Gawain is one of my favorite characters from the Arthurian legends. He’s one of the oldest core characters, and I love his evolution over the ages.
In the earlier Welsh material, Arthur’s sister’s son Gwalchmai son of Gwyar is Arthur’s best warrior, who never returns unsuccessful from a quest, and famed for his courtesy to guests and strangers. An early chronicler gives him joint credit with Arthur for keeping the Britons from collapsing and hints that he was murdered in mysterious circumstances. Geoffrey of Monmouth makes him an ideal warrior, hot-tempered but fearsome in battle, and one of Arthur’s chief commanders as well as his nephew (the son of Arthur’s sister Anna and a king named Loth, if anyone’s counting).
By the time Chrétien de Troyes wrote in the late 12th century, Gawain was well-established as Arthur’s best knight. His romance Erec et Enide opens with Arthur declaring he’ll revive the tradition of hunting the white stag, and Gawain protesting (correctly) that it’s a bad idea; Arthur, of course, ignores him (“That [you are right] I know well, but I will not give up my plan for all that, for the word of a king must not be contravened”). (This pretty much defines the Gawain-Arthur relationship in many romances.)
Gawain keeps up his role as wise counselor and ideal knight—“the touchstone of chivalry,” or the model by which other knights are judged—in this story (whose plot includes a melée) and others. But in later romances Chrétien makes him more and more seriously flawed, in order to make his heroes come off better. Eventually his Gawain becomes a comic figure whose light-hearted attachments to women make him morally inferior to characters like Lancelot or Perceval, and though Chrétien made him one of the original Grail Questers in his unfinished work, he implied that Gawain was too much of this world (and too fond of women) to succeed.
Other romance writers followed this lead, and soon Gawain starts to suffer from a medieval version of Star Trek’s Worf Effect. Because he was the standard of comparison for Arthurian knights, one easy way to exalt your hero was to have him best Gawain, either in a fight or in morality. When thirteenth-century French prose writers made the legends more explicitly Christian, they seize on the idea of Gawain as debased. Early parts of the Vulgate Cycle make him an outright villain, who murders without compunction and does not repent his sins.
But a different anonymous author made Gawain one of the most psychologically complex characters in the last part of Vulgate Cycle, a good friend to both Guinevere and Lancelot who tries to hide their affair from the king. When Arthur condemns Guinevere to be burnt at the stake for adultery, Gawain protests, telling Arthur he will never serve him again if he kills her.
Unfortunately, during his famous rescue of Guinevere, Lancelot accidentally kills Gawain’s beloved brothers. Gawain, devastated and obligated to avenge his family, pushes Arthur into a fruitless war against Lancelot that leaves the kingdom vulnerable to Mordred’s attack. Gawain ultimately dies from a wound dealt by Lancelot—though he lives long enough to repent and tell Arthur to make peace with Lancelot and fight together against Mordred. (Arthur, as usual, doesn’t listen). He later appears in a dream to Arthur, who learns that Gawain has been let into heaven for his kindness to the poor.
So by the mid-thirteenth century, Gawain could be the ideal knight, a figure of burlesque comedy, a murderous villain, a hot-tempered feuder, a wise and loyal counselor, or a unrepentent ladies’ man, all depending on the author’s preference. The justly famous Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight plays with these different traditions by having a main character, a woman who is trying to seduce Gawain, allude to them directly.
This version of Gawain manages to live up the the contradictory claims of ideal knighthood for a while—he’s too virtuous to sleep with her, but too courteous to rebuff her advances strongly—but when she dares him to live up to another reputation his defenses crumble. You can’t be who you claim to be, she tells him, because the real Gawain couldn’t be alone with a lady this long without kissing her.
“I will kiss at your command,” he replies.
In other words, Gawain has always been a meta character for the legends, one that invariably brings up questions of what it is to be a good knight. Recent interpretations often play (as the Gawain-poet did) with the tensions between the different versions of this character—making him a hero tragically flawed by the need for vengeance, or a good man defamed by a false reputation, or a knight who tries so hard to live up to so many different standards that he ends betraying them all.
This episode makes a great addition to the long tradition of Gawain as both the most noble of knights and the opposite, by making Merlin’s Gwaine is a knight who has sworn off the privileges of a knight to pass as commoner.
“Nobility is defined by what you do, not by who you are.” Almost every scene in this episode is concerned with class, and with eroding class distinctions. Lower-class (or apparently lower-class) characters are repeatedly recognized for qualities presumed to belong to the nobility—Mary the tavern-keeper comments on Merlin’s attractiveness, Gwaine calls Gwen a princess, Arthur speaks of Gwaine’s noble heart. There’s an obvious parallel between the bar brawl and the melee, which are class-specific versions of the same concept, a free-for-all fight.
There’s also a lot of dramatic irony—Gwaine, a knight by birth, is condemned for attacking two knights who are actually commoners in disguise. Likewise, fake!Oswald backs Uther’s assertion that a commoner must not attack a nobleman, despite the fact that the entire stolen-identity plot is driven by his attempt to violate this part of the knight’s code. (Class norms mean Dagr and his henchman can’t attack Arthur outright, but can kill him covertly in the guise of knights.)
