How do Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight differ on the kinds of acts that must be revenged and the relationships between the persons who take revenge and those upon whom they take it? What happens to characters who are unable to exact revenge? In each work, is revenge moral or immoral, just or unjust? Do the texts present the impulse to take revenge as something that can or should be resisted and overcome, and if so, how?

Revenge is a major theme in both Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The cycle of vengeance of Beowulf is deadly but that of Sir Gawain is more on the level of avenging an insult and failing a test. Revenge was a normal part of medieval life, although the medievals did make an attempt to control and limit it through material payments.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The concept of revenge stands as a major theme in both Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, although the kinds of acts to be avenged are different in each tale. In Beowulf, revenge must be exacted for the murders Grendel has committed at Heorot. The monster has already killed many Danes before Beowulf arrives on the scene, and King Hrothgar, now in his old age and no longer a warrior, is not able to avenge the deaths of his men. He feels helpless and near to despair until Beowulf enters his hall and volunteers his services to rid the Danes of the monster forever. Notice, too, that none of Hrothgar's men are able to take revenge upon Grendel either, and this reveals a lack of strength and prowess among the Danes. It is not quite a shameful thing considering the power of the monster, but it doesn't show well for the Danish nation either.

Beowulf, however, is another matter. He has the strength of thirty men, and he is more than willing to meet Grendel in hand-to-hand combat. In fact, he is excited about it! He will be able to demonstrate his heroism for all to see. What's more, he will pay back an old debt, for Hrothgar had once given refuge to Beowulf's father, and now Beowulf has an opportunity to repay the favor, even though he is not a Dane himself.

The cycle of revenge repeats throughout Beowulf. After Beowulf kills Grendel, Grendel's mother seeks her revenge, carrying off another of Hrothgar's men. As Grendel's closest kin, she feels she has a right to avenge her son's death. Beowulf, in turn, seeks revenge on Grendel's mother for killing yet another Dane and kills her in return. That revenge cycle stops here because there are no more Grendels to start yet another round of vengeance. Later in the poem, however, Beowulf takes revenge upon the dragon for burning a good portion of his kingdom, but the dragon himself was taking revenge for thievery from his hoard. That cycle also ends because both revenge seekers, Beowulf and the dragon, die.

The type of revenge in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is quite different. That cycle of vengeance begins with an insult. The Green Knight appears at King Arthur's court and issues a challenge: someone may strike him a blow if he may strike a blow in return, twelve months and one day later. When the knights of the court remain silent in shock, the Green Knight scoffs at them, questioning their courage. Such an insult, of course, is not to be borne, and both Arthur and Gawain jump to their feet to avenge their companions. Gawain takes the vengeance himself, cutting off the Green Knight's head. The Green Knight merely picks up his head and rides out of the court, reminding Gawain that he shall take his own vengeance in a year and a day. He does so but gives Gawain only a small cut with his blow, and that cut was more on account of Gawain's secrecy than anything else, for the whole episode was a test of Gawain and his loyalty and humility.

We can see, then, that revenge plays a large role in both stories, but the level of revenge in Beowulf is much more serious: in fact, quite deadly. To evaluate that impulse toward revenge, we must look at the tales from the perspective of their times rather than from our modern viewpoint. Revenge was such an integral part of medieval society that detailed laws were enacted to control it. Families would agree on a payment of money or goods when some harm had been done, so they could break the cycle of revenge that would otherwise consume them. Both poems view revenge as a normal part of life, moral as far as it was accomplished within the bounds of custom and could not be avoided by some kind of payment. Clearly the Grendels and the dragon were not about to agree to damages in Beowulf, and the Green Knight and Gawain made a bargain in which revenge was built right in. No one would have felt the need to resist or overcome such practices of vengeance, especially when there was no other recourse.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team