Detail from Pyle's "Sir Gawaine the Son of Lot, King of Orkney"
Gawain, usually the son of King Lot of Orkney and Arthur's sister Morgawse, is one of the most pervasive figures of the Arthurian tradition. He appears in nearly all of the major Arthurian stories, medieval and modern, and plays a central role in many. 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. Even in romances not specifically devoted to his adventures, Gawain often plays a strong supporting role. In Chrétien's Perceval, for example, more than half of the narrative focuses on Gawain rather than the title character, and in Malory, Gawain figures prominently throughout, and plays key supporting roles in both the Grail quest and in the Morte Arthur. His demeanor and personality vary a bit from story to story, but even if Gawain does not always rank as the best of Arthur's knights, he is still one of the most important.
Gawain's importance in the Arthurian world stems in part from his familial relationship to Arthur, which is established in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Though Gawain may in fact appear in earlier Arthurian tales—he is sometimes associated with Gwalchmai, a figure who appears in Culwch and Olwen and some of the Welsh Triads—it is in the History that Gawain is first presented as the son of Loth of Lothian and Arthur's sister Anna. Though the names of Gawain's parents may change in later works, this nephew-uncle connection generally remains. As the eldest son of Arthur's sister, Gawain is the nearest male relative of the king and thus enjoys a particularly close and privileged relationship with the usually childless Arthur. He is not the prince, however, and does not bear princely responsibility, which means that, though Gawain is very much a part of the courtly inner circle, he is not bound to the court itself, and can thus exercise significant freedom of action. In the History, where Arthur is a very active and martial figure, this freedom of action is somewhat less apparent, but in later romances, where Arthur is more notably bound to throne and court and the narratives themselves focus more on knight-errantry, Gawain seems as comfortable on a quest as in the court. As Arthur's nephew, he can be, without apparent contradiction, both the counselor and warrior of the chronicle tradition and the knight-errant of the romances, and it is this very elasticity of character which seems to have made Gawain such an attractive subject for so many storytellers.
With so many storytellers running him through his paces, it should come as no surprise that Gawain is not the most consistent character—in romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle, for example, he is the embodiment of courtly virtue, while in the Queste del saint graal he is spiritually unfit to participate in the Grail Quest. In Malory, he is quite flawed, even to the point of being thuggish. Generally speaking, however, Gawain tends to come off fairly well, particularly in the independent or non-cyclical romances which are not attached to a larger Arthurian chronology. In such romances, both in English and in French, Gawain is often a "fixer" of sorts, either repairing the damage done or completing the quest flubbed by another knight. A model of prowess and courtesy, Gawain is able to succeed where the other (often, but not always, a boorish Sir Kay) has failed. La mule sans frein and the Carle of Carlisle romances, for example, feature Gawain making up for Kay's typical shortcomings, though in the unusual Marvels of Rigomer, Gawain comes to the rescue of no less a knight than Lancelot himself. This is not his only notable role, however; in the "Fair Unknown" group of romances, which includes Le bel inconnu, Wigalois, and Malory's Sir Gareth of Orkeney, Gawain serves as the unwitting father (or sometimes brother) of the title figure, whose identity, and relationship to Gawain, is revealed after some sort of mettle-proving quest or tournament. Gawain is also the central figure in the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, the most prominent Arthurian adaptation of the "Loathly Lady" plot (of which perhaps the best known adaptation is Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale). In some satirical romances Gawain is presented as less-than-heroic, sometimes bested by another knight, as in Gliglois; sometimes failing to win the lady, as in Le chevalier a l'epee; and sometimes serving as the central figure in a lampoon of chivalric romance, as he does in La vengeance Raguidel. But overall, though representations of Gawain in the non-cyclical, independent romances certainly vary, they often present him as the best example of whatever chivalric quality—courtesy, prowess, wisdom, et cetera—happens to be under discussion in each particular romance.
