I’m here to discuss everyone’s least favorite character in The Wheel of Time—Gawyn Trakand. While Gawyn is almost universally hated by fans, in many ways he is one of the most interesting, flawed characters that Robert Jordan brought to life in the pages of his epic tale. And in my current reread of The Wheel of Time, undertaken in anticipation of the upcoming Amazon TV series, something new about Gawyn occurred to me… I realized that this heavily disliked character (written as a parallel of the famous Sir Gawain of Arthurian legend) mirrors in many ways another iconic fantasy character that most people love and admire: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Éowyn.
[Spoilers for The Wheel of Time (and The Lord of the Rings, for that matter) below.]
It isn’t just the similarity in names, of course—both characters are born to nobility, but in positions where they will never rule. Éowyn is constrained to her role as a caregiver due to her gender in a patriarchal society. She is cold and unhappy and spends her days dreaming of the valor by steel that her male relatives earn as Riders of Rohan. Gawyn is destined to become the First Prince of the Sword for his sister, Elayne, who will one day become Queen of Andor, where the ruling line is matriarchal. Thus, both Gawyn and Éowyn are overshadowed by their relatives due to gender and the limits it places on their roles in society.
Both characters also desire people who embody the qualities and status that they themselves covet. When Éowyn meets Aragorn, she is drawn to him, even believes herself to be falling in love with him. Tolkien writes, “And she was now suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, greycloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt.” Aragorn comes from a line of great kings and commands the power and respect from men that Éowyn herself can only wish for. When Aragorn prepares to ride for the Paths of the Dead, Éowyn asks if she might join him. When he tells her that she must stay behind, she answers: “I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.” When he asks what she fears, Éowyn answers that she fears a cage—“to stay behind bars until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
Gawyn spends the majority of The Wheel of Time trying to decide where his allegiance truly lies. In the same way that Éowyn doesn’t want to be pinned down in her life and actions, Gawyn struggles to stay with one side before committing to Egwene al’Vere. During the splitting of the White Tower, Gawyn turns against the man who trained him, Hammar; although this results in Gawyn becoming a Blademaster and leader of the Younglings, an impromptu military band, his importance is short-lived. The Amyrlin that he dedicated himself to and has known since childhood sends him and the Younglings on a mission that is conveniently meant to kill them. And while Gawyn has fallen from being a prince to someone viewed as disposable, important events have been unfolding in the world around him, centered around a farmboy he once met. Eventually, Gawyn betrays the Younglings by leaving them behind, without saying a word to them, to go on a mission to save Egwene—thinking that in doing so, he can finally become the hero he aspires to be.
Gawyn first becomes infatuated with Egwene when she is training as a novice in the White Tower, with no rank. He struggles to see her as powerful and capable of making her own decisions, believing that she has been manipulated by Siuan Sanche and Rand al’Thor. Eventually, Egwene becomes the Amyrlin Seat and is one of the strongest Aes Sedai. Gawyn has trouble reconciling Egwene’s power and dominant role with how directionless and useless he feels in comparison. As Brandon Sanderson notes, “Perhaps Gawyn resisted Egwene’s demands because he wanted to lead, to be the one who accomplished her heroic acts. If he became her Warder, he would have to step aside and help her change the world.” Gawyn longs for greatness on his own terms but resigns himself to a supporting role, becoming Egwene’s Warder and husband. “I had to learn to surrender,” he tells Egwene.
In The Lord of the Rings, after Aragorn stops Éowyn from riding into battle, she does so anyway in secret, disguising herself as a man named Dernhelm and fighting in Théoden’s escort. Similarly, when the Last Battle arrives, Gawyn also finds that he cannot control his desire to take part in the fight that is raging all around him. Rather than stay by his wife’s side, Gawyn uses the Bloodknife ter’angreal to hide himself in order to win glory in his own right. He tries to convince himself that he is doing so for the greater good: “Once, perhaps, he would have done this for the pride of battle… That was not his heart now.” Gawyn goes on to think to himself that “he had the chance to change things, to really matter. He did it for Andor, for Egwene, for the world itself.” But his actions are undertaken under the cloak of secrecy, motivated by the desire to finally get the recognition he feels he truly deserves.
Both Éowyn and Gawyn engage in combat with characters that are second-in-command to the main evil power in their respective stories. Éowyn manages to kill the Witch-king of Angmar with the help of her friend and companion, Merry. She does so after her uncle, the King of Rohan, is mortally injured. She bravely challenges the Witch-king directly, facing him even with her shield splintered and arm broken—removing her helmet and revealing her true identity, she drives her sword through the Witch-king’s face after Merry uses his dagger from the Barrow-downs to slash the Nazgûl’s knee, distracting him in a crucial moment.
