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The idea of the hero has remained important throughout the human history. From the mighty warriors of Greek and Celtic mythology to the protagonists of modern-day cinema, good heroes have always had large audiences. The label of hero does not discriminate, either, and the term has been applied to “demigods, bandit warriors, martyrs, knights, artists, hedonists, rogues, misfits, and comic-book characters” (Kendrick 3). Some heroic ideals have remained static over the centuries, but the majority are hardly anything greater than the products of their respective time periods.
In the brutal and violent world of medieval Europe, a good hero was one who was loyal, fearless in battle, and eager to spill blood. But how did the Christian teachings reconcile with this fascination with warfare and plunder, and which writers were able to incorporate Christian gentleness into their warrior heroes? It is apparent that the ideal medieval hero was inevitably a combination of both spiritual and the worldly; he had to be a saint and a sinner, a Christian and a killer at once. For the purposes of this paper, four medieval protagonists will be considered: Arthur, the mythical king of the Britons; the saintly Sir Galahad; the fearless and chivalric Sir Gawain; and the Germanic hero Beowulf.
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Conversion to Christianity was the most dramatic change to the concept of heroism during this time period. Pious dedication to God and His Church – as well as reverence for the Virgin Mary and a host of saints – was an essential element to medieval heroism. The idea of a Christian champion was a reflection of the evolution of European warrior-nobles into knights. “In the chaos that followed the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, mounted warriors were among the few authorities in France … they fought each other constantly, struggling for wealth and power and pursuing personal vendettas” (Smith 235). The Church, who was suffering from this constant warfare, did her best to stop the violence. “Considerable energies were expended at this time by both clerical and secular authorities to articulate and foster an ideal of knightly heroism and ethics that would make knighthood a more pious, pliant, and pacific instrument of Church and state policies” (Kendrick 66). This, combined with the crusading movement that emerged in the late eleventh century, transformed these landholding warriors into miles Christi – the soldiers of Christ. A knight vowed to use his blade “for appropriate purposes, as defined by his role as a justicier, including the defense of the Holy Church” (Smith 235). This new type of warrior was celebrated in the literature of the time period, and heroes such as Roland, Lancelot, Gawain, and Galahad were depicted as being observant of their duties to God and the Church as well as their respective lords.
Christian ideals of pacifism, however, were not fully accepted by the medieval heroic literature. Arthur, Galahad, and Gawain may have been devoted Christians, but they were still knights - warriors and killers by definition.
Despite the fact that Europe becomes the center of a chiliastic religion celebrating charity, pacifism, piety, and disregard for the honors and accolades of the material world, its inhabitants continue to embrace a profane ideal of heroism that celebrates the deeds of worldly warriors hungry for gold and deathless glory (Kendrick 65).
Beowulf, in particular, is every inch the ideal pagan warrior: quick to anger, enamored of war and slaughter, and very sensitive about his honor and pride. This pugnacity even in the most enlightened of medieval literary characters is simply a reflection of reality The Church’s attempts to “Christianize” the European warrior classes did not change the fact that war was still commonplace, and those who were supposedly tasked with defending the weak could not afford to be squeamish.
Of the four heroes being considered here, Beowulf is the most typically pagan, and is representative of the ideal that existed before the concepts of knighthood and chivalry. Indeed, he is a warrior and a berserker, but he is not a knight. “Beowulf is a noble champion who is highly skilled with edged weapons, extremely touchy about his personal honor, and all too fond of drinking, wenching, hunting, monster slaying, and stealing other people’s property” (Kendrick 65). He is, in many ways, the perfect warrior, and exhibits courage, loyalty, and largesse (especially to his followers). His prowess seems almost supernatural; he is strong to the point of being superhuman, and is able to survive underwater for an unrealistic length of time. “Of heroes then living / he was stoutest and strongest, sturdy and noble” (Beowulf IV 8-9). He is very much a mortal, however, as his untimely end proves. Yet, even though the protagonist represents the ideal pagan warrior, the poem is replete with Christian symbolism. “Beowulf seems to win victory as much through his piety and fierce moral integrity as through his physical strength” (Niles 38). Grendel and his mother, after all, are not described as trolls or ogres, but actual demons, and the image of a dragon was commonly used to symbolize the Devil in many other literary works from this time period. Despite the Christian imagery present in the poem, Beowulf is a truly primal relic from the forgotten age.
Just as Beowulf is the ideal warrior, Arthur is the ideal king. A figure of dubious historicity, Arthur is said to have presided over the Golden Age of English history, the time when justice was available to all and knights actually lived up to the standards they were being held to. The Arthurian literature is an excellent window into the ideals of the medieval period, as the king and his entire court appear to be perfect in many ways: skilled in battle, generous, loyal, and – above all – pious. “The Arthur who maintained a strong hold on the popular imagination was … great, pious, generous, and compassionate” (Lacy 23). Like most medieval heroes, Arthur was also depicted as a Christian figure. “Arthur was able to pull the sword from the stone specifically because he was selected by God to be the king. Geoffrey of Monmouth portrays Arthur carrying a shield with an image of the Virgin Mary; this is an ideal depiction of a Christian hero who is, at his core, a servant of God” (Ashe 24). Surely, Arthur was not perfect. At times, he was presented as stubborn and childish. Besides, his status of a cuckold was hardly what one would expect from a larger-than-life literary hero. Despite these faults (or perhaps because of them), Arthur remains a celebrated figure in the rich tapestry of western mythology.
