Sir Gawain: English Folk Hero vs. Malory's Villain

by Geoffrey Krummel

   The story of King Arthur and the knights of the round table is almost certainly the most famous English legend. The exploits of this venerable group have been told and retold for over a thousand years, through generation after generation in both English and French. Through all of these retellings, some characters have come and gone from the legend, while others have remained through the ages. Among the characters that form the core of the legend are King Arthur; Queen Guenevere; Sir Kay, Arthur's adoptive brother; Sir Launcelot; Sir Galahad, Launcelot's son; Sir Mordred, Arthur's treasonous nephew (or incestuous child, depending on the version of the tale); and Arthur's eldest nephew Sir Gawain. Some of these characters have remained constant through the years. For example, King Arthur has been, and always will, be the greatest English King in both chivalry and warfare; Sir Kay has always been a rash, overconfident, obnoxious braggart; and Sir Mordred, despite changes in the nature of his origin, has always been the traitor who wages the war on King Arthur that ultimately leads to Arthur's death.
   On the other hand, there are characters that have dramatically changed through the history of the legend. Chief among these is Sir Gawain. In the earlier days of the Arthurian legend Sir Gawain was Arthur's greatest knight. He set the example of the chivalric ideal that all other knights tried to follow. As the years went by, his role was usurped by Sir Launcelot and Gawain was often reduced to something of a hot-headed villain. His heroic aspects were not entirely erased by this change, though, and the final product, that is to say the Gawain that we see in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (I call this the final product because Malory essentially closed the book on the Arthurian legend, almost all later work is based directly on his interpretation) is an extremely rich and complicated character that has both terrible weaknesses and amazing strengths. As a result, Sir Gawain is probably the most multifaceted and truly human characters in Le Morte D'Arthur, despite his lesser role in the work compared to Sir Launcelot and others. Here I present a discussion Gawain in the English tradition compared to the Gawain we see in Malory.

Folk Hero

   With the exception of Arthur there is no character in the Arthurian legend that is as deeply rooted in English folklore and tradition as Sir Gawain. Several medieval tales and poems were written in which Sir Gawain appears as the chief hero. He always exemplified the best in bravery, knighthood, and the chivalric ideal. He was renown for his courtesy, which sharply contrasts the character we see in Malory who knows almost nothing of courtesy or chivalry.

The Beheading Game

   The Gawain character first appears in Celtic legend as Cuchulian, a sun god. It is here, in a story called "Bricriu's Feast," that the beheading game -- that would later make Sir Gawain famous -- has its origins. Cuchulian rises to the challenge of the god Terror in which the two exchange blows. The challenge is that the each contender must attempt to chop off the others head. Only Cuchulian is brave enough to try. Terror lays his head down and Cuchulian chops it off, however, Terror simply stands up and puts his head back on. Cuchulian is then required to fulfill his half of the agreement and he bravely lays his down to be chopped off. Because of his bravery Terror spares his life1.
   The beheading game is a recurring theme in the tradition of Sir Gawain. Several medieval tales of Sir Gawain include variations on this theme. In The Turke and Sir Gawain, a stranger, the Turke, enters King Arthur's hall during a feast and presents a challenge for the exchange of blows; these blows are with fists as opposed to swords, but the general idea is the same. Sir Gawain takes the challenge and vows to exchange blows with the Turke. After Gawain hits the Turke, the Turke refuses to return the blow and demands that Gawain accompany him on a quest. Gawain is bound by his oath to stay with the Turke until the blows are exchanged, so he goes on the quest. After proving himself on the quest, the Turke deems that Sir Gawain is a worthy knight and instead of returning Gawain's blow he makes a proposal:

He tooke a sword of mettle free,
Saies "If ever I did any thing for thee,
Do for me in this stead:
Take here this sword of steele
That in battell will bite weel,
Therwith strike off my head."
"That I forfend!" said Sir Gawaine,
"For I wold not have thee slaine
For all the gold soe red."
"Have done, Sir Gawaine! I have no dread.
But in this bason let me bleed,
Thet standeth here in this steed,
"And thou shalt see a new play,
With helpe of Mary that mild mayd
That saved us all from dread."
He drew forth that brand of steele
That in battell bite wold weele,
And there stroke off his head.
And when the blood in the bason light,
He stood up a stalwortht Knight2

