Imagery in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Landscape and images of nature in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Beowulf is thought to have been written at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period around the year 1000. It is the first great epic poem in the English language. Its authorship is unknown but is attributed to an unnamed scribe, working in a monastic centre somewhere in the south of England. The work is a peculiar hybrid, an infusion of pagan Germanic history that is overlaid with a decidedly Christian commentary.
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It is at once a nostalgic, celebratory account of an Anglo-Saxon man, a hero who faces extraordinary challenges. Yet, this celebration is continually undercut by reminders of the transitory nature of this life. The author continually reminds the reader that there is an inevitable end — that change and reversal come to even the greatest of people, and the most preeminent of men. The theme of reversal is explored further in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, thought to have been written in the late 14th century.
The alliterative poem is also a hybrid. It is an amalgam of elements stemming from the Arthurian and French courtly romances. The resulting product that has come down to us is a body of work in which legendary heroes from history navigate tricky cultural negotiations within chivalric culture. In this way, Sir Gawain differs from Beowulf in that it is a re-interpretation of heroic values. The story retains themes of bravery, honour and loyalty, however the challenges move from external, physical conflicts to internal, moral ones.
Although written in different time periods, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have some remarkable similarities regarding their themes and structures. First of all, the poems share common ideas regarding the type of qualities that heroes possess such as bravery, honour and truth. Beowulf and Sir Gawain exemplify these heroic qualities for they are both willing to face mortal danger in order to protect their superiors and their people. Secondly, both societies also have inherent flaws which lead to their downfall.
These flaws can be seen as an internal dissonance that is echoed externally in the realm of nature. This dissonance, this internal cultural sin, takes its form in Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and in The Green Knight. In the same way that Beowulf and Sir Gawain embody the virtues of their respective cultures, so the “monsters” embody the discord within those cultures. These monstrous “reflections” come back to threaten the order of society for the sin must be exorcized. Hence, the authors use remarkably similar devices to explore common themes.
Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are works which both examine the theme of Nature vs. human society. Specifically, the ways in which societal constructs are often undone by human nature. The warring and feuding of Beowulf’s people is unmitigated by cultural codes of honour and by unsuccessful cultural practices that are used as a means to quell the violence, such as marriage. Indeed, it is the societal codes of honour and loyalty themselves that keep their society trapped in a never ending cycle of violence. his cultural malfunction, this “error in the program” finds its expression through the poet in the description of natural world beyond of the mead-hall, which is wild, desolate, and filled with monsters — the landscape of sin. Gawain – representative of the pride of Camelot — will meet his challenges in the liminal space beyond Arthur’s court. He will be forced to confront the forces of nature both external and internal as nature forces him into a reckoning of his physical limits, his sexual desire and ultimately, his own fear of death.
Nature represents the landscape of sin in Beowulf. Grendel is said to have descended from Cain, who was punished by god for killing his own brother. Because of his sin, his descendants have been forced to slink along in the landscape described by the Beowulf poet – the fens, the marshes, the wild and windy landscape, and deep under the water where sea monsters live. Hrothgar describes their abode: “That murky land they hold, wolf-haunted slopes, windy headlands, awful fenpaths…it is no good place! ” (1357-71)
Grendel and his mother inhabit these fearful places and come lurking out of them, in order to destroy the order created by the good rule of Hrothgar, in the great mead hall of Heorot. This unhappy and blighted pair is connected to the land they inhabit, and connected to the sin of Cain. Within Heorot, there is another that has also been connected with the sin of Cain – Unferth. Therefore Unferth represents the sin of fratricide, and more generally – the cycle of revenge that has marked Beowulf’s society for doom.
Whether the author intended it or not, Grendel and his mother are physical manifestations of the inherent sin in the northmen’s society. In this way, the author uses the descriptions of nature as a way of describing the marriage to the land of the monsters, and serves to underline the idea that the “landscape” of sin is wild, cold, dangerous, lonesome and full of mortal dangers. That the order and light of Heorot, which has been created by a “good” king, is lost forever to those who do evil.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the descriptions of nature are used to embody the wild, untamed forces within every man and as a means of foreshadowing the struggle that Sir Gawain will encounter at Sir Bertilak’s Castle. The chivalric code dictates that a knight be unswervingly loyal to his liege but also to his lady. It soon becomes apparent that if the wishes of one’s liege and one’s lady are at odds with each other, than the knight in question is faced with a tricky cultural, let alone moral, dilemma. The Gawain poet foreshadows nature’s victory over human society.
He is forced to recognize his human weakness in the winter wilderness where he nearly freezes to death, and in Sir Bertilak’s castle, his unswerving bravery and loyalty will both be tested as he is caught between being honest with his host, and in pleasing his hosts’ wife. Even though he successfully walks the line throughout Lady Bertilak’s mounting attacks on his moral code, ultimately he will fail since his natural fear of death leads him to accept the green girdle from her, and to keep the exchange secret from Sir Bertilak.
Similarly seen in Beowulf, the descriptions of the landscape outside the protective castle walls of Camelot are wild, dark, and cold and inhabited by monsters, miserable creatures and godless men. The poet uses nature as a visual and sensory tool to embody human nature. As Sir Gawain rides out into nature with only his armour and shield to protect him, the poet is illustrating and foreshadowing the struggle that Gawain will face within himself when he reaches Sir Bertilak’s castle.
In the winter landscape, he is pushed to the brink of exhaustion as “half dead with the cold [he] sleeps among the rocks” where “hard icicles” hang over his head. (729-32). Thus we see the forces of nature at work as they weaken him before his arrival at Sir Bertilak’s castle. He is being weakened, and will internalize this winter — the winter of sin. The poet is communicating also that to sin is to die a spiritual death. The winter landscape represents Gawain’s spiritual death. The green girdle is the symbol of Sir Gawain’s defeat by the forces of nature. The olour and its purpose clearly indicate that it is nature that has stripped him of his chivalric code, and it is nature that will now forever bind him — he will be forced to “wear” his sin forever. Indeed, Sir Gawain will decide to wear a green belt when he returns to Camelot. It is interesting to note that his fellow courtiers will adopt the same green belt. Perhaps this is as well a symbol of Morgana’s victory over the members of Camelot, whom she has declared prideful, and of nature’s triumph over human society. One thing is for sure, Sir Gawain’s value system is left shattered.
As previously mentioned, both works share remarkable similarities. They each tell the stories of people from a remote historical past in new and interesting ways. The stories are at once entertaining but there is a strong didactic element within them both that cannot be overlooked for they are tied inexorably to a larger body of English and classical literature which warn against sins of pride. When we think of them in contexts of oral works, their didactic nature is further highlighted. They urge us to remember that no man or kingdom is infallible.
Seen within their temporal contexts, the poets’ descriptions of the natural world also gain power, for the audiences in the 11th and 14th centuries would have been more attuned to signs and portents in nature. These people, who lived with a stronger connection to the land, would see greater import in images of desolate landscapes, and of wolves and ravens etc. The Beowulf poet and the Gawain poet achieve the medieval version of the modern storyteller’s “It was a dark and stormy night…” — a device that will continue to be used in the centuries that follow.