Arthurian literature focuses not only on Arthur, but on his knights as well. One of these knights is Sir Galahad. “Raised in a nunnery but considered the best knight in the world, Galahad represents a fusion of knighthood and theology” (Bruce 198). Galahad is almost Christ-like in his portrayal. More than any other knight, he is the ideal soldier of Christ, almost more of a divine symbol than a man, and has even been portrayed as chaste. “Though considered by the Queste author the greatest knight of the Round Table, many critics have seen Galahad as characterless. His sole purpose is to complete the Grail Quest, and his success is pre-ordained” (Bruce 198). Unlike other medieval heroes, Galahad lacks much of the elements that make a chivalrous hero. He does not actively seek battle or bloodshed, and does not seem to desire material gain. In fact, unlike the rest of the heroes being considered here, Galahad seems to have very few human faults at all. “Because Galahad’s spiritual code replaces the code of chivalry, which was the meat and drink of medieval audiences, later authors found it more of an obligation than a pleasure to write of Galahad” (Bruce 198).
Sir Gawain is another of Arthur’s knights. Unlike Galahad, Gawain is presented as a man with human limits and flaws. He lacks Beowulf’s superhuman abilities, and, although presented as pious, he is not as saintly and spiritual as Galahad.
He is honest, brave and loyal, until the stress of the seemingly inevitable loss of his life becomes too great for him to bear. This is the key as to why his character is so believable. The flaw is enough for him to be human, but not so much as to distort his character to such a point where his actions and his personality do not coincide with each other (Sera).
Gawain is almost an ideal knight. His strength comes not from divine aid or inhuman might, but from his convictions and his self-imposed moral code. He is chivalrous and faultlessly loyal, respectful of others, courteous, and brave. “By the time he appears in France in the mid-twelfth century Roman de Brut of Wace, Gawain … has become the exemplar of courtliness” (Folks 171). Like all good heroes, Gawain is not without his flaws. His worldliness disqualifies him from the Grail Quest, and, in many later works, he becomes famous for his womanizing (Folks 171). It is likely because of these too-human flaws that Gawain was such a popular figure amongst medieval writers, and he appears in almost every Arthurian tale.
The fact that these heroes all have things in common is not surprising. Honesty, bravery, generosity, and loyalty are all virtues that have been celebrated throughout the history. Beowulf is loyal to his father and to the king whose people he defends, and is fearless enough to enter the battle with gigantic monsters without a second thought. Arthur shares Beowulf’s fearlessness, and displays loyalty both to God and to the people he rules. Both Galahad and Gawain are loyal and dedicated knights who proudly serve their king. Gawain gains courage from his strength of character and dedication to chivalry, while Galahad is ennobled by his faith in God. All four of these characters are representative of the basic heroic ideals.
The medieval period was the time of unbelievable brutality, and, while all of the heroes being considered are representative of this fact, it is Beowulf that best encapsulates the ideal warrior and killer. Arthur’s prowess in combat is eclipsed by his abilities as a ruler and a husband, and Gawain’s fighting skills are a direct result of his primary virtue, which is his chivalrous and courtly nature. Galahad’s fighting abilities are rendered completely unimportant by his piety and saintly demeanor, and it is hard to imagine such a man capable of demonstrating the kind of ruthlessness demanded of a medieval knight. Beowulf, on the other hand, is a born warrior, who is completely devoid of mercy or pity. His strength is incalculable, his battle-frenzy dwarfs that of his Arthurian counterparts, and his will to win allows him to accomplish feats that a normal human would be incapable of.
True to both his tribal associations and his folktale affinities, Beowulf is described as not only the biggest of his band of warriors but also the strongest human being alive at that time, and he proves his might by wrenching the arm off a creature who is literally of gigantic stature (Niles 38).
His prowess, courage, and rage mark Beowulf as a character designed to appeal to the pitiless warrior nobles who ruled throughout the biggest part of the medieval period.
Dedication to God and Church was another trait that was required of a medieval hero, and Galahad strongly represents this. While both Arthur and Gawain are pious Christians and defenders of the Church, neither of them exhibits the kind of piety seen in Galahad. Beowulf’s spirituality is a touchy issue; as a fifth-century Scandinavian, he is certain to be a pagan. Of all the Knights of the Round Table, only Galahad is perfect and pious enough to be allowed to look upon the Holy Grail: “Galahad alone, the perfect knight, is judged worthy to see the mysteries within the holy vessel and look on the ineffable” (Quest 16).
In the Queste, Galahad is described as the long-awaited savior, the new Christ in knightly form … and with [the death of Galahad] the ideal of the ‘divine’ knight also disappears from Arthur’s world, which will be destroyed by its own, earthly shortcomings (Gerritsen 111).
Just as Beowulf is a figure of superhuman strength, so, too, is Galahad a figure of superhuman spirituality.
Although Galahad and Beowulf both represent the medieval ideals, a true medieval hero must combine piety with prowess, and must exhibit human flaws, as well. With this in mind, I believe that Sir Gawain is the ideal medieval hero. Galahad and Beowulf are both flawless in their own way, and, as a result, lack humanity and believability. While Arthur has no shortage of flaws, his larger-than-life proportions and status as a king and, in some stories, emperor makes him inaccessible to the readers. Gawain is the perfect combination of spirituality and prowess, and his worldliness, impetuousness, and trepidation make him accessible and human. He is a man of action, and disdains idleness: “He liked a life of action and couldn't abide long stretches of lying about or sitting idle; his blood burned, his restless mind roused him” (Gawain 6). Gawain is a portrayal of the flawed virtue, a less-than-perfect knight, and a paragon of chivalry; it is no wonder that he was a favorite of medieval writers.