Heroes come in many forms, yet traits such as: courage, honor, and loyalty, reappear as themes throughout the personality of a hero. The characters of Beowulf and Sir Gawain each represent a version of a hero, yet each comes across quite differently in their respective story. A hero can be said to truly win if he remains constant to his noble values when put in any situation that crosses his way. When measured by that criteria, Sir Gawain stands out above Beowulf as a true hero, due to his command of both personal and spiritual power through the use of thought, as well as valiant deeds.
Gawain embodies many of the characteristics of the chivalric knight and hero, among them, modesty, honesty, commitment, loyalty, and courage. Although he is almost beyond reproach, he does commit a single error, accepting the lady’s green girdle. This sets him apart from Beowulf. Distraught with his sin, Sir Gawain, concerned with maintaining his reputation and image as a chivalrous knight, admits he accepted the lady’s green girdle to the host. This lie, once it is revealed, becomes the means by which the mild hubris that afflicts Gawain is exposed and also the means by which the hubris can be corrected.
This flaw completes the character of Sir Gawain, for in his humility he becomes a lasting hero. Beowulf, is quite different in this respect, written in a perfect light in the absence of any flaw. This exemplifies the superior honor of Sir Gawain over Beowulf, because he is able to confront his sin and gain virtue, while Beowulf is portrayed as void of any wrongdoing, unable to denounce any defect in his person for lack of its existence. Beowulf is indeed an epic hero and king.
What is especially interesting is that the way in which the tale is structured and narrated permits the reader to observe two different types of heroism: the heroism of youth and the heroism of an older, wiser, and more mature warrior. In his youth, the physical characteristics of heroism are emphasized. Beowulf is recalled as having performed physical feats that no other man was capable of doing, and such feats required immense reserves of courage, such as his battle with Grendel in the hall, Herot, and his journey to Grendel’s mother’s lair in he glimmering pool where he fought and defeated her. In his older age the feats of heroism are more subtle, more abstract, and one might question his decision to battle the dragon, which would ultimately result in his death. However, the code of the hero compelled Beowulf to defend his people one final time; he seemed to trust that a younger hero-warrior would rise to the occasion should death befall him, as it did. In “Beowulf,” the hero-king is faced with challenges that are both physical and moral, both threatening his life.
Like Sir Gawain, Beowulf has all the requisite characteristics of a hero and like Sir Gawain, he is invested in protecting his reputation, yet in this respect, Beowulf chose pride over being humble, which Sir Gawain emanates. Beowulf does not know when to stop fighting; even in old age he is still waging war against evil forces, this is a prime example of his selflessness, sacrificial, yet boastful personality. Sir Gawain, was also selfless when he volunteered to behead the Green Knight, sacrificial when he chose to approach the Green Knight at the end of the tale, yet he never boasted or praised himself for these accomplishments.
Sir Gawain was virtuous in his deeds, adhering to the chivalric code of earning the praise of God rather than the praise of fellow peers and subjects. Surely Beowulf and Sir Gawain are heroes. They hold heroic qualities such as bravery, valor and chivalry. But it is interesting to note that there greatest qualities are often their downfall. Beowulf, void of any downfall, was a great king and warrior, dying in his last feat of slaying a dragon.
To the contrary, Sir Gawain fell to the sway’s of women by accepting the lady’s green girdle, yet after he had heroically faced the Green Knight, he continued to wear the girdle to display his shame. However, In considering heroes it is important to remember that for as strong as the values are, if they are to be considered true heroes, they must have their faults. This should not discount from their achievements, but serve to enhance them. For this reason, Sir Gawain is more honorable than Beowulf.