In some chronicles and cyclical romances, however, where a greater narrative scope offers room for more complex or conflicted representations, Gawain is often a bit less absolute in character. In these works, Gawain tends to exist not so much as a central figure in solitary adventure, but as one among many, a figure whose qualities and behaviors are consistently subject to direct comparison with a range of other chivalric figures. In Geoffrey's History, for example, Gawain is an impressive youthful warrior and captain whose notable deeds—striking off the head of a Roman noble to avenge an insult and facing Lucius in single combat—are decidedly martial and are described within the context of a series of battles in which many named figures participate. In Wace's Roman de brut, Gawain's character expands into the realm of courtly lovers as he asserts (in response to Cador's claim that peace makes men soft) that peace, jokes and love affairs are good things, and that it is for their beloveds that knights do noble deeds. In the sprawling Vulgate Cycle, Gawain is a consistently important figure, the head of a clan of Orkney brothers (including Mordred) who all participate in both large-scale battles and individual knight-errantry. Gawain is generally portrayed positively in the Vulgate Cycle, though he also serves as the main example of the worldly or secular knight unfit for more spiritually demanding quests. In Malory, we get one of the darkest, or at least most conflicted, medieval versions of Gawain. Influenced in part by the French Prose Tristan, Malory's Gawain often behaves nobly but also, at times, is notably discourteous, refuses requests for mercy, breaks oaths, contributes to numerous unnecessary deaths, and is even implicated in a cold-blooded murder undertaken to avenge his father's death. All of these various representations, however, derive much of their force from the comparative quality of these narratives—Gawain's failures are illuminated by the successes of others, his ignoble behaviors highlighted by the nobility of others, and his activities judged in the conversations and responses of others.
On the whole, the Gawain of the chronicles and cyclical romances tends to be notably human and secular, a character whose exploits and achievements seem much less superlative or supernatural than those of some of his fellow knights. There is an occasional association, in some romances, between Gawain's strength and the waxing and waning of the sun, but he is rarely marked out for supernatural distinction (the swords, seats, and other magical markers and tests are generally meant for other knights), so his failures and successes tend to be measurable in much more human terms. Unlike Lancelot, Tristan, and the various Grail knights, Gawain has no fixed superlative or definitive quality that restricts or directs his behavior, and he is thus allowed a different sort of freedom of action, since his choices tend to be his own (as are the lessons he does or does not learn from them) rather than the product of potion or prophecy. Indeed, it may be that the Gawain of the chronicles and cyclical romances is so variably represented precisely because he can be—it is Gawain's position as Arthur's nephew, rather than any particular personality trait or spiritual quality, that makes him an important knight, and thus he is perhaps the least restricted in terms of larger narrative expectation. For example, if Lancelot were not superlative, he would not have the same position in Arthur's court, but Gawain, whether fair or foul, would still be Arthur's nephew. So long as Gawain is enough a man of prowess to help Arthur establish his kingdom in the beginning of the tale and acquit himself well in the battles at the end of it, he can be more or less whatever any particular author wants him to be at any given point in the narrative.
