Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: the Role of Supernatural in Shaping the Hero

Supernatural creatures play an important role in defining the hero in both the eighth century epic poem Beowulf, and the fourteenth century British Romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Though both tales involve the hero’s journey to find and fight these creatures, their battles serve distinct purposes. Whereas Beowulf’s ability to overcome Grendel and Grendel’s mother in battle serves to reinforce his status as a powerful epic hero, Gawain’s relationship with the Green Knight tests the hero’s ability to balance his courtly duties and his natural impulses. By undergoing testing in this manner, the romantic hero may learn and change from his experiences; Beowulf, on the other hand, remains a powerful static figure in the manner of a true epic hero.

In understanding the role of the supernatural in these works it is pertinent to also examine the origin of the supernatural in these works. Both works’ supernatural creatures find their roots in the pagan Anglo-Saxon tradition. Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon poem, displays its Scandinavian roots throughout the text. The supernatural creatures featured in the text such as Grendel, his mother, and the dragon are clearly creatures based on Germanic tradition. In the same manner, the idea of a green man presented in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a product of the pagan tradition. In his introduction to the text, translator Brian Stone notes that the poet uses “pagan folk material drawn mostly from the early Celtic tradition” (11). Though the idea of a natural, wild man is a product of native influences, the Green Knight, simply by name, is a dualistic character. By giving the creature the title of knight the poet exemplifies the French influence present in the poem. According to William Goldhurst, the juxtaposition of the terms “green” and “knight” in the creature’s title serves to explain this dualism. “His appellation reveals his paradoxical nature: Green represents untamed natural forces, and Knight, the effects of courtly civilization” (64). This idea of nature and civilization abiding in one body is evident in the first description the reader receives of the knight, which intertwines his awe-inspiring monster appearance with the elegant and knightly aspects of his clothes and manner. The poet describes the supernatural aspects of the knight by saying, “…an awesome fellow/Who in height outstripped all earthly men, from throat to thigh he was so thickset and square/…that he was half a giant on earth/…and all glittering green” (lines 136-150). This monstrous description is juxtaposed with a description of the knight’s fine garments, alluding the fact that this creature is also refined: “And garments of green girt the fellow about-/…A comely cloak on top, accomplished with lining/ Of the finest fur to be found, mad of one piece,/ marvellous fur-trimmed material, with matching hood” (lines 151-155). Not only is this knight a civilized creature in the manner of a French court member, but he is also a civilized creature with exquisite tastes for luxurious garments. Whereas the Knight’s elegant dress and manner show the influence of the French on this British Romance, the knight’s wild “greenness” displays the pagan influence.

By understanding the origins of the supernatural creatures featured in the poems, it is easier to interpret what role these creatures play in each of the works. In both poems, the monsters, Grendel, his mother, and the Green Knight serve as physical hurdles that the hero must overcome. Though the supernatural creature in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight plays an additional role in relation to the hero, for Beowulf the creatures serve only as objects to be conquered to continually reestablish the hero’s strength. Fighting supernatural creatures is part of the everyday life of an epic hero like Beowulf, who routinely proves his physical prowess in battle. Beowulf himself notes his great abilities upon meeting Hrothgar, “In my youth I achieved many daring exploits… I destroyed five, a family of giants, and by night slew monsters on the waves….” (Lines 407-419). In the same way that Beowulf uses his past accomplishments in battle to prove his status as a true and capable hero, the battles with Grendel and Grendel’s mother only serve to further exalt Beowulf’s physical ability and courage. After fatally wounding Grendel in Heorot, those in the mead hall praise Beowulf. “Then Beowulf’s exploit was acclaimed; many a man asserted time and time again that there was no better shield-bearer in the whole world, to north or south between the two seas, under the sky’s expanse, no many more worthy of his own kingdom” (lines 856-860). His greatness, which the poet establishes early in the text, is being reinforced with every battle he wins. The same is true regarding his victory over Grendel’s mother. The victory does not change Beowulf; rather, it reemphasizes his greatness. “Then the fearless leader of the thanes, covered with glory, matchless in battle, once more entered Heorot…” (lines 1644-1646). The battle with Grendel’s mother merely reiterates Beowulf’s ability rather than emphasizing a personal journey or change. This idea of a static hero is a major theme of the epic genre.

In contrast, the Green Knight serves as a catalyst for internal change within Gawain. This idea of an inner journey or improvement of the hero is an idea found mainly in the French version romance, but is also evident in this text. The Green Knight, a creature the poet depicts as simultaneously wild and civilized, tests not only Gawain’s physical strength but also his inner strength to abide by his courtly responsibilities. Many descriptions throughout the text exemplify the Green Knight’s role as a representation of the balance between nature and civilization. In the description of the knight at the Green Chapel the poet describes the creature in one instance as a “courteous knight,” and in the next describes his animal-like movements saying the creature “…with huge strides/ Advanced violently and fiercely along the field’s width/ On the snow” (lines 2212-2235). By creating such a dualistic opponent for the hero, the poet alludes to the fact that there is more to this battle than what meets the eye. The physical fight, the journey through harsh landscape to exchange blows with the green knight, is not the main battle in the poem. The most trying battle proves to be the temptation Gawain experiences in Sir Bertilak’s castle, a courtly battle rather than one involving physical strength on the battlefield. So though the Green Knight acts as Gawain’s physical opponent in the natural landscape of the Green Chapel, he also acts as his opponent in the more civilized setting. Because the emphasis in the story is not on winning a physical battle over the supernatural creature, as it is in Beowulf, the hero’s failure to defeat the Green Knight and to honor his promise to his host allows him to learn and to evolve as an individual. When Gawain pledges to wear the girdle as a reminder of his failure, he is using his failure as a means for improving himself and the other members of King Arthur’s Court who also adopt the girdle as a reminder of the lesson learned by Gawain. ” ‘Look, my Lord,’ said Gawain…/this belt confirms the blame I bear on my neck/…For being caught by cowardice and covetousness/ This is the figure of faithlessness found in me,/ Which I must needs wear while I live” (2504-2509). Rather than maintaining the status quo of an epic hero like Beowulf, Gawain’s multi-faceted experiences with the Green Knight allow an opportunity not only for him, but also for Arthur’s entire court to learn from his encounters with the supernatural.

Through Gawain’s experiences with a double-sided supernatural creature he learns a lesson regarding the difficult balance of courtly duties and natural desires, whereas Beowulf’s experiences with the supernatural serve only to reinforce his physical abilities. The aspect of the evolution of the hero, a major theme in romance, occurs only through Sir Gawain’s struggle with the Green Knight. In the same way, Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel and Grendel’s mother emphasizes the idea of the epic hero as a powerful, able warrior and a static character. The emphasis on Gawain’s struggle with the forces presented by the binary supernatural creature allows the hero to learn and evolve. This role of the supernatural creature as a mechanism for change is in stark contrast to Beowulf, which focuses on the hero’s defeats over monsters, which only serve to reinforce what the reader and the other characters of the text already assert about the hero’s capabilities.