The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XII. The Arthurian Legend

§ 13. Gawain

No knight of the primitive Arthurian fellowship enjoyed a higher renown than Arthur’s nephew, Gawain. Under the name of Gwalchmei, Gawain figures prominently in the Welsh Triads and in the Mabinogion; while as Walgainus he is one of Arthur’s most faithful and doughty lieutenants in the wars recounted by Geoffrey. So great was the traditional fame of Gawain that William of Malmesbury thought it worth while to record the discovery of his grave in Pembrokeshire; and there is some evidence that his name was well known even in Italy by the beginning of the twelfth century. He was, probably, the centre of a cycle of adventures quite independent of, and quite as old as, the original Arthur saga. He is certainly the hero of more episodic romances than any other British knight, and, in the general body of Arthurian romance, none is so ubiquitous. In Chretien de Troyes’s Conte del Graal, and in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, Gawain is almost as important a personage as Perceval himself. In the German poem Diu Krône, by Heinrich von dem Türlin, he, and not Perceval, is the actual achiever of the Grail quest. It is curious, however, to note that no other knight undergoes so marked a transformation of character in his progress through the romances. In the Mabinogion, and the earlier stages of the legend generally, Gawain appears as the paragon of knightly courtesy—the gentleman, par excellence, of the Arthurian court. In some of the later romances, particularly in the more elaborate versions of the Grail legend, as in Malory and Tennyson,

  • A reckless and irreverent knight is he.
  • Before Malory’s time, however, Gawain is uniformly presented in English literature in a flattering light, and no Arthurian hero was more popular with English Writers. The finest of all Middle English metrical romances, Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, dealing with incidents derived, apparently, from a primitive form of the Gawain legend, portrays him in his original character as a model of chivalry and of all the knightly graces.