In Gawain's case, however, death seems to be the great equalizer. In the independent romances Gawain's death is (understandably) not often represented, but in the chronicles and cyclical romances Gawain tends to meet his end as a sympathetic, even noble, figure whose death is generally lamented. The time and place of his death is represented fairly consistently (he dies upon Arthur's return to England, in or around the first skirmish in Arthur's short, final war against the usurper Mordred) and, though the circumstances, complications, and implications vary from work to work, Gawain's character is generally either positively confirmed or redeemed through his death. In fact, of the major medieval works which treat the subject, Geoffrey's History is the only one in which Gawain's death is recorded without comment. In both Wace and Layamon, some mention is made of Arthur's great grief at the loss of his nephew, and in the late 14th-century Alliterative Morte Arthure, Gawain is both killed and lamented by no less a foe than Mordred himself. In these various chronicle and chronicle-based narratives, which do not mention Lancelot, Gawain is primarily depicted as a loyal and worthy soldier, and the laments following his battlefield death confirm the nobility he shows consistently throughout. In the cyclical works which do include Lancelot (such as the Vulgate Cycle and Malory), the events leading up to Arthur's final battle differ notably, and in these works Gawain dies from wounds he had received from Lancelot during the siege of Benwick. In these narratives, Gawain's death scene tends to be more elaborate, and involve a kind of personal redemption not seen in the chronicles (and indeed not necessary to them, since it is only in this cyclical romance tradition that Gawain contributes directly to the fall of Arthur's kingdom by pursuing his single-minded feud with Lancelot). This redemption begins with Gawain's deathbed recognition that, by pursuing his vendetta against Lancelot, he has effectively drawn Arthur out of his kingdom, split his forces, created the breach which Mordred has exploited, and ended his own life in the process. He then acknowledges the fault, asks forgiveness, and tries to reconcile Arthur and Lancelot in time to save the kingdom. As these particular narratives also tend to be the ones in which Gawain is not always particularly noble, this deathbed admission of guilt and move toward reconciliation (though focused on specific transgressions) tends to diminish or overshadow earlier unsavory behaviors and leave an impression of overall nobility. In Malory, where Gawain's misdeeds perhaps require a more substantial redemption than in other versions, a further episode—in which Gawain's ghost, sent by God and escorted by all the ladies for whom he had righteously fought, appears to Arthur and offers prophetic advice—reiterates Gawain's worth in a more spiritual context. While it isn't entirely clear why Malory goes to such great lengths to redeem Gawain, it is worth noting that he does so quite effectively, and thus follows his literary forebears in assuring us that, by the end, Gawain is worthy of his place among the storied elite of Arthurian chivalry.
Gawain's consistently noble medieval death is not the end of his story, however, as he, like many of his compatriots, has continued to live and die in post-medieval retellings and re-workings of Arthurian tales. He hasn't inspired the kind of free-ranging narrative and poetic re-interpretations, character studies, and analogues that Lancelot, Guinevere, Arthur, and their love triangle have, but the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has become prominent in popular culture since its rediscovery in the 19th century, and retellings of incidents drawn from Malory often include or even focus on Gawain. In T.H. White's Malory-influenced Once and Future King series, for example, Gawain is an important character, particularly in the second book, The Witch in the Wood. This book actually begins with a series of narrative incidents (of White's own invention) that detail the Orkney brothers' morally ambiguous childhood, and their strained relationship with their emotionally-inaccessible and sadistic mother Morgause. The most gruesome of these incidents involves the poorly-executed capture and killing of a unicorn, undertaken in a failed attempt to please their preoccupied mother. In this telling, White takes a psychological approach to Malory's Gawain, presenting him as an inherently noble figure with good intentions whose horrible childhood has left him ill-equipped to tell right from wrong. Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex is another modern Arthurian epic that offers a psychological take on Gawain, though in this case Gawain is an otherwise noble and courtly knight who continually struggles with temptations of the flesh, and ultimately, in a highly eroticized retelling ofSir Gawain and the Green Knight, learns about the ambiguous moral space between chivalric ideals and natural human desires. Not all retellings are quite so heavy, however; there are a number of modern children's stories, plays, and even operas featuring Gawain, many of which are relatively straightforward adaptations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Modern Gawains are as variable as medieval ones, and it seems that Gawain has retained his signature elasticity of character. With so few limits and expectations for the character, and so many different iterations to use as models, Gawain remains a malleable figure that can be adapted to a wide range of authorial needs without upsetting narrative expectations.
Gawain may perhaps best be described as the Arthurian everyman, a character who often functions on a very human scale, failing and succeeding, but learning and progressing as well. It is this last that is perhaps most important in any overall consideration of Gawain as character. Sometimes he is the best knight, and sometimes not, but even as he fails he can learn from his mistakes, and sometimes becomes a better knight because of them. Ultimately, it may be this unusual capacity for character development, rooted in but not limited to his familial relationship with Arthur, that has made Gawain such a prominent figure in the Arthurian pantheon.