Characters of The Retreat to Avalon: Gawain’s Family & Friends

I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season. I’m tardy, as usual with getting out a new post, so let’s get to it. Today we’re continuing with the characters introduced in Chapter 1 of The Retreat to Avalon. Last time we talked about Gawain, so this time we’re going to talk about his family and close friends.

As I’ve said, I didn’t just make up all of the characters in the book. Most come from history or legend, with occasional nods to the French Romances. So what have the sources to say about Gawain’s family and friends?

Who’s your Daddy?

As I discussed in the last post, Gawain is one of the earliest of Arthurian characters, and some think he is based on an actual person associated with Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the earliest surviving source for the complete tale of Arthur, says that Gawain was the son of Anna, the sister of Arthur, and Lot, the king of Lothian (a small kingdom near Edinburgh, Scotland). This made him an heir to Arthur’s throne. The later French Romance writers (most likely from Geoffrey’s influence), maintained that tradition, but changed Anna to Morgause, a Romance addition to the siblings of Arthur. I suspect that Anna was forgotten from the earlier tradition.

However, Gawain is called Gwalchmai ap (son of) Gwyar in the earliest known reference, the story of Culhwch and Olwen. There is a brief verse that says that he was the son of Arthur’s sister and kinsman. I think that this was a later addition to the original oral poem by the person who put the poem down in writing, trying to reconcile the ancient oral record with the story recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain.

Why? Well, in this time before family surnames, people were referred to as name, son (or daughter) of parent. Typically, a patronym was used, linking the child to the father. But using a matronym, if rare, was not unheard of. Gwyar means “bloodshed”, and can be either a male or female name. I pity the daughter raised to be called “Bloodshed”.

In any case, this confusion of Gawain’s parentage has been addressed by later Medieval and modern writers by suggesting that Gwyar was the name of Gawain’s mother. So this creates additional confusion, because Arthur was said to have a sister named Anna, but not one named Gwyar, and his father was said to have been Lot, not Gwyar. What’s going on?

As I said in the last post, medieval writers tried to make anyone of importance a relative of every other important person. It was part of the idea that bloodlines and breeding was behind nobility. Since Geoffrey and the Romance writers were penning their stories more than five centuries after Arthur and Gawain would have lived, they likely filled in any missing details with whatever seemed plausible to them.

I suspect that they linked Gawain to Lot because he was one of the few kings of Northern Britain that they were sure of, and there was enough tradition to place him there, at least to begin. And since Gawain was so important, especially early on, he must have been related to Arthur.

With all of this in consideration, I find it unlikely that Gawain was related directly to Arthur. Britain was still fairly tribal in this era after the Roman departure, and had not developed the feudal system that became the framework of understanding government and kinship in the later medieval period. So, my depiction of Gawain is that his mother is Anna, though not related to Arthur’s sister (Anna being a common name), and his father is Gwyar (Bloodshed being a perfectly good name for a warrior).

But who is Gwyar? Aside from the reference in Culhwch and Olwen, we don’t know. This left me some room to maneuver in creating his character and backstory. But in my obsessive way, I couldn’t just make it up. I had to find something in the history or legend where he could fit. That is revealed partially in chapter two and in more detail in chapter five. I’ll talk about it now, because it’s important to where Gawain’s family fits into the puzzle.

Gwyar, from Chapter Three of The Retreat to Avalon

What about Gawain’s mother? In my book, she is named Anna, the only child of Gofannon, the former chief of Pollog. When Gofannon dies, Ceretic rewards Gwyar with marriage to Anna, thus making him a landed chieftain of Alt Clut.

Sibling Rivalry

Gwalhafed, with his wooden leg, at the table. Chapter three of The Retreat to Avalon.

Gwalhafed is Gawain’s brother and his name also comes from the court list in Culhwch and Olwen. Unlike the later Romances, he is the only other family member associated with Gwalchmai/Gawain. He is also the one most likely to become Gaheris, the brother of Gawain in the Romances. A powerful warrior and Gwyar’s first born, he is the image of his father, while Gawain, who surpasses him, favors his mother.

Gareth is shown as Gawain’s best friend, rather than his brother. It’s not uncommon for people, especially in the military, to develop close ties and consider their friends as family. It is thought that the Romances split Gwalhafed into two characters, Gareth and Gaheris. In my story, Gareth’s family is originally from Alt Clut, unlike Gawain’s father. Gareth’s father has died, and he takes care of his mother. His uncle has assumed the role of head of the household and sponsors his role as a mounted warrior (which shows that his family owns land). Gawain and Gareth have grown up together and become close friends, with Gareth often being a moderating influence on Gawain’s impulsiveness.

Happy Wife, Happy Life

Next, let’s talk about Rhian, Gawain’s wife. She comes from the Gododdin, as well. If you have subscribed to my publisher’s email list for my books (here), you would have received a free ebook showing how they met. Rhian’s family is not landed, but her father is a merchant, so they have a modicum of wealth. For me, choosing Rhian as his wife came about because there is no historical or legendary information on Gawain’s spouse. There are various accounts in the Romances, but instead of using those, I have adapted some of those stories in ways that will show up through books 1 and 2. We’ll talk about them as they come along.

I think this is cool!

Piran, from Chapter Two of The Retreat to Avalon.

Finally, let’s talk about Piran. In The Retreat to Avalon, he is a tutor to the family and a lay minister to the community. We learn more, in chapter 2, that Gwyar bought Piran as a slave and gave him his freedom in return for teaching Gwyar’s children to read and write. Piran filled an important role for me in this book. He is a link to one of the two people from Arthur’s time that we still have written records from. I’m talking about St. Patrick, and it is an interesting story.

Sometime in the mid 400’s, warriors of Alt Clut raided Ireland (Hibernia or Iwerddon, as it was known then) and took a number of slaves back to Britain. Such raids back and forth between Britain and Ireland were a common and ancient practice. However, these turned out to be recent Christian converts of then Bishop Patrick, and he was incensed that Christians would enslave other Christians and then especially to sell them to apostate Picts (likely Picts that lived in Alt Clut or south-western Scotland and had been Christians but had turned away). Patrick sent a letter to Ceretic asking for the slaves to be returned, but it was met with insults and ridicule. Patrick was infuriated and sent a second letter (the one we have), this time to Ceretic’s warriors, excommunicating them all, until they returned the slaves.

We don’t know for sure what followed, but it is suspected that this frightened them all enough to immediately return the captured folk to Ireland. As my story goes, Piran felt compelled to stay to teach what he had learned from Patrick, sort of a reverse of the Patrick story, and became a de facto member of Gwyar’s family. There is more to his story, but we’ll save that spoiler for when we come to it.

Ok, thanks again for stopping by. I hope you enjoyed this article, and I’d love to hear from you with any questions or comments. And here’s to a happy new year!

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