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Ywain and Gawain: Introduction

Ywain and Gawain survives in a single copy preserved in the British Library as Cotton Galba E. ix. The parchment manuscript contains 114 folios, seventeen separate pieces. Most of these - The Gospel of Nicodemus, a treatise on the Seven Deadly Sins, The Pricke of Conscience, a "Book of Penance," a Rood poem, and a Pater Noster, for example - are didactic. But others, such as notes on the points of a horse, The Prophecies of Merlin, and the satirical poem, "Sir Penny," represent a diversity of secular tastes. The hands of six individual scribes can be discerned in the collection, four of these dating from the early fifteenth century. The first hand - that of Ywain and Gawain and The Seven Sages of Rome - is a clear Anglicana Formata and the text is in a Northern dialect. Because certain North-East Midland forms are often reflected in the rhyme, the language is assumed to be that of the original author, who probably composed the work some fifty to one hundred years before this particular version was written down. A lack of topical references in the text makes it impossible to date the composition of the poem precisely.

The manuscript is in generally good condition, although its upper edges show water damage, probably from the 1731 fire in the library of Robert Bruce Cotton, the book's only identifiable owner. The top portion is often marred by shrinkage, splitting, and staining; worm holes, tearing, and ink blots occur throughout. Few of these defects present difficulties for the reader, however. The text contains little decoration. It begins with a large, ornate blue capital, picked in red, and a long, downward flourish, extending through the title and four lines of the manuscript. A number of smaller initials, alternately red and blue, are scattered throughout the text, normally coinciding with our modern practice of paragraphing. Such initials contain non-representational foliage and sport tendrils both upward and downward into the margins. The text contains numerous paragraph markings, which are generally not consistent with modern usage. There is little punctuation, and capitalization is sporadically employed.

The poem itself, a translation and adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes' Le Chevalier au Lion, is the story of Ywain, son of Urien, and a knight of King Arthur's court, whom the English poet assumed to have been a king and who is historically believed to have fought against the Angles in the sixth century. Unlike most romances, this one is a tale of married love: Ywain weds his lady, only to lose her through the breaking of a vow, whereafter he must perform many feats of valor before winning her again. The story begins at Arthur's court when Sir Colgrevance tells of his adventure along a perilous path which led him to a monster herdsman, a magic storm-producing well, and an avenging knight who some time ago had defeated Colgrevance in battle. Immediately Ywain, fired by the prospect of such an encounter and hoping to be more successful than his kinsman, sets out on the path himself, followed at some distance by Arthur and his retinue. Ywain defeats the knight, who, mortally wounded, flees to his castle. Ywain pursues him, but upon reaching the castle, he is trapped by the portcullis which crashes down upon him, killing his horse. He is rescued by Lunette, the companion of the dead knight's wife, whom he has unknowingly befriended in the past, and she gives him a ring that makes him invisible. Thus he is able to escape capture within the castle walls. He falls in love with the grieving widow, Alundyne; subsequently, he marries her and becomes the protector of her property. When Arthur and his knights arrive, Ywain defeats Sir Kay and proudly entertains them all as host and lord.

His happiness is short-lived, however, for soon Gawain, who had accompanied Arthur to the castle, persuades Ywain to "follow arms" with him to prove his manliness alongside his friend in tournaments. Alundyne agrees to the venture - but only for the space of a year. When Ywain forgets to return on the appointed day, she publicly renounces him and subsequently withdraws her magic ring which had served to protect him from harm. Having lost his love, Ywain also loses his mind, roaming the forest like a wild "beste" until the kindness of a hermit and the magic of still another lady restore him. Brought, in effect, to his senses, he now fights for justice and truth. Seeing a dragon battling a lion, he saves the lion and the beast becomes his companion. He rescues hapless maidens, defeats an oppressing giant, and overcomes an evil steward. When at last he returns to Alundyne's castle, Lunette aids him in a reconciliation with his wife. Then all live happily, the poet assures us, "Until that death haves dreven tham down" (line 4026).