In contrast, Gawyn leaves behind his companions to track the Forsaken Demandred, who generals the Sharan forces in the Last Battle. The Bloodknife rings allow Gawyn to hide in the shadows. Instead of facing Demandred in battle head-on, Gawyn sneaks up behind him, attempting an assassination, which fails.
Though severely injured, Éowyn recovers and lives on past the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Her depression isn’t lifted by the feat of killing the Nazgûl and all of the renown she has earned through her courageous deeds. As she heals, however, she meets falls in love with Faramir and eventually realizes that she doesn’t need to be a warrior or queen to attain happiness, embracing a new role as a healer. Tolkien writes, “Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it.”
Gawyn doesn’t get the chance to change. He is mortally wounded in his confrontation with Demandred, and his actions cause not only his own death, but also factor in the death of the person he loves most. As Egwene’s Warder, Gawyn is given benefits that aid him in battle such as increased resistance to injury, fatigue, hunger, and thirst, along with the ability to sense Shadowspawn. The bond also allows the Aes Sedai and Warder to feel the other’s emotions. However, the bond is not without drawbacks. Should the Aes Sedai die, the Warder almost always dies shortly afterwards, as he will lose the will to live and often die pursuing vengeance. If the Warder dies, the Aes Sedai will feel the death through the bond, losing control of her emotions and entering a deep grief. As a Warder, Gawyn knows the effects that his potential death would have upon his wife and, as a result, on the other channelers she commands during The Last Battle. While the death of a Warder does not kill an Aes Sedai in the same way a Warder is impacted when the reverse happens, the resulting emotions would still be amplified more than usual and would likely impair Egwene’s judgement.
While Gawyn believes that he is doing his part to serve others, in actuality he fails to consider the results of his actions upon others. When he dies, the broken Warder bond causes Egwene to be consumed with rage. Her resulting recklessness is part of why she draws too much of the Power, killing not only Mazrim Taim and the Sharans, but also herself. Even if Gawyn had not died in battle, the Bloodknife rings would eventually have killed him, a fact he was aware of previously—he had been told that the users of the Bloodknives fight most ruthlessly because they are already guaranteed death by poison. Gawyn’s reckless actions and selfishness lead him to tragedy.
Both Éowyn and Gawyn are tragic characters, struggling to achieve the level of valor and recognition held by those closest to them, their family members and loved ones, impatiently waiting for their chance to prove themselves. Gawyn is a Blademaster and his short life is spent centered on conflict. However, we get a brief glimpse at one point in the narrative indicating that this isn’t what he truly wanted out of life. In Lord of Chaos, when Egwene and Gawyn steal moments together at an inn in Cairhien, he beckons her to run away with him: “We will both leave it all behind,” he says. “I have a small estate south of Whitebridge, with a vineyard and a village, so far into the country that the sun rises two days late. The world will hardly touch us there.”
Had Gawyn made different choices, he could have lived, like Éowyn, to see the peace after the final battle. Perhaps Gawyn would have also realized that the life of a warrior was never really right for him. Gawyn spent most of his short life trying to understand himself, but failed to ever grasp what his deeper values truly were, and where his priorities should lie. Had Gawyn gained enough insight to understand the cause of his motivations, he might have lived, and found contentment…
Both Gawyn and Éowyn grow up convinced that they will only find glory and fulfillment in combat and performing famously heroic deeds, while in reality their paths to happiness lay elsewhere. Éowyn is able to survive her confrontation with evil and grow to know her own heart. She finally achieves an inward peace with who she is, no longer needing or desiring outward glory. Gawyn doesn’t earn the same opportunity—he doesn’t live to see a world without war and become something other than a Blademaster. Rather than embracing true bravery and companionship in his moment of crisis like Éowyn, he exhibits only a stubborn recklessness, which leads to his death. This behavior, this essential flaw, is what leads so many readers and fans of The Wheel of Time to despise Gawyn, while Éowyn remains an admired figure in epic fantasy. It makes sense…and yet it’s still possible to find some sympathy for Gawyn, who couldn’t find himself or reach contentment, and though misguided, played out his part in the Pattern, woven as the Wheel wills.
Originally published in May 2020.
Brittany is a journalist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She picked up her first Wheel of Time book at a book fair in elementary school and has been hooked on fantasy novels since.