Compare and contrast ''Beowulf'' and ''Sir Gawain and the Green Knight''.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are a number of similarities and differences between the protagonists in the heroic stories of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Beowulf is a hero known for his prowess in battle; he has heard tales of Grendel from traveling seamen and has come to the aid of Hrothgar and his people:

Fame a plenty

have I gained in youth! These Grendel-deeds

I heard in my home-land heralded clear.

Seafarers say how stands this hall,

of buildings best, for your band of thanes

empty and idle...

So my vassals advised me…

O sovran Hrothgar, to seek thee here,

for my nerve and my might they knew full well.

Gawain is a hero who enjoys a reputation of bravery as well, and he is also a member of King Arthur's court and the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur's knights were called to follow the chivalric code. According to the article "Medieval Chivalry,"

Medieval chivalry, or at least the nineteenth-century understanding of it [promoted] romantic conceptions of honor, especially military honor.

The chivalric code (a collection of ideals or guidelines by which to live) was constructed by the Church to control the often-vicious behavior of knights as seen during the crusades. A knight was expected to be a gentleman. Other characteristics were loyalty, faith, prowess, and kindness. It was “designed as a system of values and conduct for courtiers in noble courts.”

According to the code by which the Arthurian knights were said to live, Gawain takes the challenge of the Green Knight when he arrives at Camelot one year at the New Year's celebrations. His behavior complies with his code when the Green Knight fails to die when Gawain removes his head and demands that they will fight again in a year's time: Gawain, honor-bound, must comply.

Both Beowulf and Gawain are brave warriors. Their reputations are well established. (Even the Green Knight has heard stories, he says, of Gawain's sterling reputation.) Both face supernatural (beyond the natural) foes.

However, the men are vastly different. First, they come from eras that are quite dissimilar. Beowulf ostensibly lived during the Early Middle Ages, while Gawain's story was written during the Late Middle Ages. For this reason, Beowulf and his society are seemingly less civilized than Gawain. Gawain and the Arthurian knights are considered more refined, while Beowulf is more rustic, perhaps even barbaric.

Ironically, Beowulf is actually more honorable than Gawain. Beowulf fights Grendel with his bare hands because the monster will not have a weapon—he insists that it be a fair fight. Also, he comes to Hrothgar's aid simply because he hears that the king and his people are in need. He wants no payment but offers himself honorably to live or die, as God decrees, to rid the mead hall of the creature that has murdered scores of people and caused the hall to remain empty for twelve years.

While Gawain is quick to take the Green Knight's challenge—it seems it will be an easy win—the story takes an unusual twist in that the Green Knight does not die after Gawain cuts off the other knight's head. A year later, to honor his word, the young knight travels to meet the Green Knight again. However, Gawain's fear prompts him to deceitfully wear a magic belt to protect him from harm, rather than to honorably and bravely face the Green Knight simply with sword and shield.

Consequently, Beowulf appears the braver of the two, while Gawain seems less noble.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Beowulf is a traditional Anglo-Saxon epic and Sir Gawain is part of a later romance tradition. This means that the two epics are very different in style, tone, and attitude, despite both having noble heroes who are models of virtue as well as physical prowess.

Beowulf is written in Old English alliterative verse, bearing a strong affinity to the Norse sagas. The hero is distinguished by physical strength and nobility, and part of a system of hereditary affiliations and reciprocal debts. The ethos is an admixture of pagan and Christian, and fame, as it reflects upon one's lineage, is central to how a hero lives on after death, rather than the narrative having a purely Christian sense of the afterlife. 

Sir Gawain is embedded within a Christian and courtly tradition. Women play a much greater role in this epic, and how a hero treats women is considered a measure of virtue. The hero faces a moral test based on resisting sexual temptation and dishonesty rather than just tests of physical strength and valor. Unlike the monsters of Beowulf, the Green Knight is not evil, but in many ways a mentor who helps Gawain grow in virtue. 

mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Similarities:  They are both adventure stories where a hero accepts a challenge, sets off on a quest, and for the most part succeeds in that quest.  They are both about legendary characters who are serving their kings.  They both face dangers and foes along the way but survive and come out triumphant.  They both succomb to temptation from the ladies.  They both receive laud and honor for their deeds.  The stories themselves are both oral traditions that were eventually written down, surviving the ages.  They both have great feast-halls with mighty kings.  Both stories have Christian overtones.

Differences:  Beowulf succombs to vice on a much larger scale than Gawain.  The foe Beowulf faces is an evil creature, whereas Gawain faces a mythical, noble knight that teaches him a valuable lesson.  Beowulf's deeds save many people and resuscitates a kingdom whereas Gawain's quest is more to defend his and his king's honor; it's not such a dramatic situation.

Those are just a few ideas to get you started, and I provided links to more thorough discussions on both stories.  I hope that helps!