Heroism of Beowulf and Sir Gawain Comparison

The ancient world is often characterized as a world of evil pagan belief systems, full of multiple gods and evil supernatural adversaries. A large part of this characterization may even come from Christian perception of the Old Code as stories of demi-gods, the products of licentious gods and mortal mistresses, shocked their monogamous and even celibate moralities. However, ancient English texts such as the story of Beowulf, first recorded sometime around 1000 AD but existing in the oral tradition for centuries prior, reveal many values of the ancients that were actually in line with the tenets of the Christian ideals. The behavior of characters in an epic such as Beowulf typically makes a clear distinction between the concepts of barbarism and civility, morality and immorality, humility and boastfulness when attempting to define those attributes that make a hero as it is seen in the culture from which the epic is produced. Of the characters in this epic, both Beowulf and King Hrothgar are seen as examples of the Old Code’s definition of hero, demonstrating the distinction made as a concession to age. Similarly, the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, pulled his story from ancient oral tradition, blending it with other stories and producing a work that demonstrates the new Christian definition of heroic, based strongly on the degree to which a man demonstrated civility, a sense of mortality and humility, again with a distinction made as a concession to age. Despite its age and seeming isolation, the Beowulf poet seems to have held many of the same ideals and beliefs regarding those attributes that make a man a hero that would be held by the Christians as represented through stories such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

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In Beowulf, both Hrothgar and Beowulf demonstrate the same level of devotion to the old heroic code of the Germanic tribes. This code placed a lot of value on things like strength and loyalty in warriors, hospitality and political skill in leaders, the presentable nature of women, and the good reputation of the people everyone associates with (Tierney-Hynes, 2000).

In describing how he worked to save Beowulf’s father’s good name, Hrothgar tells Beowulf “Great was the feud that your father set off when his hand struck down Heatholaf in death among the Wylfings. … I then settled the feud with fitting payment, sent to the Wylfings over the water’s back old things of beauty; against which I’d the oath of your father” (459-61; 470-72). In this, Hrothgar is recounting how the two families are connected in honor, allowing him to accept the help of Beowulf without losing any of his current power or heroic status. Hrothgar is old and in no fit condition to be battling monsters. Yet he has been a good leader, a great provider, and a true friend for those in need. It is now fitting that he should be provided with a champion to fight his battles for him as repayment for a service done in kind. This illustrates the importance of civility and manners in dealing with each other and the presence of a complex social order in which bonds of friendship were backed up with action.

Hrothgar is aware of the dangers of power that Beowulf is likely to encounter during his lifetime and seeks to warn him of them, indicating a distinct difference between the moral conscience between the civilized culture and that of the barbarian culture that doesn’t recognize such issues. Just before the Geats depart from Heorot, he warns Beowulf against the sins of pride and greed as they will creep into his heart whether he will or no. “Beloved Beowulf, best of warriors, resist this deadly taint, take what is better, your lasting profit. Put away arrogance, noble fighter! The noon of your strength shall last for a while now, but in a little time, sickness or a sword shall swipe it from you” (1758-63). This speech again calls attention to the difference between what is expected of an old hero and what is expected of a new hero. Hrothgar realizes that Beowulf will begin to reap the rewards of the great deeds he has accomplished and will be widely recognized as a strong and brave leader. However, he is also aware that a man who would continue to be considered a hero into his old age, should he live so long, must also remember to retain his humility before his people. Hrothgar’s generosity in the mead hall reinforces the idea that generosity and ample support of your men is both an expected responsibility as well as an important characteristic of the heroic man; it is his obligation to look out for those below him to the best of his ability.

As Hrothgar is seen as the epitome of the old hero, allowing others to pay back their debts to him for previous great deeds accomplished in their name by allowing their children to now accomplish the deeds he cannot do himself, Beowulf emerges as an example of a young hero in the making. His attention to civility is evidenced in his willingness to stand in his father’s place to repay a debt owed to King Hrothgar, as has already been discussed.

