Gawain (English: /ɡəˈweɪn/, Welsh: [ˈɡawain]; also called
Gwalchmei, Gualguanus, Gauvain, Walwein, etc.) is King Arthur's nephew
and a Knight of the
Round Table in the Arthurian legend. Under the
name Gwalchmei, he appears very early in the legend's development,
being mentioned in some of the earliest Welsh Arthurian sources.
He is one of a select number of
Round Table members to be referred to
as one of the greatest knights, most notably in Sir
Gawain and the
Green Knight. He is almost always portrayed as the son of Arthur's
Morgause (or Anna) and
King Lot of
Orkney and Lothian, and his
brothers are Agravain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Mordred. He was well known
to be the most trustworthy friend of Sir Lancelot. In some works,
Gawain has sisters as well. According to some legends, he would
have been the true and rightful heir to the throne of Camelot, after
the reign of King Arthur.
Gawain is often portrayed as a formidable, courteous, and also a
compassionate warrior, fiercely loyal to his king and family. He is a
friend to young knights, a defender of the poor, and as "the Maidens'
Knight", a defender of women as well. In some works, his strength
waxes and wanes with the sun; in the most common form of this motif,
his might triples by noon, but fades as the sun sets. His knowledge of
herbs makes him a great healer, and he is credited with at least
three children: Florence, Lovell, and Gingalain, the last of which is
Libeaus Desconus or Le Bel Inconnu, the Fair Unknown.
Gawain appears in English, French and Celtic literature as well as in
Italy where he appears in the architecture of the north portal in the
cathedral of Modena, constructed in 1184.
3 In early literature
4 In French literature
4.1 Verse romances
4.2 Prose cycles
5 Other medieval literatures
5.1 German and Dutch
5.2 English and Scottish
7 The loves of Sir Gawain
8 Modern literature and media
9 See also
12 External links
Gawain and the Green Knight
Gawain is known by different names and variants in different
languages. The character corresponds to the Welsh Gwalchmei ap Gwyar,
and is known in Latin as Walwen, Gualguanus, Waluanus, etc.; in French
as Gauvain; and in English as Gawain. The later forms are generally
assumed to derive from the Welsh Gwalchmei. The element Gwalch
means hawk, and is a typical epithet in medieval Welsh poetry. The
meaning of mei is uncertain. It has been suggested that it refers to
the month of May (Mai in Modern Welsh), rendering "
Hawk of May",
Rachel Bromwich considers this unlikely. Kenneth
Jackson suggests the name evolved from an early
Common Brittonic name
*Ualcos Magesos, meaning "
Hawk of the Plain".
Not all scholars accept the gwalch derivation. Celticist John Koch
suggests the name could be derived from a Brythonic original *Wolcos
Magesos, "Wolf/Errant Warrior of the Plain." Others argue that the
continental forms do not ultimately derive from Gwalchmei. Medievalist
Roger Sherman Loomis suggests a derivation from the epithet Gwallt
Avwyn, found in the list of heroes in
Culhwch and Olwen, which he
translates as "hair like reins" or "bright hair". Dutch
scholar Lauran Toorians proposes that the Dutch name Walewein
Flanders and Northern France c. 1100) was earliest,
suggesting it entered Britain during the large settlement of Flemings
Wales in the early 12th century. However, most scholarship
supports a derivation from Gwalchmei, variants of which are well
Wales and Brittany. Scholars such as Bromwich, Joseph
Loth, and Heinrich Zimmer trace the etymology of the continental
versions to a corruption of the Breton form of the name, Walcmoei.
Gwalchmei was a traditional hero of Welsh legend whose popularity
greatly increased after foreign versions, particularly those derived
from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, became known in
Wales. The early romance
Culhwch and Olwen
Culhwch and Olwen written in the 11th
century and eventually associated with the Mabinogion, ascribes to
Gwalchmei the same relationship with Arthur that
Gawain is later
given: he is Arthur's sister's son and one of his leading warriors.
