When it comes to groundbreaking, classical literature, not many works can trump what Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have done. Although similar through importance, readers would be hard pressed to discover any more similarities between the two. Beowulf is an epic poem from the Anglo-Saxon period, while Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale from the medieval period.
The main characters of each novel, Beowulf and Sir Gawain, each endure personal struggles in the “problem of pride. In completely separate fashions, both of them lust for domination (libido dominandi) throughout each of their respective stories. Beowulf, the earliest of epic heroes, was significantly known for his bravery.
With his lack of fear for death, he without a doubt was known as the greatest warrior at the time. However with great skill and the constant appraisal from fellow warriors, Beowulf becomes very boastful in his continued desire for dominance. In fact, his first words of the tale were, “When I was younger, I had great triumphs. Then news of Grendel, hard to ignore, reached me at home. Off the bat, he introduces himself as an accomplished warrior who felt it was his duty to slay the monster Grendel the minute he heard about his destruction.
Beowulf revels in his decision to come over from Geatland to protect King Hrothgar and his people. He feels that this is his opportunity to come and “protect the thrown” in a God-like manner. Furthermore, in Beowulf’s quest, he completely ignores the medieval warfare’s protocol on weapons. While warriors typically use weapons in battle, Beowulf disagrees with this approach, risking his humanity while stepping outside of his human limits.
He decides to fight Grendel on his own terms, and this over prideful, “superheroesque” mind frame (first interpreted as heroic) would come back to haunt Beowulf in his eventual death. As the story of Beowulf continues, Beowulf’s pride wears him down in his lust for domination. King Hrothgar, at one point, even warns a younger Beowulf to not let libido dominandi occur. Hrothgar proclaims, “He covets and resents; dishonors custom and bestows no gold; and because of good things that the Heavenly Powers gave him in the past he ignores the shape of things to come … O flowers of warriors, beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part, eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride. ” However, Hrothgar’s advice doesn’t seem to help in Beowulf’s clash with the dragon towards the end of the tale. Beowulf was praised for his nobility when he was younger, but his aging only increased his lust for domination. He simply doesn’t care about the repercussions of his death, and how leaving them unprotected would severely impact his people. In conclusion, Beowulf recklessly battles this dragon to the death.
He praises God before his death as he states, “To the everlasting Lord of all, to the King of Glory, I give thanks that I behold this treasure here in front of me, that I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die. ” This ending, going out in a blaze of glory, was exactly what Beowulf wanted to happen. It was not exactly his fate, but his desire for glory was simply too strong, thus neglecting what should have been most important to him: the safety of his people.
If he was truly a great hero, he would put the well being of others before his desire for dominance. In the case of Sir Gawain, his libido dominandi was enigmatic. Personal honor and valor seemed to be the two most important aspects of his life. Differing from Beowulf, Sir Gawain’s quest is a moral epic, and not one of physical attrition. However, Sir Gawain’s libido dominandi stems from his false humility, or in other words, his refusal to accept human failure. In the introduction of the story, the Green Knight travels over to King Arthur’s castle and demonstrates his Christmas game.
At first, Arthur is asked to be put to the test, but in an act of chivalry, Sir Gawain (Arthur’s nephew/right hand man at the knight’s roundtable) steps up. He explains, “While so bold men about upon benches sit, That no host under heaven is hardier of will, Nor better brothers-in-arms where battle is joined; I am the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest; And the loss of my life would be least of any. ” It is almost as if Sir Gawain undersells himself so much, to only further enhance his heroism. During his travels the corresponding winter season, Sir Gawain’s internal conflicts continue.
He is fighting against his own demons; there is no Grendel (or any other physical monster for that matter) in this story, just a desire for moral reformation and satisfaction from others. In his stay at the Bertilak of Hautdesert’s castle, Sir Gawain’s morale is only further boosted. Bertilak states, “As long as I may live, my luck is the better that Gawain was my guest at God’s own feast! ” In response, Sir Gawain quickly deflects the compliment and explains that the honor is his. Furthermore, after Gawain’s final interaction with the Green Knight, he flinches when the axe is first wielded towards his neck.
This of course is a normal human reaction. But to this noble knight, it is completely unacceptable. This corresponds with his problems of Pride; Sir Gawain wears the green girdle around his arm given to him by Bertilak’s wife to constantly remind him of his wrongdoings (slightly giving into her seduction). After returning to a hero’s welcome, Sir Gawain’s false humility continues as he sulks about his minor faults and lives in shame. However, as those who surround him maintain their commemoration of him, his libido dominandi clandestinely grows.
