(Gauvin, Gawein, Gwalchmei, Walewein, Walwanus, Gawen)
   Gawain is a knight of King ARTHUR’s court and a central character in the Arthurian tradition, but throughout the ROMANCES, his strengths and weaknesses vary as, depending upon the time period, the geographical location, and the author, he is alternately depicted as the loyal knight and nephew of King Arthur or a fickle libertine and troublemaker. Gawain appears in MIDDLE ENGLISH literature early on, as Gwalchmei in the Welsh CULHWHC AND OLWEN (ca. 1100), and in GEOFFREY OFMONMOUTH’s HISTORIA REGUM BRITANNIAE (History of the Kings of Britain, ca. 1136). The English treatment of the character traditionally tends to feature Gawain as a central figure in the plot. As the son of King Lot of Orkney and Arthur’s sister Morgause, Gawain is King Arthur’s nephew, and would probably succeed him should Arthur and Queen GUENEVERE produce no heir. He is typically portrayed as Arthur’s most loyal and supportive knight who embarks on a quest in Arthur’s name or intercedes in a challenge on his behalf, such as the beheading test in SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT and the marriage to the loathly lady in The WEDDYNG OF SYR GAWEN AND DAME RAGNELL. However, the 15th-century treatment by Sir Thomas MALORY incorporates more negative aspects of Gawain’s character, as Malory borrows from the French tradition.
   In the 12th century, CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES introduced LANCELOT into Arthurian literature in LANCELOT, or the Knight of the Cart, and although Gawain is putatively prominent in the French romances, Chrétien makes Lancelot the ideal Arthurian knight, and Gawain’s character suffers through his quests somewhat comically, often depicted as a foil to the hero, and negatively portrayed as a frivolous lover and philanderer. In the continuations of Perceval (a continuation of Chrétien’s unfinished work), Gawain replaces Perceval in his quest for the HOLY GRAIL but he is posited as a counter to the more virtuous Perceval who appears, even in the unfinished work, destined to complete his quest.
   The VULGATE CYCLE goes further in its treatment of the Gawain character as a knight unable to complete the quest. In the Quest of the Holy Grail, Gawain is the first knight to vow to go on the quest. But his pledge saddens King Arthur, who predicts that with the departure of Gawain and the other knights, they will never be reunited at the Round Table again. As Gawain embarks on the quest, we see how spiritually bankrupt he is because his interpretation of the quest is limited to the secular conquests and adventures. Both a monk and a hermit reveal his faults to him but he is unwilling to undertake the necessary penance. While Gawain,Hector, and many other knights on the quest complain of no adventure, these knights do not encounter Lancelot, Galahad, Perceval, and Bors because those four are on the true quest. When Gawain’s vision of the dissolution of the Round Table is interpreted by a holy man, Gawain determines the quest is pointless for him and departs to return to King Arthur.His reluctance even to stay and speak further with the holy man is indicative of his inability to embrace the spiritual aspect of his life. Later, in The Death of King Arthur of the Vulgate, Gawain is even vilified when Lancelot kills Gawain’s brother, Gaheriet (in error), and Gawain’s repetitive refusal to entertain peace with Lancelot leads to Arthur’s war with him to achieve vengeance for Gawain. Ultimately, Gawain is defeated by Lancelot and dies later as a result of a head wound inflicted by Lancelot from which he never recovers, and although Gawain, on his deathbed, urges Arthur to solicit Lancelot’s help in defeating the usurper Mordred, Arthur refuses because of all that has passed. Gawain’s thirst for vengeance, then, ultimately results in the destruction of Arthur’s kingdom. This treatment of Gawain in the French tradition continues in Malory’s Le MORTE DARTHUR, as he casts not Gawain but Lancelot as the ideal knight.
   The range of depictions of the Gawain character is unique among the major characters of the Arthurian tradition. Rather than having one particular theme or purpose always attached to Gawain’s role, he is involved in a variety of plots, allowing his character to be more malleable for the writer’s intent. In some texts, the purpose of his character is to endure a test and prove a moral. One example of this is his participation in the beheading game in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and subsequent travel to find the Green Knight to live up to his pledge and demonstrate his courtesy. In others, his character serves Arthur by performing vows. In Weddyng, for example, Gawain promises to wed the hideous hag, Dame Ragnell, so that Arthur will be given the answer to a riddle that will save his life. Still yet in Weddyng and loathly lady stories, he functions as a vehicle for commentary on aristocracy and definitions of nobility. The transformation of Gawain’s character may render him more complex, but he is continually utilized by romance writers throughout the tradition and even enjoys popularity today, as evidenced, for example, by his role as Welsh narrator Gwalchmai in Gillian Bradshaw’s 1980 Hawk of May.
   ■ Busby, Keith. Gauvain in Old French Literature. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1980.
   Michelle Palmer

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

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