What Defines a Hero? When envisioning the ideal hero in todays world, most people might picture a solider overseas, a fireman, or even a parent, but when it comes to the historical works of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, people looked for a warrior serving his lord and a knight serving his king as their ideal hero. Beowulf is the only Old English epic available to us today and because of this fact, it holds a vast amount of insight when looking into the morals held by the societies of this time period. On the other hand Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is more of a romance and comedy about eroism.
This work is set after Christianity has taken over most people, and when culture has shifted from predominately pagan to primarily Christian. Throughout each novel, both protagonists portray qualities ideal for their time period they live in but differ as Beowulf portrays strength, loyalty, and bravery while Sir Gawain radiates humility, chivalry, and devotion to God. Due to both characters portraying two ideal concepts of heroism in their own way; they could not be father from one another. On one hand you have a hero that displays characteristics of a warrior and on the other hero who shows his own qualities of being a knight.
The first characteristic of Beowulf, strength, is illustrated in the epic when he rips off the arm of Grendel, “The monster’s whole body was in pain; a tremendous wound appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split and the bone-lapping burst. Beowulf was granted the glory of winning” (50). This quote goes on to show that a man has the strength in him to use nothing but his hands to tear the monster apart. Time in and time out Beowulf shows off his strength through the epic whether he fights Grendel’s Mother or the Dragon. As for Sir Gawain, his time period called for other characteristics to portray heroism.
Unlike Beowulf’s mighty strength, Sir Gawain showed humility to receive his knighthood. This sense of humility is brought out in the very beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and all the way throughout the end where Sir Gawain comes back wearing the green girdle around his arm. While he proved unsuccessful in the original task to yield to the Green Knight, he did no wrong in portraying a cowardly side. He wears the girdle as a mark of shame which pardons his fault and shows his umility for failing the task he set out to do. Sir Gawain’s reaction of having to wear the girdle is different than most would think.
He responds by saying, “But your girdle, God love you! I gladly shall take And be pleased to possess, not for the pure gold, Nor the bright belt itself, not the beauteous pendants, Nor for wealth, nor worldly state, nor workmanship fine, But a sign of excess it shall seem oftentimes When I ride in renown and remember with shame The faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse How its tenderness entices the foul taint of sin…. 211). The quote goes on to show that indeed he did make it back to Camelot but he will always remember with shame and dignity.
Whether it is strength or humility in each respective poem, both men showed an ideal characteristic of their time. Aside from the strength of Beowulf or the humility of Sir Gawain, both characters differ once again when it comes to loyalty for Beowulf and chivalry for Sir Gawain. Both these characteristics in a way resemble some of the same effects but due to them again being from different time periods, result in utter ditterences. Beowult being the warrior like hero ne is would not ot gotten anywhere without his loyalty. In those times he had to be loyal to his lord and loyal to his company.
An excellent example was when he is giving his speech before going off to slay Grendel’s Mother, “If this combat kills me, take care of my young company, my comrades in arms. And be sure also, my beloved Hrothgar, to send Hygelac the treasures I received” (64). His lead by example attitude went unmatched during this time period. He showed his loyalty to the best of his abilities whether it as giving gifts to his thanes or taking on monsters no one else had a chance of slaying. As far as Sir Gawain, the medieval times called for more than loyalty, also known as chivalry.
Sir Gawain had to show chivalry to his king, Arthur; to his lady, Guinevere; and to God. There is no better example of Sir Gawain chivalry then when he stands up to take on the Green Knights challenge, “To be gone from this bench and stand by you there, If I without discourtesy might quit this board, and if my liege lady misliked it not, I would come to your counsel before your court noble. (169). Sir Gawain seems unfit to battle the Green Knight, but he believes that should go since his death would only be considered a small loss for his king.
This is a profound example of chivalry and it upheld to the highest level. He goes on to take the challenge and through his chivalrous ways comes back being granted knighthood. Although loyalty and chivalry represent a similar quality in a way they are father apart due to what each hero depicts as a quality. Lastly, when it comes to the qualities ideal for each hero, they differ one last time when it comes to bravery for Beowulf and devotion to god for Sir Gawain. Beowulf being of the warrior like hero needed bravery day in and day out.
He uses his bravery to face the monsters of his time when no one else would stand up to take them on. Beowulf shows the most bravery when he has aged incredibly and has to take on the fierce dragon. Beowulf struggles as “The dragon began to belch out flames and burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glowhat scared everyone, for the vile sky-wingerwould leave nothing alive in his wake” (82). He knows that he is close to death and yet still finds enough ravery to take on the almighty dragon. Sir Gawain on the other hand is more of the knightly hero who shows devotion to God.
In medieval times like this poem is illustrating, Christianity proves very important. A knight, who Sir Gawain is, proves his devotion to god when he wears the pentangle, which is described as, “fixed upon five wounds that Christ got on the cross” (175). This displays Sir Gawain’s true commitment to God as he sets forth on his Journey. Again the difference in time periods contrasts these two heroes due to what the crowd deem an ideal hero. Beowulf and Sir Gawain are legendary warriors possessing ideal qualities of heroism cherished by the people around them.
Beowulf exudes strength, loyalty, and bravery while Sir Gawain radiates humility, chivalry, and devotion to God. Qualities in a hero differ vastly in each society depending on the type of hero they need at the time. However, due to both works being from different time periods the ideal qualities are very much different. Through Beowulfs warrior like presence and Sir Gawain’s knightly hood, they both fulfill the ideal qualities needed for their society in the respective time period.