When envisioning the ideal hero, the average person might picture a selfless individual, one who shows bravery in the face of defeat and is willing to beat the overwhelming odds. Yet, the definition of a hero is constantly changing; as society evolves, there is a great deal of variation in the importance of the morals and values within the culture. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a hero is “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength and ability” or “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities” (1). These two very different definitions hold a great amount of meaning when reflecting on two historically important works which center on heroism- Beowulf and Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.
Beowulf is the only Old English epic available to the modern world, 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. Beowulf is set in Europe during the time of Anglo-Saxon pillaging. According to Douglas Wilson, author of The Anglo-Saxon Evangel:
The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to the Christian faith began in
earnest about seventy years later, in the 590s… The Christian faith has
not yet arrived in the pages of Beowulf. Nevertheless, the first audience
knew that it was just about to arrive and that the world described in that
poem was a world that was shortly to pass away” (31).
This suggests that while the conversion from paganism to Christianity was not entirely underway, it is possible that aspects of the Christian conversion were set in motion, and the poet may have had knowledge about the religion itself. Therefore, the audience can assume that the society mentioned in Beowulf is predominately pagan.
These pagan Anglo-Saxons valued kinship, generosity, and bravery, all of which are evident in the story. Bravery is one of Beowulf’s most defining characteristics, and from the beginning of the story the audience is told of his conquests and his plans to rid the village of the “treacherous” Grendel. Wilson goes on to explain why the story was centered around a pagan society when he says, “This culture is pagan enough to need Christ desperately, but not so pagan as to arouse the contempt of the audience. It is striking that to get paganism ‘at its best,’ the Beowulf poet had to make it up, just as he has to make up a hero who exemplified all the heroic virtues” (32).
The definition of a hero, which represents him as “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength and ability” is spot on with the description of Beowulf (1). He exudes god-like strength, depicted when he is able to rip the massive arm off of Grendel as stated in the text of Beowulf, “The monster’s whole body was in pain; a tremendous wound appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted the glory of winning” (814-818). Beowulf goes on to demonstrate remarkable courage when he ventures into the dark cave of Grendel’s mother and more so when he continues to fight as he lay dying. Furthermore, this compilation of heroic characteristics perfectly matches the time frame from which it came.
The Anglo-Saxons lived in a time of paramount violence, therefore strength was exceedingly crucial because in a battle warriors had only two choices which were to either live or die. Loyalty was also of the utmost importance because in this society of kinship, if a man could not trust his brother, there was no one he could trust. And although this epic contains many pagan ideals, it still deals with some Christian characteristics, such as pegging the horrific beast, Grendel, as a “grim demon haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the Creator has outlawed and condemned as outcasts” (102-107). This mention of Cain is distinctively important because in this society of brotherhood and trust, it was an immensely appalling act to slay one’s brother.
Beowulf shows the heroic characteristic of allegiance when he gives the orders, “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 (1480-1484). The poet also depicts Beowulf as being incredibly giving which was an exceptional quality because the leader, whom a group of men would serve, would reward his men for their reliability and bravery in battle. Beowulf does just this, but somehow fate still has a tragic twist. Karl Wentersdorf, author of The Beowulf-Poet’s Vision of Heorot, notes, “Beowulf is generous, both as a young hero and as king; but as the poet repeatedly stresses, the thanes who abandon him in his hour of need during the combat with the dragon are men whom he had showered with gifts” (425).
While Beowulf exuded practically every honorable trait of a hero, the society within itself had such a bleak existence of constant battles and bloodshed that consequently, it is no wonder why the epic, Beowulf, ends so tragically. Charles Moorman, author of The Essential Paganism of Beowulf, sums up this notion when he says, “The narrative framework of the poem, the story of Beowulf’s encounters with his monstrous opponents, demonstrates that although even the most heroic of men may for a time overcome the powers of darkness, he in time will be defeated by them” (5).
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is a more lighthearted comedy about heroism. This work is set after the Christian conversion has already passed through, and when culture has shifted from predominately pagan to primarily Christian. Since organized kingdoms have now been established, where before, there were bands of aggressive warriors, the values seem to shift also. As the society changes from violent to chivalric, it seems that the values shift from outer qualities such as strength to inner qualities such as virtue. Therefore, in this epic, the work seems to portray many more Christian, inner qualities such as chastity, humility, honesty, and devotion to the Lord, making Sir Gawain the epitome of “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities” (Merriam 1). When the Green Knight bursts forth into King Arthur’s court, all other knights stood down and allowed Arthur to approach the Green Knight. It was only Sir Gawain who asked to be the one to take the Green Knight’s challenge. In the text of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Sir Gawain’s humility is expressed when he kindly asks, “would you grant me the grace… to be gone from this bench and stand by you there if I without discourtesy might quit this board” (343-345).
