“the graciouseste gome that vndir God lyffede”: a reconsideration of Sir Gawain in the Late Medieval Middle English and Middle Scots romance tradition
Chochinov, Lauren Jessie
In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, King Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain, is presented as a troublesome figure whose vengefulness hastens the collapse of Camelot. This characterization is unsurprising in the light of traditional French depictions of Gawain, but it is distinctly at odds with a rival, Anglo-Scottish tradition that depicts him rather differently as a figure of moderation, wise counsel, and courtesy. Indeed, throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, this version of Gawain was used by a number of romance writers to explore themes of kingship, identity, and regionalism in England and Scotland. This thesis attempts to explain the complexities and contradictions of Gawain’s role in the Middle English and Middle Scots tradition. Chapter one establishes a “northern Gawain type”, drawing on thematic patterns in four northern Gawain romances: The Weddyng of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, The Avowyng of Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle, and The Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawain. Gawain’s popularity in the north, coupled with similarities in characterization and narrative focus, mark him as an important regional figure. This discussion continues in the second chapter, which examines The Awntyrs off Arthure, a poem specifically concerned with Arthurian kingship and imperialism. In Scotland, Gawain is used in romances to explore pertinent contemporary concerns with the recent loss of Scotland’s kings and attitudes towards English expansion. The third chapter considers Gawain’s role in two Scottish romances, particularly, The Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawain and Lancelot of the Laik. The final two chapters examine Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. By exploring these narratives in the context of the “northern Gawain type,” these chapters offer new insights into Gawain’s literary significance for late medieval writers. This thesis offers a reconsideration of Gawain’s reputation in late medieval Middle English and Middle Scots literature. It suggests both why he was such a useful figure for the authors of the northern and Scottish romances and why Malory ultimately chose to reject their reading of him and followed instead the more critical and dismissive French tradition. The lasting legacy of Malory’s Gawain has influenced his reputation and representation in post-medieval Arthurian literature. Yet, his popularity in the north of England and Scotland during the late Middle Ages, and his symbolic significance in discussions of governance, make him a character deserving of rehabilitation in the pantheon of Arthurian knighthood.