The Character of Gawain in Arthurian Legend

The character of Gawain is usually depicted in Arthurian Legend as one of the principal knights in King Arthur’s court.1. He is the eldest son of Lot and Morgana, and is therefore the nephew of the King himself.2 Gawain has four brothers: Agravain, Gaharis, and Gareth, who play minor roles in Arthurian legend, and Mordred, the traitor who is a central character in Arthur’s downfall.3 Gawain’s most notable and unique characteristic is the fact that his strength varies throughout the course of each day. His strength grows between morning and noon before diminishing each afternoon.4 This suggests a connection with the sun; Gawain is often associated with a Celtic Sun God.5 He is also often identified with a legendary Welsh warrior, the “Hawk of May,” Gwalchmeir.6


According to some stories, Gawain was educated in Rome and knighted by Pope Sulpicius before joining Arthur’s court.7 The anonymous text The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur describes Gawain’s early days and his acceptance as a knight of the round table. According to the text, Gawain proves himself worthy of Arthur’s court by succeeding in a quest that has proven impossible for the rest of Arthur’s knights. Upon his victorious return, Gawain says, “See the head of the man I alone conquered and laid low, along with the entire force of his knights! He was the king who with a handful put to flight so many thousands of your men that it is shameful! Do you consider me worthy now to be your knight?” 8


Gawain thus demonstrates not only his pride, but also his success in many of the difficult tests and tasks that often define his character in English texts. In several texts, most notably the fourteenth century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is given numerous “alarming tests” that he must complete.9 In addition to the valiance that his successes demonstrate, Gawain is considered “sage and courteous” and is “surnamed the Golden-Tongued because we was the most courteous knight in Arthur’s court.”10 He also represents a loyal nephew and knight of Arthur. In fact, Gawain agrees to marry the “loathly Lady Ragnell” in order to help Arthur keep his word to the lady.11 And his loyalty causes him to feud with Sir Lancelot after Lancelot kills his Gawain’s brothers and takes Guinevere from Arthur. When Lancelot thus wrongs Gawain and Arthur, Gawain reveals a vengeful side that remains until he forgives Lancelot on his deathbed. 12


However, virtue, courtesy, and loyalty do not represent the only aspects of Gawain’s character. Although he is a hero in most English texts, French versions of the legends often portray Gawain as a flawed character.13 In Chrétian de Troyes’ Perceval, Gawain displays “obvious defects” such as “pride, impetuousness, and frivolity.” 14 According to Bulfinch, “Sir Gawain was a knight devoted to the pleasures of life. The religious side of knighthood gave him no concern.” 15


Although he appears in a dozen fourteenth century romances, and often as the hero, Gawain is at times no more than a secondary character; he exists either to help Arthur or to “emphasize the qualities of another knight.”16 Thus, in various Arthurian texts, Gawain represents an ambiguous and inconsistent character. Moorman and Moorman describe Gawain as “for the most part a fearless knight, [who] at times has a reputation for lechery and treachery as well as for courtesy.17” More recently, Tennyson represents Gawain as “light in life and light in death,” whereas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur portrays him in a much more ambiguous manner.18

 

1.Norris J. Lacy and Geoffrey Ashe, eds, The Arthurian Handbook (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997) 308.
2.Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch's Age of Chivalry or King Arthur and His Knights Ed.J. Loughran Scott (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1900) 63.
3.Charles Moorman and Ruth Moorman, An Arthurian Dictionary (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1978) 56.
4.Bulfinch, 46.
5.Moorman and Moorman, 56.
6.Lacy and Ashe, 308.
7.Britannia: America's Guide to the British Isles, Ed. David N. Ford, http://www.britannia.com/bios/ebk/gawaingn.html. Accessed January 26, 2005.
8.“The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur” in The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation, ed. James J. Wilhelm (New York: Garland, 1994) 397.
9.Lacy and Ashe, 308.
10.Bulfinch, 154.
11. Britannia.
12.Bulfinch, 176-180.
13.Lacy and Ashe, 124.
14.Lacy and Ashe, 92.
15.Bulfinch, 154.
16.The Norton Anthology of English Literature, http://www.wwnorton.com/nael/middleages/topic_2/welcome.htm. Accessed January 27, 2005.
17.Moorman and Moorman, 56.
18.Lacy and Ashe, 92.

 

Bibliography


Lacy, Norris J. and Geoffrey Ashe, eds. The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.
Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Age of Chivalry or King Arthur and His Knights. Ed.J. Loughran Scott. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1900.
Moorman, Charles and Ruth. An Arthurian Dictionary. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1978.
Britannia: America's Guide to the British Isles, Ed. David N. Ford, <http://www.britannia.com/bios/ebk/gawaingn.html> (January 26, 2005.)
“The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur” in The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translatio. Ed. James J. Wilhelm. New York: Garland, 1994.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, <http://www.wwnorton.com/nael/middleages/topic_2/welcome.htm (January 27, 2005.)