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Comparison: The Testing Of Beowulf And Sir Gawain

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2101 words Published: 8th May 2017

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Within the epic poems Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both eponymous heroes undergo three prominent trials that define their characters and ultimately shape the rest of their lives. An emphatic theme that pervades Medieval literature is the heroic ideal of honour, bravery, chivalry, and virtue. In Old English the warrior ideal entailed achieving great honour and status through victories of arduous battles. Beowulf is arguably the most valiant hero in Old English poetry encapsulating these qualities through his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon. Moreover in Middle English, the focus shifted on to more chivalrous values of the knights of Arthur’s beautified court, such as virtue and chastity. The very ideals Sir Gawain is tried for in his confrontations with the Green Knight, the lady of Bertilac’s castle and the Green Knight once more in the Green chapel. This essay will explore the similarities and differences between each trial of these heroes, as the reader witnesses these necessary tests in order for Beowulf and Sir Gawain to prove their ultimate valour.

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Following this disturbing depiction of Grendel, the reader is horrified that Beowulf must endure this lethal beast; facing his death. However H.L Rogers argues that Beowulf is “at the centre of the story himself… against odds; undaunted by death.’ [3] Although the reader is aware it is impossible for Beowulf to die at his first trial, they are indulged in their fears of their warrior’s fate. Against Grendel Beowulf uses neither weapons nor armour to shield himself, again reiterating his military prowess, and solely relies on his physical human strength to combat the ‘satanic’ fiend; it is almost as if Beowulf is not human himself. To the reader this is arguably the most honourable form of battle; Beowulf’s valiance terminates Grendel’s foreshadowed death. Tolkien argues that ‘men, each man and all men, and their works shall die.’ [4] What he fails to recognise, is that with Beowulf’s trials, his legacy remains an eternal source of glory for him, even after his death at the final trial. The nature of this test is very brutal. Beowulf violently tears Grendel’s arm from his body using only brute strength, thus this battle is the faultless introductory test for Beowulf.

On the other hand, Ad Putter argues that this Arthurian romance is a ‘curiously a blend of realism and moral seriousness on the one hand, and marvel and fantasy on the other.’ [5] As Arthur and his knights celebrate Christmas a supernatural Green Knight announces his presence and challenges a brave to play a ‘crystemas gomen’ [6] (line 283), Christmas game of beheading one another with a 45 inch axe. The fantasy lies with the bewildering description of the green knight, not only is the knight depicted in green but his ability to pick up his severed head and speak adds to the fantastical marvel of the plot. However there are stark contrasts between Sir Gawain’s trial and Beowulf’s. Firstly Gawain is provoked to fight, to defend Arthur’s honour, by a visitor to Camelot sarcastically thundering:

‘What, is þis Arþures hous… þat al þe rous rennes of þruȝ ryalmes so mony?’ (lines 309 -10)

[What! Is this Arthur’s house? About which tales run through so many realms?]

In contrast, Beowulf intentionally pursues Grendel to glorify his stature. Secondly, as the knight paradoxically calls Gawain’s test a ‘game’ it is in fact a death inflicting beheading that transcends into a binding legal contract. The lexical choice of ‘gomen’ connotes that death is merely playtime for this knight. Beowulf’s fight with Grendel was out of necessity as Hrothgar’s kingdom was under siege with countless warriors dying at Grendel’s appetite. However the Gawain-poet deceptively masquerades the ‘moral seriousness’ of this seemingly futile beheading game till the final fitt of this poem.

Both Beowulf and Sir Gawain are next tried by women, however once again Beowulf endures a physically arduous and bloody battle with Grendel’s mother avenging her dead son. Conversely Gawain is sexually tempted by Lord Bertilac’s wife, demure with medieval beauty, which nearly leads to his undoing.

The second trial proves more vigorous for Beowulf as he swims for approximately a day to reach the ‘ælwihta eard’ [alien creatures’ abode] (line 1500), dressed in his adorned armour. The Beowulf-poet illustrates Beowulf in such a way that it seems nigh impossible for this noble hero to be defeated, particularly after his proud boasts preceding each battle. However Grendel’s mother, despite being female, is able to fiercely attack Beowulf debilitating him into arguably a ragdoll and finally sitting upon him. Critics argues that at this point a convolute sexual attraction lingers between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, however it is unequivocal that Beowulf is in undeniable danger as she aims for his shoulder echoing the death of her son. The supposed immortal is now fallible; as he struggles to overcome Grendel’s mother the battle-sword.

