- For the character who christened Gawain, nephew of Arthur, and named him after himself, see Gawain the Brown.
He is one of a select number of Round Table members to be referred to as the greatest knight, most notably in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
In Welsh Arthurian literature, Gawain appears in adaptations and translations of French tales as Gwalchmei. Gwalchmei may have been a hero who originally had no connection with Gawain but was equated with him.
Gawain is almost always portrayed as the son of Arthur's sister (named variously Anna, Morcades, Sangîve, Morgause, Gwyar, and other names) and King Loth of Lothian and Orcanie. Gawain’s brothers are Agravain, Guerrehet, and Gaheriet in French romance tradition. Mordred appears as Gawain's brother in most chronicle versions of Arthur’s reign, and in later romances is listed along with the other brothers as the youngest.
In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, Gawain has a brother named Beacurs, seemingly his only brother in this version of the legend. The Parzival also once mentions a cousin of Gawain named Gaherjet.
In some versions of the Welsh adaptations of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and in the 14th century Welsh fragment the Birth of Arthur Howel is said to the half-brother to Gawain, for the text claims that Howel was the son of Anna/Gwyar’s first husband before she married Loth/Lleu.
In some works Gawain has sisters as well: the unnamed sister in Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain whom Yvain rescues along with her unnamed husband and children from a giant; an unnamed sister who is abducted by Gorvain Cadrus in Hunbaut; Soredamors who is the mother of Cligés in Chrétien de Troyes’ Cligés; Clarissant who is found in the Castle of Wonders; Cundriê, a second sister found in the Castle of Wonders in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival; and Elainne in the Modena manuscript of the Didot Perceval.
In the 14th century Welsh fragment The Birth of Arthur, Gwalchmei, the Welsh counterpart to Gawain, is given three sisters: Gracia, Graeria, and Dioneta. This source is based on the Story of Merlin attributed to Robert de Boron, and Gracia and Graeria are misunderstandings of the translator or later adaptor and represent Gawain’s brothers “Garées et Gaheriet” (Guerrehet and Gaheriet). Dioneta would seem to be a substitution for Morgain, who is mentioned immediately after. Dioneta is also mentioned earlier, but as a half-sister to Arthur, not as Gawain’s sister.
If, as is the case in at least one author, King Loth, the father of Gawain, is equated with King Leudon of Leudonia in the Fragmentary Life of St. Kentigern, then Taneu, St. Kentigern’s mother, would be a sister of Gawain.
Gawain is credited with children, including his sons Gui(n)glain/Gingalain/Wigalois and Lioniel/Lovell who both appear in the First Continuation to Chrétien’s Perceval. Gui(n)glain is also known as Libeaus Desconus or Le Bel Inconnu in his own romance. A version of the begetting of these two sons also appears in the Livre d’Artus; but this account ceases before these two sons of Gawain are born.
The hero of Robert de Blois’ Beaudous (‘Handsome-sweetie’) is the son of Gawain by an unnamed daughter of an unnamed King of Wales. Hartmann von Aue mentions Henec the Skilful, son of Gawain, in his list of Knights of the Round Table in his Erec.
Malory mentions Gui(n)glain and Lioniel/Lovell but also gives to Gawain a son named Florence. Malory says that both Florence and Lovell are sons of an unnamed daughter of Bran of Lys.
Gawain’s Early HistoryEdit
Geoffrey of MonmouthEditGeoffrey of Monmouth tells us that a young Gawain had been sent by his father King Loth to serve in the household of Pope Sulpicius in Rome where Gawain was dubbed as knight. Geoffrey mentions that Gawain was twelve years old at the time when King Loth, with King Arthur’s aid, was beginning a war with Norway because they would not accept him as king. Wace does not reproduce the mention of Gawain’s age, but makes it clear that Gawain came from Rome and took part in the Norwegian adventure.