   Somehow, the Turke is magically transformed through the beheading. In another tale, The Carle of Carlilse, Sir Gawain performs a similar act. In this case Sir Gawain, Sir Kay and Bishop Baldwin are overnight guests at the castle of a giant (the Carle). Through the course of the night Sir Gawain proves himself to be chivalrous and worthy so the Carle asks

"Gawaine, as thou art a man,
Take this sword and stryke of my head."
"Nay," said Gawaine, "I had rather be dead.
For I had rather suffer pine and woe
Or ever I wold that deede doe."
The Carle sayd to Sir Gawaine,
"Looke thou doe as I thee saine,
And therof be not adread.
But shortly smite of my head:
For if thou wilt not doe itt tyte
For ssooth thy head I will ofsmyte."
To the Carle said Sir Gawaine,
"Sir, your bidding shall be done."
He stroke the head the body froe:
And he stood up a man thoe
Of the height of Sir Gawaine -
The certaine soothe, withouten laine.
The Carle sayd, "Gawaine, God blese thee!
For thou hast delivered mee
From all false witchcrafft -
I am delivred att the last.
By nigromancé thus was I shapen
Till a knight of the Round Table
Had with a sword smitten of my head,
If he had grace to doe that deede.
Itt is forty winters agoe
Since I was transformed soe.

   Again we see Gawain aid in an act of magical transformation through a beheading. There is one more beheading game story that involves Sir Gawain. This is the most famous story of Sir Gawain, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Written between 1375 and 1400, it is earlier than the two tales discussed previously (which were written around 1500). This story is similar to the original Cuchulian. A mysterious knight dressed all in green appears in Arthur's court at a feast and delivers the challenge of the exchange of blows. Again, only Gawain is brave enough to accept the challenge. He beheads the Green Knight, who does not die; he picks up his head and instructs Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year's time so that he can receive his blow. Gawain holds to his oath and seeks out the Green Chapel. Before arriving at the chapel he lodges, unknowingly, at the Green Knight's castle and is tested. The Green Knight (Gawain is unaware of the fact that this man is the Green Knight) and Gawain make an arrangement in which the Green Knight hunts every day and will give Gawain all that he finds as long as Gawain gives the Green Knight everything that he gets while staying in the castle. During his time at the castle, the Green Knight's wife makes advances on Gawain, which he nobly resists, although she does kiss him a few times. Finally, she gives him a girdle that she says will make him invulnerable. Each day the Green Knight gives Gawain the game from the hunt, and in return Gawain kisses the Green Knight, however he does not give the Green Knight the girdle; he saves it to protect himself from the beheading. Finally, Gawain meets the Green Knight to receive his blow. At this point the Green Knight pretends to strike Gawain, but instead only nicks him. Gawain asks why and The Green Knight then tells him:

"For that is my belt about you, that same braided girdle,
My wife it was that wore it; I know well the tale,
And the count of your kisses and your conduct too,
And the wooing of my wife--It was all my scheme!
She mad trial of a man most faultless by far
Of all that ever walked over the wide earth;
As pearls to white peas, precious and prized,
So is Gawain, in good faith, to other gay knights.
Yet you lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there,
But the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either,
But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame."

   Gawain is spared for his incredible chivalry and bravery but he is nicked because he kept the girdle. The Green Knight tells him that no one could have been expected to do better than that, though. Gawain always demonstrates his great bravery and chivalry in these beheading games, and as a result receives much honor for his success in them.

