We all remember that Gordian Knot. A horrible, intricate tangle of rope that no one could untie (until Alexander the Great cut it up with his sword). Well, perhaps an equally puzzling and intricately tangled character in Arthurian legend is Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain. Outside of the big two (Arthur and Lancelot), Gawain is probably the most prominent Arthurian character, and he is certainly the most well-used side character in the tales of other knights, traditionally appearing alongside Arthur, Lancelot, Gaheris, Gareth, Agravain, Bors, King Pellinore, and even Mordred. He is also a major player in the Grail-Quest stories (and as an added bonus, he makes a cameo in just about every Arthur movie or novel and features as a reccurring ‘frenemy’ in the unending American comic strip “Prince Valiant”). If you’re looking for Gawain as a protagonist, you’ll find him there too. He is the protagonist of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as a number of ballads and lays—and it’s likely that he’s the main character of one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as well. But what makes Gawain so inscrutable is his incredible variation. In some tales he’s a paragon of virtue and an incredible warrior, but in others he’s a weak, womanizing murderer at the mercy of his emotions. Which is he and why? What can we gain from studying and untying his complex character?
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is everything a knight should be. He slays trolls, ogres, and dragons (in such an offhand way, apparently, that the victories show up in a montage in Part 2), doesn’t flinch at the prospect of being decapitated (ok, he flinches, but only once, and only for a second), and resists the charms of a woman “more beautiful than Guinevere” (is that even possible?) on THREE successive mornings. Imagine that you’re a young bachelor and someone hotter than… um, anyone you’ve ever met, cornered you in the guestroom of her house and said the following (Raffel translation):
“Here you are, and we’re alone,
My lord and his men away in the woods,
All men asleep, and my maids too,
Your door shut, and locked with a bolt
—And having in my house a man so loved
I refuse to waste my chance, for as long as it lasts.
Now please us both,
Decide our path.
Your arms are too strong,
I bow to your force.”
Yep, believe it or not, Gawain resisted that, saying: “Lord, how lucky I am, Lady, not to be the knight you speak of” (Uh huh, and you would have said the same, too—keep telling yourself that). In later English stories, Gawain rates a vision of the Holy Grail and is found worthy to quest for it alongside Sir Galahad.
Yet, in many tales, Sir Gawain is less than respectable. He’s cast as a philanderer, a second-rate combatant, he refuses to grant mercy to the vanquished, and in a catastrophic failure of chivalry, he actually beheads a lady. It’s even likely that Gawain is the knight-protagonist of Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale.” True, he’s never mentioned by name, but the plot of Chaucer’s story follows that of other Gawain ballads and “Loathsome Lady” tales. If so, Chaucer takes our knight’s villainy a step father, having him rape a girl by a river, setting up the action—and placing this version of Gawain in irreconcilable contrast to the version in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here are Chaucer’s lines (Coghill translation):
“There was a knight who was a lusty liver.
One day as he was riding from the river
He saw a maiden walking all forlorn
Ahead of him, alone as she was born [I’m going to assume that this means naked]
And from that maiden, spite of all she said
By very force he took her maidenhead”
In Le Mort d’Arthur, Malory makes Gawain a weaker warrior, at the mercy of his emotions, always bested in combat by Lancelot, often unhorsed and captured by enemies, and frequently in need of rescue. In one of Malory’s stories, Gawain is so enraged at an enemy (for killing his dogs—which I, personally, find a valid motive for fury) that he ignores the man’s pleas for mercy and decides to dispatch him anyway. The problem is that the enemy knight’s lady arrives at the last possible second and throws herself in front of Gawain’s downward-arcing blade, causing her own decapitation (and making Gawain the only Round-Table knight to kill a woman). In addition, Gawain is so consumed by rage and hatred in Malory’s work (because Lancelot killed his brothers while rescuing Guinevere) that he goads Arthur into chasing Lancelot, and thus ensures the downfall of the Round Table.
Gawain is praised and ridiculed, simultaneously a hero and an antihero. In an age of stories full of typecast, formulaic, and melodramatic characters, he’s been everything to everyone. But this, of course begs the question, “Why?”
Here’s this author’s theory: Gawain’s treatment in medieval romance depends almost entirely on the geographic and literary background of the author. Gawain is first and foremost a British Knight. He’s the nephew of King Arthur, the son of King Lot of Orkney, and a member of the original, canonical pantheon of round table knights, dating back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Before that he probably existed as a Welsh folk hero named Gwalchmei. In other words, he’s irreconcilably British. British authors who work from a British tradition treat him well, like the Gawain and the Green Knight poet, who wrote in a midland dialect and primarily in alliterative verse, the older poetic style favored by English authors. In contrast, French authors like Chretien de Troyes write in rhyme and look down on Gawain, replacing him with Sir Lancelot, the greatest warrior in England, who comes from a place called Benwick in (no surprise here) France. Lancelot, of course, gets to sleep with the English queen, beat all of the English knights in combat, and survive the destruction of the round table (all this while the English king commits incest, can’t satisfy his wife, and falls to his son/nephew). These tales rose to immense popularity during the Hundred Years War. Coincidence? I doubt it.
But what about Chaucer and Malory? They were English, right? Yes, but they were working from French sources and under French influence. Chaucer, for example, was a multilingual scholar who admired and made translations of French works like The Romance of the Rose. He wrote in the continental style, preferring rhyming couplets and openly ridiculing the traditional English alliterative verse. He was (successfully, I might add) bringing the culture of continental Europe to England (in his defense, though, he doesn’t name his knight Gawain, sidestepping the issue to some degree, possibly even out of respect for the British Arthurian tradition). As for Malory, he worked almost exclusively from French sources, compiling his translated and reorganized compendium of tales while imprisoned. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that his account of Gawain is one of the most damning.
So, what is there to conclude here? Well, it’s easy to say that Sir Gawain’s internal character was a bit of a battleground between the British and French Arthurian traditions, with the early rounds going to the Brits and the latter to the French, but to me there’s a silver lining here. The varying portrayals of Sir Gawain allow modern readers and writers to connect with the character in a way that they cannot with his morally perfect and idealized peers. It’s exciting to find an Arthurian character (aside from, I suppose, Lancelot and Guinevere) with a complex moral background. He’s a knight who seems contemporary and even believably human. Gawain is dynamic. He’s conflicted. He doesn’t always live up to the example that he hopes to set. He’s capable of great success and great failure. And his moral ambiguity doesn’t have to involve a predictable and overused plotline of a forbidden relationship with the king’s wife.
And that’s the Gawain that I cast in my novel. He’s flawed, but not fatally so. He’s a good warrior, but not invincible, self-righteous, but holds himself to a higher standard than he does others. He’s medieval in his mindset, but able to transcend his own character for the greater good. He’s had successes and failures, and he works to outlive and overcome them. He’s hard to love, yet equally hard to hate. And most importantly, his victory is not assured, any more than is his morality. And maybe, in the long run, that’s all any of us can or should hope to be: a tangle of motives, history, and emotion. Complex. Inscrutable. Gordian. Human.
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Scott for writing this wonderfully insightful guest post for the blog. Please be sure to pop back to these pages on 13th November, when I shall be interviewing Scott to find out a bit more about him and his writing.
Scott Davis Howard (www.facebook.com/scottdavishoward) is an avid anglophile, a Virginia high school English teacher, a husband, a father of two, and the author of Three Days and Two Knights: An Amusing Arthurian Adventure https://www.amazon.com/Three-Days-Two-Knights-Arthurian/dp/0692755276/