Human Heroes in Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Faerie Queen


Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Faerie Queen are each literary works possessing a clearly defined, heroic protagonist. In each case, he is plainly a human being, and not a flat mythological figure. He is imperfect in some way, making him a sympathetic character, but he is not at all tragic, in that he does triumph, or at least return to normalcy.

While Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes place over the period of a little over a year, and book one of The Faerie Queen over an indefinite yet similarly brief period of time, Beowulf follows its hero from his youth to his death. However, the single greatest chronological interval in the story is covered in the space of a few, unregarded lines-
Beowulf ruled in Geatland,
Took the throne he’d refused, once,
And held it long and well. He was old
With years and wisdom, fifty winters
A king, when a dragon awoke from its darkness…(92)
In this way, the Anglo-Saxon poet reciting Beowulf makes his work one of a protagonist’s evolution, while still primarily focusing on the dramatic high points of Beowulf’s battles with monsters (and so keeping his audiences attention). The evolution of the character (not his strict chronological aging) is subtle- apparently the main goal of this poem was to enthrall its hearers with tales of adventure- but after a close reading it is apparent that Beowulf is a universal story of life’s journey from adolescence to adulthood to old age. The hero grows in wisdom about self and about the world through the pain and triumph of personal experience, that is, his encounters with the Sea Monsters, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. Any deeds of his not directly related to those are passed over summarily.
Beowulf starts out young and brash, crossing an ocean in order to fight for another king, for no reason other than to attain honor. It is true that, to his society, “fame after death/ Is the noblest of goals,” (67) an opinion that Beowulf retains throughout his life, so that his pursuit of honor is acceptable. But he does change in the extent to which he is willing to disregard the advice of his elders (until eventually he is an elder himself). Before his journey to Herot, Beowulf had undertaken another task, which is remembered by the resentful Unferth:
You’re Beowulf, are you- the same
Boastful fool who fought a swimming
Match with Brecca, both of you daring
And young and proud, exploring the deepest
Seas, risking your lives for no reason
But the danger? All older and wiser heads warned you
Not to, but no one could check such pride (39).
This is in contrast to Beowulf’s expedition against Grendel. For whatever reason,
Of the wise ones regretted his going, much
As he was loved by the Geats: the omens were good,
And they urged the adventure on (29).
Apparently, Beowulf had had enough of ‘foolhardy’ adventure. His second exploit was no different from the first- to our eyes perilous and unnecessary- but it was officially sanctioned.
Next, we see Beowulf acquire responsibility. Whereas previously, in his journey from his “far-off home” (29) to fight Grendel, he showed an ability to ‘get up and go’ whenever he felt like it, in his battle with Grendel’s mother he shows a recognition of a requirement to at least finish a job that he has started. That is, he had resolved to save Herot, and had killed Grendel, but immediately thereafter Grendel’s mother threatens that hall. Beowulf’s response to Grendel’s murder of Esher may be insensitive but it is strong and mature: he immediately decides to go after her, “let your sorrow end! it is better for us all/ to avenge our friends, not mourn them forever” (67). And this time, he pledges himself with a stated promise- “I promise you this…” (67). In a society so obsessed with honor, there can be no greater bind than a man’s word.
Additionally, Beowulf views on fate versus free will evolve. Anglo-Saxon society, like any but the most simplistic society, is fundamentally ambivalent in its view on this subject. It places a premium on heroics and initiative, and yet it is newly Christian and devout in its devotion to God. It would seem that God himself, to the author of Beowulf, was flexible (a view that conforms with the fact that his society was one that had recently made the transition from their long tradition of paganism into a new dogma of Christianity, so that the latter religion was then steeped in the former). In Beowulf’s first address to Hrothgar, he resolutely declares, “Fate will unwind as it must!” (37). And at this point, God reacts to Beowulf’s dependence by fighting for him. When Grendel fights Beowulf, “Now he (Grendel) discovered…what it meant to feud with Almighty God”. Physically, Grendel was fighting Beowulf, but the verse indicates that Beowulf was in fact a messenger of God, that God was fighting through Beowulf. But later, when Beowulf recounts his fight with Grendel’s mother, he says that “God/ Gives guidance to those who can find it from no one/ Else” (75). So, he sees God as having guided him in that fight, but not as having done the work for him.
Later (after a span of years leaped over by the poem), Beowulf is an old king. The responsibility he had begun to develop in his fight with Grendel’s mother has reached its most mature state. In fact, the poem states that after returning from Herot he “took the throne he’d refused, once” (92), the throne he had not been adult enough to accept previously but which he currently was. As king of Geatland, Beowulf did not have the option of abandoning his people for adventure in foreign lands, but he was obligated to defend them against enemies at home. And when Geatland is threatened by a dragon, in the course of Beowulf’s battle against him, he makes no mention of requesting God’s assistance. And the poem makes no mention of God’s assisting him. It is his thane Wiglaf who joins him, and who helps him slay the dragon. This parallels one model of a ‘typical’ human life, at least one of a thinking person who undergoes peril and undertakes huge efforts of his or her own, in it’s progression from an idealistic assumption of divine intervention to a world-worn dependence on human strength. What is interesting is the way Beowulf’s world mirrors his expectations.

