One of the leading Knights of the Round Table, Gawain was the son of King Lot of Lothian and Orkney, and his origins may be more closely associated with early Scottish history under his Celtic name Gwalchmai. He first features strongly in the Arthurian story as related by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniae (1136), where he is one of Arthur's most valiant knights. In the later romances, especially those by the French and German writers, Gawain is less of a successful Hero, being instead rather a hot-head who blunders into adventures regardless of success. However, in the anonymous medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th century) he is portrayed as near perfection, a courageous knight prepared to sacrifice his life in order to face a challenge and meet his obligations. In this story Camelot is visited on New Year's Day by a giant of a man dressed all in green and riding a green horse. He challenges Arthur's men to a beheading match. Gawain takes up the challenge and strikes off the knight's head. The knight, though, recovers the head and departs, reminding Gawain of his promise. The following year Gawain sets out to find the knight at the Green Chapel. He is at first unsuccessful, and spends Christmas at a castle with its lord, his wife and an old lady. He learns that the Green Chapel is nearby and, after three days, after being subject to various temptations, is led there, where he meets the knight. The knight strikes three blows: the first two are feints and the third slightly cuts Gawain's neck. Gawain now learns that the Green Knight is his host from the Castle, Sir Bertilak, who reveals that Gawain has passed the test of the temptations, the slight cut being inflicted because he almost fell for one of them. Gawain also learns that the whole episode was contrived by Morgan Le Fay to test the Round Table. The story is evidently descended from earlier Nature tales, personifying the Cycle of the year (see Green Man), but has been developed to a high degree.
A similar portrayal of an honest and virtuous Gawain appears in the anonymous medieval verse romance The Wedding of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell (?1450), where Gawain rescues King Arthur but to do so must promise to marry a hideous old crone. On their wedding night, however, the dame becomes young and beautiful. This latter image of Gawain most appealed to Thomas Berger, who incorporated it in Arthur Rex (1978).
Gawain's character interests many writers, and so he often appears as an ancillary character in Arthurian novels and stories (see Arthur). He does, however, take centre stage in some. The Green Knight (1975) by Vera Chapman retells the medieval tale with a modern interpretation. The Gwalchmai sequence by Gillian Bradshaw is in effect Gawain's biography. In "King of the World's Edge" (1939 WT; 1966), The Ship from Atlantis (1967; vt as fixup with "King of the World's Edge" Merlin's Godson 1976) and Merlin's Ring (1974) by H Warner Munn Gawain (as Gwalchmai) is portrayed as the son of a Roman centurion who, after Arthur's death, accompanies his father and Merlin to the New World and beyond. [MA]
see also: Gawain and the Green Knight.