The Matter of Britain or the Arthurian legend is a name given collectively to the legends that concern the Celtic and legendary history of the British Isles, especially those focused on King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. The 12th century French poet Jean Bodel created the name in the following lines of his epic Chanson de Saisnes:
- Ne sont que iii matières à nul homme atandant,
- De France et de Bretaigne, et de Rome la grant.
- (translation: "There are but 3 literary cycles that no one should be without: the matter of France, of Britain, and of great Rome". Jean Bodel, Chanson de Saisnes)
The name distinguishes and relates the Matter of Britain from the mythological themes taken from classical antiquity, the "matter of Rome", and the tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and their wars with the Moors and Saracens, which constituted the "matter of France". While Arthur is the chief subject of the Matter of Britain, other lesser-known legendary history of the British Isles, including the stories of Brutus of Britain, Old King Cole, King Lear, and Gogmagog, is also included in the subjects covered by the Matter of Britain: see King of the Britons.
The legendary history of Britain was created in part to form a body of patriotic myth for the island. Several agendas appear in this body of literature.
The Historia Britonum, the earliest known source of the story of Brutus of Britain, seems to have been devised to create a distinguished genealogy for a number of Welsh princes in the 9th century. Traditionally attributed to Nennius, its actual compiler is unknown; it exists in several recensions. This tale went on to achieve greater currency because its inventor linked Brutus to the diaspora of heroes that followed the Trojan War, and thus provided raw material which later mythographers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, Michael Drayton, and John Milton could draw upon, linking the settlement of the British Isles to the heroic age of Greek literature, for their several and diverse literary purposes. As such, this material could be used for patriotic mythmaking just as Virgil linked the mythical founding of Rome to the Trojan War in The Æneid. Geoffrey of Monmouth also introduced the fanciful claim that the Trinovantes, reported by Tacitus as dwelling in the area of London, had a name he interpreted as Troi-novant, "New Troy". (read more . . . )
Gawain ( or ), also Gwalchmei, Gawan, Gauvain, Walewein and others, is King Arthur's nephew and a Knight of the Round Table who appears very early in the Arthurian legend's development. He is one of a select number of Round Table members to be referred to as the greatest knight, most notably in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He is almost always portrayed as the son of Arthur's sister Morgause (or Anna) and King Lot of Orkney and Lothian, and his brothers are Agravain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Mordred. In some works he has sisters as well. Gawain is often portrayed as a formidable but brash warrior, fiercely loyal to his king and family. He is a friend to young knights, a defender of the poor, and a consummate ladies' man. In some works, his strength waxes and wanes with the sun; in the most common form of this motif, his might triples by noon, but fades as the sun sets. His knowledge of herbs makes him a great healer, and he is credited with at least three children: Florence, Lovell, and Gingalain, the last of which is also called Libeaus Desconus or Le Bel Inconnu, the Fair Unknown. In later Welsh Arthurian literature, Gawain is considered synonymous with the native champion Gwalchmei.
Gawain is commonly considered identical with the Welsh hero known as Gwalchmei (or Gwalchmai) ap Gwyar, who appears in the Welsh Triads and in Culhwch and Olwen, an Arthurian romance associated with the Mabinogion. His appearance in Culhwch, which probably dates to the 11th century, makes him, like Cai (Kay) and Bedwyr (Bedivere), one of the earliest characters associated with Arthur. Here Gwalchmei, like Gawain, is Arthur's nephew and one of his chief warriors; Arthur sends him and five other champions with the protagonist Culhwch on his journey to find his love Olwen. (read more . . . )