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Essay: Anglo-saxon epic poems: Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Macbeth

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in Medieval times where knights were seen as glorious. There was an extremely particular social class framework in the Middle Ages. Most Medieval individuals were peasants, however the separation amongst workers and respectability was obvious.The knights obligation during the Medieval times was to figure out how to fight in order to protect their liege and to honor the Code of Chivalry. The Code of Chivalry was very important during this time, it required that knights be brave warriors and virtuous Christians who selflessly fought for justice. According to the Green Knight, “And your court and your company are counted the best, stoutest under steel gear on steeds to ride”(Borroff, 172). This shows how the Green Knight believes that King Arthurs men are the bravest and most chivalrous knights. That is why the Green Knight chose these men to participate in his challenge. The Code of Chivalry was seen as a moral system, which went past principles of battle and presented the idea of Chivalrous behavior. Without chivalry the men were not seen as true knights. As Moll states, “And then the lady of the castle chastises him for not living up to her expectations…”(Moll). If knights did not live up to peoples expectations they were looked down upon. A Knight was to always be prepared and ready for whatever challenge came there way. They needed to make sure to always stay at the top of their game. All chivalrous knights during this time period had a different ways of being and shared their bravery in different ways.
Sir Gawain was not a typical Knight. He was known as the more courteous knights, but he devalued himself and believed that he lacked courage, strength, and knights mental ability. Sir Gawain depicts himself as the slightest of Arthur’s knights as far as both physical ability and mental capacity. Regardless of how he felt about himself, Moll states, “Gawain was far and away the most famous for his cortaysye”(Moll). Gawain may not have been the strongest knight, but he still had his loyalty, which helped him. Despite the loyalty that Sir Gawain showed toward King Arthur while taking over his position in the challenge, Gawain had some tragic flaws of his own. He feels temptation to just kill the Green Knight and end the game as soon as possible. He thought he could work his way around the challenge, little did he know he was very wrong. According to Sharma, “The first failure, therefore, ironically anticipates Gawain’s second failure were his concern for his own life outweighs all other considerations”(Sharma). Sir Gawain tries to outsmart the Green Knight, but little does he know about the Green Knights supernatural powers. Gawain is more worried about him staying alive. His strong temptation to defeat the Green Knight leads him to his success of staying alive. Even though Sir Gawain acted a certain way due to his time period, other heroes, like Beowulf, were different due to the time period that the stories were written in.
During Anglo-Saxon times epic poems were a common form of literature. Since this was written when England was transitioning from Pagan to Christian culture, this story depicts traditions from both of those cultures. Viljoen states, “They were part of the so-called”popular culture” and provide one key to the “meaning” that interested late Anglo-Saxon audience”(Viljoen). Anglo-Saxons spoke in “old english”. Since Stories were told orally due to people not knowing how to read or write, there was many characteristics of oral storytelling. They used kennings and stock epithets to help point out special traits. Beowulf was the most successful story to come out of the Anglo-Saxon era. Beowulf is an exemplary story of the triumph of good overcoming evil. Throughout the story, Beowulf goes through different hardships. According to Abraham, “Beowulf demonstrates in turn the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, or right of living, and fortitude”(Abraham). These virtues that he experiences are not enough, he lets his own pride get in the way of his own success. Beowulf had tragic flaws which lead him to disasters throughout his journey.
Beowulf is considered an epic hero. His heroism is reflected through what he has done and how he has succeeded. Everyone relies on him. They look at him as a hero because of his offer to be the one to kill Grendel. “So Beowulf chose the mightiest men he could find, the bravest and the best Geats…”(Raffel, 44). His braveness to fight the horrible monster, Grendel, gave the people confidence in him. Everyone believed that Beowulf will be the one to destroy this terrible creature that was causing chaos in their town. Beowulf believed that he was the person to do it. Beowulf was prideful over his strong abilities. The story foreshadows how Beowulf’s tragic flaw, pride, leads him to his demise. Beowulf believes he will never be defeated, “Warrior who bravely does battle with the creature haunting our people, who survives that horror unhurt, and goes home bearing our love”(Raffel, 47). Beowulf wants to be the warrior that defeats this creature, he wants the fame and fortune that this comes with if he is able to succeed. As he’s fighting the creature he notices a struggle when two weapons of his begin to fail him. His sword does not hurt the monster and his helmet was being destroyed, he was not protected anymore. Since Beowulf longed for that fame he kept going and went back into battle with this monster. He was not going to be seen as someone who was giving up on something they said they would do, his pride was too strong. Beowulf’s pride is so strong that it lead him to his death. He rather die, then beg for his life and have everyone see him as a coward. Even though Beowulf and Macbeth have the same outcome, the way they got to those points were slightly different.
Macbeth, written by William Shakespeare, was written during the English Renaissance. Social classes were strictly enforced during this time. Being of high standard was very important to the men. The King states, “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentlemen!”(Shakespeare, 325). Being noble was the only way that anyone can move up in social classes. Without being a noblemen, people would not go anywhere. A noblemen is someone who is masculine and can overcome any obstacles that come their way, it is someone that can be trusted and will never betray.
Betrayal was also looked down upon. Betrayal was one reason why Macbeth was able to move up positions so quickly. The King states, “No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive our bosom interest. Go pronounce his death, and with his former title greet Macbeth’(Shakespeare, 326). Betrayal was possibly the lowest thing anyone could do during this time. Whoever betrayed would even sometimes be put to death. These men pity anyone who wishes to go against them. This was how Macbeth’s demise began and how being of higher standard destroyed him.
Macbeth started the play as an honorable warrior who was looked at with great respect, but begins to show his many weaknesses. He starts to believe prophecies and is easily being manipulated to gain the power that he thought he wanted. He commits crimes to keep moving up to more powerful positions. Macbeth will kill anyone that gets in the way of his success. According to Colston, “The first crime is complete early in the second act, but the sinfulness of that one crime alone lingers as a momentous issue until the end of the play”(Colston). Macbeth’s first murder was only the beginning of his demise. Macbeth feels extreme guilt after killing King Duncon. He thinks that the blood on his hands will turn a whole ocean red. This obviously will not happen, but it shows how Macbeth’s guilt is taking over his life. The guilt slowly starts to fade, when Macbeth does not hesitate in ordering his next murders. Regardless of it being his good friend, Banquo. Instead of feeling remorse for having his good friend killed, he is more angry at the fact that Banquo son, Fleance, is still alive and is a possible threat to Macbeth finally reaching the crown he is craving for. That first murder of King Duncon opened the doors to all of Macbeth’s other murders. Macbeth believed that he wanted that power so badly, that he would do anything to gain it. His ambition to become king overcame him and changed him completely. According to Colston, “The arbitrary manipulation of the empowered to maintain power; thus crime is a mere power struggle”(Colston). If someone wants power so strongly they are going to do anything in their power to gain it. And that is exactly what Macbeth did. He wanted that power so he did not want to stop until he got it.

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