“No one saves us but ourselves”, once said Buddha, but in the world of Anglo-Saxon literature of ‘Beowulf’, ‘The book of Judith’, and ‘The dream of the Rood’ we see a metaphorical hero’s effort to overcome his or her test as an allegorical device to teach values of warrior society and Christian tradition to those entertained by the tale. Traits such as bravery, loyalty, respect, skill, and value of life through predestined death, are persistent themes throughout all three pieces.

Brave Beowulf, who loyally saved Hrothgar’s people just as Hrothgar had saved Beowulf’s father suggests that the reputation of a person is tied not only through their deeds, but those of the entire family (people). Upon Beowulf’s arrival, the family name pre-empts his physical deeds, whereby the respect is given merely based on reputation. Ultimately though it’s his skills that ultimately bring him into power, and by journey’s end it was his unquestioning faith to be led to his pre-ordained death that brings glory to the Beowulf character.

The words of women, and the deeds of men (Paraphrasing: Lord Calvert's day, 1622) may be a sexist remark, yet in the tale of Judith we find this common theme in literature convoluted as we see Judith use her intellect (her words) to triumph over a man. Judith is smart enough to realize her weapons (unlike Beowulf’s strength, or Rood’s stoicism) is found simply by being a woman. Her charm, her wit, cunning, and her body become tools to bring about God’s plan by killing the drunk general and prevent the annihilation of her people, which ultimately demonstrates her loyalty and through her success, brings about her respect. I also think it’s important we highlight, that because it’s a “mere woman” whom succeeds where no man has, it’s this humiliation that drive’s the Israelites to win. Much in the fashion of David and Goliath, we are asked to consider, if the weakest, and most feminine of us can succeed than surely I can too.

“The Dream of the Rood” presents us with a warrior named Jesus. “Then the young hero got ready, resolute, and strong at heart… [and] … the warrior embraced the cross.” (Brock) Indeed this Jesus, not the more passive character of modern religion embraces Anglo-Saxon warrior behavior as he boldly runs to the cross for personal honor. Whereas his ascension is described as “he sent forth his spirit” rather than “gave up his spirit” in John, (Brock) we can see Jesus not as a passive participant in the “test”, but a warrior fully embracing, and challenging death. In the end, it is only by his death, similarly to Beowulf, that the value of Jesus’s life is determined, as it’s by this mechanism the character gains victory over sin.
Indeed Buddha was right, in that each of these three characters recognized the need to change something in their lives: Beowulf’s Grendel, Judith saving her people from death, and Jesus and his stoic rood who stood together against evil and sin. They each were smart enough and capable enough to facilitate change, and they all did so under the belief that they were ordained by God to do so. Yet it’s only through their success, that these heroes achieve glory and their lives are seen as valued. There are those who can, and those who do, but ye must have courage inside to find the value of you.

When destiny calls, a hero is born. Such is the case in the tales of ‘Beowulf’, and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, yet though their stories appear similar when observed only superficially, further investigation reveals the heart of these two heroes represent two fundamental philosophies of mankind’s self-image. Beowulf was the destined hero, a character bound to the characteristics of expectation, likely unaware of the more complex, more human qualities of mankind. In that respect, his world, his existence can be seen as a component of metaphor, of an idyllic fictitious collection of values (though somewhat similar to Gawain) during this period in history. A legend to replace epics of old, Beowulf is the externalized battle between good and evil, while in contrast, Gawain is this and more: a balance of black and white, and an awakening of freewill, internalized within a single character. Chance, destiny and a little bit of steamy love makes the simplistic one dimensional Beowulf with his fate fairy tale, fictionally irrelevant in a world of self-evolution, yet each tale is representative of their culture and beliefs. Most importantly, we see a fundamental shift with Gawain as the shield marks something new for society: compassion.

In fact while Beowulf willing seeks out his evil, to battle it, to eradicate it- because he believes evil, perhaps paralleled with personal sin can be eradicated; Gawain is reluctant to do the same. Gawain’s self-conflict with his own personal “sin” becomes something which eventually becomes a part of him. He is “impregnated” by the choices he has made, and he accepts his misdeeds, his imperfections, and in this manner becomes a fully realized manifestation of society’s image of mankind: sinful, and in need of forgiveness. Yet it’s only through the Green Knight’s and later Arthur’s compassion is Gawain allowed to remain (sans exile) within society.