However, he is mentioned only twice in the text; once in the extensive
list of Arthur's court towards the beginning of the story, and again
as one of the "Six Helpers" who Arthur sends with the protagonist
Culhwch on his journey to find his love Olwen. Unlike the other
helpers he takes no further part in the action, suggesting he was
added to the romance later, likely under the influence of the Welsh
versions of Geoffrey's Historia.
Still, Gwalchmei was clearly a traditional figure; other early
references to him include the Welsh Triads; the Englynion y Beddau
(Stanzas of the Graves), which lists the site of his grave; the
Trioedd y Meirch (Triads of the Horses), which praises his horse
Keincaled (known as
Gringolet to later French authors); and Cynddelw's
elegy for Owain Gwynedd, which compares Owain's boldness to that of
Gwalchmei. In the Welsh Triads, Triad 4 lists him as one of the
"Three Well-Endowed Men of the Isle of Britain" (probably referring to
his inheritance), while Triads 75 and 91 praise his generosity to
guests and his fearlessness, respectively. Some versions of Triads
42 and 46 also praise his horse Keincaled, echoing the Triads of the
Horses. A tale recorded by 16th-century Welsh scholar Sion Dafydd
Rhys claims that Gwalchmai destroyed three witches by trickery.
The Gwyar (meaning "gore" or "spilled blood/bloodshed") in
Gwalchmei ap Gwyar is likely the name of Gwalchmei's mother, rather
than his father as is the standard in the Welsh Triads. Matronyms
were sometimes used in Wales, as in the case of
Math fab Mathonwy and
Gwydion fab Dôn, and were also fairly common in early Ireland.
Gwyar appears as a daughter of
Amlawdd Wledig in one version of the
hagiographical genealogy Bonedd y Saint. Additionally, the
14th-century Birth of Arthur, a Welsh text adapting scenes from
Geoffrey of Monmouth, substitutes Gwyar for "Anna", Geoffrey's name
for Gawain's mother. Other sources do not follow this
substitution, however, indicating that Gwyar and Anna originated
In early literature
A few references to
Gawain appear outside
Wales in the first half of
the 12th century; for instance in his Gesta Regum Anglorum of around
William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury writes that "Walwen's" grave had been
Pembrokeshire during the reign of William the Conqueror;
William recounts that Arthur's formidable nephew had been driven from
his kingdom by Hengest's brother, though he continued to harry his
enemies severely. However, it was Geoffrey of Monmouth's version
Gawain in the Historia Regum Britanniae, written around 1136, that
brought the character to a wider audience. As in the Welsh
tradition, Geoffrey's Gualguanus is the son of Arthur's sister, here
named Anna, and her husband is Lot, the prince of
Lothian and one of
Arthur's key supporters. Gualguanus is depicted as a superior warrior
and potential heir to the throne until he is tragically struck down by
his traitorous brother Modred's forces.
Geoffrey's work was hugely popular, and was adapted into many
languages. The Norman version by Wace, the Roman de Brut, ascribes to
Gawain the chivalric aspect he would take in later literature, wherein
he favors courtliness and love over martial valor. Several later
works expand on Geoffrey's mention of Gawain's boyhood spent in Rome,
the most important of which is the anonymous
Medieval Latin romance
The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur, which describes his birth,
boyhood and early adventures leading up to his knighting by his
In French literature
Gawain unwittingly fights Ywain, from Chrétien's Knight of the Lion
Beginning with the five works of Chrétien de Troyes,
Gawain became a
very popular figure in French chivalric romances in the later 12th
century. Chrétien uses
Gawain as a major character and establishes
some characteristics that pervade later depictions, including his
unparalleled courteousness and his way with women. His romances set
the pattern often followed in later works in which
Gawain serves as an
ally to the protagonist and a model of knighthood to whom others are
compared. However, in Chrétien's later romances, especially Lancelot,
the Knight of the Cart and Perceval, the Story of the Grail, the title
heroes prove morally superior to Gawain, who follows the rules of
courtliness to the letter rather than the spirit.
