No character holds a higher rank among the knights of King Arthur’s court than Gauvain. In the list given in Chrétien’s Erec (vss. 1691 ff.) the poet says:
Devant toz les buens chevaliers Doit estre Gauvains li premiers;
Before all good knights, Gawain should be [mentioned] first;
and, accordingly, as the favorite nephew of Arthur, he gives him the title of mes sire or mon seignor. It is natural, then, that Gauvain is held up as a model of what other knights should be. Yet none of Chrétien’s works bears his name. He plays a prominent role in Erec, Cligés, Lancelot, Yvain, and especially Perceval, but always as a contrasting figure with whom the title-hero is compared or associated. It is interesting, therefore, to learn how he acquired this position and what particular traits of knighthood he illustrates. The date of the Erec is approximately 1170, but antecedent to it the name and qualities of Gauvain occur in various places, quite apart from the general Celtic background to which Gauvain may belong.1 Let us see what these previous references are.