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Sir Gawain
Arthurian Literary Character

Sir Gawain was the son of King Lot of Orkney and/or Lothian. He is often mentioned in early Welsh literature as Gwalchmai - the Hawk of May  - where he is shown with the extraordinary ability to grow stronger towards midday before waning in the afternoon. After his baptism as a child, Gawain was set adrift in a casket, being eventually rescued by a poor fisherman. In youth, he made his way to Rome where he obtained his education. Having been knighted by Pope Sulpicius, he returned to Britain and the court of King, Arthur, where he was re-united with his parents. A handsome and charming young man, he was well received at court and his name acquired the appendage of Dafod Aur or "golden tongue". Gawain underwent many adventures in King Arthur's name, on his horse was called Gringalet,  though two are particularly well-known.

One day, Sir Bertilak came to King Arthur's court, dressed anonymously all in green, and challenged any of the knights present to trade blows with him. Gawain was the only one to accept and, being allowed to strike first, cut off the Green Knight's head. Undaunted, the corpse picked up its severed head which told Gawain to meet him on the morning of New Year's Day following for the Green Knight to take his turn. On his way to keep the appointment, Gawain entered into a bargain with the Lord of Castle Hutton (perhaps in Lancashire) with whom he lodged. They agreed to give each other what they obtained each day during Gawain's visit. While the lord was off hunting, his wife gave Gawain a kiss, which he thus passed on to his host. The next day, there were two kisses, which were again forwarded on. On the third day, Gawain received three kisses and a gift of magical green lace to protect him; but the kisses only were offered forth. Gawain later set off to the appointed meeting place, the Green Chapel (possibly in Staffordshire). He was greeted by the Green Knight and knelt before him, ready to receive his fate. The knight swung his sword three times, but only once did it make contact: very slightly cutting Gawain's neck. Revealing himself to be his former host, the Green Knight told Gawain that he would not even have hurt him thus had he told him about the lace.

A similar tale has Sir Gawain stay with the Carl (or Ceorl - a Saxon lord) of Carlisle, along with Sirs Kay and Baldwin, when they became lost during a hunt. Their host lacked hospitality, but instead fought his guests and put them through a number of trials. These included  a form of the beheading game already undertaken with the Green Knight. Gawain again chopped off his opponent's head and released him from a spell which had made him a giant. The Carl was delighted, particularly as his compliant visitor's nobility also freed him from his vow to test or kill his guests.

Gawain is known to have had many lovers - at least 21 are named in literary sources - and is given different wives in various tales: Amurfina, the daughter of Sorcha or of the Carl of Carlisle. His most famous marriage, however, was to the loathly Lady Ragnell. While staying with King Uriens at Carlisle, King Arthur was overpowered, outside the city walls, by a local knight who spared his life on the condition that he return in a year with the answer to the riddle:

What is it that women most desire?

If he did not answer correctly, his life would be forfeit. A year passed, but Arthur was unable to find a satisfactory reply. Solemnly, he travelled to Carlisle once more; but, on the way, he met a hideous old hag sitting by the side of the road. Hearing of the King's plight, she promised an answer to his riddle, if he would find her a husband. King Arthur eagerly agreed, and was immediately told that what all women desire most is their own way! Arthur delivered his message, and returned to court in triumph. However, he now had to find someone willing to marry his saviour, the loathly lady. Gawain eventually stepped forward to save the King's embarrassment, and the two were wed among little celebration. Then came the wedding night, when the old woman revealed that she was, in fact, a beautiful maiden cast under a spell. She could be hideous by day and beautiful at night, or vice versa, the choice was Gawain's. Torn by the selection, Gawain suddenly remembered King Arthur's riddle and told his wife she must have her own way and choose herself. Delighted, the lady declared that Gawain's answer had broken the spell, and from then on she remained beautiful forever.

Other adventures include defending Roestoc (possibly in Hertfordshire) against attack from Sir Segwarides; supporting the true Queen Guinevere against an imposter; being imprisoned in the Dolorous Tower; and at the Castle of Maidens (Edinburgh); defeating the knights exiled from the same castle; as well as Yvain the Bastard, King Bagdemagus and at least sixteen other knights; feuding with the House of Pellinore; and taking part in the Grail Quest. He remained neutral over Queen Guinevere's affair with Lancelot, until his brothers were killed during her rescue from the stake. Gawain subsequently persuaded King Arthur to declare war on Lancelot and they pursued him across the Channel. Upon their return, King Arthur's armies immediately encountered the rebellious forces of Sir Mordred at Dover. Sir Gawain was killed in the fighting and was buried in the castle chapel, where his skull was kept for many years. William of Malmesbury, however, says that his grave was discovered in Ros (Rhos in Pembrokeshire - probably a reference to St. Govan's Chapel) in the late 11th century.

In origin, Gawain does appear to have been an historical King of Gododdin (Lothian), though his fluctuating strength may indicate that he embodies aspects of an ancient Solar deity as well. The beheading game theme is paralleled in the story of the Irish hero, Cu Chulainn, and some have argued that the two characters are identical.

 

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