Raised by a FishermanEdit
Related to this account are the tales of Gawain’s birth and youth in some romances. The surviving fragments of the Enfances Gauvain tell how Loth, when a page in King Arthur’s court had a love-affair with his mistress, Arther’s sister Morcades. Morcades becomes pregnant. She hides away in a castle until the child is born. Then she and Loth give the child to one of Morcades’ handmaidens who gives it to knight named Gawain the Brown (Gauvain li Brun) who baptizes the child with his own name. Later Gawain the Brown puts the infant Gawain in a cask, with a letter explaining in part who he is, along with his father’s ring, and his mother’s gold buckle, and a silk cloth. He sets the cask adrift on the sea. The cask is found by a fisherman and his wife, who adopt the foundling. The child turns out to be very unwilling to learn the duties associated with fishing. Sometime after the child is ten years of age, his foster-father becomes extremely ill and vows to make a pilgrimage to Rome if he recovers. When the fisherman recovers, he takes his foster-child with him to Rome. On the way, he finally discovers the letter in a draw-string bag, has a clerk read it since he cannot read himself, and understanding that the boy is of high birth, tells the tale to the Pope in Rome and gives him the boy as his own foster-son. The boy believes himself to be the Pope’s nephew. After the boy has reached the age of twelve years, he is so big and strong that the Pope has him knighted on St. John’s Eve. The new knight is held in great honor. (An account similar to this, but more abbreviated, is found in the Perlesvaus.)
The Latin Arthurian romance, De Ortu Waluuanii nepotis Arturi tells a similar account. When Uther Pendragon’s daughter Anna becomes pregnant by Loth. The child is born secretly, and Anna has the child delivered to certain merchants along with untold wealth, a valuable cloth, and a signet ring with an emerald that she held in trust from the king, along with a letter explaining who the child is. The merchants anchor their ship near Narbonne and go ashore, leaving only a serving boy to watch the ship and the baby. A fisherman named Viamund, creeps aboard the ship, sees that the serving boy is asleep, and plunders it, taking the baby as well. However news of the theft becomes widely known, and Viamund fears to display his wealth. After seven years, Viamund goes to Rome, where he passes himself off as a nobleman and becomes friends with the emperor. When Viamund’s foster-son has reached his twelfth year, Viamund falls ill, realizes that he is going to die, and asks to speak to the emperor and Pope Sulpicius. Viamund confesses the truth about himself, presents the letter and other goods found with his foster-son, and asks the emperor to adopt him. The emperor agrees. Three years later, at the age of fifteen, the boy is knighted. He wears a bright red surcoat, though the practice of wearing surcoats was not then customary, so the boy is known as the Knight of the Surcoat.
The new Knight of the Surcoat undertakes a single combat to determine whether Rome or the King of Persia should possess Jerusalem. On his way to Jerusalem, the story tells in great detail how the knight and his men defeat the pirate king Milocrates and his brother Buzafarnam and rescue the emperor’s niece whom Milocrates has abducted. In Jerusalam, the Knight of the Surcoat fights the giant Persian champion Gormund. After three days of single combat, Gormund is slain.
Hearing word of King Arthur of Britain, the Knight of the Surcoat wishes to visit him. The emperor, who knows that the Knight of the Surcoat is King Arthur’s nephew agrees, gives to him the coffer which contains proof of his birth, and sends him off to Britain to present the coffer to King Arthur, forbidding him to look inside it.
Arthur’s queen, here named Gwendoloena, has prophetic powers. She prophecies that a knight of Rome is coming who is more powerful than Arthur. Arthur and Kay meet the Knight of the Surcoat, who unhorses them both.
The following day the Knight of the Surcoat comes to court, and presents the coffer to Arthur. Arthur looks inside it privately, reads the letter, and has King Loth and Anna summoned. King Loth and Anna have now long been married. They confirm the contents of the coffer. The renowned Knight of the Surcoat is indeed Gawain, the long-lost result of Loth and Anna’s first love affair. But King Arthur forbids that this be made known to the Knight of the Surcoat.
Arthur rejects the Knight of the Surcoat’s offer to join his men until the knight has proved his worth. The knight vows that he will do what Arthur’s whole army cannot do, and Arthur says if the knight does that, he will not only enroll the knight but set him above all his men.
