, Research Paper
Casey CowburnHistory of English Literature IProfessor Kramer November 25, 1998 Beowulf and Sir Gawain as Heroes It is very interesting that several years ago someone was writing about heroism in a way that can be understood today. This is where the universal definition of this term has come into existence. Heroism can be defined as a person who has heroic characteristics and courage, and someone who has heroic conduct and behavior. These characteristics are somewhat vague, and for this fact alone it is hard to classify a person in the category of hero. But it is easy to find examples of heroes in writing. A person can go back hundreds of centuries to find figures such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain. These two figures have characteristics of heroism, even though the stories were written several years apart. Beowulf is an epic poem, which was composed over two hundred years ago, but the story was composed several years before that. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written during the end of the fourteenth century around 1375. The poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells a tale in which a man proves to be a hero through seemingly un-heroic decisions made in the course of numerous tests. The actions of these two ancient characters are looked at by critics as acts of bravery and honor throughout their respective stories. If Beowulf and Sir Gawain are compared and contrasted by people of today, the person can see these two figures exemplify a true hero in their own unique way. A person could examine Beowulf in several different ways when they are trying to determine if Beowulf is a true hero. One of the obvious qualities that make him a hero in the eyes of fellow men is his amazing physical strength. He fought in numerous Cowburn 2battles and returned victorious from all of them except the last encounter he faced. Beowulf is strong enough to kill the monster Grendel. This monster had been terrorizing the Danes for twelve years, and with his bare hands Beowulf kills the enormous monster and rips off its arm. When Beowulf is fighting Grendel’s mother, he is able to slash the monster’s throat with the sword of a giant. The size of this sword is used to show the great strength of Beowulf. Only a man of super-natural power could have used or even lifted, a sword of this magnitude. Then Beowulf after slicing off the creature’s head carries it out of the deep depths of the ocean in that the monster lived, and takes it to the people for them to admire. It takes four men to lift this enormous head and carry it back to Herot’s mead-hall. All of these examples show Beowulf’s strength and how this strength is a key trait of Beowulf’s heroism. Another heroic trait of Beowulf and of all people who are classified as heroes, is the ability to put other people’s thoughts and welfare before one’s own. The king of the Geats, Beowulf’s uncle, sends several soldiers to aid in Beowulf’s battle with Grendel, but Beowulf know the danger of the battle and allows no one to help him. He is named king for fifty years, after conquering this great beast. At the end of this lengthy rein of being a king, he goes off the battle one last time. Even at his elderly state, Beowulf fights a horrible dragon that is frightening all of his people. Beowulf is showing signs of being old and tired in this battle, and even though Beowulf ends up dying, he also kills the Dragon. The double death is for the protection of his people. Even while dying, Beowulf is thinking about his people and the security of his people. His wishes are granted and a Cowburn 3tall lighthouse is built in order to help the people maneuver their way back to Herot. These acts of putting his people’s welfare ahead of his own, is a major trait of heroism. Also in this epic poem, the hero, Beowulf, is a seemingly invincible person with all the extraordinary traits required of a hero. He is able to use super-human physical strength and courage to put his people before himself. This is also a hero-like quality that shows that Beowulf will do anything to better the community in which he is the ruler. He encounters hideous monsters and most ferocious beasts in the land, but he never fears the threat of death. His leadership skills are superb and he is even able to boast able all his abilities and accomplishments to the other warriors. Beowulf is the ultimate epic hero who risks his life several times for immortal glory and for the good of others.Ralph Waldo Emerson has also looked at this epic character as a hero along the same lines. One of the ideas that Emerson came up with is that Beowulf is categorized as a hero because he follows his heart rather than his logic. Beowulf never doubted himself, and for this fact alone he makes decision quickly and confidently. This is most evident in that fact that Beowulf always jumps into a battle so his innocent people are not put in harms way (Licata). The most heroic trait that Beowulf has is the idea that he is not afraid to die. He always explains his death wishes before going into battle and requests to have any assets delivered to his people. For instance, Beowulf says early in this epic poem, “And if death does take me, send the hammered mail of my armor to Higlac, return the inheritance I had from Hrehtel, and from Wayland. Fate will unwind, as it must! (Norton, 34)” He is Cowburn 4aware of the heroic paradox, and that he will be glorified in life for his actions. No matter the outcome of the battles he encounters, he knows that he will achieve immortality. Starting on page thirty-four, Beowulf says, “When we crossed the sea, my comrades and I, I already knew that all my purpose was this: to win the good will of your people or die in battle, pressed in Grendel’s fierce grip. Let me live in greatness and courage, or here in this hall welcome my death! (Norton, 34)” Even with the enormous amount of confidence Beowulf possesses, he understands that Fate will work its magic no matter what. He also knows that he could be killed at any point in his life. Beowulf faces that reality by showing no fear and preparing for a positive or a fatal outcome. Beowulf’s knowledge of the chance of death and his almost acceptance of this possibility, gives him a quality which people look at as one of a hero.
