A Comparison of Beowulf, Sir Gawain and King Arthur as Heroes


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 Beowulf, Sir Gawain and King Arthur - Three Heroes  

The three heroes discussed here, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and King Arthur, are heroes for different reasons. Beowulf, our earliest hero, is brave but his motivation is different than then other two. To Sir Gawain personal honor and valor is what is important. King Arthur, Sir Gawain's uncle, is naturally the quintessential king of the medieval period. Though all men to a certain extent share the same qualities, some are more pronounced than in the others. It is important to see how these qualities are central to their respective stories and how it helps (or hinders) them in their journeys.

The greatest value of Beowulf is his bravery, some may say bravado. There is no doubt that he is a great warrior. Beowulf's heroism belongs to a different time than that of King Arthur or Sir Gawain. For that reason his bragging about his prowess might seem decidedly unheroic. When he tells Unferth "I count it true that I had more courage, More strength in swimming than any other man" (514-15 (41) it might be interpreted in a poor way. What he is saying though is true. In addition, in order for him to succeed he must orally deliver his resume. Nevertheless, bragging aside, Beowulf is undoubtedly a brave man. When Beowulf sets out to kill Grendel's mother he simply "donned his armor for battle, Heeded not the danger..." (1328-29 60). When his sword fails him he uses his physical strength: "On the might of his hand, as a man must do Who thinks to win in the welter of battle Enduring glory; he fears not death" (1420-23 62). Certainly he is in search of fame. Though this is true it must not discount his brave actions. He gains his fame truthfully by doing battle with menaces to society. He does not lie or manipulate to achieve fame, he uses what is rightfully his, his bravery. Beowulf's bravery differs from that of King Arthur's for several reasons. King Arthur by being king must be brave, to rule the state people must respect him. Beowulf's bravery carries the story. One because it details his ascension in fame and secondly it also outlines his downfall.

The honor of Sir Gawain is his best value, though he suffered a set-back. His honor is the catalyst for what happens through the rest of the poem.

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First Sir Gawain respectfully asks to participate in the game with the Green Knight. He feels he is the person to act in the game as he is "the weakest, the most wanting in wisdom...And my life, if lost, would be least missed, truly" (354-5 295). This surely is not true, but to Gawain the valor is necessary. It is also honorable as King Arthur had first accepted the challenge by the Green Knight. King Arthur's possible death, as head of the state, would be devastating to the community. As Gawain tells King Arthur: "this affair is too foolish to fall you" (358 295). The rules of the game are set and Gawain swears to find the Green Knight again in a year. "Here is my oath on it, in absolute honor" (403 296)! He proves his honor by setting out to find the Green Knight a year later; even though he does not know where he lives and is certain his death will come about form the meeting. The poem's main theme is Gawain's honor and it is tested. He basically keeps his honor even in the face of great temptation. As when the Lady of the house tries to seduce him. Nevertheless he falters in trying to protect his life. But he does redeem himself by admitting his duplicity to the Green Knight, and learning from his experience. Beowulf in contrast does not learn. That is why he finds himself battling a dragon in his advanced age. Gawain's honor differs from King Arthur's as I believe Gawain feels he has more to prove than King Arthur. King Arthur naturally is honorable and wise. He acts when it is necessary.

King Arthur's best value is his natural humble leadership ability. He differs from the other heroes the most because these abilities seem to be natural-born. He does not have to work at his abilities. King Arthur never purposely set out to prove his worth, as both Beowulf and Sir Gawain did. The title of his story Le Morte D'Arthur leads to an important point: King Arthur is most eloquent even in his death. While he is fatally wounded, he has the humility to wax kindly on his fallen knight: "this to me a full heavy sight, to see this noble duke die for my sake, for he would have helped me, that had more need of help than I" (454)! This quotation proves his worth, for he truly appreciates the allegiance to him. He even has patience with Sir Bedivere, who betrays his orders. It is only after Sir Bedivere twice disobeys him that King Arthur loses his patience: I shall slay thee [with] my own hands, for thou wouldst for my rich sword see me dead (455). It can be argued that Beowulf would have hacked the man apart after he first disobeyed him. King Arthur's values are important to story as he must lead the country. As King it was necessary for him to stand up to the Green Knight even if he thought it foolish. Certainly since his time, the future kings of England have had to compete with his legend.

Surely the three men described here, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and King Arthur are heroes. They hold heroic qualities such as bravery, valor and chivalry. But it is interesting to note that there greatest qualities are often their downfall. If Beowulf was less brave, most likely he would not have been fighting a dragon as an elderly person. Sir Gawain's honor is the cause for his encounter with the Green Knight. he forgets it and falls into the Green Knights trap. King Arthur's sureness in his loyalty with his knights leads Sir Bedivere to waste precious time that might have saved his life. In considering heroes it is important to remember that for as strong as the values are, if they are to be considered true heroes, they must have their faults. This should not discount from their achievements, but serve to enhance them. By showing that any person, regardless of their heroism, is a tangible human being with blemishes.


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