The epic poem Beowulf and the Arthurian romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are enduring works which continue to enthrall us today with their stories of brave heroes who sometimes exhibit superhuman powers. What is the appeal and importance of these works–what makes it worth sorting out and sometimes slogging through the challenging diction of these classic tales, today?
In order to grasp the entire picture, we need to understand the context of Beowulf. The hero of this story (think “Viking”) is a figure who straddles the period between pagan and Christian somewhere around 500 A.D. and the tale is set in the Nordic countries of Sweden and Denmark. The unknown author was British, possibly a monk, and probably wrote the work c. 900. Some scholars see the epic poem as a pagan story, based on the elements of the bloodlust and boasting incorporated in some scenes. Others see the poem as Christian, given the analogies made to biblical stories, and the incidents of humility which Beowulf and other characters attempt to exhibit in the midst of their tests and triumphs.
Because the story is “transitional” in time and nature, it presents the reader with an understanding of the cultural/religious changes which occurred in the west during this early medieval period. In Beowulf, the evil monster, Grendel, traces his lineage back to Cain, the first murderer, chronicled in the book of Genesis. And the dragon which our hero battles in the end may be more than just an outward evil, but perhaps also represents personal sins such as greed and envy.
In contrasting Beowulf to classical works such as The Odyssey, the shift in values becomes clear: while ancient heroes must seek kleos (glory), the heroes of medieval stories must strive towards the Christian virtues such as humility, chastity, and self-sacrifice. Since Beowulf straddles the two worlds, the story displays the contrasts and conflicts between the two cultures, and the ways in which Western culture was entering into the Christian ethic.
In the later medieval poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the Christian ethos is pushed further, as Gawain must learn that striving towards the virtues a knight has vowed to embody is not enough. As Gawain experiences powerful temptations and tests (magically induced by the evil Morgan le Fey), both he and the reader learn that while he may strive for perfection, he cannot accomplish this only through his own personal strength and will. Rather, the knight must rely on the power of God as he turns in to Him in humility after learning that he is in need of heavenly support, no matter how sincere his intentions.
These enduring tales of heroes and knights give insight into the culture, religion, and psyche which formed our literary tradition, and provide the background for how audiences even today long for icons to emulate. The yearning for the “super” character continues today, as anyone who goes to the movies knows. Everyone loves a hero!
~ Cindy C. Lange, MA
~Check out our courses where we teach these classic works and others at integritasacademy.com