You wouldn't think it would really be a problem. Gawain's one of the shining stars of Camelot. He has more adventures than anyone but Lancelot, and his pedigree is better than that French interloper's, anyway. His marriage to Lady Ragnell is one of the great love stories of the whole cycle, and unlike most of the others it even has a happy ending. He's there at the beginning, and he lasts almost until the bitter end.
|Sir Gawaine Finds the Beautiful Lady, Howard Pyle|
It's pretty easy to see where this change happens. The instant Lancelot comes on the scene, everyone else gets massively downgraded. It makes sense, of course; the greatest knight in the world is going to trounce everyone else in everything, be it chivalry, honor, or feats of arms. He's the greatest for a reason. But Gawain takes the brunt of that hit. He doesn't just lose prestige at court, he loses character depth. The day before Lancelot arrived, he was upstanding, honorable, valiant, and badass. By the next morning, he becomes crass, boastful, and kind of an idiot.
Hey, French troubadours! I'll still like your character even if he's not the only nice guy in the bunch. I PROMISE, OKAY?
|Orkney Princes, LilyBotanica|
|The Joust, Mariusz Kozik|
|The Green Knight, Julek Heller|
It's much more interesting to look at Gawain as the embodiment of Camelot, in microcosm. At first, young and on his own, he achieves incredible glory through his own bravery and resolve. He basks in the glow of his accomplishments without resting on his laurels, building a reputation for honor as his fame spreads. And it's through the direct intervention of familial ties, that the seeds are sown for his downfall.
I don't know about you guys, but that sounds a lot like Arthur, and the course of Camelot itself, to me.
Not that it's intentional. I don't think the storytellers shaped Gawain's tale like this on purpose. It's far more likely that they realized they'd forgotten about their initial Best Knight and pulled him back in for the climax, disregarding his early characterization. But I also don't think it's an accident that Gawain is destroyed by his devotion to his family, just as Arthur (and Camelot by extension) is destroyed by his son's betrayal. At its core, the Death of Arthur is a dysfunctional family drama played out on a world stage. As Arthur's nephew, Gawain is implicated in that drama and doomed by it.
It all comes down to family. The youthful idealism of the beginning is broken by the betrayal of kin at the end. It holds true for every member of Arthur's family. But Gawain, who has a place with the heroes as well as with the villains, is the only one whose life mirrors the trajectory of Arthur's kingdom.