Notes on Characters from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Major Characters

King Arthur: Semi-mythical and perhaps the most famous English king of antiquity. Although his historical existence is still debated, Arthur is said to have lived during the 6th century as ruler of the Britons, in southern Wales, the son of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine of Cornwall. His justness and military victories against invading Germanic tribes gave rise to an intricate network of legend surrounding his life that grew throughout the centuries and spread to all of western Europe. Sir Gawain is Arthur's nephew and one of his chief knights, and many stories of Arthurian legend revolve around Gawain and his relationship to Arthur.

Gawain the Good: Gawain is Arthur's nephew and the main focus of this poem. He is the son of Lot of Orkney and Morgause, and according to legend, once his father dies he becomes the head of the Orkney clan. In French versions of Arthurian legend, Gawain often has adventures that parallel but do not overshadow the adventures of the main hero, usually either Lancelot or Perceval. In the English tradition, however, Gawain is often the focus of the tale, and sometimes presented as the archetype of knightly chivalry and honor, though the extent to which that presentation holds in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is open to debate.

The Green Knight (Bercilak de Hautdesert, or 'The Lord' of the castle): The Green Knight is Sir Gawain's main opposition in the poem and the catalyst for Gawain's adventure. He is an enormous and richly decorated knight who has green skin and hair, and is invincible, and thus is presented to Arthur's court as a monster. Although the Green Knight ostensibly works alone in the story, we come to find out in the end that he is in fact the very noble Bercilak de Hautdesert, who takes Gawain into his castle for the Christmas holiday. He was sent by Morgana le Fay, a witch who lives with the Green Knight, in order to test the will and honor of Knights of the Round Table. In Arthurian legend, Morgana le Fay is also the mother of Ywain, one of Arthur's most trusted knights, and also Gawain's cousin.

Minor Characters

Guenevere the Gay: Guenevere is Arthur's wife and queen, renown as the one of the most beautiful women in the world. She is said to be the daughter of Leodegrance of Cameliard in late medieval romance. In the grand scheme of Arthurian legend, Guenevere is important because she has an affair with Sir Lancelot, one of Arthur's chief knights, that eventually causes the downfall of Camelot. She is thus traditionally identified with sinfulness and adultery.

Agravaine of the Hard Hands: One of Arthur's chief knights, who is Gawain's cousin and Arthur's nephew.

Ywain: Ywain is Gawain's cousin and the son of Morgana le Fay and Uriens. He is the center of several Arthurian tales in many languages, under different names such as Yvain, Owain, Iwein, and Ewain. In one tale, he is propelled to adventure by Sir Gawain, and saves a lion from a serpent and is later befriended by the lion. Arthur banishes Ywain from his court because of his mother's attempts to kill Arthur, and Gawain rides with him and has many adventures.

Sir Lancelot: Although only mentioned briefly in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lancelot is considered the greatest of Arthur's knights, and is the focus of many of the important events surrounding Arthurian legend. Lancelot is the son of King Ban of Benwick, and is known as Lancelot of the Lake because he was raised by the Lady of the Lake. He is also the father of Galahad, born from his union with Elaine, daughter of King Pelles, who tricked him into sleeping with her. Lancelot's love for Guenevere, Arthur's wife, causes the eventual downfall of Camelot.

The lord (Bercilak de Hautdesert)'s wife, or 'The Lady' of the castle: Each of the three nights that Gawain spends in the castle before going to meet the Green Knight, he is visited by the Lord's wife, who tries to tempt him into giving in to her. Each day, Gawain refuses her love, accepting only kisses in return. It later turns out that the lord (whose name is Bercilak de Hautdesert - this man is also the Green Knight) had sent his wife to tempt Gawain into sinning, which Gawain did not do. This is all part of the master plan of Morgana le Fay, the witch, to expose the weaknesses of Gawain and the Knights of the Round Table.

Old Woman: The lord Bercilak de Haudesert's wife is, except during her morning visits to Gawain's bed, never without her companion, an old woman. Gawain spends time with her during the day even though he finds her repulsive; she has obviously been honored by the hand of many worthy knights in her day.

Guide: The lord assigns a guide to show Gawain the way to the green chapel. The guide warns Gawain of the coming danger and mortal peril at the chapel, trying to dissuade him from his mission once and for all. But Gawain remains steadfast, and rides on alone to keep his bargain with the Green Knight.

Morgana le Fay: Morgana lives in the castle with the Green Knight. She is a witch, and sent the Green Knight on his journey to Camelot. She intended both to test the truth of the fame of Gawain and the other Knights of the Round Table, and to frighten Guenevere, whom she dislikes because, in traditional Arthurian legend, Guenevere put an end to her affair with Guenevere's cousin, Guiomar. In Arthurian legend, Morgana is Arthur's half-sister, daughter of Arthur's mother Igraine and the Duke of Cornwall. She is mainly presented as an adversary of Arthur's, in medieval literature. She married King Uriens, and is also the mother of Ywain, one of Arthur's chief knights.

Merlin: Merlin is presented in many incarnations throughout the forms of Arthurian legend, but always as a magician, seer, and protector/counselor of the young King Arthur. In Gawain, he is said to have taught Morgana le Fay magic. The earliest literary sources have Merlin as a wonder child, born of an incubus (a male demon), and a Welsh nun. Later, he is presented as a warrior who lost his reason in battle, or, later still, as an old magician marked with the great deeds of a long life behind him.

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