An influx of romances written in French appeared in Chretien's wake,
and in these
Gawain was characterized variously. In many of these
Gawain romances", such as
Le Chevalier à l'épée and La Vengeance
Raguidel, he is the hero; in others he aids the hero; sometimes he is
the subject of burlesque humor. In the many variants of the Bel
Fair Unknown story, he is the father of the hero.
In the Vulgate Cycle, he is depicted as a proud and worldly knight who
demonstrates through his failures the danger of neglecting the spirit
for the futile gifts of the material world. On the Grail quest, his
intentions are always the purest, but he is unable to use God's grace
to see the error in his ways. Later, when his brothers
Mordred plot to destroy
Guinevere by exposing their love
Gawain tries to stop them. When
Guinevere is sentenced to burn
at the stake and Arthur deploys his best knights to guard the
Gawain nobly refuses to take part in the deed even though
his brothers will be there. But when
Lancelot returns to rescue
Guinevere, a battle between Lancelot's and Arthur's knights ensues and
Gawain's brothers, except for Mordred, are killed. This turns his
Lancelot into hatred, and his desire for vengeance
causes him to draw Arthur into a war with
Lancelot in France. In the
Mordred usurps the throne, and the Britons must return
to save Britain.
Gawain is mortally wounded in battle against
Mordred's armies, and writes to
Lancelot apologizing for his actions
and asking for him to come to Britain to help defeat Mordred.
Other medieval literatures
German and Dutch
The Middle Dutch Roman van Walewein by Penninc and Pieter Vostaert,
and the Middle High German romance
Diu Crône by Heinrich von dem
Türlin are both dedicated primarily to Gawain, and in Wirnt von
Grafenberg's Middle High German Wigalois he is the father of the
English and Scottish
For the English and Scots,
Gawain remained a respectable and heroic
figure. He is the subject of several romances and lyrics in the
dialects of those countries. He is the hero of one of the greatest
Middle English literature, Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight,
where he is portrayed as an excellent, but human, knight. In the poem,
Gawain must venture to the titular
Green Knight to, assumingly, be
killed by the Knight.
Gawain does this as it pertains to a deal made
between the two without knowing that it is all a test by the
Knight. In The Wedding of Sir
Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, his wits,
virtue and respect for women frees his wife, a loathly lady, from her
curse of ugliness. Other important English
Gawain romances include The
Awntyrs off Arthure (The Adventures of Arthur) and The Avowyng of
These glowing portraits of
Gawain all but ended with Sir Thomas
Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, which is based mainly, but not
exclusively, on French works from the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles.
Gawain partly retains the negative characteristics attributed to
him by the later French, and partly retains his earlier positive
representations, creating a character seen by some as inconsistent,
and by others as a believably flawed hero.
Gawain is cited in Robert
Laneham's letter describing the entertainments at Kenilworth in
1575, and the recopying of earlier works such as The Greene Knight
suggests that a popular tradition of
Gawain continued. The Child
Ballads include a preserved legend in the positive light, The Marriage
of Sir Gawain, a fragmentary version of the story of The Wedding of
Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. He also appears in the rescue of
Guinevere and plays a significant role though
him. In Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur,
Guinevere is found
Lancelot returns to help
Guinevere to escape from the
Mordred has sent word to King Arthur; Arthur sends a few
knights to capture Lancelot, and Gawain, being a loyal friend to
Lancelot, refuses to take part in the mission. The battle between
Lancelot and Arthur's knights results in Gawain's two sons and his
brothers, except for Mordred, being slain. This begins the
Lancelot and Gawain, thus drawing Arthur into a
Lancelot in France. When
King Arthur deploys to France,
Mordred seizes the throne, and takes conrol of the kingdom. Gawain
wages two wars with
Mordred and Lancelot. He is mortally wounded in a
Lancelot who later lies for two nights weeping at
Gawain's tomb. Before his death,
Gawain repents of his bitterness
Lancelot and forgives him, while asking him to join forces
with Arthur and save Camelot.
