Compare and Contrast Essay
10 January 2013
History’s Hand in Entertainment
British Literature has two great examples of how a culture can affect a society’s expectation of entertaining written stories. Each story contains historical context within them. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” translated by Brian Stone, was written during the sixteenth century. In the romantic adventure, the medieval theme is reflected in the chivalric qualities required of the hero. Sir Gawain is tested minimally in physical ways and more so in his moral character. Another British legend “Beowulf” was told in the late fifth century. The epic poem “Beowulf” was translated by Charles Kennedy. This hero is tested only by his physical strength. His morality held no value to the entertainment of the ancient warriors the Celts. A look at the historical context behind these two adventures allows a modern audience a chance to appreciate the culture, roles of men and women, and the strengths an older society found entertaining.
The Celts, an early people, were native to England five hundred years prior to Christianity. Their customs are very different from ours today. Instead of a Christian based life, the Celts exercised Paganism. When “Beowulf” displays Paganism it is in a mocking manner because the monk who copied this classic tale down was Christian. One of the monk’s criticisms begins with: “Of their heathen hearts that looked to hell/ Not knowing the Maker, the mighty Judge” (179-180). Supernatural beings, such as Beowulf, were revered heroes to the people. They seemed a barbaric civilization to the average Christian man. The monsters Beowulf fought were the evils which were feared. Sir Gawain presents different struggles. For example, as a knight, he is a Christian man presented with a deeper struggle than fighting mythical monsters. A Christian is faced with a more cliché decision in how he should live his life. Sir Gawain has Christian references throughout the story. During Arthurian times, Christianity was more prominent. For instance, Sir Gawain speaks as such: “‘By God that made me, I go in/ ignorance’” (149-150). In chivalric times, a man was to have manners and essentially fear his creator. The church established a Code of conduct-- that molded the change between a barbaric warrior and a chivalric warrior. The change of culture greatly affects the reader’s perspective for “good” entertainment. A Celt would not enjoy a story about a “sissy” knight and a knight would not enjoy a story about a barbaric warrior that had no manners.
One of the biggest changes that occurred during the two stories was the role of men and women. The Celts had both men and women for warriors. It was perfectly acceptable to have both genders fighting beside each other in a war. At home a woman was expected to be domestic and care for her children. With the turn of Christianity, men became very considerate of women. Women were respected on a level that hadn’t been seen before. With respect, a woman gained power and status. Women could still be domestic and stay at home, but they were also expected to do less. Both women of “Beowulf” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” were given attendants based on their social status. The ladies had help with domestic chores. Women were also changed in the eye of society because with their power they could also manipulate men. A man’s desire to not offend a woman presented an opportunity for her to seduce him in a temptress way. We see this happen with Sir Gawain. These changes pertained to the people and culture. Another noticeable change was with the characters themselves.
Beowulf and Sir Gawain both must present strength to their audience. Beowulf is strong in a physical way. In battle, his strength is what saves him. A barbaric group of people does appreciate a muscular, triumphant hero. The Celts’ hero speaks of his strength: “‘I count it true that I had more courage, / More strength in swimming than any other man. / … We would risk our lives in the raging sea’” (514-518). For Sir Gawain, he is tested more with emotional strength. When King Arthur accepts the Green Knight’s challenge Sir Gawain intercedes: “‘Before all, King, confide/ This fight to me. / May it be mine’” (340-342). His morals are what define him as a hero. His tenacity to be there for the battle, his resistance to pleasure, and his bravery to step up and save his king all makes him a worthy hero.
Historical context gives us a way to better appreciate the story we are reading. If I hadn’t been given the historical context to these stories I wouldn’t have been able to deeply analyze them. “Sir Gawain” and “Beowulf” both represent their cultures, different roles for men and women, and what kind of strength a society appreciates.
Kennedy, Charles W., translator. “Beowulf.” The Literature of England. United States:
Harper Collins Publishers, 1979. Print.
Stone, Brian, translator. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Literature of England.
United States: Harper Collins Publishers, 1979. Print.