Sir Gawain
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Sir Gawain: The Most Passionate of Arthur’s Knights

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Sir Gawain is a major character in the Arthurian legends. He was one of King Arthur’s most faithful allies and one of the most enduring figures in the entire corpus of Arthurian literature.

In this article, we will see:

  • Who Gawain was
  • Why he was such an important character
  • How he helped King Arthur
  • Who his family was

Additionally, if you want more on the Arthurian Legends, be sure to check out my hub page for everything.


Sir Gawain was one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. He was a young, noble warrior who was fiercely loyal to his king.

His strong loyalty to Arthur may have stemmed, at least in part, from that fact that Arthur was actually his uncle. The exact relationship between the two varies depending on the source.

In his earliest appearances, Gawain is shown to be a figure worthy of imitation, a true knight who practises chivalry and behaves courteously.

However, as Arthurian literature progressed, Gawain’s character changed. His position as the ideal knight was taken by other characters, and his moral standing was lowered significantly.


Gawain’s name takes on many, many different forms across the various sources. Some of the most notable examples include:

  • Calvano
  • Gagains
  • Galwainus
  • Galwan
  • Gauvain
  • Walgan
  • Walewein
  • Gawane
  • Wawayne

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s landmark Historia Regum Britanniae, he appears as ‘Gualguanus’.

All of these forms ultimately derived from twisted forms of the Welsh name ‘Gwalchmai’, which is how he appears in the Welsh legends.

The name ‘Gwalchmai’ is composed of two elements. The first is clearly ‘gwalch’, meaning ‘hawk’. The second, ‘mai’, can mean ‘field’, although it is sometimes interpreted in this context as meaning ‘May’.

Therefore, Gawain’s name either means ‘hawk of the field’ or ‘hawk of May’.


Gawain is usually depicted as a young knight, which makes sense given that he was supposed to be the nephew of the king.

One of Gawain’s strongest qualities was his loyalty. It was for this reason that he had such a trusted relationship with King Arthur.

Notably, Gawain was the brother of Mordred, the infamous betrayer of Arthur. Gawain could easily have joined his brother if he had wanted to, but he stuck with Arthur. This shows the depth of his loyalty to the king.

An interesting attribute of Gawain’s which appears in some texts involves a connection to the sun. In Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (and others), Gawain’s strength waxed and waned with the sun.

He was also famed for the uprightness of his morals. He was a protector of those less fortunate than he was. He helped the poor, he saved maidens in distress, and his supported other young knights. His religious piety was also notable.

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Gawain was connected to the most important families in Britain. As we have already noted, he was a nephew of King Arthur and the brother of the infamous Mordred.

The earliest source which describes the connection between Gawain and Arthur is the Welsh text Culhwch and Olwen. This explains that Gawain (or ‘Gwalchmai’, as he is called) was the son of Arthur’s sister.

This is reiterated in Historia Regum Britanniae, where Gawain is also the son of Arthur’s sister.

However, where these two early sources differ is that the Historia Regum Britanniae calls Arthur’s sister Anna, whereas the Welsh tale calls her Gwyar.

It is possible that these were two different names for the same woman, or there might be some confusion between two of Arthur’s sisters.

In yet later sources, Gawain’s mother is called Morgause, or a close variation.

In any case, Gawain’s mother was the wife of King Lot of Lothian, a powerful king of the north of Britain and the brother of Urien Rheged, historically one of the most powerful kings of the mid to late sixth century.

Gawain’s key family members were:

  • Lot of Lothian (father)
  • Anna/Gwyar/Morgause (mother)
  • King Arthur (maternal uncle)
  • Llacheu (cousin)
  • Mordred (brother)
  • Gwalhafed (brother)
  • Gareth (brother, possibly same as above)
  • Gaheris (brother, possibly same as above)
  • Agravain (brother)
  • Urien Rheged (paternal uncle)
  • Owain (cousin)


There is no single legend of Sir Gawain, because he appears in almost every Arthurian story. With many of them, it is not clear when exactly in his life they are supposed to be set. Nonetheless, we will attempt a reasonable chronological outline of the stories of his life here.


As the child of Lot of Lothian, Gawain was brought up in the royal court of Lothian, which was in the north of Britain. At least, this is what is implied in the Historia Regum Britanniae.

Later legends disagree. According to the 13th century Les Enfances Gauvain (and a similar story is found in Perlesvaus and others) Lot and his wife, Morgause, decide to send their child away immediately after its birth.

This is because Lot has no royal position at the time, so they wish to keep the pregnancy and birth a secret.

The baby is handed to a knight called Gawain the Brown, who gives the boy his own name. He then sends him away on a little raft into the sea, along with a letter explaining who he is.

Young Gawain is found by a fisherman and his wife, who then raise him as their own.


Eventually, when Gawain grows to be an adolescent, he is taken on a pilgrimage to Rome.

While there, Gawain’s royal heritage (as explained in the letter he possesses) comes to the attention of the pope. The pope then takes Gawain in as his own foster son, where he spends the next few years.