Gawain in particular of all Arthur's knights is known for his
courteousness and compassion. In "Gawain: His Reputation, His Courtesy
and His Appearance in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale," B.J. Whiting
collected quantitative evidence of this quality being stronger in
Gawain than in any of the other knights of the Round Table. He notes
the words "courteous", "courtesy" and "courteously" being used in
reference to Arthur's nephew 178 times in total, which is greater than
the tally for all other knights in Arthurian literature. In many
romances, he is depicted as a model for this chivalric attribute.
Gawain and the Green Knight, for example,
Gawain receives the
Lady Bertilak with discretion, at once not wanting to insult
her by refusing her advances and not wanting to betray the hospitality
of her husband. In the same poem, Gawain's person is also said to
be founded in a deep Christian belief in Christ and the Virgin
The loves of Sir Gawain
Sir Gawaine finds the beautiful Lady, by
Howard Pyle from The Story of
King Arthur and His Knights (1903)
Scholar M. Gaston Paris draws attention to the phenomenon that, since
Gawain is known in multiple tales as "the Maidens' Knight", his name
is thus attached to no woman in particular. He is the champion of all
women, and through this reputation, he has avoided the name pairing
seen in tales of Eric and
Lancelot (the former being inextricably
linked with Enide, the latter with Guinevere). He has, however, been
connected to more than one woman in the course of Arthurian
literature. In the alliterative Middle-English poem Sir
the Green Knight, Sir Bertilak's wife flirts with him. In the
aforementioned The Wedding of Sir
Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, he marries
the cursed Ragnelle, and in giving her "sovereignty" in the
relationship, lifts the spell laid upon her that had given her a
hag-like appearance. He is also associated with a vague
supernatural figure in various tales. The hero of
Le Bel Inconnu is
the progeny of
Gawain and a fairy called Blancemal, and in the Marvels
Gawain is rescued by the fay, Lorie. In the German
tale Wizalois, the mother of his son is known as Florie, who is likely
another version of the Lorie of Rigomer. In her earliest incarnations,
Gawain's love is either the princess or queen of the Otherworld.
Gawain and the Green Knight, based on the bargain to give each
other their respective daily gains,
Gawain must give the kisses he
Lady Bertilak to Sir Bertilak. This allusion serves to
reinforce chivalric ideals of religious, martial and courtly love
codes, especially in masculine warrior culture, and shows the ways in
which the masculine world can be subverted by female wiles.  This
undertone of homoeroticism between
Gawain and Bertilak underscores the
strength of male homosocial bonds, and the fact that sex never occurs
reinforces ideals of the masculine chivalric code.
Modern literature and media
Gawain features frequently in modern literature and media. Modern
English depictions of him are heavily influenced by Malory, though
characterizations are inconsistent.
Alfred Tennyson adapts episodes
from Malory to present
Gawain as a worldly and faithless knight in his
Idylls of the King. Similarly, T. H. White's novel The
Once and Future King follows Malory, but presents
Gawain as more
churlish than Malory's torn and tragic portrayal. In contrast,
Arthur Rex portrays Gawaine as open-minded and
introspective about his flaws, qualities that make him the Round
Table's greatest knight. Though he usually plays a supporting
role, some works feature
Gawain as the main character. Vera Chapman's
Green Knight and Anne Crompton's
Gawain and Lady Green offer
modern retellings of Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight. Gwalchmai is
the protagonist in Gillian Bradshaw's Celtic-tinged
Hawk of May and
its sequels. An aged
Gawain is one of the central characters in
Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Buried Giant.
Film portrayals of Gawain, and the
Arthurian legend in general, are
heavily indebted to Malory; White's
The Once and Future King
The Once and Future King also
exerts a heavy influence.
