Monday, March 30, 2009

Sir Gawain: Great Knight, or Greatest Knight? Those are your only choices.

Today is the "What's your Scott and Jean?" meme day, where participating comic bloggers declare and explain their "Scott and Jean" or rather their "Greek Sacred Cow"--the one story point that they cling to that makes them completely frothing-at-the-mouth insane, and are unable to discuss reasonably.

I have a lot of those. Kyle Rayner is a better Lantern than anyone else; Wally West should be the Flash; Steve Trevor should be the love interest for Wonder Woman; The Kingpin has only 2% body fat (I once stopped the car over this one) to list a few, but those all fall among those that are negotiable. Things that change after a few years or after seeing the right writer manage it.

Really, in all of Geekdom there is only one matter that I will never negotiate on: Sir Gawain.

My first real interest in the King Arthur legend came with the reading of Sir Gawaine and the Ugly Wife (Not the Howard Pyle version. Do not read the Howard Pyle version.) It was followed by seeing a televised presentation of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight. Preferring short stories to longform novels even as a child, most of my Arthurian research came from hunting for folklore books in the library/on the internet. Mainly I searched for Gawain stories. He was my favorite character, the rightful heir to the throne (as the oldest son of the oldest sister, he had much more legitimacy than Mordred), the paragon of courtesy and gentleness (when written correctly), and often the only one of those fucking stone-aged Roundtable morons who treated women like human beings. He may be seen as a womanizer because he had a different girl in every story (and most of the more interesting women in Arthurian literature are in Gawain adventures), but can you honestly fault the only man in Logres who would solve a dispute over who gets to marry a woman by ACTUALLY ASKING THE GIRL for getting laid a lot? No, that's only natural.

Bundled into this protectiveness are very specific ideas about his mother. See, I always traced Gawain's progressive attitude towards women to the influence of his mother Morgause, King Arthur's more interesting sister. I always like to describe her as the Blanche Devereaux of Camelot. A mature, vibrant woman with an especially active sex life who may be a bit self-absorbed and blinded by passion at times, but is still a warm, good-hearted mother.

Modern writers love to redeem Morgan Le Fay so they can have a "strong woman" but want to keep the witch, so they like to make Morgause the evil one. I fucking hate that. She has so much potential on her own as a female character. Sure there's stories where she slept with her brother and don't get me wrong, I find that horrifyingly disgusting as we're all meant to. But think about it, wouldn't it suck royally to find out that the hot little prince you slept with to cement a treaty was not just a blood relative, but a freaking sibling? Oh, and that you're going to have his kid. I mean, what's with these writers that they can't empathize with a character who made such a huge freaking mistake and need to demonize the character to keep the plot point. Do we really need to make her the wicked witch of the North to keep that part of the story in?

Hell, just leaving that part out (a lot of writers are squeamish on the incest), do we really need to cut off her head in the end for bedding a hot little knight a third of her age twenty to forty fucking years after her husband kicks it? I mean, what's wrong with someone in the Court having a healthy sex life?

I had been reading pre-Malory legends for years when I finally got off my ass and read Le Morte D'Arthur and The Once and Future King. I discovered right away that I really hate Le Morte D'Arthur because Gawain is such a blockhead, because he's shown up as the idiot, because he has to have a freaking enchantment just to explain why he can stand up to Lancelot AFTER spending much of the story getting his ass saved by Lancelot. And honestly, I fucking hate Lancelot and the whole fucking Lancelot/Guinevere story that moviemakers/comicwriters/novelists/etc are so fucking fascinated by that they'll throw considerably more interesting characters in the fucking trash to make time for it. I hate that so muchfiction after this point was based on Malory's story, running the Lancelot loves the Queen story into the ground when they could have been fleshing out characters like Gawain, Perceval, Yvain, Lynnette, Morgause, Eric, Enid, Kay, Bors and so on. (And for the record Perceval gets screwed in this book too because they give his Grail Quest glory to Lancelot's shitty little cipher of a son Galahad. That's Perceval's fucking story, dammit!)

And I will never forgive T.H. White for giving the Green Knight adventure to that little asskisser Gareth and for making "Morgause is the evil witch" (though I concede that The Queen of Air and Darkness is a kickass title) into a motif that everyone who wants to show Morgan as sympathetic likes to use. (Yeah, fuck you too Mists of Avalon!)

My Gawain is not the jerk of the Howard Pyle stories, or the dick of the Tristan cycle, or the blockhead written by Thomas Malory and TH White. My Gawain is the respectful, quiet, handsome man from the Green Knight and the Ugly Wife/Loathly Lady stories, and if your Arthurian story features any other Gawain, I will most likely hate it and call you mean names no matter how skillful and innovative the story may be.