First Knight

   In many of the traditional Arthurian Stories Gawain is depicted as Arthur's chief knight. There are two reasons for this: Gawain is Arthur's heir being his eldest male nephew (these tales typically don't mention Mordred; when they do, Mordred is not Arthur's son) and Gawain is literally Arthur's best Knight.
   In romance after romance, Sir Gawain is shown to be the most courteous knight in Arthur's realm. Sir Kay often appears in these stories to help illustrate Gawain's curtesy. He acts rude and loud while Sir Gawain behaves perfectly. This happens in The Turke and Sir Gawain and The Carle of Carlisle as well as the fifteenth century romance The Avowyng of Arthur. In this tale King Arthur, Sir Kay, Sir Gawain, and Bishop Baldwin chase a boar into a forest and each make certain vows. Sir Kay vows to fight the first knight he sees. While Sir Gawain vows to make a vigil over the Tarn Wathelene; a lake in the Inglewood Forest that is known for supernatural events. During the story Sir Kay comes across a knight and insults him before fighting with him. Sir Kay is soundly defeated and is taken prisoner. Sir Gawain, then, must fight the knight to free Sir Kay, and he does so most courteously. Sir Gawain fights and conquers the knight, at which point Sir Kay starts his insults again. Gawain disapproves of Kay's behavior, illustrating his curtesy and Kay's lack of it.
   Gawain also demonstrates his superior chivalry in the romance of The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain. In this story Sir Gawain, who is referred to as "Sir Gawane the gay, gratious, and gude," fights as Arthur's Champion against a knight called Sir Gologras for the right to Sir Gologras' lands. Gawain and Gologras fight a terrible battle for hours until, finally, Gawain overcomes Sir Gologras. Gologras refuses to yield, choosing instead to die, so that he is not shamed in front of his followers. Sir Gawain sees it as a shame on him to kill such a noble knight, so he refuses to kill him. Instead he agrees to pretend like he lost the fight so that Gologras can save face in front of his people. As a result, Sir Gologras is so pleased by Sir Gawain's good courtesy, that he gladly offers his loyalty to Gawain and to Arthur. Gawain, of course, receives much honor for his curtesy.
   One of the most important episodes in illustrating the good character of Sir Gawain is in the tale of The Marraige of Sir Gawain. In this tale Sir Gawain is asked by King Arthur to marry a hideously ugly woman. Out of loyalty to Arthur, he agrees. After Sir Gawain goes through with the wedding he is rewarded for his curtesy when his wife turns beautiful. She tells him that she may be beautiful by either day or by night, but not both. Gawain is allowed to choose which:

Then she said, "Choose thee, gentle Gawaine,
Truth as I doe say,
Wether thou wilt have me in this likenesse
In the night or else in the day."
And then bespake him gentle Gawaine,
With one soe mild of moode,
Sayes, "Well I know what I wold say -
God grant it may be good!
To have thee fowle in the night
When I with thee shold play;
Yet I had rather, if I might,
Have thee fowle in the day."
"What! When lords goe with ther feirs," shee said,
"Both to the ale and wine?
Alas! Then I must hyde my selfe,
I must not goe withinne."
And then bespake him gentle Gawain,
Said, "Lady, thats but a skill:
And because thou art my owne lady,
Thou shalt have all thy will."
Then she said, "Blessed be thou gentle Gawain,
This day that I thee see,
For as thou see me att this time,
From henceforth I wil be."

   Gawain was good enough to allow his wife to choose when she would prefer to be beautiful, and as a reward, she got to be beautiful all of the time. Again, Gawain triumphs in knightly courtesy. Another result of Gawain's position as Arthur's best knight is that he has a very close (platonic) relationship with the queen. In the fifteenth century romance The Awyntyrs off Arthur, Sir Gawain serves as the Queen's protector on a hunt. King Arthur and the rest of the knights go off on the hunt while Gawain is left behind with Guenevere. While the two wait at the Tarn Wathelene they are visited by a the ghost of Guenevere's mother, who warns the queen that she will burn in hell if she is not nicer to the poor. She also prophecies the death of Arthur and tells Gawain of his own fate. During the visit with the spirit, Gawain again demonstrates his awareness of chivalry when he asks the spirit what the spiritual implications are of the violence that is done through chivalry:

"How shal we fare," quod the freke, [warrior] "that fonden to fight,
And thus defoulen the folke on fele kinges londes,
And riches over reymes withouten eny right,
Wynnen worshipp in werre thorgh wightnesse of hondes?"

   This is certainly not an issue that the Gawain of Malory would address. Gawain is also associated with the queen in The Avowyng of Arthur. After conquering the knight who had captured Sir Kay, he commands the queen to go to the queen to receive his judgement because Gawain professes to be the queen's knight:

"Take thou this damesell schene;
Lede her to Gaynour the Quene,
And say that Gawan, hur knyghte,
Sende hur this byurde brighte [beautiful woman];
And rawunsun the anon tighte
Atte hur awne wille."

