Growth and Maturation in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Iwein
The Arthurian legends of Iwein and Gawain and the Green Knight are two examples of the medieval initiation story: a tale in which a character, usually in puberty or young adulthood, leaves home to seek adventures and, in the process, maturity. Through the course of their adventures, including a meeting with the man of the wilderness, temptations at the hands of women, and a permanent physical or mental wounding, the character grows from adolescent awkwardness and foolishness to the full potential knightly honor. While both Arthurian legends fit this format, the depth of character development, specifically in terms of relationships, is vastly different. Whereas Gawain and the Green Knight does little more with relationships than demonstrate the evils of female temptations, Iwein effectively explores the formation, destruction, and resurrection of numerous male and female relationships.
In order to understand the significance of Hartmann von Aue's development of relationships in Iwein, it's important to first understand the nature of a typical initiation story. Initiation stories almost always deal with the development of a single character; through the course of the story the single character is developed and matured. The meeting with the man of the wilderness and the female temptress may both involve other characters, but in both situations the relationship is used to develop the initiation story. In Iwein, Hartmann uses the growing maturity being developed through the initiation story as a forum for the relationships of the characters; indeed, the focal point of Iwein is less the initiation of the main character than the effect his initiation has on his relationships.
The first story, Gawain and the Green Knight, has all the clear characteristics of an initiation story. Gawain, a young and fairly inexperienced knight at the court of King Arthur, overconfidently involves himself in a challenge with the Green Knight:
Gawain by Guenevere
Toward the king doth now incline:
"I beseech, before all here,
that this melee may be mine." (339)
The challenge, an exchange of axe blows, is the immediate cause for Gawain's exile into the wilderness. After he beheads the Green Knight, miraculously failing to kill him, he learns that he has a year and a day find the knight's castle so that he may receive his axe blow in return. Gawain's wandering in search of the castle, his wilderness period, leads him into temptation and doubt, when, at a friendly lord's castle, he is propositioned by the lord's wife. While the initial temptation appears to be the wife herself, in truth, the temptation is to break an agreement that Gawain has made with the woman's husband. Their agreement, to exchange whatever prizes they may acquire during the day, is broken when Gawain accepts the gift of a magical green scarf from the lord's wife without passing it on to the lord as their agreement...