Battle with the Inner Demons in Ancient Epic Narratives: Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Tales of heroic deeds of ancient lore usually speak of legendary feats of strength and arms. The old epic narrative contains stories of heroes defeating beasts and men alike through sheer brute force in no less than fantastic circumstances. The heroic narrative likewise extols the virtue of raw power and courage to take on impossible challenges in order to eventually prevail thereafter.
Heroes earn grave respect and admiration of their peers for each adventure won against all odds—that only their brawns have helped saved the day. Thus, songs are sung in their honour to commemorate their feats. Perhaps this is to inspire the people to be always brave in the face danger and meet death with honor and headstrong determination.
Yet there is another kind of monster that tests not only a hero’s physical mettle. It is even of the worst kind compared to slaying gigantic fiends or fighting a horde of barbaric invaders. That monster is a spectre—it has no name and it takes no form but it is able to whittle a man’s fortitude quite effectively. Unless confronted with grit and strong willpower, any hero is susceptible to destruction and defeat, unawares, from such a powerful creature.
Indeed, no hero or legendary figure can simply muscle their way to victory against such an enemy. In fact, the essential virtue required to win is not one of strength but of restraint; not one parried swords but battled with the mind and character. Such a monster or enemy is potent and violent precisely because it thrives within the hero himself.
It is a struggle from the inside and it is fought and won through pure virtue and temperament. On this point, the tales of Beowulf of the Germanic tribes and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight of the early Christian English period are concrete proof that heroes also fight monsters that are only and ultimately themselves.
Accordingly, foremost in the discussion and explication of the thesis of the paper is to recount the specific instances where it was not strength that won the day but virtue; and vice-versa where the lack of virtue resulted to painful and even perhaps shameful defeat. The objective is to underscore the fact that tribes and communities of the past also recognized the importance of the attributes of honor, decency and righteousness, and not just a one-sided and blind glorification of epic feats of strength.
True enough, primarily a hero becomes who he is based on the number and extent of his grand exploits, and that more he has in his belt the more likely it is for him to be adored. However, it is equally true that without possessing the features of proper manners and attitude the hero becomes merely a swashbuckling yet wholly insignificant grunt or warmonger who will soon perish from inattention.
Lastly, it is also the main objective of this paper to draw the line that separates man from his evil self in order to highlight the notion of self-identity and consequently, resurface the idea that heroes or any man for that matter has for himself alone a formidable opponent.
Beowulf and Sir Gawain are famous heroes whose tales have been immortalized in songs and epic tales. Although they are merely products of old traditional literature and of fictional tribal narratives, they represent the realities prevalent in early societies during the primeval eras wherein the tribal, in-group-out-group philosophy has naturally flourished.
Their characters and their stories reflect the ideals of the past which have developed since the beginning of early civilizations. These ideals put prime importance on certain heroic qualities which include might, skill and the ability to lead and inspire people.
Of course, such qualities are practical must-haves for the hero figure inasmuch as it encourages the tribe or citizens to emulate valour and gallantry in the battlefield. The heroic epic poetry that details exactly the accounts of the hero who has defeated a certain so and so not only provides entertainment but also allows the tribe to develop a strong sense of purpose when the tides of war rushes to its shores literally and figuratively.
As a consequence, there is a deliberate attempt to exaggerate the stories to the point of incredulity with respect to the modern reader. The idea is that the greater the feats of the hero figure in text or in theory, the greater any tribe or society would appear to the outside world. In other words, the creative and liberal embellishment as to the history of the hero figure has some very practical and useful benefits.
The songs that are sung of these hero figures cultivate a kind of shared interest in the protection of the community which consequently goes does down to the very survival of such a community against invasion or at least expansion and growth in conquest.
It is for these basic and simple reasons that epic poetry should contain at least a substantial list of achievement of the brawns for a hero. Yet perhaps as society developed into complex social institutions different subtle manners have then started to permeate the socio-cultural niche. The result is that certain qualities and virtues aside from just the ability to wield a sword, ride a horse or to don a garment of metal and chains began to gain stasis and psychological influence among the group.
Thus, the ability to speak eloquently, to exhibit grace and gentility no matter the situation and to address the pressing issues with such manner, sensitivity and imminence that truly befit an honourable warrior and knight became essential qualities to a hero figure.
For instance, Beowulf, who had presently reached Hrothgar’s kingdom to help the Danes defeat Grendel, was immediately assaulted with such hostile ebullience of insults from Unferth who accused him of exaggerating his stories. To add insult to injury, Unferth made a prediction that Beowulf will succumb to the might of the demon that haunted the halls at night (Lines 505-525, p. 39).
Beowulf, although he was stunned by the comments and was ready to strike back, maintained his composure and then instead of meeting the hostility with blind anger, addressed the doubts of Unferth and those inside the halls. With exquisite words and vivid imagery, Beowulf convinced them that he had might and power that is more than a match for Grendel, and at the same time gracefully called Unferth a coward.
