GAWAIN (Fr. Walwain (Brut), Gauvain, Gaugain; Lat. Walganus, Walwanus; Dutch, Walwein, Welsh, Gwalchmei), son of King Loth of Orkney, and nephew to Arthur on his mother's side, the most famous hero of Arthurian romance. The first mention of his name is in a passage of William of Malmesbury, recording the discovery of his tomb in the province of Ros in Wales. He is there described as "Walwen qui fuit haud degener Arturis ex sorore nepos." Here he is said to have reigned over Galloway; and there is certainly some connexion, the character of which is now not easy to determine, between the two. In the later Historia of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and its French translation by Wace, Gawain plays an important and "pseudo-historic" rôle. On the receipt by Arthur of the insulting message of the Roman emperor, demanding tribute, it is he who is despatched as ambassador to the enemy's camp, where his arrogant and insulting behaviour brings about the outbreak of hostilities. On receipt of the tidings of Mordred's treachery, Gawain accompanies Arthur to England, and is slain in the battle which ensues on their landing. Wace, however, evidently knew more of Gawain than he has included in his translation, for he speaks of him as
Li quens Walwains
Qui tant fu preudom de ses mains (11. 9057-58).
and later on says
Prous fu et de mult grant mesure,
D'orgoil et de forfait n'ot qure
Plus vaut faire qu'il ne dist
Et plus doner qu'il ne pramist (10. 106-109).
The English Arthurian poems regard him as the type and model of chivalrous courtesy, "the fine father of nurture," and as Professor Maynadier has well remarked, "previous to the appearance of Malory's compilation it was Gawain rather than Arthur, who was the typical English hero." It is thus rather surprising to find that in the earliest preserved MSS. of Arthurian romance, i.e. in the poems of Chrétien de Troyes, Gawain, though generally placed first in the list of knights, is by no means the hero par excellence. The latter part of the Perceval is indeed devoted to the recital of his adventures at the Chastel Merveilleus, but of none of Chrétien's poems is he the protagonist. The anonymous author of the Chevalier à l'epée indeed makes this apparent neglect of Gawain a ground of reproach against Chrétien. At the same time the majority of the short episodic poems connected with the cycle have Gawain for their hero. In the earlier form of the prose romances, e.g. in the Merlin proper, Gawain is a dominant personality, his feats rivalling in importance those ascribed to Arthur, but in the later forms such as the Merlin continuations, the Tristan, and the final Lancelot compilation, his character and position have undergone a complete change, he is represented as cruel, cowardly and treacherous, and of indifferent moral character. Most unfortunately our English version of the romances, Malory's Morte Arthur, being derived from these later forms (though his treatment of Gawain is by no means uniformly consistent), this unfavourable aspect is that under which the hero has become known to the modern reader. Tennyson, who only knew the Arthurian story through the medium of Malory, has, by exaggeration, largely contributed to this misunderstanding. Morris, in The Defence of Guinevere, speaks of "gloomy Gawain"; perhaps the most absurdly misleading epithet which could possibly have been applied to the "gay, gratious, and gude" knight of early English tradition.
The truth appears to be that Gawain, the Celtic and mythic origin of whose character was frankly admitted by the late M. Gaston Paris, belongs to the very earliest stage of Arthurian tradition, long antedating the crystallization of such tradition into literary form. He was certainly known in Italy at a very early date; Professor Rajna has found the names of Arthur and Gawain in charters of the early 12th century, the bearers of those names being then grown to manhood; and Gawain is figured in the architrave of the north doorway of Modena cathedral, a 12th-century building. Recent discoveries have made it practically certain that there existed, prior to the extant romances, a collection of short episodic poems, devoted to the glorification of Arthur's famous nephew and his immediate kin (his brother Ghaeris, or Gareth, and his son Guinglain), the authorship of which was attributed to a Welshman, Bleheris; fragments of this collection have been preserved to us alike in the first continuation of Chrétien de Troyes Perceval, due to Wauchier de Denain, and in our vernacular Gawain poems. Among these "Bleheris" poems was one dealing with Gawain's adventures at the Grail castle, where the Grail is represented as non-Christian, and presents features strongly reminiscent of the ancient Nature mysteries. There is good ground for believing that as Grail quester and winner, Gawain preceded alike Perceval and Galahad, and that the solution of the mysterious Grail problem is to be sought rather in the tales connected with the older hero than in those devoted to the glorification of the younger knights. The explanation of the very perplexing changes which the character of Gawain has undergone appears to lie in a misunderstanding of the original sources of that character. Whether or no Gawain was a sun-hero, and he certainly possessed some of the features - we are constantly told how his strength waxed with the waxing of the Sun till noontide, and then gradually decreased; he owned a steed known by a definite name le Gringalet; and a light-giving sword, Escalibur (which, as a rule, is represented as belonging to Gawain, not to Arthur) - all traits of a sun-hero - he certainly has much in common with the primitive Irish hero Cuchullin. The famous head-cutting challenge, so admirably told in Syr Gawayne and the Grene Knighte, was originally connected with the Irish champion. Nor was the lady of Gawain's love a mortal maiden, but the queen of the other-world. In Irish tradition the other-world is often represented as an island, inhabited by women only; and it is this "Isle of Maidens" that Gawain visits in Diu Crone; returning therefrom dowered with the gift of eternal youth. The Chastel Merveilleus adventure, related at length by Chrétien and Wolfram is undoubtedly such an "other-world" story. It seems probable that it was this connexion which won for Gawain the title of the "Maidens' Knight," a title for which no satisfactory explanation is ever given. When the source of the name was forgotten its meaning was not unnaturally misinterpreted, and gained for Gawain the reputation of a facile morality, which was exaggerated by the pious compilers of the later Grail romances into persistent and aggravated wrong-doing; at the same time it is to be noted that Gawain is never like Tristan and Lancelot, the hero of an illicit connexion maintained under circumstances of falsehood and treachery. Gawain, however, belonged to the pre-Christian stage of Grail tradition, and it is not surprising that writers, bent on spiritual edification, found him somewhat of a stumbling-block. Chaucer, when he spoke of Gawain coming "again out of faërie," spoke better than he knew; the home of that very gallant and courteous knight is indeed Fairy-land, and the true Gawain-tradition is informed with fairy glamour and grace.
See Syr Gawayne, the English poems relative to that hero, edited by Sir Frederick Madden for the Bannatyne Club, 1839 (out of print and difficult to procure); Histoire littéraire de la France, vol. xxx.; introduction and summary of episodic "Gawain" poems by Gaston Paris; The Legend of Sir Gawain, by Jessie L. Weston, Grimm Library, vol. vii.; The Legend of Sir Perceval, by Jessie L. Weston, Grimm Library, vol. xvii.; "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," "Sir Gawain at the Grail Castle" and "Sir Gawain and the Lady of Lys," vols. i., vi and vii. of Arthurian Romances (Nutt).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)