Sir Yvain /ɪˈwn/, also known as Ywain, Owain, Uwain(e), Ewaine, etc., is a knight of the Round Table in Arthurian legend, wherein he is often the son of King Urien of Gorre and the sorceress Morgan le Fay. The historical Owain mab Urien, on whom the literary character is based, was the king of Rheged in Great Britain during the late 6th century.

First appearanceHistoria Regum Britanniae
Created byGeoffrey of Monmouth
TitlePrince, Sir
OccupationKnight of the Round Table
RelativesUrien, Morgan, Morfydd
NationalityCeltic Briton

Yvain was one of the earliest characters associated with King Arthur. He was also one of the most popular, starring in Chrétien de Troyes' late-12th-century Yvain, the Knight of the Lion and appearing prominently in many later accounts, often accompanied by his fierce pet lion. He remains Urien's son in virtually all literature in which he appears, whereas other characters in Arthurian legend based on historical figures, for instance Sir Kay, lost their original familial connections in romance literature.

Welsh tradition

Yvain, the character of the romances, takes his name from Owain mab Urien, a historical figure of the 6th-century kingdom of Rheged at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. His name was recorded in the bardic tradition of Taliesin and became a legendary character in the Welsh Triads, where his father, sister, horse and personal bard are all acclaimed but his wife Penarwan is named one of the "Three Faithless Wives of Britain", along with her sister Esyllt (Iseult, Tristan's love).

Arthurian legend

Yvain's lion coming to his aid against a giant in an illustration for Ascott R. Hope's The Old Tales of Chivalry, Re-told (1877)
"Yriam's" attributed arms

Yvain has been first mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae c. 1136, where he is only mentioned in passing, as succeeding his uncle, Auguselus, King of Albany. The settlers of Brittany brought much of their insular British culture when they came to the continent, and in the 12th century, updated versions of Breton lais and stories became popular with French audiences.

The French poet Chrétien de Troyes wrote Yvain, the Knight of the Lion at the same time he was working on Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart during the 1170s. In it, Yvain seeks to avenge his cousin Calogrenant who had been defeated by an otherworldly knight beside a magical storm-making fountain in the forest of Brocéliande. Yvain defeats the knight, Esclados, and falls in love with his widow Laudine. With the aid of Laudine's servant Lunete, Yvain wins his lady and marries her, but Gawain convinces him to embark on chivalric adventure. His wife assents but demands he return after a set period of time, but he becomes so enthralled in his knightly exploits that he forgets his lady, and she bars him from returning. Yvain goes mad with grief, but eventually decides to win back his love. A lion he rescues from a serpent proves to be a loyal companion and a symbol of knightly virtue, and helps him complete his altruistic ventures. In the end, Laudine allows him and his lion to return to her fortress.

Yvain rescues the lion from the dragon in a 15th-century French illustration for Chrétien's Yvain, the Knight of the Lion
Iwein (Yvain) is rescued from madness in a 1851 German fresco at the Schwerin Castle in Mecklenburg

Chrétien's Yvain had a huge impact on the literary world; German poet Hartmann von Aue used it as the basis for his Middle High German court epic Iwein, while the author of Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain, one of the Welsh Romances included in the Mabinogion, tells essentially the same story, recasting the work in a Welsh setting. The story exists in a several further versions in different languages, including the Middle English Ywain and Gawain.

Yvain appears in all the cyclical accounts such as the Vulgate Cycle, the Post-Vulgate Cycle, and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as well as in numerous independent romances. His importance is indicated by his close friendship with Gawain and the passage in the Mort Artu section of the Lancelot-Grail cycle where he is one of the last knights to die before Arthur.

Yvain's mother is often said to be Arthur's half-sister, making him Arthur's nephew. This sister is Morgan le Fay in the Post-Vulgate Cycle and Le Morte d'Arthur (causing Yvain to be banished from the court of Camelot after Morgan's attempts on Arthur's life), but other works name another sibling. He is the nephew of Morgause and King Lot, and cousin to Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris, Gareth and Mordred. He has a half-brother (with whom he is often confused) named Yvain the Bastard, son of Urien and his seneschal's wife.

Yvain's birth by the fay Morgan may have its roots in Welsh legends: two of the Triads claim the goddess-like Modron as his mother. Travelling through Denbighshire, Urien comes across the Ford of Barking where dogs congregate and bark for some unknown reason. Only Urien is brave enough to go near the place and there he discovers Modron, endlessly washing clothes (a scene common in Celtic legend, see Morrígan). He has his way with her, and she announces she had been destined to remain at the ford until she had conceived a son by a Christian. She tells Urien to return at the end of the year to receive his children and these are the twins Owain and Morvydd. However, Yvain is not associated with Morgan in the continental literature until the 13th-century Post-Vulgate cycle. (Morgan appears in Chrétien's Knight of the Lion as a healer but the author does not imply she is the protagonist's mother.) Calogrenant or Colgrevance from Knight of the Lion is his another important cousin in the romances.

In The Dream of Rhonabwy, a tale associated with the Mabinogion, Owain is one of Arthur's top warriors and plays a game of chess against him while the Saxons prepare to fight the Battle of Badon. Three times during the game, Owain's men inform him that Arthur's squires have been slaughtering his ravens, but when Owain protests, Arthur simply responds, "Your move." Then Owain's ravens retaliate against the squires, and Owain does not stop them until Arthur crushes the chess men. The Saxon leaders arrive and ask for a truce of two weeks, and the armies move on to Cornwall. Rhonabwy, the dreamer of the Dream, awakens, and the reader is left as confused as he is. The Dream of Rhonabwy has never been satisfactorily interpreted.

Later Arthuriana

  • He appears in Child Ballad 34, Kemp Owyne, as the title hero, where his role is to disenchant a maiden turned into a dragon by kissing her three times. This story has no parallels in Arthurian legend, and it is not clear how he came to be attached to this story, although many other Arthur knights appear in other ballads with as little connection to their appearances in Arthurian legend.[1]
  • He appears in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon; but as Morgan le Fay's foster son, not her biological son.
  • In Bernard Cornwell's The Winter King, Owain is the chief warlord of Uther Pendragon and the champion of Dumnonia that has no connection to Morgan whatsoever; he is depicted as an accomplished and much-feared soldier, but is morally corrupt and a war profiteer. After accepting money to massacre innocent tin miners to frame a foreign power, Arthur accuses Owain of dishonour and challenges him to a duel, in which Owain is killed.

See also


  1. Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume I, p. 306.


  • Bromwich, Rachel (1963). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. University Of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1386-8.
  • Child, Francis James, (1965). The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume I, p. 306. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Chrétien de Troyes; Owen, D. D. R. (translator) (1988). Arthurian Romances. Tuttle Publishing, reprinted by Everyman's Library. ISBN 0-460-87389-X.
  • Chrétien de Troyes; Raffel, Burton (translator) (1987). Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-03837-2.
  • Yvain at The Camelot Project
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