Was Gawain a great knight or a royal pain?

Explorations in Arthurian History

Gawain appears early on in the legends of Arthur. He is sometimes portrayed as having his strength linked to the Sun, a link to Gwalchmei, the solar deity of Celtic mythology. Indeed, a Welsh tradition of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain equates Gawain and Gwalchmei.

In the early stories and the later historical works he is a giant figure, bound to Arthur by blood, being the son of Lot and Morgause and, therefore, Arthur's nephew. He does great deeds and is a symbol of knightly prowess.

Geoffrey tells us that he was in command of a division in Arthur's victory over the Roman Emperor Lucius at the Battle of Saussy and that Gawain attacked Lucius himself. Gawain was killed as he came back to shore to fight Modred.

Later stories have Gawain a strong supporter of Arthur.

Explorations in Arthurian Legends

The story of the Arthurian Legends begins with Chretien de Troyes, who portrays Gawain first as a mighty knight and then as second to Lancelot as a Knight of the Round Table. Indeed, in Chretien's first Arthurian romance, Erec, Erec is said to be the second in importance behind Gawain and ahead of Lancelot.

But as Chretien wrote his stories and found he liked Lancelot and Perceval more, Gawain took a back seat. Indeed, in Chretien's unfinished Perceval story, we find Gawain questing for the Holy Grail as well; even though the story is unfinished, the reader can well conclude that Gawain will not achieve the Grail Quest.

Gawain is perhaps most famous for the story of his adventures at the hands of the Green Knight. In this story, Gawain is made to be a virtuous and loyal knight whose one failing is to reveal the existence of a magical talisman. He bravely accepts the Green Knight's twin challenges: to strike a mighty blow at Camelot and to take a mighty blow at the Green Chapel. Gawain is not afraid. His adventure completed, he returns to Camelot a hero.

Later writers, especially Malory and Tennyson, stuck to the unflattering treatment. He is said to be a source of irritation to the king and a proud, stubborn, old knight.

Modern writers, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley, portray Gawain as a proud head of a clan: He is the oldest of the brothers Orkney at Camelot and, as such, is responsible for their actions.

See also

Literature of the LegendsSir Gawain and the Green Knight

Frequently Asked Questions:

Was Arthur a king or just a battle commander?

Was Guinevere really an adulteress?

Was Lancelot the greatest knight of them all?

Was Gawain a great knight or a royal pain?

Was Merlin an old magician or a young fortune-teller?

Who was the Lady of the Lake?

Was Galahad really so boring?

Did Perceval see the Holy Grail or didn't he?

Was Morgan Le Fay really a witch?

Was Morgause to blame for all of Arthur's troubles?

Was the Sword really in the Stone?

Did the Round Table really seat 1,600 men?

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