Once Sir Gawain accepts the challenge, he is put through many tests during his quest for the Green Chapel. Even while he prepares to depart he pays tribute to God by wearing the pentangle, which is described, “fixed upon five wounds that Christ got on the cross” (642-643). This shows Sir Gawain’s true commitment to God as he plans for the worst. Gawain’s dedication is again shown when he stops at nightfall to pray, “With all his might that Mary may be his guide till a dwelling comes in sight” (736-739). Although there are many glimpses of Gawain’s inner strength, the true test of it comes when he stays in the mysterious castle for three nights.
During these nights, Gawain shows many traits, which were valued due to the rise of Christianity and knighthood, such as humility and chastity. When the lord’s wife comes into Sir Gawain’s chambers to seduce him, he shows humility again when he says, “I am one all unworthy” (1244). Sharon M. Rowley comments on the situation in her article, Textual Studies, Feminism, and Performance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, “She is so driven by her ‘adulterous passion’ and blind to the moral dualism of her courtly world that ‘it does not occur to her that Christianity has any bearing’ on Gawain’s rejection of her advances” (166). This point is significant in the analysis of Gawain’s actions because this scene provides a perfect comparison of the virtuous and the faithless characters displayed in this situation. Not only does Gawain try to stop the situation kindly, he also stays chaste, both of which are particularly chivalric and Christian traits. Gawain continues to decline the advances of the seductress until the third day when she offers him a green girdle, telling him, “If he bore it on his body, belted about, there is no hand under heaven that could hew him down” (1852-1853). Gawain accepts the token, but only because he fears that the Green Knight might kill him with his blow. Yet, from the moment Gawain takes the girdle, he is ashamed, hence why he does not tell the lord of the castle about the gift. Catherine S. Cox, author of Genesis and Gender in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, comments on the feelings of Gawain after his acceptance of the gift, “Having invested his faith in the Lady’s magic girdle–which, as promised, girded a man who was not harmed– rather than in his Christian faith, Gawain expresses contrition for his apostasy and cowardice” (1).
Although Gawain makes the mistake of accepting the gift and lying about it to the man who had been so gracious to him to begin with, he is still absolved in the end, which is an important part of this story. Unlike Beowulf, whom in the end was killed, Gawain’s faults were revealed and excused which serves as an important quality of the Christian faith- that God is merciful and will always forgive. Whereas with Beowulf, the message seems to echo that fate is cruel and there is no guarantee of victory no matter whom the warrior is.
A more obscure, alternative view would suggest that both men were compared to biblical figures in some way and that the differing actions were caused by their individual societies. Douglas Wilson notes:
So Beowulf is not a Christ figure, despite some resemblances. He delivers
the people (temporarily). He descends into hell. He is a noble and high-
minded hero. He fights against wickedness and the forces of the devil. He
sacrifices his life. His thanes all scatter, except one, Wiglaf, who is like the
apostle John. But these point to an almost-Christ, a not-Christ, a hero who
ultimately falls short” (34).
To contrast this perception of Beowulf, Catherine S. Cox notes a biblical parallel with Sir Gawain and The Green Knight when she refers to Genesis 3:12 in the Bible and states:
Just as Adam asserts that God should share the blame for Adam’s own
transgression-‘The woman whom you gave to me as companion, she
gave to me from the tree and I ate’… so Gawain follows Adam’s lead in
claiming to the seemingly omnipotent Green Knight that he, Gawain,
inadvertently played Adam to the Green Knight’s Lady’s Eve ” (1).
These two references to biblical figures are alluring concepts and they hold true to the fact stated previously- that the idea of a hero comes from the traits that society deems valuable. Nevertheless, during the time periods of these two works, Christianity was stirring and may have moved the poets who created them to allude to certain characters from the Bible.
Whether Beowulf and Sir Gawain are fabled heroes possessing characteristics valued by the societies from which they came or two roles created to parallel certain biblical characters, they both conveyed two utterly different concepts of what a hero can be. Beowulf exudes strength, bravery, and loyalty while Sir Gawain radiates humility, chastity, and devotion to God. Furthermore, it is interesting that hundreds of years later, the definition of a hero is wholly exemplified in both of them. Nevertheless, the traits that characterize a hero depend on what the culture needs. When society is in the midst of violence, masculine qualities that will help during battle are valued, and when society is formed within social hierarchy and structure, inner qualities such as graciousness and refinement seem to gain importance.
“Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology: English Literature. 8th Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. 29-100.
Cox, Catherine S. “Genesis And Gender In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Chaucer Review 35.4 (2001): 378-390.
“Hero.” Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. 2007. Merriam Webster. 17 Nov. 2007. .
Moorman, Charles “The Essential Paganism of Beowulf.” Modern Language Quarterly 28.1 (2007): 3-18.
Rowley, Sharon M. “Textual Studies, Feminism, and Performance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Chaucer Review 38.2 (2003): 158-177.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology: English Literature. 8th Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. 160-213.
Wentersdorf, Karl P. “The Beowulf-Poet’s Vision of Heorot.” Studies in Philology 104.4 (2007): 409-426.
Wilson, Douglas “The Anglo-Saxon Evangel.” Touchstone Jul 2007: 30-34.