Sir Gawain: Wikis


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Sir Gawain, as drawn by Howard Pyle in 1903

Gawain (pronounced /ˈɡɔːwɪn/ or /ɡəˈweɪn/; also called Gwalchmei, Gawan, Gavan, Gauvain, Walewein, etc.) is King Arthur's nephew and a Knight of the Round Table who appears very early in the Arthurian legend's development. He is one of a select number of Round Table members to be referred to as the greatest knight, most notably in Sir Gawain and 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. In some works he has sisters as well.

Gawain is often portrayed as a formidable but brash 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,[1] 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. In later Welsh Arthurian literature, Gawain is considered synonymous with the native champion Gwalchmei. 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.[2]



It has been generally assumed that the name Gawain is derived from the Welsh Gwalchmei ap Gwyar. However, the 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".[3][4] Loomis' etymology has not gained wide acceptance among modern Arthurian scholars, however. An alternate etymology, proposed by the Dutch scholar Lauran Toorians, would derive the name Gawain not from the Middle Welsh Gwalchmei, but rather from the medieval Dutch name Walewein (attested in Flanders and Northern France c. 1100 AD). Toorians suggests that the name entered Britain during the large settlement of Flemings in Wales in the early 12th century.[5].

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.[6] The early romance Culhwch and Olwen, associated with the Mabinogion, written in the later part of the 11th century,[7] 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.[8] 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.[6] Unlike the other helpers he takes no further part in the action, suggesting he was added to the romance later under the influence of the Welsh versions of Geoffrey's Historia.[6] 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.[8] 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),[9] while Triads 75[10] and 91[11] praise his generosity to guests and his fearlessness, respectively. Some versions of Triads 42[12] and 46[13] also praise his horse Keincaled, echoing the Triads of the Horses.

Scholars are not entirely convinced that the later character of Gawain is derived from the Welsh Gwalchmei ap Gwyar, but later Welsh writers clearly thought this was the case; the name "Gwalchmei" consistently substitutes for "Gawain" in Cymric translations and adaptations of foreign works, such as the Welsh Romances of the Mabinogion. The name itself is the subject of speculation; in Welsh, the term gwalch translates as falcon or hawk, but both mei and the alternate mai are more obscure. They may be archaic petrified genitives of Middle Welsh ma, meaning "plain, field" (from Brythonic *magos, genitive *magesos), but the exact relationship is debated.[8] Mai is the modern Welsh name for the month of May, leading to the popular speculation that the name means "Hawk of May," but this derivation is unlikely.[8] Additionally, not all scholars accept the gwalch derivation; noted Celticist John Koch has suggested the name could be derived from a Brythonic original *Wolcos Magesos, "Wolf/Errant Warrior of the Plain."[14] At any rate the spelling "Gwalchmai" has become popular, and there is a small village in Anglesey called Gwalchmai, probably named after the 12th-century bard Gwalchmai ap Meilyr.

The Gwyar (meaning "gore"[15] or "spilled blood/bloodshed"[16]) in Gwalchmei ap Gwyar is likely the name of Gwalchmei's mother, rather than his father as is the standard in the Welsh Triads.[17] 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.[17] Gwyar is named as a female, a daughter of Amlawdd Wledig, in one version of the hagiographical genealogy Bonedd y Saint, while the 14th-century Birth of Arthur substitutes Gwyar for Geoffrey's Anna as Gwalchmei/Gawain's mother.[18] Other sources do not follow this substitution, however, indicating that Gwyar and Anna/Morgause originated independently.[19]

Celtic origins

Some theories claim that the Gawain legend has its ultimate source in Celtic myth. Parallels between this Arthurian hero and the Irish hero Cuchulinn appear throughout the literature about the character of Gawain. Gawain’s father is considered by some to be analogous to the Irish god of light, who was said to be the father of Cuchulinn. The fact that, in some of the literature concerning Gawain, his strength waxes and wanes with the rising and setting of the sun is indicative of this analogy, and suggests an Irish rather than a Welsh origin. [20] Celtic themes and motifs also appear in the tales Island of Women (in which he travels to the Other-world) [21] and in an English romance entitled The Marriage of Syr Gawayne. In the latter, the knight is coupled with a woman who is either a fairy or the relation of a sorcerer. Thus, Gawain is connected in multiple myths to the Celtic concept of Other-world.[22]

Prominence in Arthurian literature

The character of Gawain is seen more often in the various incarnations of Arthurian legend than are many knights. In fact, there are more medieval romances dedicated to narrating the adventures of Gawain than there are even to Lancelot, who is perhaps best known in popular culture today. Even when he is not the protagonist, he often appears in a supporting role that offers some prominence in the tale. In Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval, the Story of the Grail, the greater part of the verse focuses on Gawain rather than on the character after whom it is named. In Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Gawain plays a significant role, in for instance the quest for the Holy Grail and the events leading up to Arthur’s death.[23] Though he figures importantly in much of Arthurian literature, in French texts he is more often found in a supporting position (as in Perceval). In English ones, however, he frequently has the principal role. [24]


Sir Gawain in particular of all Arthur’s knights is known for his courteousness. 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.[25]In many romances, he is depicted as a model for this chivalric attribute.[26] In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, Gawain receives the kisses of Lady Bertilak with discretion, at once not wanting insult her by refusing her advances and not wanting to betray the hospitality of her husband.


