Throughout history, different cultures have held different virtues in the highest regard. The Anglo-Saxons, like the anonymous scop of the poem Beowulf, valued strength and courage over any other quality. On the other hand, the earliest English people, like the poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, respected honor and the basic codes of chivalry over all else. Both Beowulf and Sir Gawain, therefore, display the most favored qualities of their people: Beowulf by defeating monsters, performing great feats of courage, and telling of his deeds; Gawain by being loyal, brave, and honest. Both sets of qualities are displayed throughout each tale.
In Beowulf, written in about the fourth century AD, the hero’s first major test is to fight a huge monster. In doing so, he proves his physical abilities, and thus establishes his hero/ leader status. To be the best, you have to be the strongest, and he says “Fate saves/ the living when they drive away death by themselves!” (572-73), showing how much Beowulf relies on his physical strength. On the other hand, Gawain’s first test is not physical, but psychological. He is forced to prove his loyalty to Arthur, by offering his life to the Green Knight.
He does not claim to be the best, or the strongest, and in fact claims: “I am the weakest, I am aware” (part 16). Gawain is displaying his modesty, and the medieval belief that a person should be humble about himself. This displays the immediate difference between the two cultures. For the Anglo-Saxons, if you wanted people to know you’re a hero, you tell them you’re a hero. For Gawain, and the Knights of the Round Table, they must act humbler, in order to appeal to their Christian beliefs.
However, both societies do require their heroes to display some similar traits, the most common being courage. Gawain must show how brave he is by making a long and difficult journey to fulfill his oath, and die at the hands of the Green Knight. Beowulf must show his courage by fighting off large monsters, even to the last day of his life. “Why should I be dismayed? /Of doom the fair or drear/ by a man must be assayed” (24) shows how Gawain believes a hero should conduct himself, with dignity and honor. He does not believe that journeying to his death will be such a bad thing, since it will allow him to keep his honor intact. This sounds very similar to “Let me live in greatness/ and courage, or here in this hall welcome my death,” Beowulf’s concept of bravery. Beowulf believes that either he is going to win, and kill Grendel, or Grendel will win and kill him. Either way, it is up to wyrd, his Fate. The resemblance continues with the theme of generosity.
Both try their very hardest to not simply keep all their earned wealth (or lack thereof) to themselves. Beowulf, upon receiving heaping treasures from Hrothgar, promptly dispenses it among his men. He even “rewarded the boat’s watchman/ who had stayed behind, with a sword that had hammered/ gold wound on its handle,” (1901-03) showing how he treats all his men as equals. The watchman’s job, to him, was just as important as all the other warriors that actually traveled with him. Similarly, Sir Gawain tells the lord of the house that he appreciated the hospitality of the host by remarking “I would give you some guerdon gladly, were I able” (82) immediately before departing. He says this to show the host his graciousness, but also displays his generosity, displaying the similarities between the two cultures.
Finally, each has an opposite view of their importance in society. Beowulf believes that the best thing someone can do is become the most famous, and to have your name live on forever. “Fame after death/ is the noblest of goals” (lines 1388-89). For him to die in battle is the single most important thing he can do, to ensure he lives on in legend. On the other hand, Gawain thinks that he must do his part, and better the whole of Camelot. “Since this affair is so foolish that it nowise befits you,” (part 16) says that Gawain is willing to sacrifice his own life to save his king. He thinks he is the least of the Knights, and the most nonessential of them, and therefore the best candidate. Furthermore, “I would fainer fall dead than fail in my errand” (42) shows his dedication to the task he set out for. The two characters are in stark contrast between their concepts of self-worth.
As you can see, the Anglo-Saxon and early English people held widely varying notions of what a hero/ leader figure should be. For the anonymous scop that wrote Beowulf, battle, glory, and fame were paramount; to the unknown singer of Sir Gawain, honor, honesty, and loyalty to one’s country had top priority.