Another character that can be used as an example of a perfect hero is Sir Gawain in the epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sir Gawain, even though he faced different challenges than Beowulf, is a man that has qualities of a hero. Just before Sir Gawain leaves Camelot to go on his hunt for the Green Knight, he states “In destinies sad or merry. True men can but try. (Norton, 214)” This statement resembles the idea that Beowulf believed about a man’s life. Men must attempt to conquer every challenge that he faces in life. Therefore, the statement that Sir Gawain makes is not merely a profound statement. It is useful even today as a measure a man’s mortal courage. Early in Part II, Sir Gawain’s encounter is being foreshadowed. It tells a reader that Gawain means to do his level best in his grand challenge and if in but one small way he should fail, do not persecute him until considering how a different man may have fared. Cowburn 5Sir Gawain, similar to Beowulf, is tested on several occasions. In this epic poem, judgement should not be passed on Sir Gawain’s single decision, but only by observing how he has chosen to live his life. Also, consideration must be given to the circumstances under which each choice has been made. Sir Gawain’s better judgement is often understandably clouded in dire situations. Sir Gawain made more than a few decisions in the poem and from the start he was faced with several problems. For instance, he must deal with the destruction of his ego, his good name, and his spirit, but also almost certain death. When all of Arthur’s court was challenged by the Green Knight, Gawain alone offered to take the cup from Arthur’s hands. Gawain could have just as easily sat back and let Arthur take the challenge, but Sir Gawain showed his pride and courage greater than everyone else by coming forward. This is one of the qualities that make Sir Gawain a hero. He took an almost definitely fatal challenge away from another man. This is much the same as Beowulf did with his people. Both take the challenge to keep others away from danger. This epic poem is filled with instances in which Gawain inevitably was forced to face difficult decision. Sir Gawain after excepting the challenge from the Green Knight, could have left Camelot never to return. Sir Gawain chose the option of keeping his word an searching for the Green knight even thought he knew his head would be on the block when he reached hi goal. During his travels he had every opportunity to turn around, especially when the rain and cold and desolation became fierce. These obstacles do not turn Sir Gawain’s head away from the challenge at hand. The knight was challenged three times by the fair maiden of the Green Knight, and twice he managed to Cowburn 6resist the temptation of her amorous advances and defile his chastity throughout the course of his encounter with the Green Knight. This honorable act of not touching another man’s woman, is a trait of a true man and a huge trait of being a hero.At the end of the poem, the Green Knight tests Sir Gawain for the final time. This concluding test is the true test of Sir Gawain’s heroism. He is required to put his head of the chopping block for the Green Knight to finish their trading of blows. Even with the “magic” girdle the maiden gave him, Gawain flinches when the Green Knight feinted the first time. The second and third times, after being criticized for flinching the first time, he was able to hold steady and accept his fate. In fact he was quite perturbed that the Green Knight was have a great deal of fun with him. After the entire ordeal the Green Knight ridicules him for his weakness and fear, but the enormous creature didn’t seem to think that the member of King Arthur’s court was an absolute coward. Sir Gawain is told that he is lacking something, but only because he loved his life. This is not a damnable offence, but this is the point that separates Beowulf from Sir Gawain. Beowulf never questions whether his life is too precious to die, but this act does not take away from Sir Gawain heroism. Sir Gawain is shown that he is not perfect and he learns that there is no shame in being imperfect. All mortals are even heroes. Sir Gawain does not fail in this poem. When he was tempted a third time by the fair lady, Gawain chose to accept her “magic” girdle in hopes of surviving the blow of the Green Knight. When a person looks at this poem and considers if Sir Gawain is a true hero a couple of questions arouse. These questions are: “Is it correct to consider a man less of a hero, because of his love for his own life?” and “What is expected of a true Cowburn 7hero?” The actions Sir Gawain performs throughout the entire poem prove that he is a hero, such as his resistance of the mistress, beating the Green Knight at his own game, and taking the challenge from his king in hope to save the king and his people. In conclusion, heroes come in a number of shapes and sizes, but they all have certain characteristics that categorize them as a hero. Beowulf and sir Gawain shared several of the same traits of heroism. Both of these epic heroes put themselves in harms way before they put the people of the kingdom in a situation of danger. Also both of the heroic men have extra-ordinary strength. Beowulf and Sir Gawain both prove themselves in battle and show their supernatural strength to all. Beowulf is able to tear the arm of a monster off with his bear hands, and Sir Gawain is able to pick up an ax that is bigger than most men. Lastly, both of these characters are not afraid to die. In both poems, Beowulf and Sir Gawain could have declined the chance to fight or even walked away from the fight, but because of their honor and prestige both stand strong and take on the challenges at hand. The only difference between these two seemingly twin characters is that Sir Gawain cherished his life a little bit more than Beowulf. Sir Gawain looked for a way to prevent him from being killed, while Beowulf just fought. This love for one’s own life is not a quality that makes anyone less of a hero, it just shows that Sir Gawain is considering the consequences. He still accepted every challenge, and this is why he alone with Beowulf is considered a hero.