Compare and contrast 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. Sir Gawain is also a hero, known for his bravery in the court of King Arthur. Although they are both brave warriors, Beowulf seems more honorable than Gawain.

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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.

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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. 

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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!

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Before I looked at your attachment, the compare/contrast ideas that sprang to my mind were the similarities in how the verse is written: They both use alliteration--repetition of (usually) consonant sounds three or four times per line--instead of rhyming)*; a difference is that Gawain stanzas end with a "bob and wheel," the short two-syllable line followed by four short lines, while Beowulf does not. Also, Beowulf bridged the transition from the old Anglo-Saxon superstitions and religions to Christianity while Sir Gawain's religious backdrop was Christianity only. 

* Example from Sir Gawain

Reckoning of the Round Table all the rich brethren,

with right ripe revel and reckless mirth.

And an example from Beowulf: 

Swore by his sword, and young men swelled....

(A lot of Beowulf translations don't preserve the alliteration, though. Too bad, because it's cool.)

But to the bits you're asking about: 

Appearance of halls: 

  • Hrothgar's hall is huge, "a hall that would hold his mighty / Band and reach higher toward Heaven than anything / That had ever been known to the sons of men." It's strangely reminiscent of Solomon's wealth, which is described as having "surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches." Hrothgar's hall is also adorned by orders for work sent to all peoples, suggesting that it has samples of the art of various cultures all around (this bit is from the Seamus Heaney version, but doesn't necessarily appear in all versions). 
  • King Arthur's hall is also immense. It's large enough for all the court--and we're led to believe there were huge numbers of lords and ladies and knights--as well as tons of food and bands and players. It's also large enough for the green knight, himself described as huge, to ride in upright on horseback. Arthur's hall is richly adorned, as well. Queen Guenevere is 

Seated on the upper level, adorned all about; 

Fine silk surrounding her, a canopy overhead

Of costly French fabric, silk carpets underfoot

That were embroidered and studded with the finest gems

That money could buy at the highest price



  • Hrothgar: In the short reading assigned here, the only entertainment mentioned is that he dispensed riches to his subjects (72). If you read ahead a bit through line 90, though, you will see that he also has poets and singers and great feasts with happiness and merry-making loud enough to wake the beast Grendel. 
  • Arthur: "Rich revelry and carefree amusement" (40); tournaments and jousts (41-2); "dancing and song" (43); feasting and merry-making (45); dancing (47); Christmas service in the chapel (63); exchange of gifts (66-70); and Arthur himself will not eat until someone tells him "a curious tale" or he sees a good joust (93, 96-7). 

Who was present/absent: 

  • Hrothgar: All we're told in this tiny bit of Beowulf is that the hall is open to "old and young," to whom Hrothgar gives out treasures to reward them for their bravery in battle. This could include women, but wouldn't include children. His company wasn't limited to nobles and lords, clearly; the bounty and the honor here went to the brave and valiant. 
  • Arthur: The hall is peopled by the lords and ladies of the court and his knights, as well as the necessary servers and performers. The image is of the the rich and beautiful, as well as the men who were brave and skilled enough to become members of his Round Table (39). 


  • Hrothgar: Festive, clearly. He hands out rich gifts to all who have earned them, but there's also (as I mentioned before) a great uproar from the feasting and merry-making, which suggests happiness, music, dancing, and laughter. 
  • Arthur: Mostly festive and joyful (48), but also pious (as they finish their Christmas worship and leave the chapel). Like Hrothgar's mead-hall, Arthur's is a din of merry-making and feasting. 
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