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Josh Dingmann


Brit. Lit. P.1

21 October, 2016

Of Cultures and Heroes

In a time when monsters walked the earth and heroes fought bravely for their lives, the

wills of the people rested in the works of legend. Beowulf and Sir Gawain were both heroes of

their times, doing what only they could do, and upholding what their own values. Heroes from

every culture embody the ideals that their culture upholds, and as time passes the aspects that

define a hero change. None embody this change as well as Beowulf; seeking treasure, and

unstoppable in his fury, and Sir Gawain; traveling as a humble knight, concerned only for his

honor and life.

In the anglo-Saxon culture, treasure equated to fame and power. It was acceptable, and

even rewarded to live your life with greed in your heart. Beowulf upholds his ideals by seeking

fame through impossible tasks, and the search for treasure. Beowulf meets his end fighting a

dragon, intending to take the “gold/ And everything hidden in [the dragon’s] tower” (685-686).

To succeed would mean for an increase in fame and power for Beowulf. And yet he falls, and

passes on “the golden/ Necklace from around his throat to Wiglaf” (816-817). After commanding

Wiglaf to “take what (he) leave… Lead (his) people” and to “ help them” (807-809). Wiglaf may

not have sought Beowulf’s treasure, but when Beowulf passes on his title and gold, he is

upholding the Anglo-Saxon belief that treasure is power. And much like how Beowulf sought the

treasure of the dragon for destroying the lands of the Geats. But this idea that material wealth

was above all was evident in other aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture. Such as in the system of
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wergild. Wergild was the form of man payment that the Anglo-Saxons used to demand

compensation for a wrongdoing. Much like how Beowulf “demanded” the treasure of the dragon

for destroying the lands of the geats.

But Beowulf wasn't just an embodiment of cultural ideals, He was also a beacon of hope

for a civilization of struggling people. The Anglo-Saxons were under attack from vikings, and

were unable to fight them off in their raids on towns. The vikings were burning and pillaging

whatever they chose, leaving the Anglo-Saxons in a constant state of fear. So it is not surprising

to see a belief in Beowulf, who is described as a man “hunting monsters/ Out of the ocean, and

killing them one/ By one” (156-157). An unstoppable brute who wrestles and kills a monster

with his bare hands. Beowulf is so strong it is not a stretch to say that Beowulf could fight off the

vikings himself. He is seen as hope, a hero for a people under constant assault. Being such he

was very needed to the Anglo-Saxon culture. Even if he was fictitious his story would have been

able to calm the frightened and bolster the stupid. He was the chosen hero of the Geats, and the

hero the Anglo-Saxon people pleaded for, the hero the wanted and needed to protect themselves

from the “monsters” at sea.

As compared to Sir Gawain who is a gentle knight. Sir Gawain upholds his honor above

all else even his life. He marches to a man who is sure to “murder (him)”(35), all because of a

promise. Sir Gawain is scared senseless and takes a girdle even though he was supposed to give

it to the lord. He breaks his promise for fear of his life, Gawain “[couldn't] deny [his] own

guilt”(226). Gawain confesses to his cowardice and redeems his honor, staying true to himself.

But through all the fear Gawain walks on, ever closer toward the Green Knight. The green knight

reveals that it was he who arranged for Gawain to receive the sash, and forgives Sir Gawain

because he acted out of fear. Sir Gawain is redeemed for his failure and follows the religious
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views of the Middle Ages. During Sir Gawain's time Britain was very much christian, and in so

many of the legends from that time follow the views of christianity. So to uphold that custom

Gawain would have needed to fail to live up to expectations and to be forgiven by the one he had

wronged, in this case the green knight. With that forgiveness the honor of Sir Gawain was

restored, and even increased. For he went to the Green knight, upheld his deal, and confessed his


Sir Gawain was also much more human than the all powerful Beowulf. He has

fears and weaknesses, and flaws. Most noticeable Sir Gawain falls victim to his fear and takes

the sash of the Green knight that will protect him from death,even when he knows he should give

it to the lord. The entire story describes Sir Gawain's fear in all its enormity. He was not a

fearless leader like Beowulf was, but an example to live up to. Sir Gawain is much more human.

This a product of the fact that in the middle ages the vikings have been defeated and Britain is in

relative peace. And so a symbol of hope is not as needed. Leading to heros that are human and

able to be anyone for the average person to relate to.

Sir Gawain and Beowulf are from different cultures, yet they exist in the same country.

The only things separating them is the ticking of the clock, and the culture they represent. And

they both are heros of their times, sometimes falling short (Sir Gawain), but ending up being

heroes worthy of respect. They each represent the events in history that happened to each culture.

While sharing many traits the overwhelming majority of traits are near opposing in ideals. Both

heroes are as powerful as a brick wall in ideals. They are also equally smart.