Beowulf and Sir Gawain - Loyalty

Reads: 1925  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
A look upon the theme of Loyalty in the usage of old english epics.

Submitted: July 11, 2011

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 11, 2011



In the beginning of the exquisite history of English literature, such as in the lengthy and brutal epic poems heard from the bard-like Scoops of Anglo Saxony, to the Feudalistic and Catholic Church influenced writings of Chaucer’s tales and the mythological stories of Arthurian Legend, Loyalty has played a key role in the shaping of these fictional worlds and what occurred in them, as in the life and times that they were written about to reflect. Early English literature first recorded by the Anglo-Saxons tells the story of “Beowulf,” the classic tragic hero. The medieval writings of Geoffrey Chaucer and the

“Canterbury Tales” that tells of a pilgrim band and their attempts to amuse one another with story-telling, and Gallic mythology brought to life with Thomas Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”


 The first true literary breakthroughs came by the way of Britain before 300 A.D. from the Anglo-Saxons, who themselves were not native to the isles, but another group of invaders that seemingly integrated with the Woads of Britain. “The early invaders were seafaring wanderers shoes live were bleak, violent, and short… As the Anglo-Saxons settled into their new, however, they became an agricultural people- less violent, more secure, and more civilized.”(25)


The Anglos had installed a deep belief in wyrd, or fate. To them it was their whole life and dictated how they lived, but because of this, there was a bleak outlook on life with a mix of fatalism. Why would someone have hope when the only thing that they knew was that their lives were not being controlled by themselves and that they were to die one day as everyone who came before them? “Christianity opened up a bright new possibility: that the suffering of this world was merely a prelude to the eternal happiness of heaven.” (25) However, things began to change with the arrival of Christianity. Specifics are not known, but by 690A.D. much of Britain had been converted, bringing with it hope of entering a better place in the afterlife. Writers that went through the times of Anglo fatalism wrote about the darkness that inhabited their world, but it was an almost perfect reflection on reality at the time, although with Christianity, more tales that inspired people and told tales of great deeds began to surface, which ushered in the classic vision of a hero.


 Loyalty in Beowulf is not as a prevailing factor as most others until the falling action of the story as Beowulf moves to save his kingdom from the wretched dragon that threatens it. In these final sequences, as Beowulf has grown old after defeating Grendel, we see how his most trusted companions, his sword that cracks with age and abandons him, his warriors that flee in terror of the dragon rather than stand with Beowulf, and friend Wiglaf who rushes blindly to save his lord, all respond in a way that reflects an aspect of loyalty


Beowulf’s sword fails him at a desperate time, and it was one of the only remaining things Beowulf could look to see him through his battles beside his own courage, which finally gives way under the test of time, as Beowulf soon does. “The ancient blade broke, bit into the monster’s skin, drew blood, but cracked and failed him before it went deep enough, helped him, less than he needed…Victories in other wars: his weapon had failed him, deserted him, now when he needed it most.” (64)


Beowulf’s sword had served him nearly all his life, relying upon its strength to see him through the many trials he faced, as in his battles with the Grendel and his mother, but at the moment that its’ strength was needed by Beowulf, the blade finally gave way under the pressure it had been shown to dampen, deserting Beowulf in the hour he needs it most, breaking the history it has had with Beowulf. Also the blade was a representation of Beowulf, because no matter how long it was used and been victorious, age finally caused it to shatter and break apart, which is an almost perfect reflection of Beowulf’s spirit and strength. This combines with the fact that Beowulf’s men do not rush to standby him in his hour of need.


Despite the supposed fierceness and bravery of Beowulf’s men, as they one by one saw the challenge Beowulf faced, they each showed their true colors and fled to save their own lives. “None of his comrades came to him, helped him, his brave and noble followers; they ran for their lives, deep in a wood.” (64) Beowulf had relied upon each of these men in past battles, trusting them to keep the loyalty they swore to him, and many of these men had served with Beowulf for a longtime, including the fight with Grendel. However after seeing their namesakes, homes and families destroyed by such a beast as the dragon, the seeds of doubt began to eat at every man, and soon the fear of death overrode their loyalty to Beowulf.


 However, the last remaining of Beowulf’s soldiers, Wiglaf, sees Beowulf facing down the dragon alone and refuses to flee, instead drawing his sword and charging the monster to try and save Beowulf. “Remained, stood there, miserable, remembering, as a good man must, what kinship should mean. His name was Wiglaf…Watching Beowulf, he could see how his king was suffering, burning… Wiglaf’s mind was made up; he raised his yellow shield and drew his sword…” (65) Wiglaf was an old friend of Beowulf’s, and sees how Beowulf might die from the encounter with the dragon and gathers his courage, remembers his loyalty and how his lord would do the same for him, charges forward to assist Beowulf. The story of Beowulf is a classic tale of a hero rising and falling, and with the turn of Medieval England, the concept of Loyalty would change yet again.


