Beowulf Versus Sir Gawain

The stories of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were written in two distinct periods of history, and they show how Christian heroism has matured from the exterior-self to the interior-self. Beowulf was written in the eighth century, which was a period when the people of England were being influenced and converted to Christianity. The people at the time (of the prior religion) kept many of their customs and stories and linked them to Christianity. Beowulf is evidence for this notion; the story is known to have a combination of pagan and Christian elements. The pagan elements of Beowulf are expressed through the self-glory of Beowulf and the characterization of supernatural figures.

Beowulf is out for his own interest. An example of this is especially present within the last sentence of the story when it states that Beowulf is "keenest to win fame." (ln.3182) The supernatural figures of Beowulf are Grendel, the descendant of Cain, who feasts on the flesh and blood of humans, Grendel's mother, who lives under the sea, and the dragon, who kills and destroys many of Beowulf's people and property. Beowulf goes into battle with these supernatural figures and is the victor. [trans] Even with these pagan ideas, Christianity is also evident. ["Cain" doesn't sound "pagan"; & the Bible has monsters. Clarify.]Beowulf makes reference to God being the Only and Almighty; he is presented as a Christ figure; and the story is testimony to the Sacred Scriptures.

As for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is thought to be written in the fourteenth century, is entirely a Christian story. This is evident in Sir Gawain's shield, the time of year it takes place, temptations of the morale. John Gardener best describes Sir Gawain's shield, which is accounted in lines 619 to 665:

On the outside it has a five-pointed star, the "Pentangle," of "endless knot," a symbol perfectly appropriate for Gawain. Each point represents five virtues: he is faultless in his five senses, unfailing in his five fingers, devoted to Christ's five wounds (received on the Cross,) and supported by the five joys of Mary, and he is a master of five virtues - generosity, good fellowship, purity, courtesy, and charity. (The pentangle is also, traditionally, a symbol used to ward off black magic.) On the inside of the shield he has an image of the Virgin, who gives him strength in battle.

The story takes place in a period of two years. The first part of the story takes place at a Christmas dinner at King Arthur's palace. This is where the Green Knight challenges anyone, in Arthur's court, to a battle and Sir Gawain accepts this challenge. In part two, which also takes place in the Christmas season, Sir Gawain is to go on a quest to finish the deal with the Green Knight. In parts three and four, Gawain is tempted three times (as Christ was tempted three times), sexually, by the Green Knight's wife. This was to show Gawain's morale.

Both stories, while having Christian themes, present their heroes as tragic in their own distinct manner. Beowulf and Sir Gawain have similar characters but yet are different in their style of heroism. They are similar that they both are tragic heroes, but they are different in the way each tragic hero's character is formed in the story. Beowulf is a tragic hero because his physical being is eliminated but his character and legacy lives on through the hearts and words of the others in the story. Whereas Sir Gawain does not physically die, but who is nonetheless a tragic hero; his internal pride and self-esteem perishes. Life does not terminate, solely when the physical being perishes, but also when the internal pride and self-esteem is destroyed.[refine your terms here]

Beowulf, the story of a tragic hero, presents the hero as very powerful and almost unbeatable. At the same time, the story presents him to have no self-character. His identity is constantly being hinted through the actions and words of the others, in the story, towards him. In lines 1703 to 1709, Hrothgar describes and speaks greatly of Beowulf in saying,

Beowulf, my friend, your fame has gone far and wide, you are known everywhere. In all things you are even-tempered, prudent and resolute... Forever you will be your people's mainstay and your own warriors' helping hand.

In Beowulf's old age, he attempts to prove to himself and to his people that he is still powerful person. He fights a dragon to the death. Even here, at the moment of Beowulf's death, there is a man by the name of Wiglaf (who was the youngest) who attempts to persuade the other warriors to help Beowulf in the battle. Wiglaf reminds the other warriors what Beowulf has done for them and how he has chosen them to be his closest followers.

I remember that time when mead was flowing, how we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall, promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price, make good the gift of the war-gear, those swords and helmets, as and when his need required it. He picked us our from the army deliberately, honored us and judged us fir for this action, made me these lavish gifts - and all because he considered us the best of his arm-bearing thanes. And now, although he wanted this challenge to be one he'd face by himself alone - the sheperd of our land, a man unequaled in the quest for glory and name for daring - now the day has cone when this lord we serve needs sound men to give him support. (ln. 2633-2648)

Wiglaf, seeing that his dignitary is under defeat, he charges the dragon. This distracts the dragon for enough time for Beowulf to strike it with a deadly blow. Beowulf cannot overcome his injuries and his soul[his soul goes to be with "the steadfast ones"; I wonder if "steadfast" means "obedient to the heroic code." Is there a hint here of a pre-Christian idea of salvation? Research might give you a fine point here.] is separated form his body. Finally, in the end Wiglaf praises and exalts Beowulf's name at the moment of death. So, it is old age, basically, what overcomes Beowulf's supreme power; he can no longer defeat an enemy without the help of another.




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Mann Erudite – Essays on Literary Works