An extended scene of the two imposter knights tormenting Merlin with unreasonable demands drives home Gwaine’s assertion that nobility lies in what you do, and his labeling them as thugs, an observation that is true on multiple levels. It also point out that Merlin, no matter how strong a wizard, can’t overcome his class status (and more to the point, can’t use magic publically without being executed). His very real vulnerability is key to a later scene in which Gwaine rescues him, and demonstrates his own true nobility.
Gwaine is a breath of fresh air on this show—not only because, as selenak notes, he’s the first good guy to refuse outright to bide his time working for Uther (and implicitly acceding to the class structure). So far we’ve seen a lot of worthy commoners—Merlin, Gwen, Lancelot, Will—whose inner nobility the show recognizes, but we haven’t yet had a noble character who recognizes that these examples are not merely rare exceptions, and that rank does not indicate worth as a general principle. But Gwaine believes strongly that the entire commoner/noble distinction is bunk, and acts on his principles.
Getting to know Gwaine. Nor is his characterization as a boozy and roguish flirt, with strong inner principles, the only allusion to many contradictory Gawain stories. The episode hints that Gwaine is lying or misleading Merlin about his past—the camera makes too much note of the way Merlin stumbles over the inconsistencies in Gwaine’s story in the boot-cleaning scene, and the ring Gwaine wears looped around his pendant suggests further backstory. Already there seem to be different stories Gwaine can or does tell about his past, hinting at a more complex and contradictory character. There’s also a suggestion that Gwaine knows something about sorcery, from the way he quickly identifies the enchanted blades from description. I’m betting there’s more to learn about this character, since we know he’ll be back.
Although occasionally the hero of his own story, Gawain has most often functioned as a comparison character, one whose qualities cast those of other Arthurian characters in relief. He’s opposed to Lancelot (the two are sometimes viewed as champions for Arthur and Guinevere respectively), and there are a number of clunky parallels with the latter here—his apparent class, his attraction to Gwen, his banishment, the fact that Merlin reveals to him a secret hidden from his other friends. But there’s a much more interesting parallel between Gwaine and Arthur.
(There’s even a direct invocation of the medeival cliché in which a hero is drawn into an aborted combat with Gawain; here, Arthur concedes the contest, thus obtaining a moral victory by recognizing Gwaine’s worth and his own obligations to him.)
Future knight and future king. The episode begins with Arthur declaring, as he periodically does, that he’s going to put away his class privilege and pass as a commoner. For Arthur, this is a temporary measure, and he can’t maintain it long, quickly asserting his authority in the tavern.
In contrast, Gwaine has cast off his rank and class privilege permanently, as a way of life. In fact, he’s so committed to the principle of nobility transcending class (and disgust for his own background) that he refuses to divulge his identity even when it means suffering punishments from which his rank would otherwise exempt him. He not only cleans boots with Merlin and (ultimately) accepts banishment, but refuses to speak up even when Uther threatens him with execution.
It’s clear even at the end of the show that Arthur hasn’t quite come to terms with class equality (seeing Gwen and Gwaine as exceptional noble commoners, but being unwilling to change the rules for knighthood). This stands in clear contrast with a Gwaine who is willing to accept death rather than be accorded special privileges.
Then there’s the question of how each man intercedes on behalf of the less powerful. Arthur does so twice, first stepping in to protect Mary from the knife-wielding extortionist Dagr, later speaking up for Gwaine and persuading his father to commute a death sentence to banishment.
In both moments Arthur shows his nobility in both senses of the word. He’s right to stand up for a weaker party (and in Gwaine’s case, one to whom he owes his life), but the way in which he does it ultimately props up the entire system whereby some people are worth more, and have more rights, than others.
In both cases, he protects by asserting his own authority—acting like commander in the tavern, and drawing explicitly on his own class privilege in conversation with Uther. Gwaine deserves clemency in because “a knight’s word is his bond” and Arthur, a knight, has vouched for him. His actions help spare Gwaine’s life in the moment, but do nothing to erode the larger system of social inequity which has put it at risk in the first place.
Gwaine, in contrast, forever won my heart when he interrupts the two fake knights’ attack on Merlin and asks Merlin if he’s alright. A genuinely terrified Merlin clearly answers “No.” In his moment of intervention, Gwaine, by asking for Merlin’s read of the situation and permission to intervene, is re-establishing the idea that has been violated—that Merlin’s basic worth as a human being is equal to those of his tormenters.
I mention this scene because in my real-life experience, this is all too often where would-be rescuers wind up reinforcing the status quo and the powerlesness of those they meant to protect. Replacing a bad noble who gives orders with a good noble who gives orders does nothing to ameliorate the inequity inherent in the system.
This isn’t to say that Gwaine entirely sheds his privilege (no one can); his sword-fighting skills and perhaps his comfort breaking social norms come from having been raised with the privileges of nobility, if not the wealth.