 The Medieval times brought with it shift in political climates. The rise of Feudalism occurred in this time period and also saw the rise of the church as a major political power and the beginning of chivalry, the code of ethics the knights followed to shape their behavior into a pure rendition of peaceful and pious protectors. Feudalism, introduced by William the Conqueror, was the political system in the day in which knights would swear fealty to lords, who were the regional rulers of the day. Chivalry is what kept these knights inline and kept them from performing unjust things because of all of the freedoms they were rewarded for service. The Catholic Church played a vital role in copying and translating old literary works that we know about today, mainly due to the fact that monks were the only literate people of their day. It was one of these monks, Geoffrey Chaucer known as the father of English Literature, who wrote what many believe was a masterpiece, “The Canterbury Tales.”


Within “The Canterbury Tales,” One particular story showcases a mixed form of loyalty as a virtue and curse which is called “The wife of Bath’s Tale.” The Wife of Bath is one of the original pilgrims that were traveling to Canterbury whom decide to swap stories to pass time, and her tale is of a knight who disgraces himself in the worst way but ends up redeeming himself in what some call an unfair way.


 The knight suffers from the very first paragraphs, for as he rides along a river bed he spots young girl by herself, and going against every possible degree of chivalry that should have been impressed upon from the day he swore to become a knight, he disgraces himself in the worst possible way and breaks his loyalty to his vows, taking the girl’s maidenhead. “There was a knight with a lusty liver. One day as he came riding from the river. He saw a maiden walking all forlorn. Ahead of him, alone as she was born. And of that maiden, spite of all she said, by very force he took her maidenhead.” (Chaucer 186) To even think on such terms is wrong, but for one who has sworn himself to a set of ethical and moral standards so strict that few could scarcely imagine, means that the Knight has fallen to the lowest point he can and is to be set an example of.


However, this is not what happens, as the court who will decide his judgment for, the queen implores the king to allow her to punish him, and she does so by sending him away and giving him twelve months and one day to try to find the answer what do women most desire. Despite his searches, the Knight fails to find what he was looking for and decides to not run and further dishonor  himself and sets to return to face his punishment, showing loyalty to the promise of his return, despite after breaking his vows so greatly before. One his way back, he encounter ahold women who will tell him the answer his seeks in return for making her his wife, and not thinking twice the Knight agrees leaving him to have to own up to his promise in the future.


The Knight returns to the court and is able to save his life in the process, but the old woman that he made the promise to is present and she tells the queen about their agreement, in which the Knight desperately tries to play off, showing his loose interpretation of the agreement he made. “Sad was the knight and sorrowfully sighed, but there! All other choices were denied, and in the end he chose to go away and to return after a year and day…Faint was the soul within his sorrowful breast, as home he went, he dared no longer stay; His year was up and now it was his day… I know indeed that such was my behest, but for God’s love think of a new request, take all of my goods, but leave my body free.” (Chaucer 187-188, 189, 191) He grudgingly allows himself to be wed, but complains loudly to the women one knight. It was then that it is discovered that the old woman is actually young and beautiful, and showers the knight with praise after having to explain why he was in the wrong about his loyalty to her. In the end, the knight still committed a serious crime in which he should have lost his life originally, showing a complete disregard of chivalry and his loyalty to it, but instead is rewarded with beautiful wife and a happy ending. This time period however also saw a reimaging of mythology with King Arthur and his court Camelot, which came to be known as Arthurian Legend.


 Arthurian legend is a mystical fairy-telling of King Arthur and his court, which is where the virtues of chivalry and loyalty are further, seeded into literature with tales of Arthur and his Knights. Two of the more well-known stories were Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Sir Gawain, a nephew of Arthur, takes the challenge of the Green Knight from his lord to honor him, and Le Morte d’Arthur, which tells the end of the great King Arthur at the hands of his mutinous son.