The Lady of the Castle of Maidens sends to King Arthur for aid. She is being besieged by a pagan king who wants to force marriage on her. Then news comes that the lady has been abducted by the pagan king. King Arthur and his troops attack the pagan army, but are put to flight. However the Knight of the Surcoat drives into the pagan and rescues the Lady of the Castle of Maidens. When the pagans pursue, the Knight of the Surcoat defeats all who attack him, goes forward, and cuts off the head of the pagan king. He then comes before King Arthur with the Lady of the Castle of Maidens and the pagan king’s head. Arthur acknowledges the worth of the Knight of the Surcoat, and then has the letter from the coffer read openly in court. King Loth and Anna formally acknowledge the Knight of the Surcoat as their son and King Arthur acknowledges the Knight of the Surcoat as his nephew. From now on he will be known by his true name, Gawain.
The story of an illegitimately born son who is adopted by a fisherman is also told of Pope Gregory in the Gesta Romanorum and other places and is usually thought to be related to the above versions of Gawain’s early life. The Pope Gregory story goes on to relate that Gregory, after learning his origin, comes to a castle where, unknown to him, his mother dwells. She had fled to this castle when her brother, the emperor, died, and it alone remains to her of all the lands which should be hers. Now the Duke of Burgundy, who has taken the rest of her lands, is besieging this last castle. Gregory enters her service, and succeeds in winning back her lands. Thereupon, pressed by her seneschal, she offers to take Gregory as her lord and husband. Gregory accepts, and so unwittingly marries his own mother.
The corresponding tale for Gawain is the story of the Castle of Wonders in Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, in the Norse Valvens þáttr, and in Heinrich von dem Türlin’s Diu Krône. Gawain comes to the Castle of Wonders (called instead Madarp by Henrich) where unknown to him, his grandmother (King Arthur’s mother), his own mother, and a sister dwell. Gawain ends the adventure of the castle and becomes its lord. It would be only right by normal rules if he married unknowingly either his mother or his sister. However, since this is a romance, not a tragic tale, Gawain discovers who the women are before there is any danger of incest. It is comic, not tragic, when Gawain’s grandmother and mother see Gawain talking with the sister and they look forward to a marriage.
Story of MerlinEdit
Other romances tell tales that speak against this story of Gawain being brought up, unknown, in Rome. In the Story of Merlin attributed to Robert de Boron, a marriage between King Loth and a daughter of Ygerne is part of the negotiations arranging for Uther Pendragon’s marriage to Ygerne. If Gawain is the product of a previous romantic intrigue between the two, then in this continuity, Gawain must be about the same age as Arthur, or even older.
In the Vulgate Merlin, Gawain first appears as a squire with his brothers in his father’s kingdom, and there is not a hint that Gawain had not been born and brought up normally in that land. Gawain and a number of other squires, most of them sons or kindred of the kings who are rebelling against King Arthur, come together and defend the land of Logres against the Saxons while Arthur is aiding King Leodegan against King Rion. When Arthur returns to Logres, he knights the squires.
In the Post-Vulgate Merlin, Gawain’s father King Loth turns against King Arthur only when he wrongly believes that King Arthur is to blame for the death of his infant son Mordred. King Loth makes an agreement to support King Rion in his war against Arthur, although pretending to come to King Arthur’s aid. But Merlin knows the truth, and holds King Loth in talk while King Arthur’s forces utterly defeat King Rion’s forces. When King Loth realizes how he has been deceived, he attacks King Arthur anyway, but his forces are defeated and he himself is killed by King Pellinor, one of King Arthur’s allies.
Gawain appears as an eleven year old boy at King Loth’s funeral. Gawain swears to avenge his father’s death on King Pellinor, and prays that he may never be known for knightly deeds until he has taken vengeance, a king for a king. The story of the feud of between Gawain and King Pellinor and his sons is very important in the Post-Vulgate Arthurian Cycle and the Prose Tristan, but not a trace of it is found in the Lancelot-Grail Cycle or in any earlier tale. Some of these earlier tales picture King Loth as still alive long after Gawain has become a knight.