Winning friendship and influencing shippers. As I said before, the idea that Gawain has an independent friendship with and loyalty to Guinevere is a pre-existing part of the legend, and I enjoyed the show’s nod to that here. The scene in which Gwen deflects Gwaine’s over-the-top romantic overtures is a delight: she’s completely self-possessed, he’s a non-stop supply of bad come-ons, and when he redeems himself by backing off she skillfully uses the moment to graciously acknowledge his obnoxious attentions as a compliment and put him neatly in his place.
I also particularly liked his last regretful look that he couldn’t succeed with such a hottie. Having random male characters not romantically linked to Gwen acknowledge her attractiveness is a step forward, and something the show has always done for Morgana, whose beauty has been commented on by Merlin, Arthur, Uther, Valiant, Alvarr, and others. I also liked that Gwen, very in character, later seeks out Gwaine to tell him that he did the right thing and that Arthur will one day repay him; her strong moral sense and commitment to supporting those who uphold it are further signs of her talent as a queen.
It’s notable how completely Gwaine’s relationship with Gwen parallels his bonding with Merlin in the scene where the latter puts the drunken fighter to bed. In both scenes, Gwaine makes over-the-top protestations of affection (“You’re the best friend I’ve ever had”), his new acquaintances makes an eye-rolling protects (“You seem to have quite a few”), and they laugh. This leads in turn to more genuine bonding over a real commonality—missing fathers, or concern for Arthur. (These parallels intensify the friendship vibes or the shippy ones, depending on your preference.)
In both cases, Gwaine shows genuine curiosity about Merlin and Gwen, an interest in figuring out how they feel and what’s important to them—and, as a result, is able to extract a secret from them. (It’s a bit sad to see how little it takes for Merlin or Gwen to give away more than they intend, because it implies Morgana or Arthur might have done the same with a little listening and concentration—on the other hand, it’s taken both of the servant characters this long to be this open.) His perspective, of course, skews what he finds—he doesn’t press Merlin on his father’s banishment once the story confirms his dim view of kings, and he relates Gwen’s care for Arthur to her rejection of him (rather than thinking she has limited tolerance for cheesy come-ons).
In a neat twist, Merlin divulges not his magic, but his truncated and mourned-for relationship with his father—a much more intimate detail than Lancelot obtained by merely observing Merlin do magic. Here Merlin is actually offering up a part of himself voluntarily, in a bonding way.
Gwen’s secret, of course, is the blazing torch she carries for Arthur, and in a long-overdue move this episode dwells on her feelings and their effects on her actions, not her effect on Arthur. Once Gwaine knows Gwen’s secret, their relationship grows noticeably warmer. Their last scene together implies that now, knowing he won’t hit on her, the usually reserved Gwen is more open; of course, dramatic irony ensures in that Arthur, who doesn’t know that mutual concern for him is basic to their bond, comes jealously to the opposite conclusion.
The view from the battlements. That final scene offers lovely views of the relationships in the Merlin/Arthur/Gwen/Gwaine quartet, all of which have been on display in this episode. (It’s nice to see Gwen and Merlin’s understated friendship on display when she goes to Merlin for help with Gwaine.) Along with showing the different levels of acceptance different character have toward the possibility of Gwaine as a future knight, it gives us a great conclusion to the various Merlin/Arthur moments in this episode.
These two of course start with the classic Arthur-ignoring-his-advisor moment, move to looking out for each other’s safety during the brawl, and then demonstrate their differences by their very different, and class-specific, takes on the mélée. Their later scene, in which Merlin tries to dissuade Arthur from participating, is a touching build on these earlier ones, recalling earlier banter but demonstrating the evolution of their relationship. It’s yet another example of Merlin trying to be more direct and honest with Arthur, and of Arthur trying to understand Merlin but jumping to the wrong conclusions.
When Merlin protests, Arthur responds with his usual sarcasm, but when that doesn’t work—Merlin doesn’t respond in kind—he switches to being more honest and direct himself, acknowledging Merlin’s opinion openly. It shows Arthur is starting to respond to Merlin’s different tactics, even without Gwen’s influence, and lays the groundwork for more work together. (Nor is it the only example of Arthur’s growth; Arthur also states bluntly that his father is wrong about banishing Gwaine.)
In their final scene, when Arthur shows himself still too hidebound in his attachments to class distinctions—unable to imagine breaching them for Gwaine, and to admit breaching them for Gwen—Merlin cleverly uses the Gwen argument to point out the inconsistencies between what Arthur says and what he wants. This is a great preview of Merlin as a future counselor, much effectively getting through to Arthur, who responds by shutting down the conversation, but in a playful way.
(It’s also a pleasure to see Arthur and Merlin roughhousing in a way that feels genuinely like affectionate boyish play, not an employer hurling blunt metal objects at his overworked employee.)
Meanwhile, in the stands…. Morgana does virtually nothing in this episode, except look surprised and speculative when it appears that Arthur, contrary to all expectations, might die in the mélée. Purely as speculation, I wonder if this is the moment she begins to seriously consider Arthur’s role in her plans, and what would happen if he died.
- All About Gawain: Merlin 3x04 Gwaine