Gawain appears as a supporting character in
films such as Knights of the
Round Table (1953), Monty Python and the
Holy Grail (1975) and
Excalibur (1981), all of which draw on elements
of his traditional characterizations. Other films give
larger role. In the 1954 adaptation of Prince Valiant, he is a
somewhat boorish, though noble and good-natured, foil for his squire
and friend, Valiant. He plays his traditional part in the 1963
film Sword of Lancelot, seeking revenge when
Lancelot kills his
unarmed brother Gareth, but ultimately coming to Lancelot's aid when
he uncovers Mordred's responsibility. Sir
Gawain and the Green
Knight has been adapted several times, including 1973's
Gawain and the
Green Knight and 1984's Sword of the Valiant, both directed by Stephen
Weeks. Neither film was well reviewed and both deviate substantially
from the source material. A 1991 television adaptation by Thames
Gawain and the Green Knight, was both more faithful and
The character has appeared in a number of stage productions and
operas, mostly interpretations of Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight.
Particularly notable among them is the 1991 opera
Gawain with music by
Harrison Birtwistle and a libretto by David Harsent.
In the 2008 BBC television series Merlin,
Gawain appears as Sir
Gwaine, played by Eoin Macken. Though of noble origin, he passes
himself as a peasant due to his mother's mistreatment by the king his
father served. He's finally knighted by Arthur due to his personal
value. In the short-lived 2011 series Camelot, he was played by Clive
Standen. In the 2017 television series Knightfall, Sir
portrayed as one of the leading figures of the
Knights Templar in
Gawain appeared as a Saber-class Servant in Fate/EXTRA, a dungeon
crawl style JRPG, where he is voiced by Takahiro Mizushima. He is
summoned by his Master, Leonardo B. Harway to participate in the Moon
Holy Grail War. He later appeared in the sequel
Fate/EXTRA CCC, and in
the mobile game Fate/Grand Order.
^ a b C. Norris, Ralph (2008). Malory's Library: The Sources of the
Morte Darthur. D.S. Brewer. p. 200.
^ Hall, p. 3
^ a b Day, Mildred Leake (1994), "The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of
Arthur", in Wilhelm, James J., The Romance of Arthur, New York:
Garland, pp. 365–366
^ Whiting, p. 194
^ Hall p.4
^ a b Whiting, p. 218
^ a b c d Bromwich, p. 369.
^ a b c d Bromwich, p. 367.
^ Koch, "The Celtic Lands," p. 267.
^ Roger Sherman Loomis, The Grail (Princeton University Press, 1963),
^ Roger Sherman Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance (Academy
Chicago Publishers, 1997), p.63-6.
^ Toorians, Lauran, "Nogmaals 'Walewein van Melle' en de
Vlaams-Keltische contacten," Queeste, 2 (1995), 97–112.
^ a b c Bromwich, p. 368.
^ Hall, pp. 2–3.
^ Bromwich, p. 9.
^ Bromwich, p. 205, 234.
^ Bromwich, pp. 111–112, 127–128.
^ Maryjones.us, Rhys, Sion Dafydd. The Giants of Wales.
^ Pughe, p.195
^ Rhys, p. 169
^ Bromwich, pp. 369–370.
^ Bromwich, p. 370.
^ Wilhelm, James J. (1994). "Arthur in the Latin Chronicles." In James
J. Wilhem, The Romance of Arthur, p. 7. New York: Garland.
^ a b c d Busby, pp. 178–179.
^ Geoffrey of Monmouth,
Historia Regum Britanniae
Historia Regum Britanniae Books 9–11.
^ Lacy, p. 161.
Gawain and the Green Knight." From the Norton Anthology of
English Literature, edited by Julie Reidhead lines 2331-2365
^ Performance artist Captain Cox is described as "hardy as Gawin," and
knows the Arthurian romances including "Syr Gawain"
^ a b Harper, p. 2
^ The story of
King Arthur and his knights Retrieved 7 November 2012.