Although he must assure Hrothgar that he is capable of accomplishing the task set before him, Beowulf is careful to remain humble, particularly within his first encounter with a monster. His status as a hero is bestowed upon him as a result of his physical prowess, his ability to get the job done. No one asks him for his advice but neither does anyone seem to question the wisdom of his plan of attack. He is seen as having the powers of a god, which is stated explicitly as Grendel dies. Nearing death, Grendel realizes that he, “once the affliction of men, tormentor of their days—[knew] what it meant to feud with the Almighty God” (Beowulf 490-492).

Although Grendel’s mother seems to have the advantage in Beowulf’s next battle, the Beowulf poet again suggests divine origins, “God, who sent him victory, gave judgment for truth and right, Ruler of Heavens, once Beowulf was back on his feet and fighting”(630-632). When Beowulf wins the battle, he sees a divine light descending from the heavens. The poet describes the light as “As though burning in that hall, and as bright as heavens own cradle, lit in the sky”(647-648). This pronounces Beowulf a hero to everyone around and establishes his reputation for the future, again based solely upon his physical actions and his demonstrated skill in outsmarting her. However, again, it is done in such a way that there can be no denying it but Beowulf himself has no need of proclaiming it.

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The Anglo-Saxons believed that “life was a struggle against insuperable odds and that a man’s wyrd or lot would be what it would be” (Chickering 269), however, they also evidently believed that a man could bring on his destruction through a loss of one of the major heroic virtues. As a much older man, Beowulf’s final battle is against the dragon. While not much is told about what has happened in the intervening time, it is made clear that Beowulf has ruled well and his people have prospered, he has grown significantly more boastful regarding his earlier conquests and has lost much of his humility. As Beowulf faces the dragon, “his sacrificial death is not seen as tragic, but as the fitting end of a good (some would say ‘too good’) hero’s life” (Bolton 1). In the Old Code, dragons violated the values and conceptions of the good king because of how they hoarded their treasures, rather than sharing them with others (Feldman, 1997). This is perhaps most easily seen by comparing the activities of Hrothgar at the beginning of the story with the actions of the dragon at the end. While Hrothgar spends much of his time awarding rings and other awards to his thanes or warriors, the dragon sleeps peacefully as long as his entire treasure is secure beneath his body. When a runaway slave takes a goblet from the lair as a means of buying off his lord’s wrath, the dragon awakens and begins to terrorize the countryside. Beowulf interprets this as a sign that the gods are angered with him and he must meet the challenge alone. This makes a connection between Beowulf and the dragon that was not made between Hrothgar and Grendel. Although Hrothgar also interpreted the appearance of a beast in his midst as a sign that he had done something wrong as a king, he was aware of his mortality to allow someone else to go fight the battle for him. Beowulf is unwilling to relinquish the power of the young hero to retire into the role of the old hero and dies as a result, giving rise to the new hero despite himself.

While Gawain doesn’t have the same kind of family connection with the Green Knight, or Lord Bercilak, that Beowulf shares with Hrothgar, he has the same kind of tutoring relationship with the older man, who is seen to be the shining example of the heroic code.

Where Beowulf only had Hrothgar as an example, Gawain is seen to be under the care of King Arthur when the Green Knight appears in his court. When Arthur’s court is criticized for cowardice by the Green Knight, someone must rise to the challenge as a means of protecting the honor of the court. To prevent the king from risking his neck, Gawain proves his loyalty, courage, and honor by accepting the Green Knight’s challenge himself. At the most basic level, this action is the same as that of Beowulf in coming to help Hrothgar with his problems. Again it can be seen that the older lord, having proven his heroic status in his youth, is now able to call upon the younger generation to provide the physical hero while allowing the elder to remain the philosophical one.

