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In Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain (Gawan, Gauvain, Walewein etc.) is King Arthur's nephew and a knight of the Round Table. He appears very early in the legend's development. He is almost always portrayed as the son 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 knight, fiercely loyal to his king and family. He is a friend to young knights, a defender of the poor, and a total ladies' man. His strength waxes and wanes with the sun; his mighttriples by noon, but fades as the sun sets. He is credited in romance 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 Welsh Arthurian literature Gawain appears as Gwalchmei ap Gwyar.

Gawain is a relatively major character in the Arthurian section of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and the character Gwalchmei appears in Culhwch and Olwen and the Welsh Triads. Although it is not entirely certain that Gawain and Gwalchmei began as the same character, later Welsh writers clearly thought they were equivalent; Gawain is called Gwalchmei in the Welsh translation of Geoffrey's Historia and in the Welsh romances. In Culhwch Gwalchmei and four other of Arthur's best champions accompany Culhwch on his journey to find his love Olwen, showing that the nephew of Arthur was an important character even before the influence of Geoffrey.

In Geoffrey, Gawain is a premier warrior and potential heir to the throne until he is killed by Mordred's forces, and the sheer amount of later works featuring him speaks to his popularity. He is a major character in most of Chrétien de Troyes' romances, functioning as a model of chivalry which the protagonist is compared and contrasted to. However, the 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 the wake of Chrétien, 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 best, but he is unable to use God's grace to see the error in his ways. Later, When his brothersAgravain 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 refuses to take part 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 insatiable 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. Gawain is mortally wounded fighting against Mordred's forces. In a letter to Lancelot the dying Gawain apologizes for his actions and asks that Lancelot 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 popular in subsequent literature, however, as this type of generic evil doesn't 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.

For the English and Scottish, Gawain remained a respectable and heroic figure. He is the subject of several romances and lyrics in the dialects of those countries, and his reputation remained untarnished through a reluctance to follow the French in portraying a British knight negatively. He is the hero of one of the greatest works of Middle English literature, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where he is portrayed as an excellent, but human, knight.

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 French, and the popularity of Malory's work ensured that most post-medieval English-language writing would retain those characteristics. Recently, however, 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.da:Gawan de:Gawan no:Gawan


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