In what ways can the characters of Beowulf and Sir Gawain be compared and contrasted? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While romantic heroes are full of the admirable attributes of bravery, loyalty, humility, courage, honesty, and virtue, epic heroes exist, perhaps, on a grander scale: brave and noble characters involved in events of great magnitude and admired for great and sometimes super-human achievements. Without question, then, Beowulf and Sir Gawain are epic heroes by definition, although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is written in Medieval Romance tradition and it too short to be considered an epic poem as is Beowulf. Moreover, Sir Gawain is more of a romantic hero than he is an epic one.

Comparisons

  • Both heroes go on a quest (journey)
  • Both heroes defend kingdoms against an enemy
  • Both heroes are noble in nature, honoring their commitments to rulers
  • Both heroes are involved in adventure
  • Both heroes exhibit spontaneous, unmotivated fighting
  • Both are models of bravery, valor, and selflessness
  • Both battle on behalf of another
  • Both have a sense of justice
  • Both represent forces of good fighting against evil (Grendel is "a shepherd of evil" and the Green Knight is representative of the nature worship that characterized pre-christian tribal paganism)
  • Both possess great strength 
  • Both fight an enemy who have preternatural powers themselves or powers supporting them. [Grendel is a monstrous descendant of Cain; Lord Bertilak is connected to Morgan LeFay]
  • Both keep their vows
  • Both achieve glorious deeds in order to bring honor to their kings

Differences

  • Sir Gawain is an Arthurian hero, and, as such is connected to the Christian faith while Beowulf is part of the pagan history of Britain. [Sir Gawain draws strength from his devotion to the wounds of Christ and his devotion to the five joys of Mary--the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary]
  • Beowulf, as a pagan, believes in Fate: "Fate will unwind as it must"; Sir Gawain has Christian beliefs
  • Sir Gawain is under the chivalric code; Beowulf, of course, is not. Sir Gawain practices the five social graces of
  1. generosity
  2. brotherly love
  3. chastity
  4. pure manners (courtesie)
  5. piety
  • Unlike Beowulf, Sir Gawain exhibits some cowardice in his hiding of the girdle that Lady Bertilak gives him as she tries to seduce him. He also exhibits some covetousness. 
  • Beowulf's struggle against Grendel is more of an epic struggle of two great opposing forces in the world, but Sir Gawain's conflicts are part of the Arthurian legend and, thus, lesser in scope.
thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both Beowulf and Gawain are protagonists of medieval epics. They are similar in that they are both males in aristocratic societies who are proffered as role models. They are young, wealthy aristocrats who are just becoming adults and whose journeys involve maturation into full adulthood through various trials that test their strength and character. They are both strong, handsome, and single as the stories open and admirable in both body and mind. 

The first difference in the two stories is period. Even though both are set in similar periods and both stories tell of legendary figures who form part of the mythic histories of their kingdoms, Beowulf was written some 300 years earlier and still bears the hallmarks of oral tradition. Heroic deeds in Beowulf are typically displays of physical valor, whereas moral worth in Gawain has a wider scope. While Beowulf has some Christian elements, Gawain is fully Christianized. Additionally, women have a more prominent role in Gawain's story. Gawain is part of a court with elaborate courtly manners, while Beowulf's surroundings are more purely warlike. Beowulf is a simpler character with less need for complex moral choices. 

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Beowulf

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