  1. Great post. I love that you stopped the car over Kingpin.

    One thing that's really fascinating about any sort of epic story that brings out passionate fandom -- be it X-Men or Arthur -- is that whatever you first read tends to color how you see it from there on out. (The first thing I read was, er, Mists of Avalon -- don't stop the car!!) Like, I remember that in the first Dragonlance book I read, later-villain Kitiara was the hero. So when I read the more popular Dragonlance books, I was like, "WTF, why is everyone so mean to Kitiara? GOD."

    I've always thought Morgause deserved more interesting portrayals. And you're right -- filmmakers/writers tend to be really fascinated with a few parts of this story (Lancelot/Guinevere), so those have been run into the ground while other aspects are just sitting there, waiting to be explored.

  2. I never knew White came up with "Queen of Air and Darkness." I'd heard it used in various fantasy-type stories, but never knew the source of it. Interesting. :-)

  3. Gawain rocks. Oh, and please insert the obligatory "it's better in the original" comment here. It really is better in the original, and in fact is probably the greatest poem in the English language--and this includes Beowulf. Who can forget when the Green Knight tells Gawain:
    Þou art confessed so clene, beknowen of þy mysses,
    And hatz þe penaunce apert of þe poynt of myn egge,
    I halde þe polysed of þat ply3t, and pured as clene
    As þou hadez neuer forfeted syþen þou watz fyrst borne

  4. "Mists of Avalon" confuses the hell out of me -- straight from Celtic times to Christianity, with no mention whatsoever of four hundred years of Romano-British culture. Maybe I am being too obsessive, but it would be like if, in the year 2500, a novelist were trying to do an "authentic" story about 1920s Chicago gangs, and to make things "authentic" everyone was a Miami Indian and threw tomahawks at each other.

    Arthurian legends are notoriously difficult to position in time and space, so good heavens, let the stories stand more or less as originally told. If you absolutely must try to make the stories "authentic", then Arthur damn well better be a beater of Saxon ass.

    (Ragnell, I'm sure you know that some of William the Conqueror's troops -- from Brittany -- were singing songs of Arthur as they were sailing over to England in 1066, right? When you are on a mission to beat some Saxon ass, who else are you going to sing about?)

  5. Lancelot is a dick, and there's no refining it. Gawain is ok, although I admit to liking Bedivere and Kay too. But Lancelot is a REAL jerk.

  6. I love Gawain too, I think ever since I first read an adaptation of Wolfram of Eschenbach's "Parzival". And I soon became a little peeved after I discovered how - as one of the oldest characters in the Arthurian cycle - he did tend to get the short end of the stick from a lot of the writers who establish the credentials of the new knight they brought to the Round Table by having him defeat Gawain (Percival, Lancelot, bloody Galahad who could bore for Britain at the Olympics...).
    There are literary critics who regard it as a weakness of "Parzival" that Gawain (Gawan in German) is so prominent in the story and takes up so much of the space and action, but I never had a problem with that. In his epic poem, Wolfram portrays Gawan as the exemplar of the Arthurian Knight of the Round Table, while Parzival gradually evolves into a member and ultimately leader of a different model of knighthood, the Knights of the Grail. But though Parzival comes to exemplify what is portrayed as a higher, more spiritual type of knighthood, Gawan is given his due and comes across as a true hero and man of the courtly world. Most students of medieval literature (IIRC starting with none other than Jacob Grimm) tend to prefer Chrétien de Troyes' original version where in the episode with the three drops of blood a fight between Perceval and Gauvain is prevented by "natural" means when the snow melts, but I actually like Wolfram's alteration better, where Gawan has the savvy to realize how Parzival is mesmerized by the sight of the three drops of blood (which remind him of his love, Condwiramour) and has the good sense to cover them up with a piece of cloth before approaching him. Not just a good fighter, but also one who knows when and how to avoid an unnecessary fight.
    Yup, I guess Gawain is my favourite Arthurian knight, and I'm always a little sad to see him relegated to the sidelines in most of the later literary and movie treatments (at least Hal Foster gave him a bigger part in Prince Valiant).
    @SallyP: Wolfram also was surprisingly nice about Sir Kay - in the episode mentioned above, Kay challenges Parzival and gets heavily bruised, but Wolfram hastens to say that in his unfriendly attitude to strangers appearing at Arthur's court he was only doing his job as Arthur's senechal - preventing good-for-nothings from sponging off a sometimes too well-meaning king!

  7. Shoot, that means I can't recomend Cornwell's Arthurian historical fiction. Because from what I remember Gawain gets fucked over HARD in that. Of course it does treat Lancelot as a coward and useless conniving shit...

  8. No way! Guy Gardner is the best Green Lantern.

  9. Chris, I agree with you completely.

  10. For a sympathetic portrayal of Gawaine, take a look at Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex.

  11. Pretty much, you have four stages: the earliest myths where Kay is the badass, the second stage where Gawaine emerges as the greatest, the third with lancelot, and the final where Galahad is the greatest. Each stage then turns the previous stage's champion into someone to beat to show your badassity.

