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The kinds of courtly life described early in both Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in the Heaney and Boroff translations, respectively) reveal a number of interesting similarities and differences, including the following:
- Both Hrothgar and King Arthur possess courts that are physically impressive. Hrothgar deliberately contructs a
. . . great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world forever . . . (69-70)
Similarly, Arthur is surrounded by opulence, including
. . . a dais well-decked and duly arrayed
With costly silk curtains . . . (75-76)
In both cases, the richness of the surroundings may suggest a kind of materialism as well as a kind of pride in worldly possessions that may both be open to criticism, especially from a Christian point of view.
- Despite exhibiting some of the pride that is unfortunately natural to human beings, both Hrothgar and Arthur seem to be good kings. Hrothgar shares his goods with his loyal thanes (71-72), and Arthur seems generous in providing his courtiers with food and in waiting until everyone else is served before he himself eats (85).
- Christianity is an explicit presence in both courts, as in the public retelling of the Genesis story in Hrothgar’s hall (89-98) and in the celebration of Christmas at Arthur’s court (64-65). However, it is possible to argue that neither court is as wholly devoted to Christian ideals as it should be at the outset.
- Women are a much more obvious presence at Arthur’s court than they are at Hrothgar’s, at least at this point in Beowulf.
- A sense of foreboding and doom is much more obvious at this point in Beowulf (81-85) than it is in the initial description of Arthur’s court.
- Music is a presence in both courts, as in the reference to the harp in Beowulf (89) and in the reference to dancing in Sir Gawain (43).
- In both cases the youth of the courtiers is mentioned (Beowulf 66; Gawain 54-55), an important fact since both poets may be suggesting the courtiers are still a bit immature and need to be taught some sobering lessons.
- In both cases, members of the audience who knew the stories to follow (a group that would include most listeners) would realize that the opening descriptions of both flourishing courts are just ironic preludes to the mayhem that is about to ensue.
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