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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