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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - origins

Who was Sir Gawain?

Sir Gawain
  • Sir Gawain
  • Gawain (or Gwalchmei in early Welsh versions) was one of King Arthur’s most loyal and trusted knights. He is also Arthur’s nephew, being the son of his sister Morgause and King Lot of the Orkneys. His brothers, Agravain, Gaheris and Gareth are also Knights of the Round Table. There are legends featuring all the brothers, including Mordred the youngest, but Gawain stands out as the steadiest and most honourable.

    He is a formidable warrior, fiercely loyal to both his king and his family, but also courteous and compassionate. He tends to befriend young men wanting to become knights and wants to uphold his honour in his dealings with everyone he meets, especially womenfolk. When he falls short of his own high standards, succumbing to the tempation to cheat death, as in this story, he is man enough to recognise his weakness and try to make amends.

    Who was the Green Knight?

    The Green Knight
  • The Green Knight
  • This mysterious and frightening figure turns out to be Sir Bercilake (or Berblake), the man who hosts Gawain on his way to the Green Chapel. What his motive was for the challenge and subsequent ‘testing’ of Gawain, is never made clear. But it appears that the sorceress, Morgan le Fay, an enemy to Arthur, has a hand in it.
    He appears, as if by magic, just when Arthur is wanting a quest to liven up the occasion. He is huge figure, mocking the court and its values, throwing out the most bizarre of challenges. And of course, in this story magic must be protecting him as he does not die, even when Gawain beheads him.

    Then, in his persona of the generous host, he also sets Gawain challenges and temptations – as though his sole purpose is to undermine Gawain’s honour, which he finally does.

    Interestingly, he appears later in other Arthurian legends, becoming a staunch defender of the King.

    What and where is Camelot?

    Camelot
  • Camelot
  • Camelot is the name of the place where Arthur holds his court . None of the stories tell us where it is, only that it is in Britain and various sites have laid claim, including Caerleon in Wales, Cadbury Castle in Somerset, Winchester in Hampshire, and Camulodunum (Colchester) in Essex.
    Camelot Castle is described as standing beside a river, and surrounded by meadows and forests. In the meadows the jousting takes place and the forests provide the hunting. Within the castle walls, Arthur presides over the Knights of the Round Table and feasts with Queen Guinevere and his friends. Camelot seems to be an abstract idea symbolising the Golden Age of Chivalry.

    What is the Round Table?

    The Round Table at Winchester
  • The Winchester Round Table, photographed by Mike Peel.
  • The Round Table is the huge table at which Arthur holds council with his knights in Camelot. In order to take their seat at it, the knights had to take a vow of chivalrous conduct. Once at the table, there was no head or foot, so each knight was equal to the next. The legend has it that it was Merlin’s creation for counteracting the natural tendencies of the knights to vie for the ‘best position’ – causing quarrels and arguments in a group that Arthur wanted to work together, putting protection of the realm as their ambition.

    In the Middle Ages, Round Table festivals were held throughout Europe. They were emulating the Arthurian legends with feasting, dancing and jousting. It is thought that the Winchester Round Table, which hangs in Winchester Castle, was probably created for a Round Table festival. It may well have been built in the late 13th century in the time of King Edward I. He was an Arthurian enthusiast and attended several Round Tables events, even hosting a couple himself – it is possible that the Winchester Round Table was created for one of his events.

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