Gawain in Wace, Lazamon, and Alliterative Morte Arturo: A Cultural Comparison

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Gawain in Wace, Lazamon, and Alliterative Morte Arturo: A Cultural Comparison

Martin B. Shichtman, in his essay on Wace and Layamon, describes history as "the transcribing of the illusions of an age" (1987, 106). He states that for many scholars in the Middle Ages, translating histories was not so much a matter of setting down, word for word, what were considered to be "hard facts," but of expounding on the truths behind the material, as they were relevant to the time and audience for which they were written. This often involved the omission of some material from the primary source, the addition of new material to it, and the reinterpretation of events and attitudes expressed in the work.

The figure of Gawain throughout Arthurian literature is an interesting one; he appears in more texts as a secondary character than any other knight named, and often gains glory even at the expense of the main hero (Busby 1980, 5). The first characteristic which separates him from the other knights is his relationship to Arthur: it is usually stated that he is Arthur's sister's son, a kinship that is found from William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum (c. 1125) and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136) onward (Busby 1980, 31). However, it is notable that Gawain often seems more like a type than an individual; in Old French literature he is never the subject of a biographical romance, as are most of the other knights, he never has one particular lady's name associated with him, and he is frequently used as a constant against which other knights are judged, the perfect embodiment of good qualities, more a symbol of perfection than an actual person (Busby 1980, 7).

Because of this, he makes an especially good study when looking at what an author considered to be "perfection" within his society. In the various ways in which Gawain is portrayed, he often serves as a focal point from which to observe some of the cultural changes and ulterior motives present in the legends of which he is a part.

The basic story of Arthur (and Gawain) found in Geoffrey's Historia was later translated and reworked many times: by Wace in the Norman French Roman de Brut, in an Anglo-Norman fragment, by Layamon in the Early Middle English Brut, and in the Middle English Alliterative Revival piece the Morte Arthure (the AMA), among others.

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