So You Want to be a Hero Essay

So You Want to be a Hero Essay

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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)[1]. 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 Christi...


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...d these tribes' cosmic perception: an over-arching order to the cosmos now existed, created eternal by an eternal being, above any piddling systems men could create. This apocalyptic safety net thus removed the burden of fending off the e'er encroaching entropy, and provided a set of new, absolute criteria for virtue and heroism.

Notes

1: If read as satirical, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes on a new flavor. The descriptions remain the same, however; only the author's intention changes. All Gawain citations are from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Marie Borroff, © 1967 by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc, New York and London.

2: All Beowulf quotes are taken from Beowulf, translated by Burton Raffel, © 1963 by Burton Raffel, published by Penguin Books, USA.

3: This explains why the (presumed and unrecounted - Gawain II-705-735) deeds of Sir Gawain and Beowulf appear similar but feel so different &emdash; to an non-omniscient objective viewer, a man acting charitably out of compassion for other people and a man acting charitably because God will save his (individual) soul appear to be performing the same deeds.

4: A tenet supplied by his chivalric code

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