Gawain and the Green Knight." Translated by Simon Armitage. The
Norton Anthology of English Literature. Edited by Julie Reidhead. New
York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Lines 642-647.
^ Weston, p. 45
^ Lupack, p. 314
^ Weston, p. 46
^ Weston, p. 52
^ Boyd, David L. "Sodomy, Misogyny, and Displacement: Occluding Queer
Desire in Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight”. ‘’Arthuriana”.
(Summer 1998) 8.2 pp. 77–113
^ Fisher, Sheila; Janet E. Halley (1989). Seeking the Women in Late
Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual
Criticism. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P. p. 277.
^ Taylor & Brewer, pp. 107–108.
^ George P. Landow (30 November 2004). "Faithless Gawain".
victorianweb.com. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
^ Whiting, pp. 193–194
^ Blanch & Wasserman, p. 186, 187.
^ Dentzien, p. 219–221.
^ Mediavilla, pp. 65–67.
^ Mediavilla, pp. 64–65.
^ Kakutani, Michiko (23 February 2015). "Review: In 'The Buried
Giant,' Ishiguro Revisits Memory and Denial". The New York Times.
Retrieved 6 May 2015.
^ Blanch & Wasserman, p. 185.
^ Blanch & Wasserman, pp. 187–188.
^ Williams, p. 386.
^ Blanch & Wasserman, pp. 190–191
^ Blanch & Wasserman, pp. 191–193.
^ Windeatt, p. 373–383.
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gawain.
Gawain page at the
Dr. Anthony Colaianne, Chris Baugh – Medieval English Narrator –
listen to recorded excerpts of Medieval English literature with text
alongside for translation help. Several excerpts from Sir Gawain.
Gawain page including online translation
Notes on SGGK
King Arthur and the Matter of Britain
Lady of the Lake
Morgan le Fay
Knights of the
Elyan the White
Hector de Maris
Ywain the Bastard
Elaine of Astolat
Elaine of Corbenic
Battle of Badon
Battle of Camlann
King Arthur's family
Historicity of King Arthur
King Arthur's messianic return
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Prophetiae Merlini (c. 1135)
Historia Regum Britanniae
Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136)
Vita Merlini (c. 1150)
Roman de Brut
Brut y Brenhinedd
Alhfrith of Deira
Augustine of Canterbury
Bledric ap Custennin
Brutus of Troy
Budic II of Brittany
Cadfan ap Iago
Cadwallon ap Cadfan
Camber (legendary king)
Cap of Britain
Constans II (usurper)
Constantine the Great
Constantine III (Western Roman Emperor)
Cordelia of Britain
Edern ap Nudd
Edwin of Northumbria
Eldol, Consul of Gloucester
Goffar the Pict
Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio
Hengist and Horsa
Humber the Hun
Iago ap Beli
Ingenius of Britain
Jago of Britain
Julius and Aaron
Leir of Britain
Lucius of Britain
Lud son of Heli
Marius of Britain
Nennius of Britain
Octa of Kent
Oswald of Northumbria
Oswiu of Northumbria
Owain mab Urien
Penda of Mercia
Pir of the Britons
Publius Septimius Geta
Quintus Laberius Durus
Redon of Britain
Regan (King Lear)
Rud Hud Hudibras
Son of Gorbonianus
Wulfhere of Mercia
Æthelberht of Kent
Æthelfrith of Northumbria
Œthelwald of Deira
Battle of Arfderydd
Battle of Badon
Battle of Camlann
Battle of Guoloph
Brut y Tywysogion
List of legendary kings of Britain
List of legendary rulers of Cornwall
Matter of Britain
Siege of Exeter (c. 630)
Locations associated with Arthurian legend
Treachery of the Long Knives
Trojan genealogy of Nennius
Walter of Oxford
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Pearl Poet
Morgan le Fay
Gawain and the
Green Knight (1973)
Sword of the Valiant
Sword of the Valiant (1984)
The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady
The Greene Knight
Honi soit qui mal y pense