The celebration of Christmas is interrupted by a strange man in green armor, where he insults the sanctity of Arthur’s castle and calls his legendary knights nothing but children. This man also issues a challenge; he will allow any man to take a swing at his head where he sits and they can take his head from his shoulders, he will allow the great battle axe they would do it with to be theirs, however if they fail, they must come to him in twelve months and allow themselves to have the same done to them. The King rises to take the challenge, but Sir Gawain hoping to prove his loyalty to Arthur pleads Arthur to allow him to take the challenge. “Then Gawain, at Guinevere’s side made to the king a sign: I beseech you Sire, he said, let this game be mine.” (235) Sir Gawain fails to cut the head, and resigns himself to find the green chapel in which the Knight lives, but as he searches he comes upon a castle in which he is welcomed by the lord who offers him shelter under one rule; whatever Gawain receives during the day he must give the lord at night. Gawain agrees and finds him being advanced on by the lord’s wife who kisses him and in turn Gawain kisses the lord of the castle that night, honoring his promise.


However, the woman gives him a green sash that she says protects anyone from harm and she swears the knight to not tell the lord about. Gawain agrees and sets off to find the Green Knight who waits for him. However, the Green Knight had planned this to test the loyalty of Gawain’s word, pointing to the fact that it was his wife that gave him the sash and he who wanted to see if Gawain would give him the sash or not, Gawain is disgusted with himself and throws the sash to the ground claiming his guilt, to which the Green Knight just laughs off and says he understands why Gawain would do such a thing and allows him to walk free. “He thanked her earnestly, and boldly his heart now ran; and now a third time she leaned down and kissed her man… But you lacked a little, sir; you were less than loyal; but since it was not for the sash itself or for lust but because you loved your life, I blame you less. I can’t deny my guilt; my works shine none too fair! Give me your good will and henceforth I’ll beware… Whatever harm I’ve had, I hold it amended since now you’re confessed so clean, acknowledging sins.” (239, 242, 243) Sir Gawain is a slightly flawed character here, where as light pause in fear of his life caused him despair, but no grief. However in Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gawain’s flaws cause him the greatest grief in the end.


Le Morte d’Arthur is the story of Lancelot’s exile after lying with Gwynevere, Arthur’s wife, and how sir Gawain persuades Arthur to fight Lancelot, not because of honor or loyalty, but because of a personal vendetta.


Lancelot, despite being an enemy of Arthur and Gawain, tries to sue for peace and deflect fighting when and where he can, whether it be against Arthur on the battlefield or Sir Gawain in a duel, he refuses to hold a fight against Arthur, showing how much loyalty he still hold to Arthur. “My lords, I am reluctant to shed Christian blood in a war against my own liege.”(250) Lancelot still thinks of Arthur as his lord, and is heartbroken to fight him and Gawain, both whom he respects very much.


However, during the time Arthur is fighting away against Lancelot, Sir Modred, the bastard son of King Arthur, attempts to take his father’s throne in order to gain power as before he would not have gained. “During the absence of King Arthur from Britain, Sir Modred, already vested in foreign powers, had decided to usurp the throne.”(253)Sir Modred was the bastard son of Arthur, between a woman that was not his wife, meaning he was not in direct line for the throne, so he decides to forge letters about Arthur’s death and tries to get Arthur’s wife, who is his aunt, to marry him to secure the throne, showing no loyalty to anyone or anything than his own morals. However, Arthur hears of this treachery, and takes his whole army to defeat his son, which only succeeds in killing Sir Gawain who was weak from his fights with Lancelot and both armies, leaving only one knight for Arthur to command, Sir Bedivere, who had just watched his own brother die. “I would ask you to take my sword Excalibur to the shore of the lake and throw it in the water. Then return to me and tell me what you have seen.” “My lord, as you command, it shall be done.” (260)

After the death of his only family and serving a king who is dying himself, he still commits to performing the final act of tossing Excalibur into the lake, despite his fortitude being tested and returning to Arthur twice unsuccessful, the third time he heaves the sword into the lake with all his might, completing his final task. After doing this and seeing his lord off, he finds a burial site in which he realizes it is Arthur buried there, and commits to being a hermit and spending his life in prayer to Arthur’s grave, showing the loyalty that only a knight can accomplish by serving his lord even after he had been released of his duties by Arthur’s death.


These early writers whom had written these stories to glamorize the ideals of the day and what they believed to be the ideal form of a hero, they also committed to recording their history and realities they faced in their lifetimes through rich storytelling and an accurate portrayal of the people that lived in them with the virtue of honor and loyalty imprinted an all of them to reflect on how real hero should act. However they managed to bring the actions of these people to light while still showing flaws that portrayed a vulnerable side of their psyche and make them more relatable. While certain virtues, like loyalty, are represented as second nature. They are able to set precedents that are valued highly but most are stricken to follow, and yet still these people are shining examples of how a true hero should act.

© Copyright 2019 stros727. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

More Editorial and Opinion Essays