Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells an exciting story of a hero challenged by a supernatural creature. However, unlike other heroes, Gawain himself has no access to mysterious powers. His only way to succeed in the challenge is to prove his integrity and honesty.
The story begins with the mystical Green Knight coming to King Arthur’s castle. He challenges the knights with a beheading game. Gawain is the only one who accepts the challenge. By doing so, he defends his king’s honor. Here is where we can draw a parallel with Beowulf. Gawain merely saves his peers from a potential embarrassment. In contrast, Beowulf’s goal is to protect the realm and win glory.
When it comes to accepting the challenges, Gawain and Beowulf demonstrate different approaches. Beowulf brags to the king about his skills. He ensures the ruler that he is capable of gaining glory. On the contrary, Gawain is extremely humble. As he tells Arthur:
“I am the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest;
and the loss of my life would be least of any.
And if I speak not courteously, let all this court rich
However, both heroes are similar in their courage and loyalty.
The most significant difference between Gawain and Beowulf is in the nature of the challenges they have to face. Both have supernatural powers as their enemies. Still, while Beowulf has to fight monsters, Gawain has to fight his own cowardice and temptation. His doubts and hesitation make him more humane than any other medieval hero. Beowulf possesses extreme strength and an ability to hold his breath underwater for hours. These abilities are crucial in his challenge. Gawain is skilled with weapons. Yet, that’s irrelevant in his trial, where his moral qualities are being tested.
Overall, Gawain appears to be a much more complex character than Beowulf. While Beowulf rests on the pedestal, Gawain constantly battles his inner demons. He proves his loyalty and courage numerous times. However, he finds it increasingly difficult to overcome his fear and temptation as the story progresses.
Eventually, Gawain falls victim to his fear and breaks his promise to the Green Knight in an attempt to save his life. The latter spares his life and allows Gawain to return to Camelot. Despite an apparent failure, Gawain gets a second chance. Beowulf, in contrast, gets punished for his audacity with death.
What ultimately makes Sir Gawain a hero is his loyalty to the code of chivalry and inner strength. He comes short of expectations. However, rather than blaming him, other knights of Camelot take a lesson from his story. Gawain’s author points out the importance of telling the truth while making his hero more relatable than Beowulf. Gawain is an under-achiever who could never exist in Beowulf’s realm, where a hero is perfect in everything he does.
Gawain was written roughly six centuries after Beowulf. The differences between the heroes reflect the changes that happened in society during the period. In times of Beowulf, military skills were valued above all. In comparison, Gawain comes from the late Middle Ages. It is the transition period to a more civilized Renaissance society. Hence the different expectations – a hero wasn’t just a warrior anymore. He/she is also a role model following the code of chivalry.