If Sir Gawain is my favorite Knight of the Round Table, his cousin Owain is the opposite. It’s not just that, in later stories, Owain is portrayed as this easy-going nice-guy character who has to deal with his churlish cousin Gawain’s jealousy of his obvious superiority…although that has a lot to do with it, too.
It’s that, much as the storytellers seem to admire Owain, as I’m reading about him I can’t help but feel he’s a bit of a jerk. Especially to ladies.
Here’s a handy list to make my point:
1) Falls in love and promises to marry lady. Goes off questing instead of marrying her.
2) Stays at a place hanging out with friends for three years instead of three months. How can you even make that kind of mistake?
3) After six years he finally gets around to marrying his lady.
4) Outlives his wife so he can conveniently be paired up with all the other maidens he encounters in his stories.
5) This little line (which I admit is the fault of the author and not Owain, but still conveys the sort of attitude he seems to have):
“…And she was his wife as long as she lived.”
Owain isn’t just a jerk to ladies. He also is super arrogant and melodramatic when it comes to his fellow knights. Upon returning from a quest, he shows up in Camelot just in time for a tournament to determine the greatest knight in the realm.
(Just for the record, King Arthur himself is the greatest fighter among them, but as King he’s not allowed to enter tournaments and instead is relegated to judging them. However, if you’re reading Arthurian legends and a Black Knight shows up, most likely this is King Arthur in disguise.)
Instead of entering the tournament under his own name, Owain thinks it hilarious apparently to show up in strange armor and therefore unrecognizable even to his own relatives. This way he can defeat them, picking them off their horses with his lance one by one, without the risk of them not giving him birthday gifts or sending Christmas cards. It also has the deleterious effect of causing all the knights to hate him and conspire to kill him. It’s usually just by chance that his true identity is revealed before one of his own relatives slays him—Gawain, usually, in an attempt by the storyteller to make Gawain look like a villain for almost murdering poor wonderful Owain.
Although Owain is by no means the only knight to do this in various Arthurian legends, this is usually one of the hallmark scenes in any telling or retelling of his adventures. Hail the conquering hero, who returns incognito to beat up all his friends and relatives!