Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Defining a True Hero

Is a hero the one who decides to stand up when everyone else is only thinking about it?  Is a hero the one who retains integrity rather than give in to the world’s everyday temptations?  Is a hero the picture of courage, or an example of morals?  These are the questions that arise after reading the epic story of Beowulf by an anonymous author, and the romantic tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, also written by an anonymous author.  The stories describe two very different heroes.  Beowulf was undoubtedly a hero, but as time advanced and the world became more complicated, what constituted a hero became more shady; therefore, while he is not anything like Beowulf, Sir Gawain is also in fact a true hero.

Beowulf is a hero.  That is an undeniable fact. His heroic image stands out notably because Beowulf is what could be called an active hero while Sir Gawain plays the part of a passive hero, but still a hero nonetheless. Beowulf has one duty: he must fight and win.  If he succeeds, he is a hero; if he fails he is simply a failure (except when he fails at defeating the dragon because he has already proved himself and goes with honor, which is different from initially failing).  In the last lines of the story the author clearly acknowledges Beowulf’s overall triumph, "Telling stories of their dead king and his greatness, his glory, praising him for heroic deeds, for a life as noble as his name."

Sir Gawain on the other hand is deemed a hero but seems to lack something that Beowulf simply does not.  This is because he is a passive hero. Sir Gawain appears to be incapable and thoughtless at first, but he slowly proves himself by his subtle actions.  Sir Gawain represents loyalty along with an unclear purpose.  He must put his life before the king’s and fulfill duties that are not always demanded of him. Sir Gawain is a hero only if he can face his failures; that is not even an issue in Beowulf.  Sir Gawain demonstrates his heroism when he admits his mortality and imperfections in these lines: "I can’t deny my guilt;- My works shine none to fair!-  Give me your good will- And henceforth I’ll beware."

Of course, Sir Gawain is a passive hero because he exists in a romance, while Beowulf lives in an epic story, which revolves around its hero or heroin and their cause.  In an epic, the dominating idea is that a hero is a savior of his people.  Beowulf is the perfect example.  He arrives from a far off land with one purpose, to defeat a monster.  An epic story focuses on necessities of life, and keeps the characters’ purpose simple.  An epic hero would be described as loyal, honorable, and courageous; he fights because he must and never looks back, with full knowledge of his mortality, because the survival of his people depend on it.  Beowulf does not expect to return from the battle with the dragon but he enters the battle.  "Then Beowulf rose, still brave, still strong, and with his shield at his side, and a mail shirt on his breast, strode calmly, confidently, toward the tower, under the rocky cliffs: No coward could have walked there!"  His loyalty and courage are what set him apart from someone who merely can kill a monster.  

In a romance the idea of fighting for the people’s survival is no longer the primary focus, and the reader finds the hero fighting for his ideals rather than his people, which is certainly true in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Yet a romantic hero can be described almost like an epic one; he is loyal, honorable, and courageous.  The knight, however, must possess courtly skills and be careful not to be led into temptation by any woman.  His task can be looked upon, perhaps, as spiritual rather than physical, because the setting implies a state of peace and harmony.  The reader never reads about a part when any character truly sets out to defeat another character.  Each confrontation to Sir Gawain lies within himself, particularly

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