This story has a clear precedent in the earlier Historia Regum Britanniae. In that source, a much more realistic account of Gawain’s youth is found.

It implies nothing unusual about his birth or early childhood, but it says that when he was twelve years old, he was sent to the service of Pope Supplicius (probably Pope Pelagius I).


In the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate sources, various kings rebelled against Arthur right at the start of his reign. Gawain’s father, Lot, was notably involved in this rebellion.

Gawain decided to abandon his father when he learned of his relationship to Arthur. He and his brothers (Agravain, Gareth, Gaheris, and Mordred) sought out Arthur to join his royal court.

When they meet up with him, Arthur is fighting a war against the Saxons. Gawain and his brother assist Arthur in defeating the Saxons, and they are subsequently knighted and officially become a part of King Arthur’s court.

Notably, this contradicts the earlier Historia Regum Britanniae, which makes Gawain a mere 12-year-old after the end of Arthur’s Saxon wars, deep into the king’s reign. In fact, the chronology contained therein suggests that Gawain was born around the time of the Battle of Badon, the climax of the Saxon wars.

In this version, Gawain is not shown to actually join Arthur’s army until his war against the Roman commander Lucius, when Gawain would have been about twenty-six years old.


One of Gawain’s gifts was that he was excellent at persuasion. This made him a very effective peacemaker, not just between himself and others, but also between other people.

In Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval, Gawain’s courtly manner and his patience allow him to bring Perceval to Arthur. The same basic story occurs in other romance tales, such as Erec et Enid and Yvain.

This is also seen in the Welsh romance Ystorya Trystan. In this, Gawain (called ‘Gwalchmai’) makes peace between Trystan and Arthur and brings the former to the king, just as he brought Perceval to Arthur in Chretien’s story.

This ability is also mentioned in the Welsh Triads. In one of these triads, he is called one of the ‘Three Golden-Tongued Knights’ of Arthur’s court, because no one could refuse to listen to him.


Gawain appears in so many of the Arthurian romances – virtually all of them, in fact – that it would be impossible to list all the different feats that he was said to have performed, or all the stories that there are about him.

However, some notable minor adventures include the following:

  • He engaged in several quests to find Sir Lancelot.
  • He was imprisoned by King Caradoc of the Dolorous Tower
  • He forcibly became the lord of the Castle of Ten Knights for six years because he defeated the knights but not the lord, and was finally freed when Lancelot defeated the knights and Gawain.
  • He slept with the daughter of the king of North Wales, leading to the king attacking him.
  • He became trapped on the Rock of the Maidens after he went there to enjoy the company of the maidens, and was eventually freed by his brother Gaheris.


Undoubtedly the most famous story involving Gawain is the story of the Green Knight. This is found in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the 14th century in alliterative verse.


The story starts while King Arthur and his knights are celebrating Christmas. Suddenly, the Green Knight appears. He is a giant, green figure riding a green horse. In his hand is an axe. 

He challenges anyone who dares to cut off his head. However, the Green Knight will then get to cut off the challenger’s head one year and a day later.

After none of the knights accept the challenge, Arthur is about to offer to do it, when Gawain asks for the honor instead.

Gawain beheads the giant easily, since he offers his neck to the young knight. However, the Green Knight simply picks up his head and walks away, but not before reminding Gawain of their deal. Gawain must meet him at the Green Chapel in a year’s time.


Before the year is up, Gawain sets off from Camelot to search for the Green Chapel. Eventually, he comes across a castle.

The lord of the castle and his wife receive Gawain joyfully. There is also an ugly, old lady at the castle.

Gawain explains to the lord what he is doing there, and the lord tells him that the Green Chapel is just a short walk away, so he suggests that Gawain stays at the castle to rest until the day of his meeting with the Green Knight.

Gawain accepts his offer. The lord also proposes a bargain to Gawain. Every day until the day of the meeting, he would give to Gawain whatever he caught while hunting. In return, Gawain would give the lord whatever he received that day.

Each night, the lord’s wife tries to seduce Gawain, but he refuses, allowing her only a kiss. Thus, while the lord gives him whatever he caught while hunting (such as a boar), Gawain gives the lord the kisses that he had received, though not telling him where he had received them from.

Finally, the lord’s wife gives Gawain not only her affection, but also a green and gold sash. She tells him that this will protect him from all physical harm.

Later, Gawain gives the lord the kisses his wife had given him, as before, but he does not even mention the sash.


Gawain then sets off to meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. It is essentially a cave within a large mound of earth.

The Green Knight is waiting for him. As promised, Gawain offers the Greek Knight his head. The Green Knight strikes the back of Gawain’s neck with full force, but it gives him only a mild cut.

The Green Knight then reveals that he is the lord of the castle, Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert. He also reveals that the sorceress Morgan le Fay is behind this, and that she had wanted to test Arthur’s knights and also scare his wife Guinevere to death.

Morgan le Fay, as it turns out, was the ugly old lady he saw at the castle.

The reason that Gawain received a mild cut from the Green Knight’s blow, rather than being protected from all harm as promised by the lord’s wife, is because of his dishonesty in not revealing the sash to the lord.

