Chivalry, loyalty, and courage are just some of the traits that Sir Gawain is known for in the Arthurian legends. The Arthurian legends were composed from the twelfth century to the mid-fourteenth century by various authors, some known and some anonymous. Both “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell” and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the fourteenth century, reveal Gawain’s positive traits and his flaws.
As King Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain is one of King Arthur’s main knights of the Round Table. He is one of the more well-known knights in the Arthurian legends, and his flaws are rarely shown throughout the legends. Sir Gawain also has many brothers; however, they are not mentioned in many stories and are of little significance until Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. Gawain also has children of his own, yet they are not major characters either in the Arthurian legends. Gawain is usually known for standing up to any challenge that he has to in order to obey the knightly code. He will always obey his king and face danger regardless of the price. Even though Gawain is known for his strength, his weaknesses are also illustrated in the stories. His weaknesses show a side of him that is human and that readers can really understand.
Perhaps King Arthur’s most loyal knight, Sir Gawain proves he is chivalrous and has both honor and nobility. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur is challenged by a Green Knight to a beheading game, one that threatens the life of King Arthur. After seeing his lord’s life in danger, Sir Gawain steps in to say, “I beseech, before all here, that this melee may be mine,” in order to relieve King Arthur from his pledge (341). Gawain’s courage and loyalty to the king are valued greatly and show why he is King Arthur’s greatest knight. Gawain would never let his king take such a challenge, even if the other knights show their cowardice.
Another example of Sir Gawain’s self-sacrifice for his king is seen in “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell.” King Arthur is once again given a challenge he cannot refuse but is aided by Sir Gawain’s comitatus when they both are forced to seek out what all women want. Only after Sir Gawain promises to marry the hag is the answer to the question revealed, once again earning the approval of King Arthur. Sir Gawain is then rewarded in the end when he gives Dame Ragnell sovereignty.
Even though Sir Gawain seems like a flawless hero, every character has his weaknesses and they are usually tragic. Sir Gawain, though seen as a hero in the Middle English texts, has flaws that add depth to his character, such as temptation and false courage. In some French stories of Arthur, Gawain is also viewed as a villain and as promiscuous; still, he is mainly seen as King Arthur’s most prestigious knight. Even though Sir Gawain shows his loyalty to King Arthur in the beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, towards the end his courage turns to cowardice as temptation sets in. The lady of the castle in which Sir Gawain is given shelter gives Sir Gawain a girdle that promises invincibility. However, Sir Gawain has also promised that whatever gift is given to him, he will forfeit to the lord of the castle. Gawain’s lack of courage is proven when he fails to follow through with his promise and keeps the girdle because he is afraid of death. This character trait, though ruining his reputation, demonstrates that Sir Gawain is not perfect and has flaws just like everybody, which makes him more likeable and understandable.
Regardless of Sir Gawain’s flaws, he is still seen as one of the greatest knights of the Round Table and as King Arthur’s most chivalrous companion. Even Sir Gawain’s flaws turn out to be a positive traits by making him more amiable. To this day, Sir Gawain is one of the most well-known knights of the Arthurian legends.
David, Alfred and James Simpson. The Norton Anthology: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006.
“The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell”. In Middle English Verse Romances. Ed. Donald B. Sands. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966.