As with Sir Perceval of Galles, this poem has suffered by comparison with its French prototype, considered by many to have been Chrétien's consummate achievement. Unlike Sir Perceval, a work which the English poet took and made his own, Ywain and Gawain is more a translation and a streamlining of Le Chevalier au Lion, retaining the narrative, but reducing the earlier work by some twenty-eight hundred lines. That the reduction often comes at the expense of Chrétien's rich descriptive passages, eliminating not only the courtly elements, battle details, and character nuances, but also the subtle word play, irony, psychologizing, and suspense, has caused the English romance to be labeled as "flat," lacking in "wit and subtlety." In addition, such streamlining has produced what some critics take to be lacunae in the text - gaps where the meaning is not clear. Such "gaps" may be the result of "faulty copying," or they may represent the English poet's conscious attempt at pandering to an audience who would eschew such subtleties in favor of a more fast-paced and action-filled plot. Ywain and Gawain, however, must not be judged solely by comparison to Chrétien, for it is a provocative, skillfully-wrought poem in its own right, reproducing the Ywain saga for an English audience that is rather different from the French courts for which Chrétien wrote, an audience seeking courtly sophistication rather than owning it.

Whatever the reason for the abridgements, the English poet does focus on action. Ywain's thoughts and feelings interest him less that the physical activities that effect character change. Ywain's adventures are not random, but progressive: his first act - his attack on the knight of the well - is motivated by family concerns. He is in pursuit of his own self-aggrandizement. Likewise, his year of "tournamenting" with Gawain is undertaken for personal glory. He becomes so self-absorbed that he forgets his vows to his wife. After he has lost and regained his sanity his adventures take on a different character. He now acts solely for justice and right as steps toward personal atonement. His deeds are performed not as the noted "Sir Ywain," but as the unknown "Knight of the Lion." In the final battle where he unknowingly fights against his best friend, Sir Gawain, he is willing to proclaim himself the loser - even though the battle was a draw - displaying a type of humility not known to him before. In humility Ywain's education is complete: He is redeemed and makes ending . . . of al the sorows that he hade (lines 4009-10). Only then can he be reconciled with his wife. Espousing chivalry in its ideal forms, Ywain contrasts with Sir Perceval of Galles. His courtly activities raise questions about the nature of trowthe and about the conflict between married love and personal honor, and thus the romance anticipates more fully developed treatments of such themes in later fourteenth-century works.

The poem is written in rhymed couplets; each line contains four stresses and is generally octosyllabic. Some degree of alliteration appears in approximately one third of the lines, sometimes in two or three syllables. The dialogue is often lively and colloquial, befitting a North-country poet writing for an audience more mercantile in its livelihood than Chrétien's courtly group.

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Selected Bibliography


British Library Cotton MS Galba E. ix, fols. 4-25.


French, Walter H., and Charles Brockway Hale, eds. Ywain and Gawain (lines 1-1448). In Middle English Metrical Romances. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964. Pp. 483-527.

Friedman, Albert B., and Norman T. Harrington, eds. Ywain and Gawain. EETS o.s. 254. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. Rpt. 1981. [The introduction, pp. ix-lxii, discusses the MS, the structure of the poem, and its relationship to Chrétien.]

Harrington, Norman Taylor, ed. Ywain and Gawain: A Critical Edition. Dissertation, Harvard University, 1960.

Mills, Maldwyn, ed. Ywain and Gawain, Sir Percyvell of Gales, The Anturs of Arther. London: J. M. Dent, 1992. [Everyman edition.]

Ritson, Joseph, ed. Ancient Engleish Metrical Romanceës. Vol. 1. London: W. Nicol, 1802. Pp. 1-169. Rpt. Edinburgh: Goldsmid, 1884.

Schleich, Gustav, ed. Ywain and Gawain. Oppeln/Leipzig: E. Franck, 1887.

Stevick, Robert D., ed. "Ywain and Gawain." In Five Middle English Narratives. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967. Pp. 140-283. [Normalized text.]

Taglicht, J., ed. An Edition of the Middle English Romances [sic] Ywain and Gawain, with Introduction, Notes, Glossary. Dissertation, Oxford University, 1963-64.


Hunt, Tony. "The Medieval Adaptations of Chrétien's Yvain: A Bibliographical Essay," In An Arthurian Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Lewis Thorpe. Ed. Kenneth Varty. Glasgow French Department, University of Glasgow, 1981. Pp. 203-13.

Roce, Joanne A. Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955-1985. New York: Garland, 1987. Pp. 547-52.

