So You Want to be a Hero:
An Account of Heroism and Narrative Power in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Though both considered heroes, Beowulf and Sir Gawain are drastically different characters in personality, ability, and perspective. The similarities are few: each performs deeds for which they gain fame and honor, and each is seen, in their own respects, as a paragon of virtue. Two factors immediately stand out as fundamental differences between the texts: Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight suggest fundamentally disparate views of religion and of courtly manners. Superficially, Beowulf displays a distinct lack of either in any but the most rudimentary way, while Sir Gawain is completely permeated with both. These differences in the contextual worlds of the heroes shape and propel them in often wildly different directions. Beginning from these superficial differences in Beowulf and Sir Gawain's respective worlds and then analyzing how these two champions (and others) function in their contextual spheres, one can uncover the deeper structures of their social orders, who actually holds power (and narrative power) in them, and, perhaps, something about the values the cultures that produced these two works held.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes a well ordered Medieval Christian world. Christianity guides the actions of a hero's soul, courtly love those of his heart &emdash; the "most noble knights known under Christ" sat around King Arthur's round-table (Part I-line 51). Sir Gawain as a character is the perfect cog in this system, "that [knight] of courage ever-constant, and customs pure,/ Is pattern and paragon, and praised without end:/ Of all knights on earth most honored is he" (II-912-15). He is devout &emdash; he emblazoned the image of Mary on the inside of his shield &emdash; and chivalrous &emdash; his wheedling out of either affronting Lady Bercilak or betraying the trust of her Lord whilst in their company is a truly virtuoso chivalric performance.
Sir Gawain's world is an edifice built of (perhaps arbitrary) religious and chivalric codes that constrain, define and bolster its inhabitants, and Sir Gawain is its golden child. Gawain is brave, for example, not because courage is intrinsically good and thus he, as a good knight possesses it, but rather because he puts his faith in God, whom naturally no Christian can second guess. Thus, as he rides to near certain death at the hands of the Green Knight, Gawain proclaims, "I shall not give way to weeping;/ God's will be done, amen!/ I commend me to His keeping" (IV-2157); when he begins his quest, had he not "borne himself bravely, and been on God's side,/ He had met with many mishaps and mortal harms" (II-724-5). God will preserve his soul. Sir Gawain's chivalry is by the book, as well; after sparring verbally all morning with the as-yet-unnamed Lady Bercilak in a manner worthy of Andrew the Chaplain himself, she trumps him, forcing him to give her...