1. Profile photo of Carla Dewhurst

    Both of the protagonists who serve as heroes in “Beowulf” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” are archetypal figures of bravery, nobility and dignity.  When they are compared to one other, however, they show great variations of motivation, origin of central religious beliefs, and key differences in personality.

    “Beowulf” is the older of the texts.  It is dated tentatively from the early 8thcentury and is much harsher in tone.  It is based on the ancient framework of Norse legend, and addresses its themes in a somber, vivid tone.  While it contains some elements of religion, the thrust is far more centered on the personal assets of the hero.  In contrast, the later Arthurian legends are soaked in the concepts of Christian piety

    Beowulf is not a hereditary or God-granted king.  He has earned his power through mighty deeds, wrestling with monsters or commanding men to victory against overwhelming odds.  He has earned his leadership of the Geats through sweat and spilled blood.  The Geats follow him into dangers because he has earned their trust, not been granted it.  He is not shown to be a great wit or intellectual, but almost as a rugged force of nature

    In contrast, Sir Gawain is the product of 14thcentury literature, the time of chivalry and courtly love.  True, Gawain is praised as a mighty wielder of sword and lance, but his highest virtue lies in his refusal of worldly temptation and his great obedience to a highly Christian God.  His nobility is not shown by sheer brute warrior skill.  It is animated by his oath of purity and the belief that each noble lady has traits fashioned after the Virgin Mary; that she is pious and untouchable.

    The nature of the two heroes’ adversaries is different as well.  The mighty Beowulf is forced, by his duty of manhood, to protect his hosts and kinsmen from the monster Grendel.  He does not ask God for power or victory but uses old spells and incantations against the fell beast.  A great deal of the epic fight between Beowulf and Grendel takes place in watery caves.  A practical question must arise; how does Beowulf breathe in that atmosphere?  It is all obscured in Pagan legend and mystery.

    Beowulf overmasters Grendel, believing he is saving his host from evil.  The arrival of Grendel’s even more dangerous mother is a surprise for Beowulf.  Despite his fatigue and injuries, he fights her as well.  It has nothing to do with piety; it is Beowulf’s job as a leader of military men to clean up the aftermath of his deed.  He takes it as his natural responsibility to protect Hrothgar, his host, as a mark of gratitude and loyalty.  Again the end of serving God and protecting females has nothing to do with it; in fact, the necessity to fight Grendel’s female mother can be seen as ironic, considering Gawain’s strict adherence to the laws of courtly love.

    In contrast to the horrors of Grendel and his matriarch, examine Gawain’s adversary – the Green Knight.  Like Beowulf’s enemies, he is touched with the unworldly, but for a cold killer, he is remarkably courtly.

    After challenging the sitting knights to remove his head, his challenge being taking up by Sir Gawain, he very politely scoops up the detached member and politely leaves the hall, taking his mess with him.

    In order to take up the Green Knight’s challenge, Gawain must return in a year to have his head attacked by his opponent.  He fulfills his word, which is not only to God, but to his ideal lady – the noblewoman  Bercilak.  According to his oath of chivalry, he faces the Green Knight, escaping with only a slight wound because he bent his word and did not tell the lady’s husband that he had been gifted by her with a protective sash.  Thus Gawain is mildly punished, but is redeemed to follow his quest of knightly procession to Heaven

    Beowulf and Gawain share many characteristics: strength in arms, stubbornness, and courage.  However when the two stories are compared, it is easy to see that Beowulf’s mighty deeds are driven by the cold harsh demands of his time and origin, while Sir Gawain is motivated by the neater, cleaner, more ritualistic and pious rules of his time.

Leave a Reply