Some tales speak of Gawain taking a wife. But none of these wives are ever mentioned again in other romances, and Gawain is always unmarried when he first appears in a romance. In reality, marriage generally represented a stage in life where a knight began to settle down and care more about his lands and the duties of lordship than about tournaments and dangerous adventuring. But adventurous Arthurian knights, mostly cannot settle down, or they will cease to be adventurous Arthurian knights.
Gawain is often portrayed as a formidable but brash warrior, fiercely loyal to his king and family. He is a friend to young knights, a defender of the poor, and a consummate ladies’ man. In some works, his strength waxes and wanes with the sun; in one form of this motif, his might triples by noon, but fades as the sun sets. According to the French Vulgate Mort Artu Gawain, by will of King Loth, his father, had been baptized as an infant by a miracle-working holy man, also named Gawain, who named the boy after himself. Gawain is baptized around the noon hour. A knight asks the holy man that through his prayers the child will be more gifted in arms than any other. The holy man, Gawain, agrees to pray for the child, and the following day announces that the child will be more endowed with prowess than his companions, and that every day, at noon, at the hour when he was baptized, his power and strength will increase.
Gawain’s knowledge of herbs would make him a great healer, but in Old French sources, this only appears in a single passage of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval. Gawain as a healer also appears in the corresponding passages in the Norse Valvens Þáttr and in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. Gawain again appears as a healer in the Dutch Lancelot compilation in the stories Moriaen, Die Riddere metter Morwen, Walewein ende Keye, and Lancelot en het Hert met de Witte Voet, and in the Dutch romance of Walewein.
Gawain is commonly said to follow the unusual custom that he will never refuse to reveal his name and identity if he is asked, but he will not reveal his name if he is not asked. This first appears in surviving text in Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval.
Gawain is described in the Prose Lancelot (as translated by Roberta L. Kreuger in Norris J. Lacy’s Lancelot-Grail):
The truth was that Sir Gawain had the most handsome body of all his brothers ....
The truth is that Gawain was the eldest of his brothers and had a very handsome physique; all his limbs were well-formed, and he was neither too tall, nor too short, but of fine proportions. He was more chivalrous for his age than any of his brothers. Nevertheless, the story says that Gaheriet his brother had accomplished feats of arms almost as great a Sir Gawain had, but he never put as much effort into it as Sir Gawain always did, which is why Gaheriet was not as renowned.
However, what made Sir Gawain most memorable was that he loved poor people and was kind and compassionate towards them; he gladly did more good for lepers than for others. And another trait assured that his reputation would remain forever great (for there were many who, as long as their stamina lasted, would have been better knights in King Arthur’s court if it were not for this particular feature of Sir Gawain): around noon he doubled his strength, which is why no one was able to conquer him in a sword fight, although there were many more skilled with lances.
But no one was so gracious towards the poor. And his custom was such that, if he were fighting any knight in the field, he would rather have died on the spot than not get the better of him. Sir Gawain was a very fine knight of great bearing, and was very loyal toward his lord all the days of his life. He was neither spiteful nor jealous; on the contrary, he was more courteous than any knight at the court. This courtesy inspired many ladies to love him, less for his chivalry than for his courtesy. He never boasted among knights about anything that he had done. He was wise and moderate always, without calumny and without baseness, and he never bragged about his prowess.
Gawain often rides a very strong and swift horse named the Gringalet.
Wolfram von Eschenbach in his Parzival says that the Gringalet had red ears, and was given to Gawain without asking by the knight whom Wolfram names as Orilus and whom Chrétien had called the Proud Knight of the Heath. Wolfram says that the Proud Knight obtained the Gringalet from the Proud Knight’s brother Lehelin, who himself won it in a joust with the grail knight Lybbeals of Prienlascors by the Lake of Brumbane. Lybbeals died in that joust and Lehelin took the Gringalet. In this account, Gawain’s horse still bears the saddle which it had when it belonged to Lybbeals, a saddle marked with a turtledove; for such saddles were assigned to the grail steeds by the king Anfortas (= Pellehan).
