Characters of The Retreat to Avalon: Gawain ap Gwyar

Hi everyone. I’ve covered most of the obscure details in the Behind the Scenes series for Chapter 1, except for the characters. So the next few posts are going to be about those introduced so far. If there is a detail from the first chapter that your would like more information about, please leave a comment or contact me and I will follow up!

Now, I didn’t just make up all of the characters in The Retreat to Avalon. Most I have taken from history, at least what we know of it, or adapted them from legend. As I’ve said before, I split the Arthurian world into the historical (things we know from history), the legendary (things we know from the early Welsh legends) and the romance (stories of Arthur and his world from the much later French romance writers). My version of the Arthurian Age is firmly within the historical and the legendary. I make small nods to the romance at times, which you may catch, and which I will point out in these posts.

So let’s kick it off with the protagonist, Gawain. He’s my favorite of Arthur’s warriors, famed for his education, his courtesy, bravery, boldness and skill-at-arms. Compassionate and fiercely loyal, especially to King Arthur, he was a mentor to young knights, a protector of women, and defender of the poor.

Gawain was considered Arthur’s greatest knight until the French romance writers of seven centuries later decided to invent the character of Lancelot and spin the Arthurian world off in a totally different direction. Still, in all of the Arthurian writings, there are more stories about or including Gawain than any other character, including Arthur or Lancelot.

Joel Edgerton as Gawain, from the awful Clive Owen “King Arthur” movie.
Joel’s look as Gawain was the best part of that movie.

Why do I say “invent” for Lancelot, as opposed to Gawain? Well, to begin, Lancelot is first mentioned in Chr├ętien de Troyes’ poem Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, written in the late twelfth century. Some have tried to tie Lancelot to earlier Welsh heroes, but these names are not associated with anything recognizable as the character of Lancelot. The most likely explanation for the character is that Chr├ętien invented him, and the name had more to do with rhyming with ‘Camelot’ than any historical or legendary character.

Second, Gawain is one of the few people associated with Arthur from a very earlier period in the Welsh legends. His original name, Gwalchmai, is a Welsh adaptation of an older Brittonic name that may mean either “Hawk of May” or “Hawk of the Plain”. For most of the book, I have used the Welsh names, but in this case, I decided to go with Gawain, because for most non-Welsh readers, Gwalchmai would be hard to pronounce, and it doesn’t give the Arthurian feel that I hope to evoke.

Gawain from Chapter 3 of The Retreat to Avalon

Going way back…

The earliest reference to Gwalchmai is as a member of Arthur’s court in Culhwch and Olwen. In this story, Arthur sends him with five other warriors of his court to help Culhwch win his bride, Olwen.

Gwalchmai also appears in Peredur son of Efrawg (sound familiar?), a story from The Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh legends that likely have their roots in the dim memories of The Arthurian Age. In this story, Gwalchmai and two other knights inspire Peredur to become a knight. Later, Gwalchmai’s diplomatic skill turns Peredur into a close friend, and they go about many adventures, including the final battle against the nine witches of Caer Loyw.

Liam Neeson as Gawain
in John Boorman’s excellent 1981 movie, “Excalibur”.

In The Giants of Wales and Their Dwellings, published about 1600, Sion Dafydd Rhys records ancient legends of giants, the most common “monster” of the British Isles. One story describes Gwalchmai killing three giantess witches by trickery “because they could not be destroyed except by cunning, on account of their strength and power“.

In the Welsh Triads, Gwalchmai / Gawain is mentioned a number of times. In one, he is one of the “Three Well-Endowed Men of the Isle of Britain” (stay out of the gutter, it refers to his knowledge or education). In another, he is one of the “Three Men of the Island of Britain who were Most Courteous to Guests and Strangers”. This trait is reflected in early stories about Gawain, in which he acts as a sort of diplomat for King Arthur. In a third Triad, Gawain is praised for his fearlessness. In others, his steed, Ceincaled, is referred to as “bestowed”, and as one of “The Three Spirited Horses of the Isle of Prydain (Britain)”.

In the 1170 elegy for the Welsh king, Owain Gwynedd, known as “Owain the Great” and the first “Prince of Wales”, Owain is compared to Gawain for his boldness.

Sean Connery as The Green Knight faces Miles O’Keeffe as Sir Gawain
in the 1984 movie “Sword of the Valiant”.

A certain ancient book…

Gawain was known as ‘Walgainus’ in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written around 1136. Geoffrey represented it as a history of Britain. There is history within it, but much of the book is myth, some taken from ancient legends (which may have a seed of truth), others possibly created by Geoffrey to fill the gaps. He claimed to have translated it from an ancient book in the Brittonic language. He may be Britain’s first historical fiction author.

The most significant aspect of the book is that it is the first surviving account describing the events leading up to and including Arthur’s life. But sticking to the details of Gawain, our hero shows up in this version as the son of Lot and Arthur’s sister, Anna. Modred is his younger brother.

Gawain’s next mention in the story is as a twelve-year-old who Arthur sends to take service with the Pope in Rome. He is next found as a warrior and junior commander in Arthur’s army in Gaul, fighting against the Romans. Along with Hoel, he is distinguished in his bravery, boldness and skill at arms. Finally, in response to Modred’s attempted usurption of the throne in Britain, Arthur returns. Gawain and many others are killed trying to gain a beachhead for landing back on Britain.

The Modena Arch. Gawain is depicted as the first left-facing knight on the right side.
From Wikipedia.

Here’s an interesting bit of information: Gawain shows up on a carved arch in Modena, Italy, the ‘Porta della Pescheria’. The carving on the arch depicts a scene from Arthurian legends and names Arthur, Gawain, and other knights. This arch, the earliest carved depiction of an Arthurian tale, is thought to be completed well before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, which is evidence that Arthur was well known before Geoffrey published his book.

A little romance…

As I mentioned, the Romances tend to ruin Gawain. With so many different writers using and abusing our hero, there are a variety of depictions. But as time goes on, and writers began to use Lancelot’s character as Arthur’s greatest knight, they begin to portray Gawain as less noble. They even make him responsible for some of the events leading to Arthur’s fall, though with redemption in the end. Personally, I find this character assassination reprehensible.

Illustration from original manuscript of Gawain and the Green Knight.
From Wikipedia.

One of the best Arthurian stories to come out of the romances is Gawain and the Green Knight, written down around 1350 by an anonymous author in England’s Northwest Midlands. It seems to recall older legends, particularly the beheading game, from Britain’s and Ireland’s pagan past. The themes of this story, however, are about chivalric ideals, temptation, and testing. The conflict between knightly duties and honour, courtly love and respect to a host.

There are many more, wonderful, stories about Gawain and his adventures. As this series of posts goes along, I will point out those that I incorporate. It is clear that Gawain made an impact on the Arthurian world. I like to think his character was based on an actual person, and so I have tried to depict the world he would have known.

More about Gawain will come out in future posts. My next post will talk about Gawain’s family. I hope you enjoyed this, and stop by for the next one.

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