Beowulf and Gawain Hero Essay
In this 21st century, the heroes that walk this world prove less opaque than the heroes of the old world. They walk with no colorful layer of cloth beneath their work clothes. They walk with no superhero apprentice that can arrive at a given spot in a matter of milliseconds. They are neither supernatural nor immortal. They are people; just like us. The heroes of old British literature did not share the apparent concealment of our modern day heroes. They were as opaque as the blades of the swords they carried so high.
Two epics that clearly demonstrate a hero in the traditional British sense are the courageous tales of Beowulf and of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. The epic of Beowulf focuses on a prince named Beowulf who battles, for the good of the people around him, multiple monsters who have threatened the safety of nearby villages. The epic of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight follows the journey of a humble young knight who travels far and long to see the Green Knight and to hold up a part of a deal that was taken thoughtlessly.
In the comparison of these two epics, one can see that both follow the renowned heroic archetype of the famous American writer, Joseph Campbell. However, through the presence of Beowulf’s confidence, his reaction to the call of adventure, and his deficient fear of death, it is evident that the epic of Beowulf more successfully conforms to the heroic archetype of Joseph Campbell. The great confidence Beowulf holds in himself and his soldiers establishes him as a more fitted character in terms of the heroic archetype.
Near the beginning of the epic, Beowulf hears news of Grendel and immediately sets voyage for King Hrothgar’s village. As Beowulf arrives at King Hrothgar’s kingdom, he offers his assistance and boasts of his astounding strength: “Hence I seek not with sword-edge to sooth him to slumber,/Of life to bereave him, though well I am able” (Unknown 268-269). The pride that Beowulf clenches upon his power may come across as conceited and insincere to most modern readers. However, we must understand this story vicariously through a villager living in this fantasy world.
For the villagers, the supposed arrogance of Beowulf is not interpreted as arrogance but is in fact interpreted as faith. In contrast, Gawain, who is renowned as a hero by the Green Knight, is described as a very insecure character. When his king is about to participate in a senseless game, Gawain quickly offers to play it instead: “”I beseech you, Sire,” he said,/Let this game be mine”(Unknown 123-124). This humility of Gawain may serve as a worthy trait in being a good human being. However, Gawain’s story is portrayed in an epic, a story that features a hero.
A hero must foster forgotten hope in the minds of his people and that would not be possible through the soft meekness of Gawain. In this sense, it is conclusive to say that Beowulf’s confidence does establish him as a better contender for Joseph Campbell’s heroic archetype. When called into adventure, Beowulf’s fearless response as opposed to Gawain’s meager response determines Beowulf as the more courageous character. The call to adventure a hero undergoes is essential to the development of the hero’s journey. It is how the reader is able to infer and foreshadow the fate of the hero and the story plot.
In the epic of Beowulf, the character Beowulf’s call to adventure is more of a personal decision than a call: “I am able to render counsel to Hrothgar,/… If the anguish of sorrow should ever be lessened”(Unknown 131-133). The fact that Beowulf initiated this heroic adventure through his own decision further accentuates his valiant characteristics. Gawain’s response to his call to adventure was a lot less heroic than that of Beowulf. Gawain’s response, which was almost cowardly, was something that was prompted by Gawain’s self-effacement.
When King Arthur and the Green Knight were discussing the “Christmas Game”, Gawain volunteered simply because he felt that the game, which sounded irrelevant, should be played by someone who was also irrelevant. This lack of pride when called into adventure foreshadows the inevitable failure of Gawain as a hero. Therefore, it can be understood that Beowulf, who demonstrated a much more courageous call to adventure, better corresponds to the heroic archetype. Beowulf’s relentless attitude towards death proves his superiority to Gawain.
Beowulf, who has battled multiple terrifying monsters, had never gone into a battle with the fear of death. Even though he had a team of loyal soldiers trotting behind him at every new adventure, he would always be the first one to “cross the threshold”, whether it was arriving at the town of an evil monster or entering the tower of a vicious dragon. In one of his most difficult adventures, Beowulf ventures down to dangerous ocean depths in order to fight Grendel’s mother: “Was willing to wait for the wave-current swallowed/The doughty-in-battle.
Then a day’s-length elapsed ere/He was able to see the sea at its bottom”(Unknown 531-532). During this fight, Beowulf scratches the surface of death and struggles to win the battle. If Beowulf had feared death, he would have died at that exact moment. However, because he did not fear even the direst of consequences, he continued to fight with all of his strength. Not fearing death, something that even monsters like Grendel fear, truly displays the braveness of Beowulf.
In Gawain’s close moment to death, fear is clearly evident in his actions: “But Sir Gawain cast a side-glance at the ax/… For look how you flinch for fear before anything’s felt” (Unknown 257-264). This blatant fear of Gawain highlights his frightened vision of death. According to old British epics, fear of death should not be an emotion relatable to a hero. This “rule” plays out due to the belief that a hero will always die in honor. Thus, dying should not be a lamentable event for the hero himself. When understood in this nature, it is clearly distinct that Beowulf, who holds an absent fear of decease, succeeds more effectively as a hero in the heroic archetype.
Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are both masterpieces in the field of heroic literature. In this modern day, we have enough knowledge and technology to be able to study and understand these works with great depth. After this thorough analysis of the two epics, it is evident that Beowulf better fits the heroic archetype of Joseph Campbell. However, we must not disregard Gawain as a literary masterpiece due to its unique stray from the heroic archetype. In fact, we must praise it equally with the story of Beowulf, as both stories are revolutionary works of writing that introduce heroes in new diverse and interesting ways.