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Author: Patrick Thrasher
Institution: Swarthmore College '01
Reception: unknown
Date: Fall 1999
Comments: none

So You Want to be a Hero:

An Account of Heroism and Narrative Power in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Though both considered heroes, Beowulf and Sir Gawain are drastically different characters in personality, ability, and perspective. The similarities are few: each performs deeds for which they gain fame and honor, and each is seen, in their own respects, as a paragon of virtue. Two factors immediately stand out as fundamental differences between the texts: Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight suggest fundamentally disparate views of religion and of courtly manners. Superficially, Beowulf displays a distinct lack of either in any but the most rudimentary way, while Sir Gawain is completely permeated with both. These differences in the contextual worlds of the heroes shape and propel them in often wildly different directions. Beginning from these superficial differences in Beowulf and Sir Gawain's respective worlds and then analyzing how these two champions (and others) function in their contextual spheres, one can uncover the deeper structures of their social orders, who actually holds power (and narrative power) in them, and, perhaps, something about the values the cultures that produced these two works held.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes a well ordered Medieval Christian world. Christianity guides the actions of a hero's soul, courtly love those of his heart &emdash; the "most noble knights known under Christ" sat around King Arthur's round-table (Part I-line 51). Sir Gawain as a character is the perfect cog in this system, "that [knight] of courage ever-constant, and customs pure,/ Is pattern and paragon, and praised without end:/ Of all knights on earth most honored is he" (II-912-15)[1]. He is devout &emdash; he emblazoned the image of Mary on the inside of his shield &emdash; and chivalrous &emdash; his wheedling out of either affronting Lady Bercilak or betraying the trust of her Lord whilst in their company is a truly virtuoso chivalric performance.

Sir Gawain's world is an edifice built of (perhaps arbitrary) religious and chivalric codes that constrain, define and bolster its inhabitants, and Sir Gawain is its golden child. Gawain is brave, for example, not because courage is intrinsically good and thus he, as a good knight possesses it, but rather because he puts his faith in God, whom naturally no Christian can second guess. Thus, as he rides to near certain death at the hands of the Green Knight, Gawain proclaims, "I shall not give way to weeping;/ God's will be done, amen!/ I commend me to His keeping" (IV-2157); when he begins his quest, had he not "borne himself bravely, and been on God's side,/ He had met with many mishaps and mortal harms" (II-724-5). God will preserve his soul. Sir Gawain's chivalry is by the book, as well; after sparring verbally all morning with the as-yet-unnamed Lady Bercilak in a manner worthy of Andrew the Chaplain himself, she trumps him, forcing him to give her a kiss, declaring:

But our guest is not Gawain &emdash; forgot is that thought...
So good a knight as Gawain is given out to be,
And the model of fair demeanor and manners pure,
Had he lain so long at a lady's side
Would have claimed a kiss, by his courtesy,
Through some touch or trick of phrase at some tale's end [III-1293-1301].

She, knowing Sir Gawain would never be un-courtly to a lady, plays his own ethics against him to obtain her desire.

Beowulf describes a world not of Christian harmony and logos but rather of barely restrained chaos, in which life is at best somewhat futile and at worst totally meaningless. Religion and courtly manners have not become as elaborate, and are generally more fluid. Beowulf is judged a hero, then, against different criteria. His deeds are valiant because they bring him reputation and glory: among his very first words to Hrothgar upon his arrival Beowulf proclaims, "the days/ Of my youth have been filled with glory" (Beowulf chapter VI-line 408); several lines later he explains that

the monster's scorn of men
Is so great that he needs no weapons and fears none
Nor will I. My lord Higlac
Might think less of me if I let my sword
Go where my feet were afraid to...
...God must decide
Who will be given to death's cold grip [VI-434-441].[2]

King Higlac's opinion of Beowulf is of great value to Beowulf, the former being a man of greatness as well. Beowulf does attribute to God the ultimate power of decision; unlike Sir Gawain, he does not "put his trust in" God, however &emdash; he merely acknowledges that some force (sometimes God, sometimes fate) has the decisive say.

The intricate moral and religious framework in which Sir Gawain so righteously performs either does not exist in Beowulf's world, or is of such little consequence that the narrator can refrain from describing Beowulf in terms of it. Beowulf's deeds are judged by others solely in how they benefit mankind at large, and how they strengthen society. The importance of Beowulf's youthful excesses lies not in the bravery and strength required to perform them but in how, after his swimming contest, "sailors could cross/ That sea-road and feel no fear; nothing/ would stop their passing" (Beowulf IX 537). After his death, the unnamed messenger delivering Beowulf's eulogy to the court praises him,

the best of kings, Beowulf &emdash;
He who held our enemies away,
Kept land and treasure intact, who saved
Hrothgar and the Danes - he who lived
All his long life bravely [XXXXI 3003-8].

Beowulf is a heroic, virtuous man because he kept did what others could not to preserve both his and his allies ways of life.