Sir Gawain, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by virtue of having been knighted by King Arthur, can be assumed to be a valiant and chivalrous character. In fact, the poet describes him as “faithful in five and five-fold, for pure was he as gold, void of all villainy and endowed with all virtues”, as symbolized by the pentangle on his shield. This is a given of the poem, as opposed to something that Gawain acquires in the course of it. In the poem’s very first scene Gawain rises, already a character in perfect accordance with the chivalric code, and defends the honor of his liege lord, King Arthur: “I beseech ye, my lord, let this venture be mine…I am the weakest, I wot, and the feeblest of wit, and it will be the less loss of my life if ye seek sooth”. We see on his part self-effacement so contrary to the self-aggrandizement valued by Beowulf’s society, and yet both traits are ideals that the respective heroes pursue throughout their lives.
According to the Green Knight, Arthur’s knights are “beardless children”, and he will only sport with them, not fight them. While this would appear to be a cruel taunt, it has an additional subtext, one of innocence. In essence, a medieval knight’s whole world is one of sport- physical and societal jousting for claim to the most perfect harmony with chivalry- whereas, as a true messenger of the mysterious supernatural, the Green Knight is tainted with real strife. And yet he bears no malice- “my folk love thee, and I wish thee as well as any man on earth, by my faith, for thy true dealing"- one could even say his goal is to sustain Sir Gawain’s state of child-like innocence. This message is made clear in the poem’s closing lines
Many a venture herebefore
Hath fallen such as this:
May He that bare the crown of thorn
Bring us unto His bliss.
The indication is that one is brought closer to the presence of Jesus Christ by a venture such as Sir Gawain’s, by a temptation such as the one that he underwent at the hands of the Green Knight.
The first part of Sir Gawain’s test required him to reject the advances of Lady Bertilak while avoiding un-chivalry: “he could neither take her love, nor frankly refuse it. He cared for his courtesy, lest he be deemed churlish, and yet more for his honour lest he be traitor to his host.” This test he passed, “with courteous words did he set aside all the special speeches that came from her lips.” In rising above this enticement with the courtesy (a vital component of which is self-effacement) required of him he called upon reserves of virtue that he may not have known he had. The second part of the test required him to faithfully play the ‘exchange of winnings game’, and give to his host everything that he had received at the castle. But, in accepting the magically protective green girdle from Lady Bertilak and resolving not to return it to Lord Bertilak, he failed this trial.
…she pressed the girdle on him and prayed him to take it, and he granted her prayer, and she gave it him with good will, and besought him for her sake never to reveal it but to hide it loyally from her lord; and the knight agreed that never should any man know it, save they two alone.
And yet, after the Green Knight has cut Sir Gawain with his ax, he says to him,
…thou hast made such free confession of thy misdeeds, and hast so borne the penance of mine axe edge, that I hold thee absolved from that sin, and purged as clean as if thou hadst never sinned since thou wast born.
It is the author’s view that virtue is best kept keen through tests both won and failed, as a failed test brings on divine punishment, and divine punishment serves as penance and stirs the sinner to realization and confession of his sins. This is evidenced by the fact that the Green Knight urges Sir Gawain to keep the green girdle through which he had sinned. As a reminder of his failure it will keep him far from sin in the future. Not only that, but upon Sir Gawain’s return to King Arthur’s court, “all made accord that the lords and the ladies who belonged to the Round Table, each hero among them, should wear bound about him a baldric of bright green for the sake of Sir Gawain”. In this way the token of shame- of “the cowardice and covetousness in which I was caught”- is transformed into a badge of honor- “and he who ware it was honoured the more thereafter”.