. While the concept of fate, or God’s will is a common theme in both works, it’s clear by the time society has reached the period of Gawain, mankind views destiny more as roulette wheel than a heroic conviction: “I’ll fare to the chapel whatever chance may fall”. In contrast Beowulf seems to simply call upon fate with only a slight perversion of luck, almost as pre-emptive gratitude: “But fate let me, find its heart with my sword, hack myself free.” (Quack)

It’s best to point out what we’re seeing in the progression from Beowulf to Gawain is a spectrum of a societal code (religious, warrior, and other), where Beowulf clearly is the genesis and the Gawain tale is the transitional middle phase of a Christian culture that found itself in a declining warrior culture, and more of chivalry based system. In later literature, such as Chaucer we see the other end of the spectrum as both these codes are in question, and a third secular, self-guiding society begins to emerge. Indeed one of the first changes we see in the development of society is the “real factor”, as the tales and stories began to transition into “the realm of… historical texts.” (Damrosch) However the most important factor we should not overlook is the evolution of values between these two (three) societies.

Indeed we can now ponder did Gawain ever leave the tavern at all? Was the story simply an elaborate allegory to confess his misdeeds with Guinevere that he may have lusted after? Perhaps this story is simply a tale of man who comes to live with himself as being imperfect in a time in which society demanded people to be sinless while their “natural state” is sinful? Could it be that Gawain was merely the author himself questioning the dichotomy of the former system, much the way Chaucer would eventually do in his? To see ourselves for whom we really are?

Beowulf as a warrior reflects a time when society’s viewpoint of an individual’s worth is seen as being based on their deeds and adherence to faith. The concept of test, similar to the biblical Binding of Isaac, suggests both Beowulf and Gawain were being tested. Beowulf’s test, represented externally as the Grendel, would ultimately determine the value of Beowulf, not only as a faithful child of destiny; thus proving his own self-worth and his relationship with God, but as reinforcement of his value, a benchmark to living. Gawain’s internalization of his own battle with evil suggests that such a concept (self-value by deed) is still an important aspect of moral code. Indeed, Gawain’s failure and acceptance of his loss, and subsequent forgiveness seems to suggest overt Christian overtones reflecting the religion’s concept of atonement that was absent in Beowulf’s culture, but present in Gawain’s. Though there was Christian inflection in the story of Beowulf, the suggestion is, in the text as we read it today, is that Beowulf embodying Pagan warrior society would have been seen as failure had he not succeeded over the Grendel, his mother and the dragon. He would have been exiled, while the compassionate society of Gawain did not do the same. Thus the most strikingly apparent value of Beowulf which is lost in ‘The Green Knight is warrior bravery, as it’s replaced with a stronger emphasis on reputation and chivalry, and most starkly contrasted by the adoption of compassion.

Thus we have two intertwined stories of predestination dictated by a deity whose characters trust in to have a greater knowledge of their own lives than they do. Though there does seem to be some personal responsibility for Gawain’s actions by the time we reach this period in literature, we cannot necessarily say the same for Beowulf. Indeed the evil in Gawain’s tale becomes his own free-will over destiny, whereas Beowulf has no choice but to pursue his goal to conquer over evil. And so we find society adjusting their interpretation of religion to better fit the heroics of mankind over the previous Anglo-Saxon’s legends.

Everything is about to change. Geoffrey Chaucer was on the cusp of changing society. From the middle-ages to reason, Chaucer lived in a culture rifted between the imagined ideal expectation and the rational reality, an often imperfect existence of mankind’s true nature.

Chaucer’s world would have reflected the outcome of a society comprised of people from various classes, wealth, and beliefs to live under a single moral code. The result meant often hypocrisy and condemnation for sexual acts, greed, or adultery in public. However, a double standard, both from Chaucer’s own class and the proletariat seemed to suggest the code of chivalry, or even society’s acceptance for religion, was slowly coming under the scrutiny of rationalism by people such as Chaucer. It appears as though Chaucer, through his tales, attempted to “enlighten” while maintaining a shroud of allegory. Chaucer questioned society’s formal codes allowing his readers and listeners find their own moral compass, unlike in prior Anglo-Saxon society where such belief structures and mannerisms were dictated. Just as in the Pardoner’s tale, each reader is asked “What’s the value of your life?”

