In Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who are the antagonists? What anxieties in the societies that fear them do these villains represent literally and symbolically? 

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The antagonists in Beowulf are primarily monsters, figures of pure evil. Although Unferth is initially dubious about Beowulf, he is won over after the defeat of Grendel, and thus is not purely an antagonist. Thus we can see four opponents that Beowulf encounters over the course of the story that are emblems of evil and monsters of nature:

  • A sea monster: overcome before the start of the epic; shows evidence of Beowulf's prowess
  • Grendel: the evil monster that has been ravaging the mead hall and snacking on warriors
  • Grendel's mother: also a monster, avenging the death of her son
  • Dragon: the dragon burns down the houses of the Geats and eventually kills and is killed by Beowulf

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the antagonist is more ambiguous. The initial antagonist appears to be the Green Knight, a figure symbolically associated with nature. The Green Knight, though, is not himself evil, but rather a figure that serves to test Gawain's moral character. Thus the real antagonist is not so much the Green Knight but the moral weaknesses of Gawain himself, or even the "great antagonist" of Satan who lurks ready to corrupt the Christian knight if the knight does not fully trust in Christ. Thus the sexual temptation Gawain resists is as much an "antagonist" as the Green Knight, and the tale is a moral allegory. Morgan le Fay is also an antagonist (and may have disguised herself as Lady Bertilak or be an alter-ego for her), but again, she represents as much the temptations of lust and lying as she is an external threat.

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Beowulf

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