Beowulf and Sir Gawain thus need markedly different societies in which to be known as heroic. Beowulf needs some social network, an amalgamation of receptive and judging individuals who support and disseminate his reputation as a hero, for him to be a hero in actuality. Sir Gawain, while needing a society to perform in and that has criteria against which he can be assessed does not need the people within it: in the Christian world of Gawain salvation rests solely on the individual. Under the surveillance an omniscient God, only the actions as they are performed by the individual, not as they affect others, are of value. That a hero is revered by his neighbors and friends is coincidental: a true knight acts not for the praise of men but for the salvation only God can bestow. A man's "Goodness," then, is not awarded him by his peers; while performing socially responsible acts may be necessary to be Good, God bestows the epithet, not other men, and thus society is of little use to a Good man except as an arena in which to prove his worth. [3]

Governing structures seem so important in the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that the Green Knight must create other, smaller ones in which to humble the most virtuous Gawain. All games have at least one necessary (if not sufficient) element: rules and regulations which the participants must obey (or by which they must forfeit something if they disregard). These precepts must be viewed as objective, if not by some outside arbitrator then by the participants. Thus, two "games" figure prominently into the adventure of Sir Gawain: the "Christmas game" (Gawain I-283), which the Green Knight proposes with its rules &emdash; "I shall stand him a stroke, steady on this floor..." the Green Knight explains, "In a twelvemonth and a day/ He shall have of me the same;...Who dares take up the game" (I-294-300); and the "game" (II-1111) the mischievous host Lord Bercilak proposes to Sir Gawain the night of Gawain's arrival, according to which the Lord and Sir Gawain will exchange all they "won" during the course of the day.

Like God in Christianity and (perhaps idealistically) the Lady Pursued in chivalry, Lord Bercilak &emdash; or his backers &emdash; creates the substructure in which Sir Gawain will act and by whose marks he will be judged. Bercilak presumably intended to teach Gawain (and Arthur's court) some sort of lesson, and he could never simply scold him into reforming (Gawain's record, is, after all, spotless). Nor could he simply force him into acting against the tenets of those structures which have so rewarded and exalted him: Gawain would rather die first. Therefore, Bercilak must create a new edifice ("the Christmas game") into which he invites Gawain, who then commits to its set of rules. Having lured Gawain into this game and later the exchange game &emdash; which, unbeknownst to Gawain is a sub-game, rather than a completely unrelated one &emdash; Bercilak uses Gawain's unflinching dedication to his agreements [4] (ie - to participate according to the rules in Bercilak's games) to coerce Gawain to actions that conflict with his (social structure inspired) principles.

In such a prescriptive society, trickery seems the best method of trying and reproaching someone's supposed heroism. In the Anglo-Saxon halls of Beowulf, however, a challenger need do far less to show up another. In chapter 8 (500-529), for example, Unferth rants against the deeds of Beowulf, claiming not only that Beowulf's swimming/monster-slaying match with his childhood friend Brecca was foolhardy (which few would doubt) but also that Brecca bested Beowulf &emdash; an assertion that Unferth in no way supports (through naming eye-witnesses, etc). Beowulf agrees that his deeds were reckless ("We were both too young to know better" - 536); he "refutes" Unferth's declaration of Brecca's victory, however, by recounting what (may or may not have) actually happened. Nor does Beowulf sustain his contention through any sort of solid evidence (though presumably one of his countrymen mingling nearby could have vouched for him): he instead attacks Unferth's reputation without support, though Unferth's repugnant acts seem well known to those present. Beowulf can rebuke Unferth on his own, upon the strength of his noble birth (none but the Geats know more than his lineage at this point), and without the aid of artificial structures.

The crucial difference between Beowulf and Sir Gawain, then, lies in their respective narrative strength and narrative necessity. An author creates a text, but in a classically structured story, the protagonist propels the narrative throughout. The protagonist has enormous power within his diegetic world. Fate or God put Sir Gawain into his society, and he excels in it (it seems). His excellence as a knight and a hero, however, is derived solely from his ability to act according to its principles &emdash; he simply obeys the rules more closely than most others. Never once does he willfully and knowingly stretch or bend the social framework of the diegetic world in which he acts and excels. Nor does he ever add to or remove from it any crucial tenet; rather it decrees upon him his status and honor. If Sir Gawain were to die, the world he lives in would continue as it did before his birth and during his ensoulment. But Beowulf's world is inconceivable without Beowulf. He had provided half a century of stability and well-being to his people, he proclaims with his parting breaths:

"I've worn this crown
For fifty winters: no neighboring people
Have tried to threaten the Geats, sent soldiers
Against us or talked of terror. My days
Have gone by as fate willed, waiting
For its word to be spoken, ruling as well
As I knew how, swearing no unholy oaths,
Seeking no lying wars. I can leave
This life happy..." [XXXVII 2732-40]

Beowulf dies happy knowing that he ruled well and protected his people: when he dies by the dragon (and by those who forsook him), his death signals an end of a way of life.