According to the Vulgate Merlin, Gawain conquered the Gringalet from its former owner, the Saxon King Clarion.
According to the romance Escanor, Gawain conquered the Gringalet from its owner Escanor the Tall. The Gringalet had been given to Escanor the Tall by the fay Esclarmonde. But after being taken by Gawain, the horse refused to eat, until the the damsel Felinette removed a hidden bag of powder from the Gringalet’s ear.
Gawain often carries the sword Caliburn with him in his wanderings, although in other tales this is Arthur’s sword. One might suppose that Arthur had given or lent his sword to his foremost champion, and indeed, in the Vulgate Merlin it is said explicitly that Arthur gave Caliburn to Gawain when he knighted him.
Gawain, as son and heir to King Loth and King Arthur’s nephew, ought to have many titles and estates and requisite duties. But he prefers the life of a simple knight, and seemingly passes on the effective rule of his possessions to various seneschals and chestelains. The Prose Lancelot tells that on Saint John’s Day, those of the kingdom of Orcanie, where King Loth had ruled when he was alive, attempted to have the kingdom given to Gaheriet, whom they thought better fitted to be their king than any of his brothers. But Gaheriet refuses to have any land or be crowned until after the end of the quest of the Holy Grail, for he would rather remain a knight, rather than become a lord, at least until then. Similarly we must understand that Gawain refuses to accept the burdens of ruling. So Orcanie remains without an active king.
In the Queste del Saint Graal, Gawain, as the supposed best of secular knights, is used as a symbol of the unfitness of secular knighthood. Gawain is blamed for his irreligion and is shown to indulge in rather purposeless slaughter. Gawain, Yvain, and Gaheriet kill the seven evil brothers of the Castle of Maidens, and a hermit points out that Galahad could have killed them, but did not, for killing is evil. Galahad only drove them out. By aiding in killing the seven knights, Gawain has helped to steal the possibility that they might repent. The common battles of secular knights indulged in for no particular reason, may end in tragedy. So Gawain kills his fellow Knight of the Round Table, Yvain the Adulterate, in such a fight. The story later tells that Gawain has also killed his fellow Knight of the Round Table, King Bademagu. Indeed, near the beginning of the Vulgate Mort Artu, the story is that Gawain had killed eighteen of his fellow Knights of the Round Table in the quest for the Grail.
Gawain in the Post-VulgateEditIn later prose cyclic romances Gawain’s reputation is further blackened. Among further reasonably important Knights of the Round Table whom Gawain is said to have killed during the grail quest are King Pellinor’s son Agloval (no details given), Erec son of King Lac, Patrides nephew of King Bademagu, and Palamedes. Gawain was also previously the slayer of King Pellinor, and of King Pellinor’s sons Driant and Lamorat. Though Gawain among most knights still has a reputation for being one of the best and most courteous knights in the world, this reputation is a sham. Gawain is often secretly a raper of damsels, a killer of good knights, and a liar, no better than his brother Agravain. When Perceval asks Gawain if he had killed his father King Pellinor, as some had said, Gawain, fearing Perceval’s prowess, simply lies and denies it.
In the romance of Guiron the Courteous it is explained that Gawain’s grief at not regaining his full strength after the war with Galehaut and being surpassed by other knights led Gawain to commit many great cruelties.
The Post-Vulgate Arthurian Cycle in relating Gawain’s single combat with the Morholt, tells (as translated by Martha Asher in Norris J. Lacy’s Lancelot-Grail):
Gawain began to tire somewhat and to strike more slowly than he had before, for invariably the strength that came to him around noon lasted him not quite until nones [mid-afternoon]. Nevertheless, it served him in so many places and helped him so much later on that he never in his life met a knight who fought him with swords whom he did not defeat, save only six. One of these was named Lancelot of the Lake; the second was named Hector of the Fens; the third was named Bors the Exile; the fourth was named Gaheriet; the fifth was named Tristan the Lover, King Mark’s nephew; the sixth was this Morholt about whom I am telling this story.