To wit: “Neither he nor you can match me—and I mean no boast, have announced no more than I know to be true”, and thus Hrothgar “sat happily listening, the famous ring-giver sure, at that (thought or musing) Grendel could be killed; he believed in Beowulf’s bold strength and the firmness of his spirit” (Lines 585-586, 606-609; p. 41-42).
The same instance where virtue, honor and sensitivity of words and to courtesy proved helpful to a hero figure can be found in the scene where Sir Gawain was so close to falling prey to the seduction of the unnamed lady—who later turned out to be the Green Knight’s wife. It is true that he fought back and rejected her advances but without the least bit appearing discourteous and disrespectful to her. In fact, Sir Gawain continued to oblige the lady in their playful dalliances with each other as he simultaneously and carefully distanced himself from her:
“They spake to each other smiling, and all was bliss and good cheer between them. They exchanged fair words, and much happiness was therein, yet was there a gulf between them, and she might win no more of her knight, for that gallant prince watched well his words–he would neither take her love, nor frankly refuse it. He cared for his courtesy, lest he be deemed churlish, and yet more for his honour lest he be traitor to his host. (Emphasis supplied 35).
It would seem therefore that the hero figures Beowulf and Sir Gawain possessed inimitable qualities necessary to win battles real or abstract aside from just their might and strength. They have shown that they are more than capable of duelling with words as they do with swords. Thus, this slight improvement of the hero figures’ characteristics may be attributed to the rising need in the society to deal with other people not just with violence and swords but also at arm’s length with congenial and eloquent words. Needless to say, the hero figure’s identity comes to a full circle where his shown as a holistic embodiment of the society through the same figure is being constantly restructured to fit the changes in the social rubric.
However, going back the main proposition of the paper, it is still neither only mere felicity with words nor dexterity with the sword and shield; even both together that makes a hero figure exceptional. Despite the many deeds a hero may accomplish with his wit and his sword, the litmus test, in a manner of speaking, that truly distinguishes him from the ordinary person is his ability to fight his own inner demons.
Notwithstanding the fact that the hero figure in the epic narrative moves heaven and earth his benefit, the bigger battle is yet to be fought with his own failings and weaknesses. Without coming into terms with such flaws, the hero figure stands vulnerable to the attack against his character precisely just because of the happenstance that he is unable to control his inner passions. Thus, indeed, it is this natural desire for wealth, women, power and fame that bring down even the mightiest warrior.
Case in point is Beowulf’s hardy zealousness to obtain the cursed treasure trove hidden in the mountains as it is being guarded by a fierce dragon on his own despite the fact that he is way past his prime. Thus he spoke the words of boast which would eventually spell out his doom: “I mean to stand, not run from his shooting falmes, stand till fate decides which of us wins. No one else could do what I mean to, here, no man but me could hope to defeat the monster And this dragon’s treasure, his gold and everything hidden in that tower, will be mine or war will sweep me to a bitter death” (Lines 2529-2535, p. 101-102 ).
And as Wiglaf later cries out for help for Beowulf, he rightfully observes “He meant to kill this monster himself, our mighty king, fight this battle alone and unaided, as in the days when his strength and daring dazzled men’s eyes but those days are over and gone” (Lines 2640-2646, p. 105).
Thus it is clear that Beowulf has finally his own doom by his very own folly—by his rash desire to leave the world for his last hurrah. Ultimately, had he been more circumspect and had respect for his enemy—the dragon, he would have joined forces with younger men in order to defeat the menace of the land. It was not therefore, the dragon that killed him but it was his own demon which drove him to irrational decisions. It was his desire to prove once more his greatness and to recover the treasure which were his very undoing.
Sir Gawain’s experience with the Green Knight, on the other hand, bore fortunate results. Unsure about how to go about his deathly pact with the Green Knight, still he rode on with full confidence to meet his supposed doom to the green chapel. It is without a doubt that Sir Gawain did dread his fate but this did not divest him of all good sense and court conduct before his host and the host’s wife.
Any man faced with the same situation—with imminent death looming around the corner, would have used the opportunity with the host’s lady to succumb to the pleasures of an illegal tryst while he still had time. Yet death did not change his character. Sir Gawain despite the vexing situation he was in, granted that he knew that death was inevitable never for once considered it a reason to change his idea of honor and respect for his host.
Thus, when the time came to fulfil his obligation, the Green Knight rewarded him with reprieve and the scarf that the lady gave him, as a result of his chaste and respectful behaviour, saved his life. He has defeated not the Green Knight but his inner passions to commit wrong against his host and against all good sense.
In conclusion, it is fair to say that hero figures benefit from the abstract ideas of the society with regard to the values it puts on certain qualities and characteristics. Ordinarily, feats of strength and might pervade the narrative but it is only half the picture. The greatest feat of strength is not won by clash of swords or by wearing armour it is the ultimate struggle from within. The hero faces no other greater monster than the one that lies within. Thus, it is accurate to say that both Gawain and Beowulf are fighting that are, at the end of the day, themselves alone.
Beowulf. Trans. Burton Raffel. New York: The New American Library, 1963.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Jessie Weston. The Camelot Project. New York: University of Rochester, 1988.