Moreso than either of the above works, The Faerie Queen is devoted to its hero’s spiritual evolution. According to Spenser’s introduction, “A Letter of the Authors”
In the beginning of the feast, there presented him selfe a tall clownishe younge man, who falling before the Queen of Faries desired a boon (as the manner then was) which during that feast she might not refuse, which was the hee might have the atchievement of any adventure…
This is the same rustic young man who by 10:61 is designated Saint George, the patron Saint of England, having achieved total holiness in a radical advancement.
In the beginning of his going about the adventure that he undertakes, the rescue of Una’s parents, Redcrosse Knight demonstrates characteristic qualities of youth and inexperience. He is proud and brash, and, in addition, only recently knighted (by the Faerie Queen, upon Una’s request for a knight to take up her cause; “A Letter of the Authors”). In the very first scene of the poem proper he displays these traits:
(Una says:) wisdome warnes, whilest foot is in the gate,
To stay the steppe, ere forced to retrate.
This is the wandring wood, this Errours den,
A monster vile, whom God and man does hate:
Therefore I read beware. Fly fly, quoth then
The fearefull Dwarfe, this is no place for living men.

But full of fire and greedy hardiment,
The youthfull knight could not for ought be staide,
But forth unto the darksome hole he went…(1:13, 14)
Ignoring the warnings of both Una and the dwarf (who represents reasonable thought), he plunges headlong into unnecessary danger, and only barely escapes, thanks only to Una’s encouragement. The lines above clearly indicate that this is a result of his youthful boldness. He also possesses a proud illusion of his own righteousness, stating that “vertue giues her selfe light, through darkenesse for to wade” (1:12) before he charges into the wood.
Later, Redcrosse Knight leaves Una for Duessa. The poem directly associates this changeability with youth, and moralistically warns the reader to be more faithful than its protagonist:
Young knight, what ever that dost armes professe,
And through long labours huntest after fame,
Beware of fraud, beware of ficklenesse,
In choice, and change of thy deare loved Dame,
Least thou of her beleeve too lightly blame,
And rash misweening doe thy hart remove:
For unto knight there is no greater shame,
Then lightnesse and inconstancie in love;
That doth this Redcrosse knights ensample plainly prove(4:1).
It is Duessa who drags Redcrosse knight down- “To the sinful house of Pride/ Duessa guides the faithfull knight…” (1:0)- bringing him to place where every cardinal vice is prominent, as evidenced by the parade of Lucifera (the Queen of the house of Pride) and her counselors Idleness, Gluttony, Lechery, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, and Sloth in 4:17-37. The chain of events- from brash disregard of Una’s advice, to fickle abandonment of Una herself, to descent into sin- unfolds as a direct result of Redcrosse Knight’s moral youth, of his self-certainty.
Indeed, when Redcrosse Knight is redeemed, it is through the persistence of Una (and the assistance of King Arthur). He then trusts Una, following her to the house of Holiness (10:0), and erasing his previous depravity through trial and repentance. He is
Greev'd with remembrance of his wicked wayes, And prickt with anguish of his sinnes so sore (10:21)
and he torments himself in the name of penitence. It is after this process that he merits being led before the hermit Contemplation, and is pronounced Saint George (10:46-61). As Saint George, Redcrosse Knight continues on his original mission (Canto 11), and his constancy to that cause and victory within it reflect his new maturity. After the dragon is defeated, he is betrothed to Una (12:0). This, marriage, is the ultimate bond of responsibility, just as assuming the throne was for Beowulf. It binds Redcrosse Knight forever to his savior and the source of his piety.


- Raffel, Burton, trans. Beowulf. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1963
- "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", Weston, Jessie L, trans.
- Maclean, Hugh and Prescott, Anne Lake, eds. Edmund Spenser’s Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993

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