The battle with Lancelot is related in the Vulgate Mort Artu (and retold in the English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur).
The battle with Hector of the Fens might be that on the bridge to Sorelois in the Prose Lancelot, which ceases only when Gawain recognizes Hector’s sword and asks who he is. There is a later battle between Gawain and Hector in the Post Vulgate Arthurian Cycle when Hector intervenes when Gawain, Agravain, and Mordred are attempting to slay Gaheriet, and Hector fights Gawain. Here, also, Gawain’s extra strength comes to Gawain’s aid and he is at the point of defeating Hector when Lamorat came by, and interferes. But most likely it is the battle between Gawain and Hector on Perceval’s sister's island, where by the hour of mid-afternoon Hector is driving Gawain as he wills and Gawain sees that he will not last long against his unknown opponent.
Gawain is entirely defeated and conquered by Bohort when he fights Bohort at the Hill of Wretches in the Prose Lancelot. But, when telling of this adventure in court, Gawain explains that at the time he was still wounded from a previous battle with Gaheriet, which might be identified as the battle referred to in this listing. Gawain says that one would have killed the other, save that Gawain recognized Gaheriet by his sword.
There is no account of a prolonged battle between Gawain and Tristan in the prose romances, but such does occur in the “Tristan Menestrel” section of the late Gerbert continuation to Chrétien’s Perceval where Gawain can make no headway against a foreign knight. Then a minstrel recognizes that the knight is Tristan and tells the King and Arthur puts an end to the contest.
The numerous battles in the verse romances between Gawain and other knights (often with one-romance wonders) which are broken off when the one of the combatants recognizes the other, are either here ignored, or the author wishes to understand that Gawain would have won, had the contest continued.
In retelling this tale, Sir Thomas Malory slightly modifies the content of the passage listing the knight whom Gawain could not defeat as follows (spelling modernized):
For as the book rehearseth in French, there was this many knights that overmatched Sir Gawaine, for all his thrice-double might that he had: Sir Launcelot de Lake, Sir Tristrams, Sir Bors de Gaines, Sir Percivale, Sir Pelleas, Sir Marhaus—these six knights had the better of Sir Gawaine.
But there is no account in any extant romance of an extended battle with swords between Gawain and either Perceval or Pellias.
Death of GawainEdit
Gesta Regum AnglorumEdit
According to William of Malmesbury in Book III of his Gesta Regum Anglorum (as translated by Richard L. Brengle in his Arthur: King of Britain):
At that time [c. 1066–1087], in a province of Wales which is called Ros, was found the tomb of Walwen, who was not unworthy of Arthur—a nephew through his sister. He reigned in that part of Britain which is still called Walweitha [Galloway], a soldier highly celebrated for his deeds of bravery, but who was driven from the kingdom by the brother and nephew of Hengist (of whom I have spoken in my first book, first making them pay dearly for his banishment. He deservedly shared in his uncle’s praising, because he prevented the fall of his collapsing country for many years. But the tomb of Arthur is nowhere to be seen, whence ancient dirges still fable his coming. Yet the sepulchre of the other, as I said before, was found above the seacoast in the time of King William, fourteen feet long. There, as certain people claim, he [Walwen] was wounded by his enemies, and cast forth from a shipwreck; by others it is said that he was killed by his fellow citizens at a public feast. Therefore, knowledge of the truth falls in doubt, although neither of these stories would fail in defense of his fame.
The story of Gawain’s death at a banquet is perhaps the origin of the attempted poisoning of Gawain at a banquet which appears in the French Vulgate Mort Artu and derivative works. But since the author preferred a variant of the shipwreck story for Gawain’s death, the poisoning would fail and the knight who was actually poisoned would become Gawain’s brother Gaheriet. But when Gaheriet’s death, at the hands of Lancelot, was considered to be a preferable tale, the poisoned knight might become another knight of similar name, Gaheris of Carhaix. Mador, Gaheris’ brother, who attempts to avenge Gaheris’ death, might have been Mordred. This restoration is only a guess.
