Gawain (or /gəˈweɪn/; also called Gwalchmei, Gawan, Gauvain, Walewein, etc.) is King Arthur's nephew and a Knight of the Round Table who appears very early in the Arthurian legend's development. He is one of a select number of Round Table members to be referred to as the greatest knight, most notably in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He is almost always portrayed as the son of Arthur's sister Morgause (or Anna) and King Lot of Orkney and Lothian, and his brothers are Agravain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Mordred. In some works he has sisters as well. Gawain is often portrayed as a formidable but brash warrior, fiercely loyal to his king and family. He is a friend to young knights, a defender of the poor, and a consummate ladies' man. In some works, his strength waxes and wanes with the sun; in the most common form of this motif, his might triples by noon, but fades as the sun sets. His knowledge of herbs makes him a great healer, and he is credited with at least three children: Florence, Lovell, and Gingalain, the last of which is also called Libeaus Desconus or Le Bel Inconnu, the Fair Unknown. In later Welsh Arthurian literature, Gawain is considered synonymous with the native champion Gwalchmei.
Scholars are not entirely convinced that the later character of Gawain is derived from the Welsh Gwalchmei ap Gwyar, but later Welsh writers clearly thought this was the case; the name "Gwalchmei" consistently substitutes for "Gawain" in Cymric translations and adaptations of foreign works, such as the Welsh Romances of the Mabinogion. The name itself is the subject of speculation; in Welsh, the term gwalch translates as falcon or hawk, but both mei and mai are more obscure. They may be archaic petrified genitives of Middle Welsh ma, meaning "plain, field" (from Brythonic *magos, genitive *magesos), but the exact relationship is debated. Mai is the modern Welsh name for the month of May, leading to the popular speculation that the name means "Hawk of May," but this derivation is unlikely. Additionally, not all scholars accept the gwalch derivation; noted Celticist John Koch has suggested the name could be derived from a Brythonic original *Wolcos Magesos, "Wolf/Errant Warrior of the Plain. At any rate the spelling "Gwalchmai" has become popular, and there is a small village in Anglesey called Gwalchmai, probably named after the 12th century bard Gwalchmai ap Meilyr.
Gawain is a major character in the Arthurian section of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, where he is a superior warrior and potential heir to the throne until he is tragically struck down by Mordred's forces. The sheer amount of later works featuring him speaks to his popularity; he is an important character in most of Chrétien de Troyes' romances, functioning as a model of chivalry to whom the protagonist is compared and contrasted. His role in the unfinished Perceval, the Story of the Grail is so substantial that some commenters have wondered if his adventures were originally meant to form a separate book. However, Chrétien's title hero usually proves morally superior to Gawain, who follows the rules of courtliness and chivalry to the letter rather than the spirit.
A large number of romances in French appeared in Chrétien's wake, and Gawain was portrayed in various ways. Sometimes he is the hero, sometimes he aids the hero, sometimes he is the subject of burlesque humor. In the Vulgate Cycle, he is depicted as a proud and worldly knight who demonstrates through his failures the danger of neglecting the spirit for the futile gifts of the material world. On the Grail quest, his intentions are always the purest, but he is unable to use God's grace to see the error in his ways. Later, when his brothers Agravain and Mordred plot to destroy Lancelot and Guinevere by exposing their love affair, Gawain tries to stop them. When Guinevere is sentenced to burn at the stake and Arthur deploys his best knights to guard the execution, Gawain nobly refuses to take part in the deed even though his brothers will be there. But when Lancelot returns to rescue Guinevere, a battle between Lancelot's and Arthur's knights ensues and Gawain's brothers, except for Mordred, are killed. This turns his friendship with Lancelot into hatred, and his desire for vengeance causes him to draw Arthur into a war with Lancelot in France. In the king's absence, Mordred usurps the throne, and the Britons must return to save Britain. Gawain is mortally wounded in battle against Mordred's armies, and writes to Lancelot apologizing for his actions and asking for him to come to Britain to help defeat Mordred.
In the Prose Tristan and the Post-Vulgate Cycle Gawain is a villain and a murderer. This depiction was not as popular in subsequent literature, however, as this type of generic evil does not make for a very good hero or foil for a hero, or indeed even an interesting villain. For the most part Gawain remained an honorable if flawed champion.
These glowing portraits of Gawain all but ended with Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, which is based mainly, but not exclusively, on French works from the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles. Here Gawain retains the negative characteristics attributed to him by the later French, and the popularity of Malory's work ensured that most post-medieval English-language writing would retain those characteristics. Nonetheless, Gawain is cited in Robert Laneham's letter describing the entertainments at Kenilworth in 1575, and the recopying of earlier works such as The Greene Knight suggests that a popular tradition of Gawain continued. The Child Ballads include a preserved legend in the positive light, The Marriage of Sir Gawain a fragmentary version of the story of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, and recently, many writers have returned to the old English and Welsh sources and found a much more heroic Gawain. The character appears in a positive light in novels like Gillian Bradshaw's Hawk of May, Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex, and Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle. He is also the subject of Harrison Birtwhistle's and David Harsent's opera Gawain.