The contrast in the characteristics of a hero in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight The word “hero” can be defined in many ways. Some would say a hero is a mythological term for a man or a woman with great power (superhuman), who is honored in their village. This man or woman would be a noble being who is a warrior for his or her people, who has inhuman strength, and large amounts of courage, confidence, loyalty and ability. Others would say that a hero is simply someone admired for their brave deeds and loyal traits (average human).
In the case of the works Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the protagonists in these stories are each taking on their own definition of the word “hero”. Beowulf is more of the mythological hero, being inhumanly strong and a great warrior; whereas Sir Gawain is an average human being remarked for his noble acts in King Arthurs court. In the tale of Beowulf, the notion of heroism is more centered on the mythological definition.
Beowulf is described as being a very physically strong being, and the way that it’s worded in the story, it makes him seem supernaturally strong, “—that this fighting man/ in his hand’s grasp has the strength/ of thirty other men. ” (379-381). There is also a part where Beowulf talks about his defeating many monsters, and it suggests in a way, immortality: Had they not seen me come home from fights/where I had bound five Giants—their blood was upon me—/cleaned out a nest of them?
Had I not crushed on the wave of sea-serpents by night in narrow struggle,/ broken the beasts? (The bane of the Geats,/ they had asked for their trouble. ) And shall I not try/ a single match with this monster Grendel,/ a trial against this troll? (419-426) Beowulf is very confident that he should battle Grendel, because he is very sure of himself, he has confidence in his many abilities.
Beowulf again shows the qualities of a mythological hero when he refuses to listen to the warning Hrothgar gives him, “More slender grew my/ strength of dear warriors; death took them off. . . / Yet sit now to the banquet, where you may soon attend,/ should the mood so take you, some tale of victory. ” (487-490). Him being a noble and courageous warrior, and doesn’t want to pass up an opportunity for victory, and as mentioned before, he is confident in his capability of winning.
At one point, Beowulf is confronted by a jealous man named Unferth, who suggests that Beowulf is not a hero, that he is selfish and only wanted the fame for himself, he tells a tale of Beowulfs “race” through the seas with a man named Breca: Is this the Beowulf of Breca’s swimming match,/ who strove against him on the stretched ocean,/ when for pride the pair of you proved the seas/ and for a trite boast entrusted your lives/ to the deep waters, undissuadable/ by effort of friend or foe whatsoever/ from that swimming on the sea?
A sorry contest! (506-512) Beowulf then redeems himself when he explains that it was no contest, and it wasn’t by his own choice that he defeated the sea monsters before Breca could reach them, there was a storm and they were separated. In saying this, Beowulf is showing that he is not selfish, and that he doesn’t simply strive for victory, he strives for the safety and happiness of his people. In the case of Sir Gawain, he doesn’t show the qualities of having super human ability.
In the beginning of the poem, where the Green Knight propositions the king with his deal, Sir Gawain shows his first signs of heroism when he offers to take King Arthurs place in the deal, “Then Gawain at Guinevere’s side/ Bowed and spoke his design:/ “Before all, King, confide/ This fight to me. May it be mine. ”(339-342) He is a hero in the sense of stepping up to protect his people, and not wanting his King to be in any danger.
He is doing the noble thing for a knight to do. Then as Gawain strikes the Green Knight and realizes that the knight is no normal human being, he grasps the fact that he himself is now in danger of being killed by this being of dark magic. Gawain does not break his deal however, because knights are chivalrous trust worthy men, and they do not go back on their word. Sir Gawain is also rewarded for his acts of bravery in favor of his King, he is awarded a feast: “. . .
Arthur provided plentifully, especially for Gawain,/ A rich feast and high revelry at the Round Table. ”(537-538) Lords and ladies were in attendance, and were said to be grieving for Gawain. They believed as Gawain believed that when the day came a year later, their hero would be killed. This part of the poem shows that Gawain (even though he clearly had no super natural abilities) was treated as a hero by his people, and even though he survived the blows in the end, he saved their King of possibly being slain.
In closing, the two types of heroism in the stories Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are two different definitions of the word. It comes down to the super human/ human comparison, where Beowulf (having his advanced abilities), takes on the role of super human and Gawain (one who does not have any supernatural capability) undertakes the part of a non-magical hero.
Both of these types of hero’s are respected and admired by many, may it be because people are in awe of their talent or skill and impressed with their powerful stature, or impressed with their chivalrous, positive, and unselfish attitude towards the world, they are both considered of higher ranking than the average citizen. Works Cited “Beowulf. ” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol. 1A. N. p. : Pearson Education, 2010. 32-107. Print. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. ” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol. 1A. N. p. : Pearson Education, 2010. 32-107. Print.
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