A Comparison of Perfection in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Perfection in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The heroes of both Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are fighters. However, the traits they have in common are far less numerous than those that set them apart. As each of the two is dubbed perfect by his contemporaries, it should be possible to draw the picture of both the model warrior and the paragon knight by comparing Beowulf and Gawain.

The first question to arise is that of leadership. In Beowulf, the hero is referred to as "prince"*, the "helmet-of-Weders"**, or "master-friend"***. This is not without reason: in the times of the epic, might did literally make right. Therefore, he who was to be an accomplished warrior had to display a leader s qualities as well as combat prowess. As for the knights, they had their appointed ruler, king Arthur, and none thought of challenging him. Neither did any of the knights distinguish himself as a general; all their exploits were done single-handedly.

Now, let us focus on combat. Beowulf fights a great many battles during his life, and while some of these are only briefly mentioned (the famous sea-monsters, for instance), the really titanic ones are described fully and with abundance of detail. The clash between the Geats and Grendel may serve as an example here:

" Now many an earl

of Beowulf brandished blade ancestral,

( ) The outlaw dire

Took mortal hurt "*

And so it continues for fifty-one verses. And this is but one of the heroe s armed encounters! Clearly, one has to fight much to be a great warrior The matter is quite different when it comes to knights. While Gawain's skill with sword and lance is highly praised throughout the poem, his battles are only hinted at as...

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...e himself notices, "nothing is said of Beowulf's wife in the poem, but Bugge surmises that Beowulf finally accepted Hygd's offer of kingdom and hoard, and, as was usual, took her into the bargain"*** - which reflects the lack of concern a true warrior should show when dealing with women.

There is, however, a trait common to the warrior and the knight: the two have a set of rules they should obey. And though the regulations that force Beowulf to come to Hrothgar's help are not nearly as neatly organised as Gawain's chivalric code embodied in the "pentangle"****, the idea of being compelled to act in a way dictated by generally accepted rules appears in both poems.

We have thereby drawn the pictures of the ideal men of two different ages, and proved in the process how much the notion of perfection has changed from Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
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