An Assessment of Heroism in the Characters of Gawain and Beowulf

Who is more heroic: Gawain or Beowulf?

Hero (n): a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities (Merriam-Webster.com). While deciphering the true meaning of heroism for a few minutes something stopped me. In general opinion, most readers would consider Beowulf more heroic. And, according to the pattern of literature, film, and storytelling Beowulf is more heroic. But truly, it depends on which context you are viewing this upon.

If we were to read the two stories in the Anglo-Saxon era, of which took place from 410 – 1066 AD, we could all agree Beowulf is the true hero. He fought off two monsters and a dragon among other beasts. When he fought Grendel he proclaimed, “it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield to mow him down, easily as I might… He has no idea of the arts of war, of shield or sword-play, although he does possess a wild strength” (Greenblatt, 55). He acknowledges the pure strength of Grendel, and declares he will fight him without weapons because that is the just thing to do. He wants to be fair and square. A cowardly or even just average person would use any advantage to best the monster, but Beowulf has a true inner-courage, incomparable to anyone else in existence. He won battles nobody else could. Gawain had one battle to fight. He only volunteered because nobody else would except for his king, and he kept the “magical girdle” instead of showing up as he promised to (giving the green knight a fair blow to his neck). He was fearful, where Beowulf was not. Beowulf fought bare-handedly when he didn’t even have to. So, physically or externally Beowulf was the true hero.

In parallel the two stories yield a different answer, when viewing them from the eyes of a person alive in the 21st century. The true hero comes from within today. For example, someone who can lift three cars has less of a place in society than someone who can travel to third world countries and give food and shelter to those who are unfortunate. Gawain has more inner strength than Beowulf does. For example, in the days leading up to the meeting with the Green Knight, he is tested by temptations. One of those temptations is sex, and yet, despite the Green Knight’s wife’s strong sex appeal, he turns her away in the nicest way possible. The Green Knight was testing Gawain up until the moment he struck him with the axe. Gawain, fearful, kept the girdle that the Green Knight’s wife gave him because he believed it’s magical powers would save him. Therefore, he broke his promise. He was supposed to bear his neck, no shield, no protection. He lost his “troth” or his word by wearing that girdle. When he finds out that the Green Knight was testing him in his ability to keep his troth he was furious. He admitted, “ Dread of the death blow and cowardly doubts meant I gave into greed, and in doing so forgot the freedom and fidelity every knight knows to follow” (Greenblatt, 235). After that the Green Knight forgives him because, like the readers, he sees Gawain’s strength in admitting his downfall and being truthful and regretful in the end. Beowulf is the opposite. He is egotistical and arrogant. Yes, he is significantly strong, but it is never enough. He always wants more. He always wants the fame, as when he left his men behind to take on the dragon, alone, despite his old age. Beowulf’s fault led him to his death, whereas Gawain’s humility saved his life.

In today’s world all of us are faced with numerous different amounts of temptation. It speaks a lot to ones character to avoid them, and to speak for themselves in regret when they falter in their ability to deny those temptations. Gawain does this, when Beowulf is blind to his own faults. Today, Gawain would be the true hero. This is why when reading and interpreting the texts we must always consider context. Gawain is the real “person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities” (Merriam-Webster). Gawain is the indisputable hero.