Faith-based Heroes in the Stories Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are two of the most important medieval stories from England, with Beowulf being nearly the oldest indigenous story in the literary canon. Both of these stories contain extreme elements of the Celtic cultures that proceeded Christianity in England – Beowulf has frequent mention of the pre-Christian hereditary values, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s fairy host represents a strong element of the pre-Christian supernatural. Yet with all this, Beowulf and Sir Gawain are fundamentally faith based heroes as demonstrated by moments of prayer at key points in the text, and Christian imagery that pervades both works.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the more obviously Christian of the two texts, and Sir Gawain is the obviously more faith based hero as compared to Beowulf. This makes perfect sense as the composition of Sir Gawain was long after the full Christianization of England, whereas Beowulf’s composition was relatively fresh, and the pre-Christian pagan culture was much stronger due to the timing. Sir Gawain is obviously thus the most Christian hero. His key element of Christianity comes when he prays to the Virgin Mary for guidance upon getting lost in the wood, showing his fundamental basis of faith (10). Mary rewards his faith in her, showing him the way. His faith does not remain entirely devout, however, as when he gets more and more anguished as he approaches the home of the Green Knight he does not, as he should pray to God or the Virgin for help and protection, but rather places his faith in the girdle he is given that is supposed to protect him from blows. The Green Knight, however, gives him a chance to repent for his failure and return his faith from the Girdle (17). The success that Sir Gawain achieves when placing his faith in Mary, and his failures when not, demonstrate clearly that he is a faith based hero – without faith, he is nothing.
Beowulf also demonstrates his reliance on faith at key moments throughout the story. Though Christ and other Christian figures are never mentioned by name (in fact, all the references to the bible in the text are thoroughly Old-Testament) Beowulf none the less delineates himself from the pagan world he lives in by praying to a single all powerful deity at times of need, showing his monotheistic faith. Upon deciding to leave his clan and go on the journey to help Hrothgar, a key moment in his quest, Beowulf prays to “God Almighty” to protect his family whilst he is away (Chapter IV). At another time, the poet describes the “Wielder of All” as having supreme power over the quest of Beowulf, and throughout the text Beowulf thanks God for his accomplishments (chapter XIX, XXI). Furthermore, Beowulfs greatest achievement in life is striking down Grindle, one of the spawns of “kin of Cain.” So Beowulf proves that he is a faith-based hero both by protecting his people from an Old-Testament villain, and by constantly referencing his success as being based on God’s willingness to allow him to succeed.
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight and Beowulf are two of the greatest works of literature in the English tradition. Though both works have a strong basis on the pre-Christian civilizations that inspired them (Celtic mythology in the case of Sir Gawain and Norse mythology in the case of Beowulf), both also interspersed their texts with strong references to Christianity. One of the strongest references in either of these texts comes from the heroes themselves, who prove themselves time and again to be faith-based heroes, who attribute all of their success not to their own personal prowess, however mighty they be, but to a Christian deity who they pray to when they need protection.