Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sir Gawain and Beowulf

This is actually an exercise in embarrassing myself. I've been trying to learn more about self-editing, trying to improve as a writer. Writing on the blog isn't always the best way to improve the quality of writing. When you're writing something in the blogger window, there's a tendency to write it on the fly, much like e-mail correspondence.

As an exercise in seeing how my writing has progressed, I dredged up an old essay I wrote in college comparing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Beowulf. Seemed appropriate given that Beowulf is currently a 3-D movie in the theatres, and a new translation of Sir Gawain was recently reviewed as the front article of the New York Times Book Review.

Oh, and if you're wanting an opinion, the new Sir Gawain translation is outstanding, and the best translation of Beowulf currently on the shelves in the Seamus Heaney translation.

So here you go, unedited, the essay:

A key element in many epic and romance stories in the Middle Ages was the journey. In the stories of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf, this device is used in important ways to help develop the story as a whole. The hero leaves the safety of his castle or home, and travels into the vastly unknown. This expedition into strange lands adds suspense and drama to the story, and allows for the broadening of descriptions, as well as for a broadening of our experience of the hero; but the journey presented in these two stories plays a much more fundamental role than this. The heroes' expedition into the "wilderness", or the "fen," is portrayed as a difficult and dangerous foray into encountering the "other" (that which is outside one's normal experience); and this portrayal of the wilderness reveals the writer's understanding of the "other" as a strange, fantastical place where one encounters evil.
Although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf are two distinct stories arising out of very different cultures, many of the fundamental aspects of the story are the same. First of all, most of Gawain's and Beowulf's dangerous encounters occur when they enter the wilderness, or the mere. These realms are immediately depicted as hostile and foreign (as well as physically separate and distant from the homes of Gawain and Beowulf). Even before Beowulf enters the sea to chase after Grendel's mother, Beowulf and his companions encounter "strong sea-serpents exploring the mere, and water-monsters lying on the slopes of the shore" (Beo 25). In the same way, when Gawain enters the Wilderness of Wirral, he encounters many dangers, both fantastic and mundane:

Now with serpents he wars, now with savage wolves,
Now with wild men of the woods, that watched from the rocks,
Both with bulls and with bears, and with boars besides,
And giants that came gibbering from the jagged steeps (Gawain 16).

Both of the hero's experience things so bizarre that they are only describable in fantastic terms, and the realms they enter are portrayed as wild and untamed. Gawain and Beowulf are unable to reconcile these strange experiences with their own world view, and so they are described as evil realms that contain monsters that "fight [they] must" (Gawain 16).
Not only do Gawain and Beowulf venture into lands wild and magical, but they go completely alone. The Pearl Poet emphasizes this fact repeatedly, stating that "all alone must [Gawain] lodge through many a long night," and later, "far off from all his friends, forlorn must he ride" (Gawain 15). Beowulf, as well, is the only thane brave enough to enter the "warring waves, to engage his courage" (Beowulf 26). The other thanes will loan him "Hrunting... one of the oldest ancient treasures" (Beowulf 26), but the thanes could only go that far. Doing battle in monster infested seas was left to Beowulf. The fact that Beowulf and Gawain enter the wilderness alone makes the "otherness" of the hero's surroundings even more profound. There is nothing familiar for them to connect with, no safe haven in the companionship of friends.
Even though the hero's enter the wilderness environment completely alone, they do not go unprepared. Interestingly, the authors of both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf vividly describe how Gawain and Beowulf dress before they leave the familiar environment and enter the foreign. In fact, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the most descriptive sections of the book occurs when he is putting on his armor before he leaves Arthur's court.

Then they set the steel shoes on his sturdy feet
And clad his calves about with comely greaves,
And plate well-polished protected his knees...
And massy chain-mail of many a steel ring
He bore on his body, above the best cloth (Gawain 13).

Gawain is not only well armored, but extravagantly so.

All bound and embroidered with the best gems
On broad bands of silk, and bordered with birds,
Parrots and popinjays preening their wings...
The diadem costlier yet
That crowned that comely sire,
With diamonds richly set,
That flashed as if on fire (Gawain 13).

It is apparent that Gawain's suit of armor is very important as preparation for his journey. But Gawain's preparations go beyond simply dressing for battle. "So armored as he was, he heard a mass, honored God humbly at the high altar... takes his leave at last of lords and ladies" (Gawain 13). Not only does he prepare physically for his journey, but also spiritually and mentally, making his peace with God and friends. Beowulf, as well, prepares for his descent into the sea. In an especially descriptive section of the text, the Beowulf author writes, "his war-shirt, hand-fashioned, broad and well-worked, was to explore the mere... the bright helmet guarded his head... made rich with gold, surrounded with splendid bands" (Beowulf 26). Beowulf dresses in expensive and "well-worked" armor, and understandably so, for he fights that which is outside his normal experience; and like Gawain, Beowulf says good-bye to the "ring-giver," and his fellow thanes, before he descends into the mere.
How, then, are we to perceive the author's purpose in so eloquently describing the hero's preparation for, and entrance into, the wilderness, the mere? First, traveling in such a hostile environment is only for the most able, the most brave, the strongest, and the smartest heroes. By portraying the "other" as a place of danger, the place where evil is to be found and confronted, the author sets up an opposition that makes the hero look extremely good, extraordinarily brave, and profoundly strong. We have no doubt by the end of the encounter that the hero is very capable. Secondly, there is a contrast set up between the community (the one to which Beowulf and Gawain belongs) and the wilderness, or mere. This contrast sheds further light on the community of the heroes, and we are able to learn what the author values as good, as important, as central to the community.
Furthermore, a contrast is set up by the author between the world of the heroes (the chivalrous court of King Arthur, and the honorable thanes and their ring-giver) and the world of the antagonist (Grendel's mother in the mere, her underwater abode, and the Green Knight in the Wilderness of Wirral at the green chapel). The contrast is not just one between good and evil, familiar and unfamiliar. There is an additional contrast between two actual, tangible physical locations. The heroes must actually travel to the antagonist. In this way, a much more defined difference between the two realms is created. By magnifying the distinction between the community and the "other," the authors are better able to stereotype one side as good and the other as evil.
The authors of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then, make the distinctions between good and evil by pointing out the distinctions between the community of the hero and the "other." Beowulf and Gawain are "pushing back the darkness," as it were, by attacking it head on. In contrast to today's exploration of the "other," through scientific inquiry, anthropology, and philosophy, Beowulf and Gawain choose to fight. Certainly, there is very little attempt made at understanding the "other." Instead, both stories belie a culture steeped in retribution, where an honorable and worthy knight exchanges death blows with a complete stranger, and a strong and famous thane kills a son and mother in a continuing chain of retribution for friends slain.

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