Heroes: Gawain Vrs Beowulf Essay, Research Paper
Heroes are a set pattern of ideals that conclude in triumph or a moral understanding. In relation to their society’s needs, others look upon them as an archetypal role model. Both Beowulf and Sir Gawain are examples of great heroes. They both show their current society’s strengths and values through a series of physical and mental trials. Yet this does not mean they are similar. Due to the difference in societies, each hero has its own ideals and values to live up to. The poem Beowulf idealizes the epic hero whereas Sir Gawain and the Green Knight idealizes the chivalric hero. It is their arduous trials, their model attributes and their contemporary societies that set them apart and lead us to believe in them as heroes. The trials of heroes give us insight onto their strengths, weaknesses, and heroic nature. For Beowulf, the challenges are defeating monsters and dragons. First, Beowulf meets Grendal in the mead hall and by defeating him, cleanses Beowulf’s society and makes it a better place. This is important for Beowulf as each physical feat must be met by a societal progression. This is the heart of what makes Beowulf a hero. Next, Beowulf challenges a dragon. Although he falls in battle, he still defeats his mighty foe. Again we see a societal transgression. It is within these great physical obstacles that we see him as a hero. This is not so in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain, although strong, is not met with physical challenges, rather with spiritual ones. Instead of the mead hall and cavern, the inner mind is the stage on which Gawain fights. Instead of fighting dragons, Gawain fights beautiful scheming females. Although it seems less, it is perhaps a greater challenge.. Gawain must pass all the requirements of the ideal chivalric knight in order to triumph. Even though Gawain fails – he lacks in loyalty, says the Green Knight – he does in a sense become exalted. Gawain’s understanding and acceptance of his flawed nature show him to be a hero. These equal trials show us the heroic nature of these two great, different individuals. Heroes are an idealizement of human nature. They are the “perfect” people to whom we all aspire. Being “perfect” is of course debatable, but what remains is the solid founding attributes that we look upon as heroic. Both epic hero and chivalric hero possess valor, skill in combat, loyalty and generosity. It is the small differences in how they use them that make them different. The epic hero uses strength and skill in combat as his primary attribute. Military prowess make him stand out above his peers as leader of the tribe. He is viewed as the ideal savage warrior. Beowulf
is able to actually rend the arms from his enemy with arm strength alone. When asked to fight Grendal’s mother, he is able to dive into a monstrous swamp, holding his breath for days to reach his destination. The chivalric hero is quite different. His strength and skill come second to valor and loyalty. To Gawain, a courteous nature and standing up to insurmountable dangers makes his base as a hero. It is these attributes that are tested in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain’s courtesy and loyalty is tested when he is tempted my his host’s mistress. Although he stands up to her, he is unable to keep to his distance. By accepting her protective girdle he shows his existence as a faulted hero. When he realizes this, he proves himself as a perfect imperfect being. The enhanced qualities of both heroes make them what they are and what we look up to. Both Beowulf and Gawain reflect their society’s values and dreams. Being fiction, it is in fact their society that shapes and melds them into what they are. Beowulf, the epic hero, lives in an honor/shame society, where a man’s “good name” is his most prized possession. The society is hierarchical and is controlled by a military aristocracy. Having this harsh society, Beowulf is made up as a rough, realistic character. Although elements of exaggeration or miracles appear in the epic, they result in no more than a heightening or aggrandizement of reality. Gawain on the other hand lives in a romantic society. The society is described only in materialistic tendencies, architecture and feasts and deals little with the actual political or geographic world. It does not deal with the “real” culture, rather a subset of it. The chivalric knight performs in a dream world that allows chance encounters with imaginary foes. Miracles are common-place if not expected. Castles appear at prayer, without question. These different societies are what set apart these two heroes; as epic, and chivalric. We believe in heroes because of the ideals they stand for. We view them as the epidamy of morals and human strengths. The problem is, these exaggerations are vast, difficult and abstract. It is impossible to tend to all of the human strength, morals and ideals in one character. Thus we see the differences in the two characters, Beowulf and Sir Gawain. They are both heroes in their own degree, but are cataloged under different human strengths. Sifting the two characters down to their inner selves, we see one major similarity,. humanity. Their own mortality leads them together against the odds which they face. That is what heroes are, and always will be.