Tonight in the Thunderdome: Beowulf vs. Sir Gawain

A dreary academic trudge through the motions of comparative literature.  Written in 12th grade English class.

Traditions, beliefs, and images are closely associated with the time period in which they exist.  The Old English and Middle English time periods contained within them many varying conceptions and customs that can be perceived and contrasted.  The common idea of a hero is an important ideal to be maintained in any period, and in the Old and Middle English periods, when storytellers were one of the few means of entertainment, heroes figured quite prominently in the collective imagination of the time.  During the Old English era, the masses were captivated by the epic poem Beowulf, in which the Old English heroic ideals were displayed by the warrior Beowulf in his battles with various monsters that threatened citizens in several countries.  The people of the Middle English period idolized the chaste and chivalrous figure of Sir Gawain in stories such as "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight".  The figures prominent in the stories popular in each time personify the ideal image of a hero.  However, the passage of time from the Old to the Middle English eras wrought certain changes in generally held beliefs and traditions, and the ideal image of a hero changed as well.
One of the ways in which the heroic ideals of the Old and Middle English periods differed was in the level of pride and personal conduct envisioned.  Heroes of the Old English period earned their fame from bragging about past successes in battle.  Old English heroes had no minstrels to tell the stories of heroic deeds, so the heroes were forced to spread the word themselves.  These stories also acted as a resume when the hero came before a foreign liege, explaining the hero’s background and level of achievement.  This is evident in Beowulf, when Beowulf offers his services to King Hrothgar.  Old English heroes were also stoic in their manner, and their stoicity lent them an air of coldness and iciness.  The Middle English, however, had a different kind of hero in mind.  The Middle English hero was, in most cases, a knight, and was therefore bound to the rules of chivalry.  Chivalry was a system of manners and behaviors that dictated the lives of English knights of the era.  Since most Medieval knights lived by these rules, certain assumptions can be made about their character.  One of the knight’s primary responsibilities was to aid women in need of assistance.  Chivalry also required a knight to be modest, and modesty presents the principle difference in attitude between the Old and Middle English hero.  Middle English heroes were extremely humble, and preferred to let their actions speak rather than report on their accomplishments.  Medieval heroes were also a passionate breed, fighting, loving, and speaking with their hearts.  Chivalry taught the knights to be as compassionate on the battlefield as they were valorous.  Differences in conduct differentiated the Old and Middle English  idea of a hero.
Another more important difference between the Old and Middle English hero was the factor of religion.  The Old English people were pagans, believing in several gods, the chiefest of which was the goddess of Fate, Wyrd.  Naturally, the Old English hero was a pagan and a fatalist, and this fatalism contributed to his stoicity.  The hero was often helped by several of the gods during his quest.  For example, the gods gave Beowulf the strength and stamina to remain underwater for several hours as he attempted to reach Grendel’s mother’s lair.  Though religion played a smaller part in the lives of the Old English people, their heroes still maintained the pagan philosophy.  The Middle English, however, were quite Christian.  After William of Normandy’s invasion, Christianity established quite a foothold on Britain.  The English people became devout Christians almost as a whole, and their Christianity was reflected in their legends.  The Middle English hero, such as Sir Gawain, was not only chivalrous but was also thoroughly religious.  Before venturing off to encounter the Green Knight, Gawain “sleeps, eats, and prays.”  This phrase represents the Middle English ideology that religion should be integrated into the everyday life of all Christian people.  To varying degrees, religion played an important role in the legends of the Old and Middle English people, and this provides a point of contrast between them.
The most important point of contrast between the Old and Middle English heroic ideal was the hero’s reasons for fighting.  The Old English hero fought because he had perceived a need for his services and had established the practicality of his entering the contest.  This era’s hero was also very loyal to his king or tribal leader, and would fight when commanded by his superior.  Most importantly, during the Old English period, heroism was determined by the way one dealt with Fate, so a hero would fight to prove that Fate could be handled.  Middle English heroes had different reasons for fighting.  Probably most importantly, Medieval heroes fought for and in the name of God.  They used their religion as an open ticket to defend their way of life against other peoples.  Also, knights were required by chivalry to fight under certain circumstances, such as to defend the defenseless or to protect a lady.  Medieval heroes also fought to win the attention of particular women whom they wished to impress.  Chiefly, Middle English heroes fought because their victories, when combined with their perceived piety, determined their status in the feudal hierarchy.  The knight was always striving to ascend the ranks of the system, so this impetus urged him on in battle.  The motivation to fight furnishes the most important contrast between the Old and Middle English concept of a hero.
The idea of a hero changed in the time between the Old and Middle English periods.  This change is probably due to the social, political, and religious changes occurring around the same time.  However, both time periods offer insightful peeks into the heroic ideal through the tales and legends of each era.  The two most prominent pieces of literature from these periods, Beowulf and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", respectively, display quite adequately how the heroic ideal change through the passage of time.

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