight”, his name is thus attached to no woman in particular. He is the champion of all women, and through this reputation, he has avoided the name pairing seen in tales of Eric and Lancelot (the former being inextricably linked with Enide, the latter with Guinevere). He has, however, been connected to more than one woman in the course of Arthurian literature. In the alliterative Middle-English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Bertilak’s wife flirts with him. In the aforementioned The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, he marries the cursed Ragnelle, and in giving her “sovereignty” in the relationship, lifts the spell laid upon her that had given her a hag-like appearance. He is also associated with a vague supernatural figure in various tales. The hero of Le Bel Inconnu is the progeny of Gawain and a fairy called Blancemal, and in the Marvels of Rigomer, Gawain is rescued by the fay, Lorie. In the German tale, Wizalois, the mother of his son is known as Florie, who is likely another version of the Lorie of Rigomer. In her earliest incarnations, Gawain’s love is either the princess or queen of the Other-world.
As with many of the Arthurian romances and poems, there is a strong undertone of homoeroticism to many representations of the Gawain character. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the sexual advances of Lady Bertilak allude to a potential sodomitical relationship with Sir Bertilak. Based on the bargain to give each other their respective daily gains, Gawain must give the kisses he receives from Lady Bertilak to Sir Bertilak. This allusion serves to reinforce chivalric ideals of religious, martial and courtly love codes, especially in masculine warrior culture, and shows the ways in which the masculine world can be subverted by female wiles. “ This possibility of sex between Gawain and Bertilak underscores the strength of male homosocial bonds, and the fact that sex never occurs reinforces ideals of the masculine chivalric code.
Modern literature and media
Gawain features frequently in modern literature and media. Modern English depictions of him are heavily influenced by Malory, though characterizations are inconsistent. Alfred Tennyson adapts episodes from Malory to present Gawain as a worldly and faithless knight in his Idylls of the King. Similarly, T. H. White's novel The Once and Future King follows Malory, but presents Gawain as more churlish than Malory's torn and tragic portrayal. In contrast, Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex portrays Gawaine as open-minded and introspective about his flaws, qualities that make him the Round Table's greatest knight. Though he usually plays a supporting role, some works feature Gawain as the main character. Vera Chapman's The Green Knight and Anne Crompton's Gawain and Lady Green offer modern retellings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gwalchmai is the protagonist in Gillian Bradshaw's Celtic-tinged Hawk of May and its sequels. An aged Gawain is one of the central characters in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Buried Giant.
Film portrayals of Gawain, and the Arthurian legend in general, are heavily indebted to Malory; White's The Once and Future King also exerts a heavy influence. Gawain appears as a supporting character in films such as Knights of the Round Table (1953), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Excalibur (1981), all of which draw on elements of his traditional characterizations. Other films give Gawain a larger role. In the 1954 adaptation of Prince Valiant, he is a somewhat boorish, though noble and good-natured, foil for his squire and friend, Valiant. He plays his traditional part in the 1963 film Sword of Lancelot, seeking revenge when Lancelot kills his unarmed brother Gareth, but ultimately coming to Lancelot's aid when he uncovers Mordred's responsibility. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been adapted several times, including 1973's Gawain and the Green Knight and 1984's Sword of the Valiant, both directed by Stephen Weeks. Neither film was well reviewed and both deviate substantially from the source material. A 1991 television adaptation by Thames Television, Gawain and the Green Knight, was both more faithful and better received.
The character has appeared in a number of stage productions and operas, mostly interpretations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Particularly notable among them is the 1991 opera Gawain with music by Harrison Birtwistle and a libretto by David Harsent.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gawain.|
- Gawain page at the Camelot Project
- Dr. Anthony Colaianne, Chris Baugh – Medieval English Narrator – listen to recorded excerpts of Medieval English literature with text alongside for translation help. Several excerpts from Sir Gawain.
- Sir Gawain page including online translation
- Notes on SGGK