While tales such as Beowulf or Gawain and the Green Knight conjure up near faultless, pre-destined, and blindly trusting heroes at the beginning of their tales; Chaucer reflected the realism of man throughout. The characters in a Chaucer tale are no longer ideal; he or she is tainted, flawed, crass, forevermore genuinely human; more similar to the Green Knight (a “transitional piece”) by story’s end. Unlike Beowulf whom by near supernatural power conquers over the Grendel, and in death finds glory because of the righteousness of his deeds; Chaucer builds a character we can personally identify with, one in which we interpret just as Death does. Each of the Canterbury Tales is not only the reflection of a single person, but also a personification of a single trait. Whether lust in the ‘Wife of Bath’, greed in ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, or adultery in the ‘Miller’s tale’, just like the gapped tooth, Chaucer leads us as readers into making our own judgments, even to stereotype based on the appearance of the character’s actions and their place in society.

Interestingly each of Chaucer’s characters is a convention of his own inflection of good and bad qualities. The knight with his chivalry, truth, honor, freedom and courtesy, (paralleling the pentagram in ‘Green Knight’) was clearly a contrast to characters like the Squire (both members of nobility) with his vanity, and it suggests Chaucer’s distaste for facades of code over the actions of the man. Whereas the Knight clearly used his position for good, the Squire was a decoration of his stereotype, purely to obtain the interest of women. In other words, actions speak louder than words; which seems rather quite self-defeating as the Narrator becomes a character of a story about stories, written by a story-teller inflecting his own dramatization of the author’s reality. I suspect this is what led to Chaucer the author, and Chaucer the Narrator’s disclaimer of his own prejudices in his “transcription” / memory of the characters: “Or ells he moot telle his tale untrewe, Of feine thing, or finde words newe;” (Damrosch) So we must approach The Canterbury Tales with the expectation that his apologetic prologue is suggestive that his words could offend, yet he distances himself with a similar hypocrisy (coincidentally asking for forgiveness). It’s likely that Chaucer believed he embodied many of the Knight’s positive traits as he himself fought in the Hundred Years’ War, (and due to the position of the tale in the prologue) though he contested the absurdity of many aspects of chivalry. In fact the rusted armor of the Knight was suggestive of age, and the outdated chivalry codes of past. Chaucer does his best to cloud his opinion in ambiguity (for reasons of self-preservation, as well as allowing us to believe the stories are unbiased) often through comedy and jokes such as the description of the monk (170-175) “He didn’t give so much as a plucked hen… hunters are not pious men, or “a monk who’s heedless in his regimen”. (Damrosch) Chaucer’s goes on to compare the other characters like the plowman to the knight as a benchmark for humanity. As if to sleight the upper class he leaves us with the idea both that both the Parson and his brother the Plowmen, are his near-ideal characters: “A good and faithful laborer was he, living in peace and perfect charity… and next he loved his neighbor as himself” Though clearly these are themes from the Bible, it’s important to remember these are Chaucer’s words. Some characters such as Alisoun in The wife of bath seemed to suggest an enlightened outlook on what traits he saw admirable compared to what society (and religion) at the time may have. Indeed much of the introduction goes on to defend Alisoun’s behavior with respect to men’s behavior. As if to say, if men cannot change their ways, then we should not hold women to double standards. I do think it’s more than just character development and self-justification. Her portrayal as a wealthy successful woman, described as a “worthy woman all her life”, suggest that gender roles as understood by the listeners of the tale would have identified with the changes to women’s place in society both in and out of the narrative.

Indeed times were changing. The father of English literature not only changed his art, but the ideals and beliefs of the people. Chivalry was dying, as was many of the old ways of the religious. (Though Chaucer himself was careful as to not to come out and directly say that.) What Chaucer did was prove, you could write moral stories without the need to necessarily consider them within the context of religious literature. The Canterbury Tales contains seven religious figures, (prioress, Friar Monk, Clerk, Parson, Summoner, and Pardoner) and double that of the secular characters. In essence what Chaucer has done is created a Canterbury “Purgatory” to for readers to decide for themselves, much like God in heaven might judge the deeds of one’s life- who was the more worthy, or who the more noble pilgrims are. In essence Chaucer proved that by the readers and listeners of his tales making their own judgments of the character’s life, that they were indeed capable of navigating with their own moral compass without religion and they could no longer blame God for their misdeeds.

Works Cited
Brock, Jeannette C. The Dream of the Rood and the Image of Christ in the Early Middle Ages. Berkley :, 1998.
Damrosch, Dettmar, Baswell, Carroll, Hadfield, Henderson, Manning, Schotter, Sharpe, Sherman, Wolfson. The Longman Anthology | British Literature. New York: Pearson, 2010.
Quack. Values in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Associate Content by Yahoo, 2008.


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