Despite this, momentarily the Beowulf-poet personifies Beowulf’s sword, it becomes human, independent of Beowulf; with its own separate identity it attacks and finally kills Grendel’s mother:

‘hondgemota, helm oft gescær,

Fæges fydhrægl ða wæs forma’ (lines 1526-27)

[Hand encounters had cut through the doomed one’s war garments]

Whereas previously Beowulf required no assistance from weaponry or armour, it is now evident that he would not have been able to succeed in his second trial. Rogers argues that despite this ‘female monster was weaker that her son, Beowulf had a more desperate struggle to overcome her.’ [7] Ironically the reader feels a sense of sympathy for for this antagonist, she did not attack Hrothgar’s court unprovoked, she is not merely a satanic descendant of Cain, but a maternal figure mourning and grieving the death of her ‘āngan eaferan’ [only son] (line 1547).

However Sir Gawain’s testing was of seduction, emotional manipulation and his virtue. While Gawain enjoys a brief interlude before the final confrontation with the Green Knight, he is cornered in his bedroom by Bertilac’s wife attempting to lustfully attempting to seduce him. Spearing argues that ‘there can surely be no doubt that here it is Gawain’s chastity that is being tested.’ [8] From this quotation it is evident that in Middle English’s chivalric heroic, the knight had to be tested through romance in order to prove his pure virtue; contradicting Beowulf, where no love interest is ever present, his testing was of valour.

The lady of the castle visits his bedroom three times whilst he r husband is hunting, fulfilling his promise to Gawain. The first day, the nameless female, like Grendel’s mother, manages to kiss Gawain, the second day the same again, twice failing to lure him to become her sexual lover. His fear was embedded in that he should not sin against God, rather than disrespect his loyalty to his host:

‘He cared for his cortaysye, lest craþayn he were,

And more for his meschef, ȝif he should make synne’ (lines 1773-74)

However on the third day despite her rebuking Gawain’s manners for rejecting her, he only accepts a green girdle that will protect him from any harm. With the Green Knight in mind, he fails to exchange his winnings with Lord Bertilac as part of their exchange game; breaking his promise. Although Gawain successfully repels sexual advances he fails in the test of ‘trawþe’ [truthfulness]. Like Beowulf, sir Gawain falls weak at his second trial. Ironically the females that are belittled through the lack of identity, act as the heroes most strenuous thus far, forcing the reader to expect their downfall. Another variation between the second trials is that the reader does not evoke sympathy for the Lady of the castle, but rather, for Gawain as he is pushed ever closer to the destruction of his ‘trawþe’. Unfortunately, in the retaining her girdle, he does and the plot sharply entangles Gawain in a web of deceit.

The third and final test of Beowulf and Gawain, the pinnacle climax of each poem, is where they both face their death. Beowulf senses his own death preceding the battle with the dragon; likewise, Gawain before confronting the Green Knight once more in the chapel.

Although fifty years older as he faces his final test, Beowulf is not decrepit. Despite this, his armour failed to protect him and all but one thane- Wiglaf- fled in cowardice. All his assistance arguably repudiates Beowulf. In attempting to win the cursed treasure the protected for centuries the dragon:

‘… heals ealne ymbefeng

Biteran banum,’ (lines 2691- 92)

[Clenched his entire neck between sharp tusks]

Tolkien describes that the evil side of heroic is ‘malice, greed and destruction’ [9] , however this must be refuted as the noble, honourable Beowulf is presented throughout his life as a valiant leader loyal to his Lords and Later his people. It is not greed that consumes him in the end. William Lawrence argues that ‘a great slayer of trolls… ought not to die in his bed, tamely, but in glorious combat with a worthy foe.’ [10] Just as the dragon is the perfect end for Beowulf, Grendel was his perfect beginning.

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Gawain’s final testing is when he awaits the green Knight’s retaliatory blow, expecting his death. In concealing the girdle from Bertilac, his dishonesty awards him a minute cut upon his neck; paralleling Beowulf’s neck injury also. At this point Gawain flinches in fear, dissimilar to Beowulf who was always steadfast, and the moment of retrospective illumination arrives as the Knight reveals himself to be Lord Bertilac. The warfare present in Sir Gawain is psychological, discordant from Beowulf which is always physical. The moral of Gawain’s final testing is that ‘trawþe’ is a virtue that should encapsulate any noble knight. Whilst Beowulf dies, he is honoured for his preeminent valour that reverberates throughout Old English literature. Sir Gawain on the other hand, sins, repents, and in turn the object of his downfall, the girdle, ironically becomes the symbol of his renowned fame as the courteous knight in Middle English.

In conclusion Beowulf the epic poem terminates as it should, with the apotheosis of Beowulf. Tolkien argues that ‘Beowulf is in fact not an epic; it is in fact a heroic-elegiac poem.’ [11] This is a valid argument; after Beowulf’s turmoil throughout his fictional life, this poem was written in dedication to his memory of triumphant deeds. With Sir Gawain Putter claims that ‘without human truthfulness social relations are as volatile as human desires.’ [12] The crux of both these poems is that after physical and psychological testing, Beowulf and Gawain rise as the ultimate infallible heroes of Medieval Literature.

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