In Malory’s Arthurian Tales Gauvain is found in two entirely different roles: in some of the Tales he is the model of chivalry, while in others he is treacherous and vindictive. These inconsistencies, as Professor Eugène Vinaver has shown in a number of illuminating studies, were not introduced by Malory himself, but were already in his French sources.1 There are, in fact, two distinct traditions concerning Gauvain. In the twelfth-century verse romances Gauvain was the embodiment of all chivalric virtues. Though never the title hero, he is represented as the best of Arthur’s knights:
Devant toz les buens chevaliers Doit estre Gauvains li premiers (Erec, ll. 1691-2)
Among all the good knights Gauvain must be considered the most outstanding
He is renowned for his courtesy, his modesty and above all his sens or wisdom. In battle he is practically invincible, and the greatest honour that could befall any knight was to avoid being defeated by Gauvain. He is also the perfect lover. In the thirteenth-century prose romances, however, his character is modified until finally he assumes the role of a villain and becomes the most cruel and treacherous of all knights.2 How did this change come about?