There is a notable difference, though, in that Beowulf comes seeking adventure and glory while these seem almost thrust upon Gawain involuntarily. According to Garbis, an important element of the Arthurian tradition is the concept of the reluctant hero. “Some kind of shock occurs that makes one aware of the self” (Garbis, 2002) occurs as Gawain realizes that he is the only one capable of accepting the challenge. This is, in large part, the result of his conclusion that he is the least valuable knight in the court and therefore the one most expendable should he fail to win the challenge. “I am the weakest, the most wanting in wisdom, I know, and my life, if lost, would be least missed, truly” (I.16.354-355). Rather than striding forward with pride and prattling off these words as if they were merely for show, Gawain’s initial reluctance and hesitating approach to the king makes it clear that these ideas are just not becoming completely clear to him and he is as sincere as he can be in stating them aloud.

This demonstrates a new level of humility to that experienced in Beowulf as the hero is almost so humble that he becomes powerless. Knowledge of the life of Gawain within other Arthurian legends already enabled many who heard this story to know he would never lose this sense of humility and that it would serve him well as the epitome of the ideal and pure knight; however, even in this poem, the humility of this sort is seen to be prized over bravery.

The concept of civility was also obviously an important element of the true knight as part of the heroic code of the more Christian-minded society of Sir Gawain. Like Beowulf’s appearance in Hrothgar’s hall, Gawain demonstrates extreme politeness in interrupting Arthur’s battle preparations. He asks permission to leave the table and requests the forgiveness of his liege-lady before he attempts to supplant her husband within the hero’s circle. To be sure there is no misunderstanding, he also makes sure to mention the bravery and the high quality of the other knights gathered within the room before he offers to take Arthur’s place before the Green Knight. The Green Knight enters Arthur’s court with his challenge knowing that the code of chivalry will assure the individual will arrive on the appointed day in the future to receive his blow. After Gawain strikes off the Green Knight’s head, the only surety the Green Knight needs to guarantee Gawain’s appearance at the appointed place and time is Gawain’s word that he will do so. That bravery hasn’t completely left the picture of the true hero is alluded to in the Green Knight’s final words before Arthur’s court, telling Gawain how to find him and reminding him, “So come, or else be called coward accordingly” (I.20. 456). No one forces Gawain to leave Arthur’s castle at the appropriate time and no one guards him to be sure he doesn’t run away, but Gawain sets off in search of the Green Chapel in plenty of time to find it with time to spare, ending up spending three days at Lord Bercilak’s castle.

Civility is also a great component of the lessons that Gawain learns as a result of his process through this adventure. During the three days that Gawain spends with the couple, the lord goes hunting while the lady attempts to seduce Gawain, with the test being whether Gawain will honor his agreement with the lord to exchange all that they gained each day.

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Gawain resists the lady’s temptations the first two days accepting only a few relatively chaste kisses from the lady and dutifully giving the lord the kisses he received each evening.

However, he fails to produce the green sash the lady provides him on the third day. This is because the lady has promised him that the sash will offer him protection from death when the Green Knight strikes: “For the man that binds his body with this belt of green, as long as he laps it closely about him, no hero under heaven can hack him to pieces, for he cannot be killed by any cunning on earth” (II.74.1851-1854). When Gawain faces the Green Knight on the appointed day, he learns it is Lord Bercilak, who delivers two false blows of the ax and barely nicks Gawain with the third as punishment for his failure regarding the girdle. He does not kill him because Gawain has shown an appropriate sense of his mortality in desiring to keep the lady’s gift and his own life. Through this exchange, the Green Knight has been teaching Gawain the necessity of staying true to the code.

Again, however, there are important differences between the story of Beowulf and that of Gawain. While Beowulf’s journey to hero status was very straightforward – he repays his father’s debt, he slays some obvious monsters and he is honored by heaven above with recognition of his heroic deeds – Gawain’s accomplishment remains as humble as he first presented himself.

The only true knowledge anyone has of Gawain’s adventure is through the hearing of it from Gawain himself. In keeping with his true hero’s humility, Gawain returns to Arthur’s castle with nothing more than a small cut on his neck and a green sash. His hero’s story is reduced to a confession of great sin and his grand memorial is not to attain a throne of his own, as in Beowulf, but to be reminded of his shame and humiliation by every knight of the realm wearing a bit of green to commemorate the occasion. Gawain tells the court, “this is the figure of the faithlessness found in me, which I must need wear while I live. For man can conceal sin but not dissever from it, so when it is once fixed, it will never be worked loose” (IV.101.2509-2512). They do this in amicable agreement with Gawain that they must have something to keep them humble and with a half-joking spirit, but the fact remains that Gawain’s ‘glory’ is little more than a reminder of his imperfection.

