The role of the epic hero changed greatly between Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The time period each piece was written was the greatest influence on the change of how the hero was portrayed. Beowulf being written in the 8th century, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight being written in the 14th century, were very different times. Society needed different heroes during each time period, thus led to similar but very different epic heroes. Both Beowulf, and Sir Gawain are legendary epic heroes, and each deserve their place in history as two of the most epic heroes in English literature.
During the 8th century when Beowulf was written when war and battles were an everyday part of life. Citizens needed to be inspired to fight and partake in battles. It was an honor to be heroic, and those whom did heroic deeds were looked upon with greatest, which is why Beowulf was the perfect hero for that time period. Beowulf was better than every man or beast who dared face in on the battlefield with greater strength, and abilities. He never backed down from a fight no matter if death would be greeting him on the other side. Courage, strength, and being fearless were the upmost important to the hero Beowulf. He would never allow himself to faulty in any of those characteristics. Normal men feared Grendel and Gendel’s mother, but not Beowulf whom boasted with these fearless words “I meant to perform to the uttermost what your people wanted or perish in the attempt in the fiend’s clutches. And I shall fulfill that purpose, prove myself with a proud deed or meet my death here in the mead-hall” (Heaney 634-638). Beowulf enjoyed each battle while taking pride in defeating his dangerous foes. He didn’t only accept battles to defend himself, but many cases he drew his sword to defeat creatures that threatened the lives of others as seen throughout the novel. I feel Beowulf’s defining moment of courage is at the end of novel when he fights the dragon. He knows there is a better chance of death than defeating the deadly dragon, but he forges into battle fearless as he is the absolute courageous hero. He nearly dies, but still never asks for assistance even after his men as fled. Wiglaf comes to his aid without being asked “Then he waded the dangerous reek and went under arms to his lord” (Heaney 2661-2662). Beowulf was the epic hero until the end “Beowulf spoke in spite of his wounds, mortal wounds, he still spoke for he well knew his days in the world had been lived out to the end” (Heaney 2724-2727). Citizens during the time period Beowulf was written needed epic courageous heroes whom never faltered but were fearless until their death.
During the 14th century when Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was said to have been written the image of the epic hero changed slightly from the time of Beowulf. Sir Gawain in the tale was still an epic hero worth being remembered, but he was not completely fearless, nor perfect as Beowulf was as a hero. He was the hero most citizens could relate to as he had a few normal faults in addition to being the hero. People were getting more into the arts and poetry during that time period, and not completely obsessed with battle as during Beowulf’s time, so a different type of hero was needed. Sir Gawain was courageous and accepted the Green Knight’s challenge immediately “For I think it not seemly when such challenges be made in your hall that ye yourself should undertake it” (SGGK 3). Sir Gawain kept his promise and went to find the Green Knight the following year to receive his strike in order to complete the challenge. Sir Gawain falters while he is staying at the Lord’s castle. He is supposed to show the Lord what he won that day, and the Lord does the same. Sir Gawain is given a green girdle, but only presents the following “Now shall I be first to fulfill our covenant which we made together when there was no lack of wine. Then he embraced the knight and kissed him thrice” (SGGK 18). Sir Gawain was scared of what the outcome might be when he encountered the Green Knight as the green girdle was said to have protective powers, which is why he kept it to himself. Beowulf would never have kept such an item and would have met the Green Knight fearless whether it been his death or not. Sir Gawain was courageous, but not without flaws, a hero people could relate to in their daily lives. Citizens during that time looked up to those were courageous, but also who admit their flaws like Gawain did after the Green Knight accused him of taking the girdle. A true hero of the sense, but one with everyday traits as well.
Both Sir Gawain and Beowulf were epic heroes, and both will always be remembered. Each was the hero needed during their time period. Sir Gawain was identifiable among the people, while Beowulf was the ultimate warrior who would never back down, and always be courageous no matter how dangerous the enemy. Each time period will spawn the type of epic hero needed in order to inspire the people to be better and strive for more.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. Bilingual Edition. 2000.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Jessie Weston. London: David Nutt, 1898. University of Rochester. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.H