Gawain was a knight of King Arthur's Round Table and one of the central figures in Arthurian literature. He was the son of Arthur's half-sister Morgawse (or Anna) and King Lot of Orkney. References to Gawain antedate the earliest extant account of Arthur's full career. In Kulhwch and Olwen, one of the tales in the Welsh Mabinogion (c. 1100 A.D.), Gawain appears as Gwalchmei, son of Gwyar, and as one who never fails in a quest. William of Malmesbury, in Gesta Regum Anglorum (c. 1125 A.D.), describes the discovery of the tomb of Walwen (Gawain) in Ros, Wales. Walwen had reigned in Walweitha (Galloway) but was deposed and was either wounded by enemies and cast forth from a shipwreck or killed by fellow citizens. A skull at Dover Castle is said by some to be that of Gawain.
The Ideal Knight
Gawain figures in chronicle accounts of the whole career of Arthur, in episodic verse romances treating individual knights, and in prose romances. In the chronicles, although he is second to Arthur, Gawain is a perfect warrior—brave, faithful, and invincible until finally slain. Gawain as the model knight is also found hi Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Rritanniae (1137). There he serves as ambassador to Rome and returns from the Continent with Arthur to meet the traitor Mordred but falls in the battle. The same Gawain is seen in the Roman de Brut (1155) of the Norman chronicler Wace and in the Brut (c. 1205) of the English chronicler Layamon. In the Middle English Morte Arthure (c. 1350) Gawain can be blamed only for recklessness in his fatal sortie.
In the verse romances the focus shifts from Arthur himself to individual knights. In the works of Chretien de Troyes (12th century), which are the earliest surviving Arthurian romances, Gawain sets the standards for chivalry, although other knights are the central characters. Yet in Chretien's Perceval, or Le conte del graal, Gawain appears less spiritually motivated than the main hero, Perceval.
Gawain emerges as the epitome of courtesy in several English romances of the 14th and 15th centuries, including the incomparable Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This anonymous alliterative poem of about 2,500 lines tells of Gawain's unknowingly being tested by another knight and his lady. Gawain passes the tests with only one small infraction. The poem is written with a vividness and linguistic versatility that make it notable in 14th century literature.
Decline in Character
In the French prose romances of the 13th century, Gawain's image is different, due partly perhaps to the advent of the themes of courtly love and the Grail. In the vulgate Lancelot, Lancelot emerges as Gawain's better in fighting. Although often amorous, Gawain never has a married mistress. In the vulgate Queste del Saint Graal, Gawain fails in the quest for the Grail. In the Suite de Merlin he accidentally decapitates a lady while denying mercy to her knight, and in the prose Tristan his conduct degenerates to perfidy and brutality to females.
In the English romances of Sir Thomas Malory, printed by Caxton as Le Morte Darthur (1485), Gawain is sometimes good and sometimes bad, probably because Malory employed various sources. The unfavorable reputation of Gawain colors his portrayal in Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1859-1885), based largely on Malory.