Historia Regum BritanniaeEdit
Geoffrey of Monmouth says that Gawain’s death occurred at Richborough when Arthur’s troops are attempting to land against Mordred’s forces and Mordred inflicts great slaughter so that many die. This is at least not incompatible with William of Malmesbury’s shipwreck story.
Wace and LawmanEdit
Wace and Lawman place Arthur’s landing at Romney, no shipwrecks are mentioned, and Gawain’s death is merely referred to as Arthur’s men are leaving their boats and heading into battle. Lawman mentions that Gawain killed Chelric’s son.
English Alliterative Morte ArthureEdit
In the English Alliterative Morte Arthure, the name of the place in Britain where Arthur lands is not given. Gawain has his ship sail up an inlet and then leaps into the water. On reaching land, Gawain wreaks great slaughter. Among those killed by Gawain is the King of Gothland. But Gawain, on a green hill, is now surrounded by Mordred’s troops. Gawain pushes forward on horse against Mordred, and the two strike one another down with their lances. Gawain gets up, draws a knife, and attempts to cut Mordred’s throat, but the mail holds, Gawain’s hand slips, and Mordred draws a knife which he stabs though the helmet into Gawain’s brain. Thus Gawain is gone.
Asked by King Frederick of Frieseland who that dead knight might be, Mordred gives a sorrowful eulogy to his dead brother, the best and most glorious of knights.
According to the Didot Perceval Arthur lands in Britain, at an unnamed seashore, and Gawain attempts to disembark with twenty thousand men. Both sides throw pikes, stones, lances, and darts against the other. But Gwawain’s helmet is not laced on and a Saxon, one of Mordred’s men, strikes him a blow to the head with an oar and kills him. All the twenty thousand men perish, including Bedwyr, Kay, and Sagremor.
The French Vulgate Mort Artu (followed by the Post-Vulgate Mort Artu) drops the battle on the shore altogether. Gawain, in this version, has suffered a deep wound in the head in his battle with Lancelot before Gaunes. The head wound has not healed when Gawain joins Arthur in war against the Romans. One of the nephews of the Roman Emperor does great deeds among the British forces. Gawain attacks and kills the nephew, whereupon the Roman troops all attack Gawain and open his head wound. In the end, the Romans are defeated, but then Gawain feels he is going to die and repents of his deeds against Lancelot. He tries to persuade King Arthur to seek Lancelot’s aid against Mordred, but fails, as Arthur feels that he has done too much against Lancelot to ever again get aid from him. King Arthur and his forces put to sea and land at Dover, unopposed. That day, around the hour of sunset, Gawain sends for King Arthur and tells him he is dying of the head wound that Lancelot had inflicted and that had reopened when he fought with the Romans. He asks Arthur to avoid fighting Mordred if possible, for he sees death from Mordred’s hands. He also asks Arthur that if Arthur ever sees Lancelot again, he is to tell Lancelot that Gawain seeks Lancelot’s forgiveness. Gawain asks to be buried alongside Gaheriet at St. Stephen’s Church in Camelot. Then Gawain passes away.
Italian La Tavola RitondaEdit
In the Italian La Tavola Ritonda, Gawain, after being defeated in his duel with Lancelot, takes part in resisting an attack by the baron Turinoro. In a single combat with Turinoro, Gawain is struck on his head in the same place where Lancelot had wounded him, and falls dead.
English Stanzaic Morte ArthurEdit
The English Stanzaic Morte Arthur has Gawain fight two single combats with Lancelot, in the second of which he receives the fatal head wound. The Roman war is omitted entirely, apparently replaced by the second combat between Gawain and Lancelot. Some time following the battle with Lancelot, King Arthur hears of Mordred’s rebellion and sets sail for Britain. Arthur and his men land at Dover where Mordred and Mordred’s troops await him. Gawain begins to fight against Mordred’s forces, but with unhelmeted head. As in the Didot Perceval, Gawain is stuck on the head with an oar. Here the handle of the oar hits the old wound from the battle with Lancelot, and Gawain dies.