    Lancelot actually becomes less of a drooling idiot in later work than the first stories featuring him, where he is pretty much batshit insane due to his love of Guenevere (Good idea drawing the story of your affair with the queen on the walls of your cell when your King's greatest enemy is holding you captive, Lance!)

    But really, the Arthurian myth has suffered many of the problems of fanfiction...except the fanfiction keeps coming for CENTURIES with every culture adding its own self-inserts.

    So the coming of Gawaine hoses Kay and the coming of Lancelot hoses Gawaine.

    I ran an Arthurian RPG for a long time. The PCs had to escort Morgause to marry Lot early on in it after they'd helped Uther conquer Cornwall. Which Morgause didn't want to do, which made for some interesting drama. She remained a major figure because of the PCs ties to her and her sisters. (Another one of the PCs ended up acting as Foster father for Morgan.) The second gen of PCs ended up as Morgause's champions in the decennial contest for the Queenship of the Orkney Islands. We ended up suspending the game before we got to her death, though.

    The Morgause/Arthur incest, neither of them knows its incest, so you can't really condemn them for it.

    The murder of Lamorak and Morgause, OTOH, is part of a major plot thread (The Norgales / Orkney Feud), so leaving that out is going to require either replacing it or taking things in a rather different direction.

  12. Latest Anon -- Yeah, I've read John Matthews and Phyllis Ann Karr's stuff, so you're irritating me with explaining things I already know as a way of justifying a story direction I despise.

    And while you may say you can't condemn Arthur and Morgause for the incest, plenty of writers have and I hate them for it.

    And no, I don't think leaving out Morgause's murder screws up the feud, because the Norgales/Orkney feud had already existed before Lamarack.

  13. Ragnell, I recently read King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green. It was my first formal reading of the Arthurian myths. All my previous exposure was from movies, television, and comic books. It actually goes quite lightly on the Launcelot and Guinevere romance.

    Alan Coil

  14. I like Morgause too and find it horrible how she was vilified. Patriarchal sexist trash! While I don't agree on Guinevere - I like her and Lancelot also, thanks so much for your characterization of Gawain and Morgause. Great stuff! In Rosalind Miles' The Knight of the Sacred Lake, Guinevere, Morgause, Lamorak and Lancelot are portrayed positively and in Joan Wolf's The Road to Avalon, Arthur, Morgan, Morgause and Guinevere are all portrayed as kind, nice and okay. In both books, Agravain is the main baddy of the plot and in Joan Wolf's story, we get even spared from Morgause getting killed. So at least there are some stories in which Morgause does not get vilified as the "witch of up North".

  15. I know it's probably a bit late to be commenting on a post that's this many months old, but wasn't there a Batman story that claimed that Bruce Wayne was descended from Gawain? I think it was called the Chalice.

  16. Anon--Never saw it, but now I'm gonna look.

  17. Hmm, I might have been wrong.

    Seems Bruce's ancestors were called Gevain, though that might just be another spelling of the guy's name.

  18. Considering that the knight in question seems to be a Grail Knight, I'd say it's a spelling variation and Batman is descended from Sir Gawain!

  19. The truth is that Gawain is the greatest knight ever. The only reason there were other knights that were better was because the french started making french characters better. They hate seeing Welch and English caracters as the superrriors and wanted to make Gawain look like a fool. Thats like if started telling new stories about starwars but made luke(Gawain) look like a jackass and made a different character(Lancelot,Tristan,Galahad, etc...) better. Its not fuckin cool and Gawain should be the knight everyone knows about. If u ask someone about knights Lancelot is the one everyone knows about...Fuckin French.

  20. Greatest knight? Hmmm. He's definitely up there and he's definitely better than Lancelot and his satellite characters (though Bors is okay). What about Gareth, who could humble himself to work as a kitchen boy and still whip some ass? And he didn't get a lot of pagetime, but I liked Balin a lot. He would have made for a much more interesting holder of the Siege Perilous if he had lived.

  21. Discovered this entry after I was looking for information for a paper. Not sure if you will be checking on this, but I love your rant. After taking a class on the Legend (what the paper is for) Gawain quickly became my favorite knight and I am fascinated by how his character changes with the nationality of who is writing him (he's awesome if the author is British, he's just a foil to Lancelot if the author is French). You said so many things I absolutely agree with and it helped me get in gear to write this paper (which is due in 7 hours so maybe not all that into gear LOL). I was just curious to your view with how he is being portrayed in the BBC's Merlin? Personally I like it (as much as I like any of the remaking of all of these characters) since he really is shown as the greatest of knights and sometimes it feels almost as if Lance is his foil (Gawain is awesome, Lance wants to be awesome). Anyway, just saying thanks for helping me get excited for this paper and I enjoyed the rant. And the answer is the greatest knight.

  22. Desert Willow -- I did not know he was even in in Merlin but now I'm interested.