A hero must always possess certain qualities such as bravery and honor, but the nature of heroism can vary greatly. Although superficially, some heroic figures may seem to be very different, these differences are accounted for because of the differences between the societies they lived in.
The characters Beowulf, from Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney, and Gawain, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Burton Raffel, the differences between Gawain’s and Beowulf’s heroism lie in the reasons for their bravery, the nature of their struggles, and their heroic codes, yet all of these differences can be explained in terms of their respective societies. In Beowulf, Beowulf makes a show of boasting his past deeds, as a form of self-advertisement. “… all knew of my awesome strength.
They had seen me bolstered in the blood of enemies / when I battled and bound five beasts, / raided a troll-nest in the night-sea / slaughtered sea-brutes” (Heaney, pg. 29). For Beowulf, heroic accomplishments are a way of proving himself in the eyes of others, and the reason for his bravery is the fame that he achieves. This is also seen when Unferth accuses Beowulf of vanity because of a competition with Breca, and then tells Beowulf that he will not succeed in his battle with Grendel. Beowulf rebukes Unferth, and tells the story of his swimming competition with Breca.
Beowulf lives to accomplish heroic deeds, such as killing nine sea-monsters by hand. Gawain, on the other hand, lives to serve a chivalric code. “I sit here, / Ready and willing to do as you ask, / In anything large or small: so duty / Requires me” (Raffel, page 79). Here, Gawain is proclaiming himself as the servant of his host, as gratitude for sheltering him, because his duty requires him to. Unlike Beowulf, who shamelessly boasts to promote the knowledge of his brave deeds, to Gawain, fame is less important than dignity, which is a part of the chivalric code he follows.
This is because in Beowulf’s time, if a warrior was to have any hope of employment, he had to spread his fame with deeds of bravery, and so it is in Beowulf’s best interests to spread his fame. By Gawain’s time, however, people were judged more by their moral values than by their fame in battle, and so it is in Gawain’s best interest to appear as courteous as possible to his host. Beowulf’s battles are also more of a more physical nature than Gawain’s, whose struggle is more on the internal level. Over the course of his epic poem, Beowulf fights three main battles – with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. In he came then, the thane’s commander, / the arch-warrior, to address Hrothgar: / his courage was proven, his glory was secure. / Grendel’s head was hauled by the hair, / dragged across the floor where the people were drinking, / a horror for both queen and company to behold” (Heaney, 113).
Beowulf has just killed Grendel’s mother, and is bringing back Grendel’s head as proof of his victory. Gawain’s battle, on the other hand, is more often of a more spiritual nature, such as when he is forced to resist the temptations offered to him by the Green Knight’s wife. And so she tested him, pushed and probed, / Trying to tempt him, pretending love, / And Gawain was so gracefully evasive that he seemed / Always polite, and nothing happened / But happiness. / They laughed and fenced, / And at the end, / Offering a courtly kiss / off she went” (Raffel, pg. 96). The word choice in this passage clearly indicates that Gawain is fighting a battle, but it is an entirely different one from Beowulf’s. Words such as “pushed” and “fenced” imply that this is a duel when in fact it is a flirting game.
Unlike Beowulf’s heroism, which calls for bravery in the face of staggering physical odds, Gawain must prove himself the master of his own mind and heart against temptation. Once again, the difference between Gawain’s and Beowulf’s respective societies comes into play. Beowulf’s time was mainly battle-oriented, whereas Gawain’s, while certainly still retaining some element of a warrior society, had already gained features of an intellect-oriented society. The difference in the time of occurrence once again accounts for the differences between the two heroes.
Encompassing the lives of these heroes are the codes that they are determined to follow. These codes are drastically different. Beowulf voices his thus: “For evey one of us, living in this world / means waiting for our end. Let whoever can / win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, / that will be his best and only bulwark” (lines 1386-1389). Beowulf is determined to win glory and fame through his conquests, so that after he dies his name will be immortal.
Gawain, on the other hand, serves a different cause. And the fifth of his fives was love and friendship / For other men, and freedom from sin, / And courtesy that never failed, and pity, / Greatest of knightly virtues” (lines 651-654). For him, these five listed things serve as his guidelines. This is almost completely opposite from Beowulf’s code, which is relatively self-centered when compared to Gawain’s. Again, this is because the lifestyle of a warrior of Beowulf’s time was very different from that of Gawain’s. In Beowulf’s time, “win[ning]” glory was important in spreading one’s fame as a strong and brave leader in battle.
By Gawain’s era, however, the “Greatest of knightly virtues” defined a set of rules that corresponded to how the importance of morality had evolved since the Dark Ages. These two heroes are of a completely different scope, but the differences between them correspond to the differences in their time periods. While their respective societies both value bravery in one form or another, the criteria they set for how bravery is defined are very different.
Beowulf defines bravery as a means of achieving fame through battles, whereas Gawain sees it as a more abstract concept, enveloping honor and other “knightly virtues. These differences are a direct cause of the difference in era of the events of these poems. In Beowulf’s time, warfare was the only known way of life, which led to achievements in battle being more valued than anything else. By Gawain’s era, feudalism had brought around the chivalric way of thinking, which involved doing good for the sake of good, as opposed to doing good for the sake of fame. These differences in thought directly caused the different sets of values that defined a hero.