Heroism in Ancient British Literature

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“A Hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” A quote by Joseph Cambell from BrainyQuotes.com.

Heroism is a key element of most ancient and classic literature. This is partly because heroic acts take selfless characters and selfless characters give readers a reason to care about the plot. Even if modern stories often omit the crucial moment that labels a character a hero by blurring the lines between good and evil, there are some excellent examples of true heroes in three pieces of old British literature. These three models of a defining heroic moment are Beowulf, the Knights Tale, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

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Beowulf is one of the oldest stories known today. It was passed along from generation to generation by oral tradition before finally being recorded on paper by an unknown author. It is an epic tale about a warrior who “…was renowned in Scandinavian lands—his repute spread far and wide…” (Beowulf 1) who defeats a series of monstrous foes for a kingdom that is not his own. Many people might say that his defining character moment is when he defeats his first foe, Grendel or his last foe, the dragon which ends up costing his life, however these are merely the products of his most courageous moment. Beowulf chooses to leave his home and rush to the aid of a King whose mead hall is being repetitively attacked by a horrible creature named Grendel who was eating his men. Grendel’s attacks weren’t bothering Beowulf but he still chose to put his life on the line for the safety of those who were at risk. That was his moment of undeniable heroic conclusiveness because it thrust him into the following perilous situations while he selflessly risked his life for them.

While Beowulf did so many brave things it is hard to distinguish his finest moment there are some literary figures who are not quite so massively heroic. Arcita from the Knight’s Tale are two such characters. The Knights Tale is part of a collection of stories known as The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. As the name implies, the Knights Tale is about a story that a Knight on a journey tells about two men named Arcita and Palamon who get captured by a King and thrown into a tower. While in the tower they see a beautiful maiden named Emily in the garden below and both fall madly in love with her. While Arcita eventually gets out of the prison and is exiled far away from Emily, Palamon remains imprisoned but is able to see his love every day from his window. Arcitas’ has a moment of valor when he chooses to come back to the kingdom from which he had been exiled to see Emily again. He endangers his life out of a desire to see her again. He ends up engaged in a bloody fight with Palamon over the hand of Emily and even though he initially wins he is wounded during his victory lap by hellish forces. Upon his deathbed, Arcita nobly professes his eternal love for Emily and his forgiveness toward Palamon. He even advises Emily to marry Palamin after he dies saying …”I know of none so worthy to be loved as Palamon, who serves you and will do so all his life. And if you ever should become a wife, forget not Palamon. The noble man.” (Chaucer 75) Even though this literary character does not live up to the majestic standard of hero that Beowulf set; he was still a hero in his own small way.

Another widely famous tale without a known author is “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. One of the legends told about King Arthur and his knights, this tale highlights the youngest knight of the round table; Gawain. When a giant that was “…green all over…” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 3 ) offers to let someone cut off his head as long as he could return in a year to chop off the man’s head in return. Gawain accepts and chops off the man’s head only for the giant to pick up his severed head, reattach it and ride away. A year later Gawain makes a courageous decision; to keep his agreement with the mysterious giant and seek him out so that he could chop off Gawain’s own head. This moment marks him as a true hero because he not only accepts his part of the bargain and awaits his fate but he seeks out his fate with such good hearted fervor. Sir Gawain is an example of a true hero with a clear crucial moment.

A key element to any classic story is a magnificent protagonist who does heroic deeds. For characters like this there is always a moment when they become a hero. Three English classics with heroic moments such as these are Beowulf, The Knights Tale, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This matters to all modern authors and booklovers today who get to read these pieces of literature and see excellent examples of the turning point when a character becomes a hero. Whether large or small, psychologically or materially, all of these men have a glorious moment when they become a hero.  

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Heroism in Ancient British Literature. (2021, Apr 25). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/heroism-in-ancient-british-literature/