More crucially, however, Beowulf's death and the resulting end of society as it had once existed threatens the medium the propagation of his fame required. Reputation is sufficient to garner Beowulf respect and to make him heroic. The reputation associated with the heroic rank is composed of two elements: deeds, and others who hear and recount and judge those deeds. Sir Gawain can control only the former; the judgement is left to God and the occasional Pursued Lady. Beowulf, through those same deeds for which he is renowned, creates and succors the very means by which he can be a hero: by preserving society, he preserves the lives of the people required to pass on his fame. In a curiously self-referential moment, Wiglaf calls to the mortally wounded Beowulf:

"Beloved Beowulf, remember how you boasted,
Once, that nothing in the world would ever
Destroy your fame: fight to keep it,
Now, be strong, and brave, my noble
King, protecting life and fame
Together..." [XXXVI 2663-68]

If Beowulf dies, the very ability to have a narrative about him dies too.

Interestingly, the only character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who has control over the narrative in any way like Beowulf's is Lord Bercilak (or perhaps the true master puppeteer, Morgan la Fey). Bercilak, through his production of sub-structural games that ensnare Sir Gawain, demonstrates an ability (in modern parlance) "to think outside the box": he can shunt Gawain out of the larger social structure into his own and in the process turn him around so far that Gawain runs headfirst into his own ethics. Bercilak can reveal and manipulate the social framework of codes, but the framework does not depend on his existence: Beowulf is a foundation for his society, without which it will probably crumble.

Another, secondary discrepancy between the heroism of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and that in Beowulf involves leadership: in Beowulf, heroes lead men. Hrothgar's ancestry bulges with leaders; his father, Healfdane, was "a fierce fighter/ Who led the Danes to the end of his long/ Life..." (I 57-8). Hrothgar himself,

taking the throne, led
The Danes to such glory that comrades and kinsmen
Swore by his sword, and young men swelled
His armies, and he thought of greatness... [I 64-7].

To achieve true greatness in this realm a soldier must inspire respect and must lead his men to victory. Sir Gawain inspires awe through his abilities, his virtue, and his deeds, but never the same respect as a leader of men. Nor could he, I think: the only one at Sir Arthur's fete to step forward to accept the Green Knight's challenge is Arthur himself. Sir Gawain volunteers claiming that "this folly befits not a king," and yet, one cannot help but feel he is motivated by the fear of Arthur's possible death: he gives as a reason for his undertaking this task that "the loss of [his] life would be least of any" (Gawain I 358 and 355, respectively). Beowulf, on the other hand, seems to be bestowed with powers above those of the usual rulers of his time: his insight into the inevitable demise of Hrothgar's kingdom in chapters 28 and 29 reveals a fatalistic understanding of the inadequacies of those few social practices his culture uses.

Beowulf and Sir Gawain are such vastly different heroes that the term collapses into a concept totally dependent on its social context. The criteria upon which they are each judged a hero have at best a tenuous resemblance to each other: in Sir Gawain's world those who obey the religious and social codes (including chivalric ones) of his realm can be titled a hero, while in Beowulf those who actually create and support society itself are heroic. Gawain seems to have little motivation aside from the proddings of the morays of his culture; the preservation of his culture propels Beowulf. Not entirely altruistic, the continuation of Beowulf's legacy depends upon the preservation of people to circulate it, and thus Beowulf has almost supreme importance to his own narrative: when he dies, a very real chance exists that his people and hence the possibility of his continued existence after death will perish with him.

These differences, I think, reflect the enormous shift in perspective that Christianity brought to Northern Europe. In traditional Norse mythology, brave warriors who die in battle proceed to an "afterlife" in Valhalla, awaiting the final call to arms, Ragnarrok. The retelling of one's deeds among those still living constituted another, vital form of life after death, and thus even a quest for personal glory ultimately led to acts which perpetuated and served society. Ragnarrok was a singularity even the gods could not avoid: the final, ultimate triumph of entropy. Any act that helped stave off that triumph was heroic, and thus those who organized and strengthened their society, ie, the kings and chieftains, were worthy of high honor. But Christianity, with its notion of an omnipotent, ultimately benevolent Deity changed these tribes' cosmic perception: an over-arching order to the cosmos now existed, created eternal by an eternal being, above any piddling systems men could create. This apocalyptic safety net thus removed the burden of fending off the e'er encroaching entropy, and provided a set of new, absolute criteria for virtue and heroism.


1: If read as satirical, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes on a new flavor. The descriptions remain the same, however; only the author's intention changes. All Gawain citations are from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Marie Borroff, © 1967 by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc, New York and London. [back]

2: All Beowulf quotes are taken from Beowulf, translated by Burton Raffel, © 1963 by Burton Raffel, published by Penguin Books, USA. [back]

3: This explains why the (presumed and unrecounted - Gawain II-705-735) deeds of Sir Gawain and Beowulf appear similar but feel so different &emdash; to an non-omniscient objective viewer, a man acting charitably out of compassion for other people and a man acting charitably because God will save his (individual) soul appear to be performing the same deeds.[back]

4: A tenet supplied by his chivalric code.[back]

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