In addition to the much less ‘heroic’ end to Gawain’s tale as compared to Beowulf, who was able to rule in riches and wealth until he finally died like a man in an epic battle against evil, Gawain’s story delves deeper into what it meant to be a hero and how one was supposed to live the lifestyle. Within his story, Gawain is faced with mutually exclusive choices in determining which portions of the chivalric code to uphold when he is faced with the Lady. The true knight would receive a lady of this sort in gentlemanly fashion by accepting what she so arduously presses upon him (Price, 1997). However, it was also important that a true knight adheres to the Christian codes of morality by not participating in adultery. “Gawain is forced to make a choice between courtesy and adultery, either of which would result in the dishonor of either the lady or his host, respectively” (Kallday, 2007). Either choice he makes breaks the code, so he must determine the greater wrong on his own. That his choice was the right one is emphasized by his surviving the encounter with the Green Knight, but ultimately, he fails the test in his acceptance of the Lady’s green sash. “A truly ideal and perfect knight would not keep the girdle to save his own life, because the host knight asked for an exchange of all things gained during the day. Yet at the same time, Gawain must obey the rules of courtliness, and accept the girdle from the host’s lady” (Kallday, 2007), again presenting him with an impossible choice to make. While he failed to honor his agreement with his host regarding the exchange, this is an understandable failing as it was a matter of life and death with relatively little harm or dishonor brought upon the host as a result. Thus, Gawain was permitted to live but forced to suffer a mark of his cowardice.

As the traditions of the Old Code were represented in the stories of ancient myth and legend such as Beowulf, they reflect many of the important elements of Christian identity as expressed through stories such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Hrothgar and Beowulf illustrate the importance of generosity, loyalty, bravery, honor, and morality within their stories as examples of the young and the old hero. In both characters, the concept of civility is demonstrated to be as important as humility in defining the true hero, but not as important as bravery in battle, whether this means to sit on the sidelines, to fight in the trenches, or to refuse unworthy aid despite the nature of the trouble. The definition of bravery necessarily shifted depending upon the age of the hero. A young hero who would allow someone else to fight their battles for them was seen instead as a coward while an old hero who refused to relinquish control to a more able-bodied man was equally seen in a negative light. Thus, a realistic conception of the effects of age and mortality was also considered to be a strong defining characteristic of the true hero. These same attributes can be found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, although in different proportions. The heroic values can still be identified as humility, a sense of mortality, and bravery, but the relative importance of these has shifted. Humility can be seen as perhaps the most important defining characteristic of the hero, that he behaves in a certain way out of a sincere concern for his fellow man rather than for any thoughts, positive or negative, for himself. Following this was the concept of civility in that the true hero must always behave appropriately regardless of the perceived consequences or risks. Only when these two traits were mastered did one look beyond them to the concept of bravery. While both stories demonstrate a similar conception of the hero, development of the idea can be seen within the later story as it investigates to greater depth and places differing relative importance on the major elements of the true heroic character.

Works Cited

Alexander, M. (Trans.). Beowulf. London: Penguin Books, 1973.

Bolton, W.F. The New History of Literature: The Middle Ages. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1986.

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Chickering, Harold D. Jr. Beowulf: A Dual Language Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1977, 267-277.

Feldman, Gina and James Sigona. “Beowulf: The Final Moments.” Research Web Page for Interdisciplinary Course: INT296. New York: Pace University, 1997.

Garbis, Michelle R. Archetypes. (2002).

Kallday, TM. “Gawain: Noble or Naïve?” (2007).

Price, Brian R. “A Code of Chivalry.” Chronique. (1997).

Stone, Brian (Trans.). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Penguin Classics, 1974.

Tierney-Hynes, Rebecca. “The Heroic Ethos: Reality and Representation.” Chass. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2000.

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