How do the speeches of the heroes in Beowulf (lines 407-55, Heaney translation) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (lines 343-61, Boroff translation) compare in terms of audience, topic, and tone?

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In the Old English poem Beowulf and the middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the two heroes have opportunities, early in their respective works, to address important persons and discuss important topics.  Their speeches can be compared and contrasted with regard to audiences, topics, and tones in some of the following ways:

  • Audience: Beowulf addresses Hrothgar, a powerful king (407). Gawain addresses Arthur, another powerful king (343). However, Hrothgar is not Beowulf’s own king, whereas Arthur is indeed Gawain’s king.
  • Tone: Gawain’s tone is very elaborate, eloquent, and self-consciously courtly, as when he says to Arthur,

Would you grant me the grace . . .

To be gone from this bench and stand by you there,

If I without discourtesy might quit this board,

And if my liege lady misliked it not,

I would come to your counsel before your court noble. (343-47)

Gawain is almost pretentiously humble here; later, of course, he will learn true humility as a result of his encounter with the Green Knight.  By contrast, Beowulf seems genuinely humble right from the start, even though he does refer to his “awesome strength” and even though he does mention having “battled and bound five beasts” (418, 420). Beowulf mentions these facts, however, to prove his fitness for the task he seeks to undertake, and he both opens and closes his speech by making clear his loyalty to his earthly king, Hygelac. Most significantly, Beowulf makes clear his humility in relying on God’s providence, whereas Gawain never mentions God. Ironically, Gawain, despite his flowery protestations of humility, seems less truly humble than the forthright Beowulf.

  • Topic: In both cases, the heroes are requesting permission from kings to undertake heroic tasks. Beowulf seeks to undertake a task that has been twelve years in the making, whereas Gawain responds to a task that has arisen very suddenly and very recently. Both men show courage in their willingness to risk their lives on behalf of others, but Beowulf, despite his youth, seems more mature at this point in his career than does the also youthful Gawain.

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