Throughout the text, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a common theme of “doubleness” is used effectively to portray the complexity of medieval life. In other words, there was never just one, blatant solution to courtly issues. In the case of chivalry, Sir Gawain was faced with social courtesy (secular) versus Christian courtesy (religious). In the case of the Green Knight, two separate images of positivity and negativity were deliberated. And in the case of the girdle, the knotted belt and open belt showcased two different connotations.
During the medieval period, the policy of chivalry to the aristocracy ruled above all. It was a code of conduct developed from warrior knights. The debate between religion versus politics was significant during the “High Middle Ages” as personal morality became a big issue in 1400’s English literature. When Sir Gawain is first introduced to Sir Bertilak’s wife, “he politely approached; to the elder in homage he humbly bows; the lovelier he salutes with a light embrace. He claims a comely kiss, and courteously he speaks; they welcome him warmly, and straightaway he asks to be received as their servant, if they so desire. Honor, graciousness, and respect marked the typical knight’s introduction. However, Sir Gawain begins to question his honor when Bertilak’s wife begins her seduction tactics.
Gawain is faced with the “doubleness” issue of doing what is right as a Christian versus doing what is right in knighthood. Should he deny the sexual advances because it was another man’s wife, therefore it was a sin against God, or should he accept the lady’s wishes out of honor and respect. The theme of temptation becomes the heart of this tale, as Sir Gawain’s adherence to the code of chivalry is constantly put to the test.
After rejecting the first two advances, Sir Gawain begins to crack a little during the third and final bedroom scene. Bertilak’s wife changes her evasive language to a more assertive style, and her attire (moderate in earlier scenes) suddenly becomes risque and revealing. He declares, “My body is here at hand; your each wish to fulfill; your servant to command I am, and shall be still. ” Gawain gives in due to the laws of chivalry, where knights are required to respect the set of laws concerning courtly love, and do whatever a damsel asks. The Green Knight also plays a huge role in continuing with the “doubleness” theme.
This character is extremely difficult to interpret as some view him as a devilish figure whose only purpose is to tempt Gawain into sin, while some view him as a holistic figure whose purpose is to build Gawain into becoming an improved knight. In the Green Knight’s introduction to the Christmas party, he arrives with a holly branch and an axe. The holly branch represents peace and happiness, while the axe is supposed to represent violence and death. Furthermore, he states, “Not all, I think, for dread, but some of courteous grace let him who was their head be spokesman in that place. He immediately references God, but then counteracts that with his threats of beheading someone.
To the reader, these two polar opposites begin to question what the Green Knight’s true intentions are. In addition, even the color green goes along the lines of the “doubleness” theme. During the medieval ages, the color green was conveyed as life, love, hope, and the birth chamber to some; while to others it provoked thoughts of jealousy, death, and sometimes the color of the devil. Towards the conclusion of the tale, the Green Knight’s true persona becomes revealed as he turns out to be the host, Sir Bertilak.
This plays on with the theme of temptation, as this was all set up to test Sir Gawain’s honor and virtuosity. The girdle, which is the third theme of “doubleness,” contains a symbolic meaning that has been interpreted in a variety of ways. The girdle can be viewed as sexual or spiritual. Accordingly, the knotted belt of the girdle represented chastity, good faith, and virginity while on the contrary, the open belt represented sexual advances and poor faith. This girdle is very lavish, as it is made out of green silk and embroidered with gold thread (colors that link it to the Green Knight).
Sir Bertilak’s wife claims that it possesses the power to keep the wearer of it away from harm. However, it is deciphered towards the end of the story that this girdle indeed has no magical properties, and was simply another experimental tactic used against Sir Gawain. While Gawain is able to resist the brunt of Bertilak’s wife’s sexual advances, he is unable to resist the powers of the girdle. When Bertilak returns home from each of his hunting trips, Gawain does not reveal the girdle and instead hides it in shame.
This showcases the spiritual interpretation; his acceptance of the girdle is a sign of his faltering faith in God. After the Green Knight reveals his identity as Sir Bertilak/the host, Gawain curses the girdle for he believes it represents his cowardice. He states, “But your girdle, God love you! I gladly shall take and be pleased to possess, not for the pure gold, nor the bright belt itself, nor the beauteous pendants, nor for wealth, nor worldly state, nor workmanship fine, but a sign of excess it shall seem oftentimes when I ride in renown, and remember with shame the faults and frailty of the fresh preserve. Yet, the others celebrate him during his return from the quest. To show their support, Arthur and his people wear green, silk baldrics that appear just like Gawain’s girdle. The double interpretation of the girdle corresponds with its complex, multi-faceted symbol. This theme of “doubleness”, the constant use of temptation with more than one side, becomes the main driving point in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.