How are the heroes Sir Gawain (in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and Beowulf (in Beowulf) similar and different?

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Beowulf’s heroism is rooted in physical violence and feats of strength. When Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, he boasts of an impressive resume! Before the plot of the poem even begins, Beowulf was known for accomplishments such as defeating his enemies in battle, slaying sea monsters, and conquering ogres. In the poem, Beowulf continues to display his physical prowess by killing Grendel with his bare hands, dispatching Grendel’s mother (all the while holding his breath for hours) and killing a vicious dragon in his old age. Beowulf’s bravery in battle embodies the warrior code that served as a cultural glue that held Anglo Saxon tribes together during the Early Middle Ages.

Sir Gawain, by contrast, is no warrior. He is known for his loyalty and integrity, embodying the virtues of the Chivalric Code. As King Arthur’s nephew and a member of the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain is well respected but not viewed as “hero material” by most of the court. When he accepts the Green Knight’s challenge and journeys to the Green Chapel, most do not expect him to return. Fortunately for Gawain, the Green Knight’s tests are moral rather than physical. Although Gawain lies and fails one of the Green Knight’s tests, due to his moral fortitude, he escapes with his life and returns to Camelot.

Despite their differences, Sir Gawain and Beowulf share many similarities. Beowulf and Gawain are heroes, even if the exact nature of their heroism varies. Both characters also embody the “good” in two opposing value systems. Beowulf is a “good” warrior and loyal fighter and, by extension, a “good” man in the context of a warring Anglo-Saxon culture. Sir Gawain embodies a more peaceful and Christian “good” that became prominent in the Chivalric Code of the early 1200s. Displaying non-violent virtues such as honesty, loyalty, and sexual purity, Gawain’s morality is what makes him heroic. Finally, both Gawain and Beowulf are honored for their work and receive acolytes from their kings. Beowulf’s funeral is described as the largest in history while Gawain’s green sash is adopted by the Knights of the Round Table to remind themselves of the importance of honesty.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf are examples of very different literary genres, with the former being an example of chivalric romance and the latter traditional oral-derived epic. The two heroes, despite having much in common on the surface, actually represent very different systems of social customs and moral ideals. 

Although from different periods and cultures, Sir Gawain and Beowulf do have the sort of qualities in common that make them heroes. Both are very brave and willing to risk their own lives in service of their obligations to others. Both display outstanding physical strength and skill with arms. Both are strong moral characters, although Beowulf is presented as without moral flaws and Gawain as a good person who occasionally lapses. 

The first difference is that Gawain is a Christian figure and Beowulf a mix of Christian and pagan. Gawain is portrayed as having a sexual nature and undergoing sexual temptation while the story of Beowulf is lacking in sexual elements and human female characters. Beowulf's challenges are primarily physical in nature and Gawain's moral and spiritual. 

 

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In his own way, each hero represents the values of his culture.  Beowulf represents the warrior colde of the Anglo Saxons:  bravery, loyalty, physical strength.  Gawain represents the chivalric code of the medieval period which also involves courage, loyalty, and physical prowess.  However, the two heroes differ in the way that they demonstrate these virtues.  Beowulf meets evil monsters which represent the antithesis of the warrior code:  Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the fire dragon.  Sir Gawain's test is not one against evil; it is one that tests his own integrity.  Sir Gawain's opponents, in other words, are not evil antagonists.  They provide instead an opportunity for Sir Gawain to prove his character.  Beowulf can defeat the evil monsters, but Sir Gawain is unable to demonstrate that he is perfect.  Gawain comes close to perfection, but fails by taking the green sash offered to him by the lady of the castle. 

At the end of the story, even though Gawain has performed bravely and done more than any other knight was willing to do, he felt himself a failure.  Gawain's adventure demonstrates the medieval idea that man should strive for perfection even if he falls short.  Beowulf, however, is victorious.  He is able to defeat the monster and save his people, even if at the end he loses his life.  In the Anglo-Saxon epic, the threat comes mainly from without.  In the medieval romance, the threat is actually a test, not truly a threat at all. 

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