Sir Gawain has played a significant role in Arthurian legends since the Middle Ages. His first major appearance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight depicts Gawain as a warrior rather than a womanizing knight like others from King Arthur's court. Even in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain focuses on his battle with the green knight rather than the advances of Bercilak's wife. During Gawain's visit to Bercilak's castle, his wife makes three specific advances to entice Gawain into an adulteress relationship. Although Gawain faces certain death with the Green Knight, he declines any sexual involvement with Bercilak's wife. Gawain's character remains faithful to his warrior image by rushing into battle with the green knight rather than prolonging his stay at Bercilak's castle.
Although he exhibits this obsession with battle in many stories, Gawain's role changes drastically between his appearance in The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell and his later appearance in Howard Pyle's "The Story of King Arthur and His Knights." Although these stories employ similar plots, Gawain's character undergoes's a dramatic transformation.
In The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell Gawain reveals his loyalty to King Arthur by agreeing the marry the "Loathly" lady after she saves the king's life. This not the first appearance of the "loathly" lady in Medieval literature. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the "Knight's Tale" reiterates the "familiar folklore motif [that] concerns the transformation of the ugly hag into a beautiful woman after a man has placed himself under her 'sovereynte'" and incorporates "the theme of A Riddle Asked and Answered" (Wilhelm 467).
The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell employs these motifs
when it places Gawain in the role of husband to the "loathly" lady and
must allow the woman complete sovereignty. Initially the woman saves
Arthur's life by giving him the correct answer to a riddle posed by Sir
Gromer Somer. Somer says
Fyest thow shalt swere upon my sword broun,
Toshewe me attthy comyng whate wemen
love best in feld and town. (Wilhelm 470)
Because King Arthur offers Gawain's hand in marriage in exchange for the correct answer, Gawain is forced to marry the "loathly" lady. After Arthur explains the promise that he has made to the woman, Gawain answers
Ys this alle?" then sayd Gawen.
I shall wed her and wed her again,
Thoughe she were a fend:
Thoughe she were as foulle as Belsabub,
Her shalle I wed, by the rood;
Or elles were not your frende,
For ye ar my kyng with honor, (476).
Gawain maintains the loyalty he is well-known for when he agrees to marry Dame Ragnell to preserve Arthur's life and honor. After Gawain marries Dame Ragnell, she asks him to "shew me your cortesy in bed.". Gawain says "I wolle do more /Than for to kysse, and God before" (482). As Gawain turns toward his new bride she transforms into a beautiful woman who says
thus shalle ye me have;Gawain puts the decision in her hand and lets her decide. For this choice he is rewarded with the woman's constant beauty. Ironically, Gawain appears happy in his marriage to Dame Ragnell even though he traditionally ignores women to pursue battles like he does when he pursues with the Green Knight. This new interaction with women exposes a new element of Gawain's character. According to Vasta
Chese of the one, so God save me
(My beauty will not hold):
Wheder ye wolle have me fayrw on days,
And as foulle on days to alle men sightes,
or els to haveme fayre on days,
and on nyghtes on the fowlyst wyfw;
Chese the one or the oder, (482).
When, in Gawain's newlywed presence, Ragnell's mask disappears and through explaining all, her interior self emerges, so that Gawain, out of love, yields up authority and freedom, the whole court is changed. Gawain's relation to Ragnell is no longer a function of his devotion to Arthur.... Gawain's relation to the court changes ...; (415)
Dame Ragnell transforms Gawain from the loyal warrior in Arthur's court to a love struck man who is devastated when Ragnell dies, "leaving Gawain to grieve in remembrance of this lady as the best of his many wives" (416). Although Gawain remains loyal initially to Arthur his loyalty transfers to his new bride. He also encounters love through his marriage to Dame Ragnell and his mournful loss which exhibits Gawain's sentimental evolution from a man obsessed with war to a man driven by love.
In Howard Pyle's excerpt from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, Gawain again marries an old woman to fulfill Arthur's pledge. In this instance, he accepts the marriage, but then "shut himself off all the world and suffered no one to come nigh him, for he was proud beyond all measure, and in this great humiliation he suffered in such a wise that words cannot tell how great was the humiliation" (Lupack 354). Gawain treats the woman poorly because of his own selfishness. Although he exhibits loyalty to king Arthur when he agrees to marry the woman, he refuses to fulfill the sexual components of marriage as a result of his pride. Eventually he agrees to consummate their marriage when he asks for her forgiveness and says "I will hold myself willing to all that is in my power to recompense thee for any neglect that I have placed upon thee... and I, myself, will go and fetch a light for thee" (354). Gawain seems genuinely sorry for his treatment of his bride.
Again Gawain's new bride transforms from an old woman into a beautiful woman. Like The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, the woman gives Gawain a choice:
Come sit thee down beside me and let us consider what part of the day I shall be in the one guise, and what part of the I shall be in the other guise; for all day I may have one appearance, and all night I may have the other appearance. (355)
Unlike the previous situations, in this story Gawain makes a choice: "I would have thee in this guise during the night time, for then we are together in our own inn" (355). Gawain reveals his selfishness by not allowing the woman to choose. Eventually after a short argument he says "so be it." Gawain never actually allows himself to be controlled by the woman. Even when he agrees to her choice, he states it is such a way that it appears he still remained dominate. The woman does maintain her beautiful form regardless of Gawain's choice.
In this version of the famous desire motif, Gawain becomes less loyal to his King when he wavers on his marriage commitment to the old woman. He also exhibits a selfishness that was seen briefly in Gawain and the Green Knight when he accepts the green girdle from Bercilak's wife, but is relatively uncommon in Arthurian legends. In addition, the treatment of his wife does not reflect the chivalrous behavior expected from knights of the round table. Overall the characteristics of Gawain in this work differ significantly from other appearances in Arthurian legend.
In both stories Gawain appears loyal to King Arthur, in the Pyle's version Gawain refuses, at least initially, to fulfill the marriage agreement. It seems as though his loyalty wanes. In addition Gawain becomes selfish and domineering. Rather than learning from his mistakes as Gawain did in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and even in The Wedding Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell when he learns to love the women he marries, Gawain argues with his new wife and then mutters "so be it" when confronted with her choice. Gawain refuses to learn from his mistakes in Pyle's story. In both Pyle's story and The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, Gawain does not battle as he does with the green knight; instead, he marries and enters the marital war zone rather than those fought on the battlefield.