Selected Critical Studies

de Caluwé-Dor, Juliette. "Yvain's Lion Again: A Comparative Analysis of Its Personality and Function in the Welsh, French, and English Versions." In An Arthurian Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Lewis Thorpe. Ed. Kenneth Varty. Glasgow French Department, University of Glasgow, 1981. Pp. 229-38. [Suggests that in the English version of the story, the lion does not have the personality of the vassal, as in Chrétien's, but rather that of a friendly dog, more faithful to Ywain than Ywain has been to the lady.]

Doob, Penelope B. R. Nebuchadnezzar's Children: Conventions of Madness in Middle English Literature. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974. Pp. 134-53. [Views Ywain's lack of trowthe - his moral fault - as leading to his insanity (often a punishment for sin) and suggests that he can only be restored to reason by adhering to the virtues inherent in Alundyne's ring.]

Faris, David E. "The Art of Adventure in the Middle Englsh Romance: Ywain and Gawain, Eger and Grime." Studia Neophilologica 53 (1981), 91-100. [Argues for Ywain as an "imaginatively conceived" romance in which time and space exist to serve the hero's needs, not to limit them.]

Finlayson, John. "Ywain and Gawain and the Meaning of Adventure." Anglia 87 (1969), 312-37. [Claims that Ywain's adventures serve to characterize the hero who progresses from a self-serving knight to a king who seeks justice.]

Friedman, Albert B., and Norman T. Harrington. Introduction to Ywain and Gawain. EETS o.s. 254. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. Rpt. 1981. Pp. ix-lxii. [Discusses the manuscript of Ywain, the structure of the work, the relationship to Chrétien's Yvain.]

Hamilton, Gayle K. "The Breaking of the Troth in Ywain and Gawain." Mediaevalia 2 (1976), 111-35. [Argues that the poem is not only concerned with the keeping of one's vow in a feudal society, but also with that higher justice which is sometimes at odds with one's spoken vow.]

Hamilton, George L. "Storm-Making Springs: Rings of Invisibility and Protection - Studies on the Sources of the Yvain of Chrétien de Troyes." The Romanic Review 2 (1911), 355-75. [Traces the sources of the magic storm, concentrating on the Celtic folk-tale as a source for Chrétien.]

Harrington, Norman T. "The Problems of the Lacunae in Ywain and Gawain." JEGP 69 (1970), 659-65. [Sees the lacunae not as careless copying, but instead as deliberate attempts on the part of the English poet to avoid what his audience might consider as frivolous or unpalatable.]

Hunt, Tony. "Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: Some Interpretative Problems in Chrétien's Yvain and its Medieval Adaptations." In The Craft of Fiction: Essays in Medieval Poetics. Ed. Leigh A. Arrathoon. Rochester, Michigan: Solaris Press, 1984. Pp. 83-117. [Notes that trowthe is more important than the love element in Ywain, a poem which does not possess the ironies and complexities of the French original.]

Lacy, Norris J., et al. eds. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1991. [See various characters, sites, works, s.v.]

Owens, Roger John. "'Ywain and Gawain': Style in the Middle English Romance." Dissertation, University of California, San Diego, 1977. [Argues for a certain set of English conventions that the Ywain-poet shared with his contemporaries and which he consciously manipulated in his work.]

Speirs, John. Medieval English Poetry: The Non-Chaucerian Tradition. London: Faber and Faber, 1957; rpt. 1971. Pp. 114-21. [Suggests that certain episodes in the poem (the monster herdsman, the storm-raising fountain, the keeper of the well) have their roots in pre-Christian rites which the English poet and Chrétien inherited even if they didn't fully understand.]

Taglicht, J. "Notes on Ywain and Gawain." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 71 (1970), 641-47. [Corrects numerous errors, and supplements linguistic notes and glossary of Friedman and Harrington's edition.]

Weston, Jessie L. "'Ywain and Gawain' and 'Le Chevalier au Lion."' MLQ 1 (1898), 98-107 and 194-202. [Although conceding that the English poem is a "translation" of Chrétien's Yvain, Weston contends that the author also knew "The Lady of the Fountain" contained in the Welsh Mabinogi, which he used to supplement the French poem.]

Wilson, Anne. The Magical Quest: The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance. Manches-ter and New York: Manchester University Press, 1988. Pp. 1-23 and 53-93. [Contends that Ywain and Gawain can best be understood by means of a four-step "magical plot" in which Ywain's ritualistic actions exorcise his theft of and treachery to Alundyne and allow him to achieve his goal.]