Nonetheless, the lord, Bertilak, proclaims Gawain the most righteous knight in all the land. The two men part on good terms.


The quest for the Holy Grail is a key part of the later Arthurian romances, and it is closely connected with the most upright of Arthur’s knights.

However, Gawain is not virtuous enough to obtain the Grail. Unlike some others, he was not able to perceive the spiritual significance of the Grail. The stories portray him as being more secular than knights such as Galahad.

While he is the first to declare that he will search for the Holy Grail, he does this not out of religious fervor or a desire to heal the Fisher King’s kingdom, but because he desires more magical feasts and drinks.

Because he relied on his own abilities rather than seeking help through holy sacraments, his quest for the Holy Grail ends in failure.


After Arthur had conquered Gaul, the Romans took exception to this and demanded that he submit to them. This incited Arthur to lead a large army to Gaul to fight the Romans.

Arthur sent out a body of men, led in part by his nephew Gawain, to meet the Romans and demand that they retreat from the coasts of Gaul.

They do this, but then the nephew of the Roman commander, named Caius Quintilianus, insulted the Britons, saying that they were better at boasting than fighting. Gawain took exception to this and cut off the man’s head.

This resulted in a battle with the Romans, with the Britons coming off victorious.

The following year, the final battle between Arthur and the Romans occurred, at the Battle of Siesia. Gawain was one of the commanders during this event.

He fought powerfully against the Romans, and even engaged in direct combat with Lucius, the leader, until the Roman soldiers intervened and repulsed the British commander. In any case, the Britons eventually won the battle and thus the war.


Due to the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, Arthur ordered Guinevere to be executed. Lancelot saves her, but in doing so, he accidentally kills Gaheris and Gareth.

Furious, Gawain gets Arthur to engage in war against Lancelot, pursuing him to Gaul. Eventually, Gawain and Lancelot fight in single combat. Lancelot defeats him, giving Gawain a severe head wound.

However, Gawain does not die immediately. In one version, Mort Artu, Gawain then goes to help Arthur fight against the Romans. This aggravates his head wound even more.


The story of Gawain’s death has many different versions. However, virtually all of them agree that Gawain died at about the time of Mordred’s rebellion.

In the Mort Artu, Gawain feels that he is going to die after the Romans are defeated. As Arthur is returning to Britain to put down Mordred’s rebellion, Gawain tells Arthur that he is going to die, which he does shortly afterwards.

In Malory, Gawain’s head wound is aggravated not by the Romans, but by a blow to the head from an oar by one of Mordred’s men. While dying, he writes a letter to Lancelot, begging for his forgiveness.

In the earlier Historia Regum Britanniae, Gawain is one of many who die while Arthur’s army is trying to land at Richborough, opposed by Mordred’s forces.


Sources for the legend of Gawain include almost the entire corpus of Arthurian literature, since he is such a prevalent character.

One early source is Culhwch and Olwen, a Welsh text from about the eleventh century or so.

Another early source from the story of Gawain is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, written in c. 1137.

The key source for the most famous story involving Gawain is the 14th century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Another important source for his life and death is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

References to Gawain are also contained in the Welsh Triads.


Sir Gawain features in numerous pieces of modern Arthurian literature. Some examples include:

  • Knights of the Round Table: This 1953 movie by Richard Thorpe features Gawain, although as a relatively minor character.
  • Arthur Rex: This 1978 novel by Thomas Berger portrays Gawain as introspective and aware of his flaws, which is actually one of his greatest qualities.
  • Excalibur: This famous 1981 movie by John Boorman is a classic retelling of the legend of Arthur, featuring Gawain as one of his knights.
  • Merlin: This 2008 BBC series features Gawain as ‘Sir Gwaine’, a noble who initially presents himself as a peasant but eventually becomes one of Arthur’s knights.
  • Sonic and the Black Knight: This 2009 video game by Sega portrays a version of the Arthurian legends mixed with the lore of Sonic the Hedgehog. Gawain is associated with Knuckles.

See our complete list of Arthurian characters for more entries like this one.

Arthurian Bibliography

See also my ever-expanding list of primary and secondary sources.



Gawain used a magical sash that the wife of Lord Bertilak had given him to protect him when the Green Knight struck the back of his neck with an axe.


Gawain died around the time of Mordred’s rebellion. Most accounts explain that he died by Mordred’s own forces. Others say that he was mortally wounded by Lancelot.


No one knows for sure if Gawain was real. At the very least, he is known to have been based on the earlier Welsh figure Gwalchmai son of Gwyar. But some scholars believe that he was originally a Celtic sun god.


Most tales do not give Gawain a wife. However, in at least one tale, he had a lover named Blanchemal, a fay who bore him a son, Gingalain.

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Jason is a Mythic Fantasy Author and creator of MythBank. He loves mythology, history, and geek culture. When he's not writing, his favorite hobbies include hiking, chilling with his wife, spouting nonsense words at his baby daughter, and developing this (and other) websites.

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