Heroism in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
?Jordan Conde Doctor Bernard English 2322—British Lit I 7 October 2013 Title Heroism plays a major role in both of the epics “Beowulf” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. “Beowulf” tells of the great triumphs of the protagonist Beowulf. His first amazing feats are that he not only kills the human-eating monster Grendel with just his bare hands, but he also kills Grendel’s mother with the help of an ancient sword that only he can wield. Then, after fifty years of ruling over the Geats, Beowulf finally meets his demise, but only after successfully slaying the dragon that had been terrorizing his lands.
In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, we meet the young knight Sir Gawain who makes a deal with a strange man who calls himself the Green Knight. The deal is that anyone brave enough from King Arthur’s court may have the chance to strike him with his own axe, but in a year and a day’s time, that same person must venture out to find him to receive a blow in return. Sir Gawain agrees, and after exactly one year and a day, he finds the Green Knight only to find out that the Green Knight is actually named Bertilak.
As it turns out, due to Sir Gawain’s nearly complete honesty, Bertilak allows the knight to return home with nothing but a scratch on his neck to show for his one moment of dishonesty. However, while Sir Gawain’s honesty and ability to keep his word is recommendable, Beowulf turns out to be the better hero. Honesty is what allows Sir Gawain to be considered heroic. The importance of his honesty is visited throughout the entirety of the epic. The poet says, quoting Bertilak, “‘By confessing your failings you are free from fault and have openly paid penance at the point of my axe. I declare you purged/ as polished and as pure as the day you were born/ without blemish or blame’” (lns 2391-2394). When it is revealed that Sir Gawain had been deceitful in regards to what Bertilak’s wife had given him aside from kisses, and in shame, he admits to his transgression. He asks Bertilak’s forgiveness, expressing his shame at having lied, and is told by Bertilak that his penance has been paid by willingly subjecting his life to his axe. Sir Gawain is declared to be as sinless as the day he was born.
Bertilak essentially tells Sir Gawain that his willingness to be honest is appreciated, and as such, his indiscretions will not be held over his head. Yet it the end, one must wonder if Sir Gawain’s honesty makes him a hero, or simply a good man. A large part of what makes Beowulf a hero is his incredible bravery and fearlessness. In the poem, these two characteristics of Beowulf’s nature are referenced repeatedly. The poet first quotes Beowulf, and then continues to say, “‘With Hrunting I shall gain glory or die. / After these words, the prince of the Weather-Geats was impatient to be away and plunged suddenly:/ without more ado, he dived into the heaving depths of the lake” (lns 1491-1495). With these words, Beowulf’s lack of fear is blaringly obvious. Firstly, Beowulf plainly gives himself but two options: to either kill Grendel’s mother or die trying. He expresses no lamentations or worries of his possible fate. In fact, it seems as if he simply wants to get the fight over with, since after he finishes his speech he jumps into the lake rather abruptly. Beowulf shows no hesitation to begin the fated fight against Grendel’s mother.
It is in the sureness of his words and in his lack of hesitation that the true extent of Beowulf’s valor is shown. The one quality that is valued in every great hero is courage, and in Beowulf, that courage is immense. When considering what it means to be a hero, there is little to no doubt that Beowulf emerges as the more heroic character when compared to Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain’s honesty, while commendable, causes him to be seen as more a good man than as a righteous hero. Bravery, however, is a trait that must exist in every hero, and Beowulf seems to be the epitome of bravery.