Malory’s Le Morte d’ArthurEdit
Malory in his Le Morte d’Arthur follows the same tale, except he has Gawain, mortally wounded from the oar stroke, write a letter to Lancelot before his death. In the letter, Gawain asks Lancelot’s forgiveness and asks him to come to King Arthur’s aid.
The French Vulgate Mort Artu has Gawain’s body carried to Camelot by a hundred knights, while Arthur and his main force ride to seek Mordred. The hundred knights arrive at a castle named Beloë. The Lord of Beloë had envied Gawain and hated him, but now his wife, hearing that Gawain is dead and that his body is here, faints. On reviving she declares in her sorrow that she has never loved any man but Gawain and will never love another as long as she lives. The Lord of Beloë, in anger, takes out his sword and slices into his wife and she dies. The knights accompanying Gawain’s body seize the Lord of Beloë. One of the knights kills the Lord with two strokes of his sword. The knights of Beloë then attack Arthur’s knights in revenge for the death of their lord, but they are easily defeated. The following day Arthur’s knights continue on their journey until they come to Camelot, where Gawain’s body is placed in Gaheriet’s tomb, and on the tomb is written:
HERE LIE TWO BROTHERS, SIR GAWAIN AND GAHERIET, WHOM LANCELOT OF THE LAKE KILLED THROUGH GAWAIN’S FOLLY.
The English Stanzaic Morte Arthur has Gawain buried in the choir of the chapel in a nearby castle.
In his introduction to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, William Caxton writes: “In the castle Dover, ye may see Gawain's skull.”
A Dream of GawainEdit
In the French Vulgate Mort Artu, on the night after King Arthur has left Dover, Arthur has a dream in which he sees Gawain, followed by a crowd of poor folk who say that they have won the House of God for Gawain because of his charity towards them. Gawain urges Arthur not to fight with Mordred. Arthur refuses. Then Gawain asks that Arthur send for Lancelot, for with Lancelot’s aid, Arthur can prevail. Again Arthur refuses.
In the English Stanzaic Morte Arthur the dream occurs the day before Arthur is to meet Mordred in battle. The poor folk whom Gawain helped though charity are replaced by lords and ladies whom Gawain has helped through combat. Gawain tells Arthur to obtain a truce for a month with Mordred, for Lancelot is coming to Arthur’s aid. Arthur obtains the truce, but the author inserts the story of the adder in the grass, and the truce is undone.
In Malory’s version Gawain is accompanied by fair ladies for whom he has fought in righteous quarrels.
Ly Myreur des HistorsEdit
In Jean de Preis’ Ly Myreur des Histors, Arthur is defeated and wounded in his last battle with Mordred (Mordrech). Arthur then goes, along with Gawain, in a boat to the Isle of Avalon, to be healed by Arthur’s sister Morgain (Morgaine).
Some Name VariationsEdit
FRENCH: Gauvain, -e, Gauvein, -ven, Gauwain, Gavain, -e, Gavayn, Gaven, Gawain, Walwein; LATIN: Waluuanius, Walwenus, Walganus, Walgainus, Walvanus, Walwanus, Galvaginus; ENGLISH: Walwain, -e, Walwainn, Walwæein, Wælwæin, Wælwaynes, Gawayn(e), Gawaeayne, Gaweyn, Gawein, Gawan, Gawin, Gawayn(e), Gaweyn(e), Gawaine, Gawen, Gauan, Gauayn, Ȝaweyn, Waweyn, Wawayn(e), Wawaynes, Wawain, Wawein, Wawayn, Wawen, Wowen, Wawan, Wowayn; MALORY: Gawayn(e), Gauwayn(e), Gauayn, Gaweyn, Gayne; GERMAN: Gâwein, Gâwân, Walwân; DUTCH: Walewein; NORSE: Valven; SWEDISH: Gavian; SPANISH: Galvan; PORTUGUESE: Galvam; ITALIAN: Calvano, Galvano, Gavan; IRISH: Bhalbhuaidh, Uallabh; WELSH: =Gwalchmei (Gwalchmai).