Role Models in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Excellence has always been a virtue revered by society. Writers throughout the ages have tried to capture the essence of excellence in their works, often in the form of a title character, who is the embodiment of perfection, encapsulating all the ideal traits necessary for one to be considered an excellent member of society. However, the standards for excellence are not universally agreed upon. On the contrary, one man's idea of excellence may very well be another's idea of mediocrity. Yet, human nature is constant enough that by analyzing different literary "heroes", one can discover the standards of excellence that are common to different peoples.
The title characters in both Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were both considered paragons of excellence by their peoples. Yet, upon close inspection of the specific actions of these characters, stark differences emerge. While Gawain is virtuous and exemplifies selflessness, Beowulf's heroism is marred by his pursuit of fame and wealth, which seems to dominate his every action. The discrepancy can be explained by a contextual analysis of both heroes. Gawain's code of chivalry emphasized perfection and thus he is flawless. Beowulf on the contrary adheres to the code of heroism, which is much less stringent on man's actions, and much more open to interpretation.
Gawain's actions reflect the social mores of 14th century England, where a good knight was expected to adhere firmly to the code of chivalry. Gawain is the model knight, gallant and valorous, not to mention a devout Christian. Gawain's superb character traits are bolstered by his status as a member of King Arthur's court. The Gawain poet writes of Camelot: "With all delights on earth they housed there together, / Saving Christ's self, the most celebrated knights,/ The loveliest ladies to live in all time, And the comeliest king to keep court."(Sir Gawain and the Green Knight lines 50-53) The comparison to Christ is significant in that although it acknowledges the inferiority of Arthur's knights to God, nevertheless the poet dares to make the comparison, thereby relating Christ, who is omniscient and infallible, to the knights, who are human beings, and by definition, capable of committing sin. Thus, one can infer that the knight's perceive themselves as earthly manifestations of God himself. With this perception comes the weighty responsibility of ensuring that the spirit of Christianity remains strong. This responsibility, along with the desire to conform to the chivalric code, is the driving force in Gawain's life.
Gawain's interactions with the Green Knight distinguish him from his fellow knights, in that he is the only one brave enough to step to the plate and confront the giant. Faced with the specter of battle with the Green Knight, Gawain rises above all to defend the honor of his good king. "Then Gawain at...