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Heroism in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

By anyachs Nov 30, 2008 859 Words
Anya Sorensen
Dr. Carol Bernard
English 2322.350 Brit. Lit.
23 June 2008

Heroism in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Over time the names of those considered to be “heroes” may have changed, but the qualities that compile a hero remain relatively unchanged. In the late eighth century and the early fifteenth century heroes tended to be strong, loyal, and brave men that were willing to protect what they hold dear. Today’s society can still relate to this ideal description of a hero, male or female. While both Beowulf and Sir Gawain posses heroic qualities, Beowulf is the stronger and better hero of the two. Early on in the poem we learn that Beowulf has already preformed many feats that demonstrate his unusual strength and courage. The poet, in fact describes Beowulf as “the mightiest man on earth” (line197). In a swimming contest with an acquaintance named Breca, Beowulf demonstrates his endurance by finishing the five day race and killing several sea monsters along the way. Beowulf’s honesty is also put to the test when the swimmers encounter a storm and Beowulf chooses to stay beside Breca, the weaker swimmer, instead of abandoning him and winning the race. Despite the fact that the storm eventually drove them apart, Beowulf showed that he cared about the safety of the other swimmer enough to forfeit a victory. Beowulf also posses a strong sense of loyalty and reputation. When he learns that King Hrothgar is being tormented by the monster Grendel, he sails across the ocean with fourteen of his best men in order to aid Hrothgar, stating “I can show the wise Hrothgar a way/ to defeat his enemy and find respite” (lines 279-280). Aside from looking to build his reputation, which was very important in those days, Beowulf decided to help Hrothgar because he had at one point sheltered Beowulf’s father in a time of war. Beowulf feels as though he owes Hrothgar his loyalty as payment. While in Hrothgar’s court, Unfreth insults Beowulf and Beowulf, instead of beating up the man as was his prerogative, responds with tact. Beowulf is aware that his behavior will reflect on not only his reputation, but the reputation of his king, Hygelac. In the confrontations that later ensue between Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel’s mother, Beowulf again proves his heroic qualities by slaying both monsters and saving Hrothgar’s people. He demonstrates his amazing strength and bravery by single handedly killing both Grendel and Grendel’s mother, not to mention he also has the ability to hold his breath for a whole day. As stated by Lynda Durant “the conquering hero is without a doubt Beowulf, the champion of champions.” He is, indeed, Hrothgar’s champion. Beowulf leaves a grateful Hrothgar behind in a now peaceful Denmark and returns to his country where he eventually becomes king. As king, Beowulf serves his country well for fifty years before an angry dragon disrupts his reign. Once again Beowulf sets out to prove his heroism. While his rash decision to fight the dragon solo eventually leads to his death, he does manage to kill the dragon, with a little help, before dying the honorable death of a warrior in battle. Even though Beowulf’s actions could be viewed as selfish and for his own glory, he more that fulfilled the qualifications of a hero. He possessed great courage, strength, and fortitude as well as a strong sense of loyalty. Sir Gawain, while the he is described as honorable and brave, performs very few brave deeds in the poem. When King Arthur is challenged by the Green knight Sir Gawain does take his place in order to protect Arthur, but this alone does not make him a “hero”. Following the guidelines of the game set forth by the Green Knight, Sir Gawain goes in search of the Green Chapel where he is to have his head cut off by the Green Knight. Along the way he encounters a castle housing the lord and lady Bertilak who invite him to stay with them for a while. While he is there, Lady Bertilak describes him as “the noblest knight known in your time; / no household under heaven has but heard of your fame” (lines 1520-1521). Why he deserves this amount of praise for one brave deed seems irrational. He doesn’t have nearly as many brave feats under his belt as Beowulf. The poet has described very few deeds previously performed by Sir Gawain that would warrant this kind of praise. In conclusion, Beowulf embodies all that one looks for in a hero… minus possibly a little selflessness. Regardless, he is extremely strong and brave in the face of any danger and steadfast in his allegiances. He is always willing to fight, in spite of any harm he might come too. Beowulf is a hero that can still be appreciated in today’s culture. Granted, Sir Gawain is faithful and brave to take his king’s place in the Green Knight’s game, but his accomplishments just don’t reach the magnitude or scope that Beowulf’s do.

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