Pride in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Literature in rich in stories where the pride of the otherwise flawless hero inevitably becomes their Achilles heel. While pride in medieval culture sometimes had negative connotations, it was an aspect that was necessary for power and survival. In looking at two influential works from Old English and Middle English, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, respectively, we begin to understand the importance and the context of pride in those times.
Although distanced by hundreds of years, the Old English epic poem Beowulf and the Middle English verse of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are similar within the context of pride. And as much as they are similar in this respect, they are also some very important differences in the way that the protagonists of these two stories deal with their own mortality and pride. In the story of Beowulf, one of the main characteristics of Beowulf is his unwavering pride, most often highlighted by one of his friends or sometimes by the narrator.
It is Beowulf himself, however, that seems to like to demonstrate to those around him how important and valuable he is. In this case, his pride is seen more as a case of just presenting the facts; he is certainly the best man for the job of finding and killing Grendel and proves it with his retelling of amazing feats and accomplishments. When Unferth challenges Beowulf’s qualifications as the hero that can kill Grendel , Beowulf recounts the story of his swimming match against Breca in a boastful manner. This was a necessity as everything rested on reputation and honor.
Beowulf defends his honor by stating that during the swim he killed nine sea monsters and so it is concluded that Unferth has no room to speak. “The fact is Unferth,” he begins, “if you were truly as keen or courageous as you claim to be Grendel would never have got away with such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king, havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere. ” Boasting was not only a necessity in that time, but was also an unwritten code that confirmed that pride could be a virtue, but it had to have substance behind it.
If you were to boast, you had to prove yourself on the battlefield, but always with an acknowledgement to God. Beowulf seems almost too eager to take on the challenge of finding and killing Grendel, for once he hears about the terrible beast he rounds up his best men to take the journey to save Herot.. He is not directly challenged to come and kill the beast; so none of his honor or reputation is put to the test. Rather, in his foolish youthful pride, he responds to the challenge of his own free will.
He is definitely the right person for the task, but his zealous nature is a foreboding element of what will eventually be his downfall. This eager nature to take on the challenge is also present early on in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. When confronted by the Green Knight, Gawain steps forward to accept his challenge, even though he claims to be “the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest; And the loss of my life would be least of any…” This undermining of his own pride and honor does not stem from a lack of it, but rather as recognition of the rules and conduct of the court.
In the court of King Arthur, the way that one behaves must not be considered boasting, as this was thought to be arrogant and rude. Pride was kept in check by the code of chivalry. For all their foolish pride and hubris early on, both Beowulf and Gawain are humbled by the time their stories have ended. For Beowulf, he comes to terms with his own pride as he grows older, as he is forced to face his own mortality. When he his challenged by the threat of the dragon, in his old age, he accepts his fate as “he was sad at heart, unsettled yet ready, sensing his death. He replaced the pride of youth with a more mature permanent reputation as legend. As evidenced by his final boast before seeking out the dragon, Bewoulf said; “ I risked my life often when I was young. Now I am old but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning…” Despite his old age and many feats and accomplishments, he knows that he needs to die to salvage his pride and to preserve his legacy. By the time Gawain finds the Green Knight, he has passed through the true challenge in the story; the test of his honesty and integrity.
In hiding the girdle that would prevent him from getting hurt from the host of the castle, Gawain is reaffirming that he is not only full pf pride, but also selfish for his own life, which is not very chivalrous. While it is true that it was a chivalrous action to accept the challenge from the Green Knight in the King Arthur’s place initially, one begins to see how this might just have been a series of courtly formalities and facades. Now that Gawain fears his fate, he lies about the gridle although he doesn’t really think it is lying.
After the confrontation with the Green Knight towards the end of the story, Gawain wears the girdle as a reminder of his own pride. “Each brother of that band, a badric should have, a belt borne oblique of bright green, to be worn with one accord for that worthy’s sake. ” Gawain’s enduring legacy is that every knight wears green girdles as a show of support for him. Pride and hubris were a constant driving force in this period, but for powerful heroes like Beowulf and courageous knights like Gawain it was a negative character attribute, which ironically, only helped solidify their status as legendary.