Heroes have captured the attention of readers for centuries, facing incredible odds, overcoming impossible obstacles, accomplishing things that encourage readers hearts and inspire their minds. Though they can often embody similar qualities, every tale’s hero is unique and special, altering to manifest the qualities valued at the time of their conception, changing to reflect the moral beliefs and thoughts of their author. Beowulf, from Beowulf, and Sir Gawain, from Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, are both heroes in their own rights, though each display different qualities, each faces different monsters of the physical and figurative kind, and each struggle to overcome them in different ways.
Sir Gawain is a hero of an Anglo-Norman Romance, a Knight who represents all the qualities of the time. Their people had a strict moral system, called the code of chivalry; it was a set of idealized qualities, including but not limited to, religious faith, adherence to truth, bravery, honor, courage, loyalty, and gallantry towards women. The demands of character were high and unwavering, and Gawain struggled to meet them, “‘a good man like Gawain, so greatly regarded,/ the embodiment of courtliness to the bones of his being” (ll. 1297-1298). Beowulf is a very different type of character, from a very different time; he is an Anglo-Saxon Hero, and as such personifies qualities of similar, but different, nature. Similar to Gawain, Beowulf is “the man whose name was known from courage,” he is honorable, loyal to his King, he however is also, boastful, proud, and posses great strength (l. 340).
Beowulf is a world of glorious bloodshed, and confident boasts. When Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother, and returns with Grendel’s bloody head “his courage was proven, his glory secure” (ll. 1646). Beowulf lives in a society where one needed to prove themselves, when warriors had to go out searching for glory and gore, seeking to create a powerful reputation for themselves. These desires are what set Beowulf on his path to Heorot and began his epic journey. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a similar importance is placed on deeds, however of a more moral kind, questions of ones honor and courteousness being the qualities sought after. The knights search for qualities shown in behavior and deeds, not the deeds themselves. The people finding value in “the most chivalrous and courteous knights” (l. 51).
In each tale the stories antagonist forces the character to confront different challenges and qualities about themselves. The Green Knight forces Gawain to struggle to embody all the qualities expected of a knight. For Gawain the conflict is one of identity, of facing the tests thrown at him and seeing if he can come out on the other side staying true to the Knight he is believed, and believes himself, to be. Gawain’s enemy is temptation, at every corner the Knight is tempting him with luxury, with beauty, ultimately, this struggle shows us how human Gawain truly is. In the end Gawain fails for fear of death.
Dread of deathblow and cowardly doubts
meant I gave into greed, and in doing so forgot
the freedom and fidelity every knight knows to follow.
And now I am found to be flawed and false,
through treachery and untruth I have totally failed.
Beowulf’s is a much more physical battle, his is a question of strength, honor, and ability. Beowulf’s struggle is to live up to all he has boasted to be, at no point do we wonder if Beowulf’s strength of character will falter, only the strength of his arm. He had respect and power in his culture because, “all knew of [his] awesome strength,” and he held great pride in it and his abilities (l.418). Beowulf faces increasingly more vicious and brutal foes, facing his own mortality as he ages, as his strength fades, his ability to live up to his boasts leaving with it.
Beowulf is a powerful warrior of great strength and deeds, while Gawain is a great Knight of strong moral character and courteousness. Each of these men are hero’s in their own right, each rising to face the challenge thrown at him and failing through his flaws. Beowulf fears no death and charges into battle needing to prove his worth over and over again. Beowulf’s pride leads him to his demise, leads his people to loose their leader and fall into chaos. Gawain’s fear of death prompts him to turn his back on the qualities he holds so dear, and it is his lack of faith in these standards of character that very nearly leads to his demise. These two characters in the end could have taken advice from the other. If Beowulf had been more humble like Gawain, if he had set aside his pride he most likely would not have fallen in battle against the dragon, and his people would not have faced the chaos and discontent his passing caused. Gawain could have remembered that somethings are important to hold true to, especially in the face of death, that at those times it is when a man needs to stay true to his word, his morals.
If you enjoyed this and are curious about the boast culture of the Anglo-Saxon’s read my literary analysis of Beowulf.
If you want to know a little more about the Code of Chivalry and how Gawain portrays it read my literary analysis of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.
Heaney, Seamus, translator. Beowulf. Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1A. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. 3 vols.
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1A. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. 3 vols.