Heroism in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Night
A hero, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, is someone who commits an act of remarkable bravery or who has shown great courage, strength of character, or another admirable quality. He is looked up to for the brave and noble things he has done. Though Beowulf and Sir Gawain are both considered heroes they each have many different qualities. For Beowulf his reputation as a hero depends on the opinion of others within his society, for Gawain Christianity determines his bravado. In order to understand how they are both considered a hero in their society we must look at the many differences their respective societies possess.
One major difference between the society that Beowulf lived in and the one Sir Gawain lived in is their views on religion. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the world described is one of order, where Christianity plays an important role. Sir Gawain fits perfectly into this world as a Knight who is brave not because he naturally possesses this bravery, but because he puts his faith in God. Beowulf on the other hand describes a world where religion and manners were not important. Beowulf’s actions are judged by others and how they affect society, and not by any religious force.
As an epic hero, Beowulf possesses the qualities of valor, loyalty, generosity, and honor.
He fights because he must in order for his nation to survive. Although he is a hero he is constantly aware of his own mortality, and it is in battle that his bravery is tested. The epic hero lives in a honor/ shame society, where a man’s good name is his most prized possession. Because Beowulf lives in a hierarchical society it is important for him to defeat Grendel, his mother and the dragon. Genealogy is very important in the hierarchical society, so if he had failed he would not only bring shame to himself, but to his family and nation.
Beowulf’s greatest value is his bravery, although it may seem that his bragging is un-heroic.
It is however necessary for Beowulf to deliver his oral resume in order to be given the respect he deserves. It is not that Beowulf is not in search of fame, because he is, it is just that he accomplishes getting fame by helping others and defeating menaces to their society. He does not lie or manipulate others to achieve recognition; he uses what is rightfully his, he bravery.
The virtues of a chivalric hero are similar to the epic hero including, valor, generosity, loyalty, honor and skill in battle. One main difference is the significance given to loyalty during this era. It is also necessary for the chivalric hero to possess temperance, courtesy, respect for women and courtly skills.
He must be able to perform in court and also on the battlefield.
Similar to heroic poetry, the chivalric knight is tested through feats of arms. One major difference is in their motivation. An epic hero will only go into battle when necessary, while the chivalric hero will set out to find an adventure in which he can prove himself brave. The chivalric hero will rarely fight in order to defend his people, but rather in defense of a particular ideal. Another major difference between the two is in the type of internal battle they engage in.
Beowulf, our epic hero, is tested in physical battle against a monster, as epic heroes need to prove themselves against another. Sir Gawain’s task is spiritual, and psychological. He must pass all the requirements of the chivalric knight in order to be successful in battle.
Beowulf and Sir Gawain are such vastly different characters that the term collapses into a concept totally dependent on its context. The criteria upon which they are each judged is vastly different because of the different times their stories take place in. In Sir Gawain’s world those who obey the religious, social and chivalric codes of his realm can be considered a hero.
In Beowulf those who actually create and support society itself are considered heroes.