   (the knight also had captured a woman in addition to Sir Kay, Gawain had freed them both). Gawain's description of himself as Guenevere's knight is certainly not part of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur; I will discuss the implications of this in the relationship between Gawain and Launcelot shortly. The real message behind what I have discussed thus far is that Sir Gawain is not a villain in the tradition of English folklore. He is a knight without peer in both prowess and chivalry. The question then arises, why is Malory's Sir Gawain such a crooked character?

Malory and the French Tradition

   All of the works that I have discussed thus far have been of English origin. As we know Malory constantly referred to his source, the French Book, in Le Morte D'Arthur. The Arthurian legend was developed in France as much as, if not more than, in England. Most of the chronological history certainly came from the French, whereas the English tradition was composed largely of unrelated short tales, like those discussed previously. It is in the French versions of the Arthurian legend that Sir Gawain lost his fame. Keep in mind, by the way, that many of the stories of Gawain that I referred to earlier were written at about the same time as Le Morte D'Arthur, so it is safe to say that Gawain did not necessarily evolve temporally, there actually was a period in which two completely different versions of the same character existed. One in France and the other in England. Gawain evolved more geographically.


   When the French began to take a major interest in the Arthurian legend, i.e. when Cretien de Troyes began writing his tales, Sir Launcelot, who is, of course, from France, began to appear as the hero in the legend. In Cretien's The Knight and the Cart, Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawain both set out to rescue Guenevere. Sir Launcelot rides off to successfully save the queen, while Sir Gawain ends up floating in lake. Launcelot ends up fishing him out.9 This story is on of the first steps in a long series that resulted in Launcelot replacing Gawain as the chief knight of the round table.
   Launcelot's position as the new chief knight of the round table allowed for some intriguing possibilities for the legend. Most importantly he replaced Gawain as the Queen's knight and made room for the part of the legend that we all know best: the love between Launcelot and Guenevere.This would not have been possible with Gawain without creating a messy incestuous affair (like the one that Sir Mordred gets into when he tries to take the Queen as his wife).
   One thought that comes to mind on the Gawain/Launcelot issue is that the French continued to beat down and lessen Sir Gawain because Gawain was Launcelot's competition from across the sea. By reducing him in the legend while building Launcelot up, the French writers were able to establish their hero over the English hero. The rivalry that we see in Malory between the Orkney clan and Launcelot's kin could be viewed as a reflection in the text of a real international rivalry between English and French author's of the Arthurian legend. Unfortunately, I don't have any evidence that proves this. It also seems that it is a one sided rivalry because the English texts don't beat up on Sir Launcelot.


   The French tradition also introduces more of Gawain's kin. Geoffrey of Monmouth established that Gawain and Mordred were both sons of King Lot and Arthur's Sister, but the French added Gaheris, Agravain, and Gareth to Gawain's family. Gawain has always been a figure who was loyal to his kin. His extreme loyalty to King Arthur is a reflection of this. The introduction of his brothers to the Arthurian legend only adds to the complexity of Gawain's kin loyalty.
   Through Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (which I will consider to be almost entirely from the French tradition) we witness Gawain and his brethren banding together on several occasions to avenge wrongs done unto their family. The first time is when Sir Gawain kills King Pellinor to avenge his father's death. Later we discover that Gawain and his brothers, except Gareth, murdered the knight Sir Lamorak, who was King Pellinor's son. The reason for this is that Sir Lamorak had become their mother's lover. The brothers felt that this was too much of an insult to them, so they killed both Sir Lamorak and their mother (Arthur's sister Margawse). Finally, we see Gawain wage mortal war on Sir Launcelot to avenge the death of his brother, Sir Gareth, in the war that breaks the round table.
   Along with his extreme loyalty to his kin, Malory's Gawain has another striking characteristic, he is hot-tempered and rash. He often behaves foolishly without considering the consequences. In Gawain;s first quest after being made a knight he shows no mercy on a knight because the knight killed Gawain's dog. Gawain ends up decapitating an innocent woman instead of the knight. Essentially, he failed his first quest. In his second quest he fares just as poorly. He accompanies a damsel and is expected to have adventures with her for a year. She abandons Gawain when he refuses to help a knight (Sir Pelleas) who is being dragged off by ten other knights. Obviously this is a bad sign, but it gets worse. Gawain later vows to help Sir Pelleas win a ladies love. He quickly forgets about Pelleas, though and ends up sleeping with her himself. Of course, Gawain's wicked deeds with his brothers are another product of this rashness, as is his refusal to make peace with Launcelot. The Gawain of chivalry and true knighthood is certainly gone in Malory's work.


