Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Problem With Gawain

I have a problem. It's very serious. Ladies and gentlemen, I confess to you all that I am a Gawainaholic.

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
But while those are among the many reasons why I love Gawain, there are also the inevitable issues of character continuity in a story cycle tweaked over centuries with no initial canon. The interpretation of my favorite knight's character runs the gamut from dreamy ideal knight to dimwitted oaf to bloody avenger. It's very hard to reconcile the bold idealist of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" with the end of Malory, when Gawain pursues vengeance against Lancelot even when it costs his life and the security of Arthur's rule. Even allowing for the inevitable jading of a youth as he matures, that is a huge change in personality from the kid who's heartbroken when he fails to do the right thing. Later variations of the Loathly Lady story even impose a random separation between Gawain and Ragnell, where she leaves him after a certain number of years because she "must." (There is no truly official Arthurian canon - even Malory wrote long after the legends had mutated beyond any original form - so I ignore this nonsense utterly. In my Arthuriana, Gawain and Ragnell live happily ever after forever.)

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
It's also no coincidence that in his later, less glorious years, Gawain is deeply identified with the rest of his siblings, the bold and problematic Orkney princes. The children of the traitorous Morgause and Lot turn out very flawed (with the exception of Gareth, who of course is Lancelot's best friend and of course gets accidentally killed, which provides the reason for Gawain's loss of reason at the end of his life). Agravain is generally seen as all bad, mainly because he hangs out with Mordred, who's also in a way part of the Orkney brood. Gareth is a sweetheart, Gawain often a blustering bruiser, Gaheris a nonentity who can go either way. But despite their many good points (not least of which is their loyalty to Arthur), the Orkney princes are instrumental in the downfall of Camelot. Gaheris (or on occasion Agravain) ropes his brothers into a blood feud with their mother's lover, which results in the death of Lamorak and the exiling of a few of the Orkney princes. Gareth's death at rage-blinded Lancelot's hands shatters what goodwill is left, driving Gawain to an obsessive quest for revenge that pits Arthur against Lancelot, sends Guinevere to a nunnery, and leaves Britain undefended when Mordred makes his move. You'd think we'd have heard something about Gawain's intensely close relationships with his brothers before - you know, a touching farewell when he heads off to face the Green Knight, or a bawdy commiseration as he prepares to marry hideous Lady Ragnell - but no. Gawain is a lone wolf when heroic. And all his less-than-heroic deeds tie directly back to the demands of his family when they do decide to pop up.

The Green Knight, Julek Heller
I blame a lot of Gawain's character deterioration on the troubadours who wanted to puff up Lancelot. With the exception of the doomed love for his queen, Lancelot just acquired wholesale most of Gawain's heroic traits: the solitude on a quest for honor, the widely acknowledged superiority of strength and will, even the reputation for heedless acts of courage. But that's not fair to Lancelot, who's very much a character in his own right.

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.

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