The character of Gawain is connected by familial ties to specific characters in much of the literature concerning Arthurian legend. His relationship to Arthur is established as early as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, in which he is said to be the nephew of the king. Harper 1 In Gillian Brashaw’s 1980 trilogy entitled Hawk of May, Morgawse (known in other texts as Morgause) is the knight’s mother, while his brother, who is later revealed to be cousin instead, is Medraut (in other texts, Mordred).[27] According to the fifteenth-century tale entitled The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, Gawain’s wife is Ragnelle, or the “Loathly Lady”. He marries her out of the desire to save the life of his king, who might have forfeit himself to a knight known as Sir Gromer Somer Joure were he not able to come up with the answer to the question of what women most desire. The unattractive Dame Ragnelle offers her answer in return for Gawain as her husband.[28] She bears him a son, called Gyngolyn in this text, but whose name is varied in other texts and is sometimes referred to only as the “Fair Unknown.”[29] Though Gawain is most often depicted as the son of King Lot, in Vera Chapman’s The Green Knight (1975) he is the offspring of Leonie and Gareth of Lyonesse and is instead Lot’s nephew.[30]

Gawain in early literature

In the Gesta Regum Anglorum of around 1125,[31] William of Malmesbury records that Gawain's grave had been uncovered in Pembrokeshire during the reign of William the Conqueror, and writes that the great nephew of Arthur had been driven from his kingdom by Hengest's brother, though he continued to harry them severely.[32]

Gawain is a major character in the Arthurian section of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) written in 1136,[33] where he is a superior warrior and potential heir to the throne until he is tragically struck down by Mordred's forces. 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.[34]

Gawain unwittingly fights Ywain, from Chrétien's Knight of the Lion

An influx of romances written in French appeared in the wake of Chretien’s works, and in these Gawain was characterized variously. he is the hero, sometimes he aids the hero, sometimes he is the subject of burlesque humor. 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.

Gawain in English literature

For the English and Scottish, 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 retains the negative characteristics attributed to him by the later French, and the popularity of Malory's work ensured that most post-medieval English-language writing would retain those characteristics. Nonetheless, Gawain is cited in Robert Laneham's letter describing the entertainments at Kenilworth in 1575,[35] 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. Gawain appears in Tennyson’s “Passing of Arthur” as a frivolous figure who is held in contempt by Sir Bedivere. [36] The character appears in a positive light in novels like Gillian Bradshaw's Hawk of May, Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex, Hal Foster's comic strip Prince Valiant, and Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle. He is also the subject of Harrison Birtwistle's and David Harsent's opera Gawain.

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 female 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.[37] In the alliterative Middle-English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he has relations with Sir Bertilak’s wife. In the aforementioned text, 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.[38] He is also associated with a vague supernatural figure in various tales. The hero of La 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.[39][40] 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.[41]


  1. ^ Whiting, p. 194
  2. ^ Hall p.4
  3. ^ Roger Sherman Loomis, The Grail (Princeton University Press, 1963), p.272
  4. ^ Roger Sherman Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance (Academy Chicago Publishers, 1997), p.63-6.
  5. ^ Toorians, Lauran, "Nogmaals `Walewein van Melle' en de Vlaams-Keltische contacten," Queeste, 2 (1995), 97-112.
  6. ^ a b c Bromwich, p. 368.
  7. ^ Hall, pp. 2-3.
  8. ^ a b c d Bromwich, p. 367.
  9. ^ Bromwich, p. 9.
  10. ^ Bromwich, p. 205.
  11. ^ Bromwich, p. 234
  12. ^ Bromwich, pp. 111–112.
  13. ^ Bromwich, pp. 127–128
  14. ^ Koch, "The Celtic Lands," p.267.
  15. ^ Pughe, p.195
  16. ^ Rhys, p. 169
  17. ^ a b Bromwich, p. 369.
  18. ^ Bromwich, pp. 369–370.
  19. ^ Bromwich, p. 370.
  20. ^ Weston, p. 52
  21. ^ Weston, p. 36
  22. ^ Weston, pp. 110-111
  23. ^ Harper, p. 1.
  24. ^ Currin, p. 1.
  25. ^ Whiting, p. 218
  26. ^ Harper, p. 2
  27. ^ Lupack, p. 321
  28. ^ Lupack, p. 314
  29. ^ Lupack, p. 317
  30. ^ Lupack, p. 311
  31. ^ hall p.2
  32. ^ Wilhelm, James J. (1994). "Arthur in the Latin Chronicles." In James J. Wilhem, The Romance of Arthur, p. 7. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8153-1511-2.
  33. ^ hall p.3
  34. ^ Day, Mildred Leake (1994), "The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur", in Wilhelm, James J., The Romance of Arthur, New York: Garland, pp. 365–366 
  35. ^ Performance artist Captain Cox is described as "hardy as Gawin," and knows the Arthurian romances including "Syr Gawain"
  36. ^ Whiting, pp. 193-194
  37. ^ Weston, p. 45
  38. ^ Lupack, p. 314
  39. ^ Harper, p. 2
  40. ^ Weston, p. 46
  41. ^ Weston, p. 52


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