In regards to warrior classes, what are two differences between the Old English, such as Beowulf, and the Middle English, such as Sir Gawain?

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The warriors in Beowulf are pagans that hold to the Germanic warrior culture of glory, while the knights in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are Christian warriors who also strive for honor but do so in a different way than their pagan ancestors. Let's explore these differences a bit more.

In Beowulf, Beowulf and his followers are pagans. They live before the coming of Christianity to the North, so they live by a warrior code that is honorable but does not embrace many of the specifically Christian virtues. The primary goal of these warriors is glory. They want victory over their enemies so that their names and grand deeds may be long remembered. There is a pride to this, and Germanic warriors often boasted, like Beowulf does about his swimming match, for instance. This was common and expected, but it is quite different from the behavior of the knights who came later.

This pride and desire for glory and honor could lead warriors to some very poor decisions. Beowulf, for instance, insists upon facing the dragon by himself to prove his continued prowess as a warrior, and this gets him killed. Beowulf could have the support of several young warriors, but he sends them away, and only Wiglaf has the courage to disobey him and come to his aid. Beowulf dies and is buried, never admitting his mistake. He believes that he has won his glory in the end. His warriors ride around his tomb in mourning, but the author expresses both doubt and hope about his final fate. He is still a pagan warrior, after all, and the Christian poet was not exactly sure what would happen to him after death.

In contrast, Sir Gawain is a Christian knight, and he is committed to Christian virtues. When the Green Knight arrives at King Arthur's court with a challenge, King Arthur himself wants to take it at first. His knights, however, remind him of his duties as king (something that Beowulf's warriors wouldn't have dared to do), and Gawain takes his place. He cuts off the Green Knight's head in one blow, but the Green Knight merely picks up his head and reminds Gawain that he shall receive a blow in return in a year's time.

Gawain sets out to meet this challenge, first making sure that his Christian symbols are firmly in place upon his gear. Gawain is out for glory, certainly; but he also realizes that this glory will not come from his own power (at least not completely) and should be directed toward God.

We can see the difference between Gawain and Beowulf quite clearly here. Gawain is also committed to retaining his virtue through it all, and he resists all of the Lady's temptations except for the last one, when he takes her girdle, thinking that it will magically protect him from the Green Knight's blow. The whole situation is a test, of course, and Gawain passes it, except in that last bit. The Green Knight gives him only a light blow, which he deserves because of his superstition and touch of cowardice. Gawain repents and laments his failing in virtue (which Beowulf never did).

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