By Danièle Cybulskie
Ages ago, I said that Lancelot could keep his t-shirt because I’ve always been on Team Gawain, but I never actually wrote a post that explored why Gawain is so awesome. Gawain is an essential part of the Arthurian tradition, and, as The Camelot Project points out, “There are, in fact, more medieval romances devoted to Gawain’s exploits than to those of any other of Arthur’s knights, including Lancelot, Tristan, and Galahad.” Here are five ways in which Gawain shows Lancelot who’s boss:
1. Gawain Was A Knight While Lancelot Was in Diapers
Scholars believe that stories of Gawain and his relationship to Arthur may predate Lancelot by several centuries. In The Mabinogion, Gawain appears as Gwalchmei (“Hawk of May”), Arthur’s nephew, in a story called Culwch and Olwen, which has roots in Welsh oral storytelling, meaning it’s impossible to trace just how far the story reaches back. Gawain does appear in Geoffrey of Monmouth” History of the Kings of Britain, which establishes his pedigree as Arthur’s nephew as far back as the early twelfth century, but Lancelot seems to be solely a literary invention of Chrétien de Troyes, first appearing in Lancelot or The Knight of the Cart in the late twelfth century. No matter when he first appeared in the stories, Gawain is already an established part of the Arthurian tradition by the time Lancelot arrives on the scene, and appears in Chrétien’s story in the role we are familiar with.
2. Gawain is Tougher Than Lancelot
In Lancelot’s origin story, he is famously sensitive, swooning at the slightest indication of Guinevere’s presence. A golden hair found on the ground sends him into a fainting spell. When he sees Guinevere in the distance, he almost swoons himself out a castle window – he is saved by Gawain, of course. Other stories see Lancelot running mad after rejection by Guinevere, but Gawain is never shown to lose his marbles in the same way. In Gawain’s most famous story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is the knight who steps up to participate in a beheading contest, and actually shows up to get his head cut off at the appointed time. He also declines sleeping with the (very willing) wife of his host, something that Lancelot definitely can’t claim. In Malory’s work, Gawain cannot best Lancelot in battle, but (as we shall soon see) Malory did not share my great love of Gawain.
3. Gawain Has Some Humility
In Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Gawain’s very first adventure as a knight sees him accidentally cutting off the head of a lady who is pleading for mercy for her husband. He is filled with remorse, and vows to always be good to ladies, and willing to show mercy. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he is so remorseful for wanting to save his own life at the expense of lying to his host that he vows to always wear the green sash that symbolizes what he feels to be a grave mistake. Lancelot only shows deep remorse for his years-long affair with Guinevere after Camelot is destroyed and after Guinevere herself has taken vows as a nun. Until that time, he puts aside any guilt he feels and does what he pleases. I find it kind of hard to believe he had the guts to go on the Grail quest.
4. Gawain Knows What Women Really Want
While in some stories Gawain is a womanizer, there are several stories of Gawain that follow the “Loathly Lady” tradition in which Gawain volunteers to marry a hideous woman for Arthur’s sake, most notably The Weddynge of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell. In this story, his new, hideous wife tells him she is really beautiful, but cursed – Gawain must choose whether she should be beautiful in the day, or beautiful in the night.
Gawain then shows the full extent of his knightly courtesy and selflessness: he lets her choose. By giving his wife autonomy, Gawain breaks the spell, and his wife is beautiful forevermore. Lancelot only cares about what Guinevere wants (not that monogamy is a bad thing), but even then, he doesn’t always care enough. For example, when Camelot is destroyed and Guinevere explains how sorry she is and how destructive their love is, telling Lancelot she is becoming a nun, he still asks her for one last kiss (which she denies). He seems to be only listening with half an ear to her deep desire to put her sins behind her because he needs to kiss her one last time.
5. Gawain is Actually A Loyal Knight
Gawain is Arthur’s nephew (son of his sister, Morgause), and after Mordred, the most likely heir to Camelot. He cares about Arthur, his well-being, and the kingdom, and he puts Arthur first – willingly marrying a loathly lady without a moment’s hesitation, for example. The only time he doesn’t put Camelot first is when he refuses to treat with Lancelot, who has, by the way, just killed Gawain’s brothers. Gawain’s reluctance to treat with Lancelot is so perfectly understandable, it’s hard to blame him for not wanting to make peace with Lancelot after all he’s done. Lancelot, on the other hand, has an affair with the queen – his best friend’s wife. He breaks his vows to Arthur, endangers the succession, puts the queen in mortal danger, and does all this for years on end. He destroys Camelot and throws the country into civil war. No matter what great exploits Lancelot gets up to, it’s hard to take any of his knightly deeds or vows seriously in the face of such a terrible breach of trust and chivalry. It would certainly take a lot of sinning for Gawain to catch up to Lancelot.
While I know I’ll never convince the hardcore fans of Sir Lancelot to switch over to Team Gawain, medieval people were definitely fans, and (like me) couldn’t get enough of him. The original loyal, true, doughty knight of the Round Table, Sir Gawain can be my champion any day.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Sir Gawain, by Howard Pyle from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903)