   As I said at the beginning of this discussion, the good Gawain is not entirely gone in Malory. There are reflections of the English tradition that exist throughout Le Morte D'Arthur. The first of these is seen in the episode discussed earlier, when Gawain's damsel abandoned him. Immediately after this Gawain is asked to make a judgement as to who should have woman. The choice is between a dwarf and a knight. In a pale reflection of the tale of The Marraige of Sir Gawain, he lets the woman choose for herself which she would prefer.
   We also see the chivalry of Sir Gawain appear when he refuses to help Sir Agravain and Sir Mordred expose Sir Launcelot. For once his chivalry overcomes his loyalty to his kin. This is continued when he actually refuses Arthur's direct order to attend the burning of Guenevere. Not only does this illustrate Gawain's sense of right and wrong, it also shows that he has the power to refuse Arthur's orders. Only an important and highly esteemed knight would be allowed to do this. Another place where we see a reflection of the good Gawain exposes a weakness in Malory's work. Gawain is allowed to return to King Arthur as a ghost to warn him not to fight Mordred. The reason he is allowed to come back is that he did so many good deeds for ladies through his life. This certainly implies that Sir Gawain had a substantial amount of good in him. Malory never really lets us see any of the good acts of Sir Gawain, though. Most likely it is because he does not want to weaken Launcelot's position as the protagonist in the war between the two at the end of Le Morte D'Arthur. Any demonstration that Gawain is good would make Launcelot look less good for fighting with him. It is also important to note that as soon as Sir Launcelot leaves the round table, Sir Gawain again becomes Arthur's chief knight. His role at the end of Le Morte D'Arthur as well as in The Stanzaic Mort Arthure is very reminiscent of the role he played in the English tradition. He and Arthur again lead the war band to battle. This war also exposes the fact that Gawain still has traces of a sun god in him. He is given the blessing that he can wax stronger between 9:00 in the morning and noon to the strength of three men. This is twisted to the worse by Malory, though, because Sir Gawain tries to use this to his advantage against Sir Launcelot. This makes Gawain look like a cheater. The great sun god Cuchulian is now reduced to a cheating opportunist.
   Gawain's last living act is to write to Launcelot to make peace. He essentially tells Launcelot that he is sorry and that he regrets taking sides against him. While this point does show goodness in Sir Gawain, I don't see this as a reminder of the chivalric Gawain of the English tradition. The reason is that The Stanzaic Morte Arthure, which is Malory's primary source for the last part of Le Morte D'Arthur does not include this letter. The inclusion of the letter, in a sense, shows that Gawain agrees that Launcelot was right. Without the letter, Gawain died still against Launcelot. By including the letter Malory strengthens the position of his protagonist, Sir Launcelot.
   In the overall tradition of the Arthurian legend, there are two distinct Gawain's. The first is from the English tradition. He is Arthur's greatest knight, he is compassionate and insightful, and he is chivalric and brave. The second Gawain is the incapable knight that the world remembers. He is the hot-headed troublemaker that continuously fails at his attempts at true knighthood. This is the Gawain from the French tradition, who serves to strengthen the position of Sir Launcelot as the chief of Arthur's knights. In these two Gawains we can see a reflection of an international rivalry. Of two nations with two heroes; the hero of the English is Sir Gawain, the hero of the French is Sir Launcelot. When the two traditions were melded to one to create a complete Arthurian legend, Sir Launcelot emerged as the great hero, leaving Sir Gawain somewhere far behind.

Copyrighted. Used by permission.