Epics are revered stories passed on throughout countless generations. Three such epics, Gilgamesh, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Beowulf, are renowned classics that depict the heroic journey of three characters. These epics contrast greatly amongst one another, spanning from Mesopotamia, England, and Denmark, containing many different quests and obstacles. Powerful and divine Gilgamesh sets off on a journey to conquer immortality for himself and a beloved friend. Sir Gawain, noble Knight of King Arthurs Round Table, must face the mysterious Green Knight, whom Gawain owes a debt involving an axe. While, the strong and valiant Beowulf must overcome numerous demons. In all of their differences, these epics share one important detail; that their heroic protagonist is above all a man, and thus subject to all the downfalls that afflict mankind.
Gilgamesh is the story of Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, and Enkidu, man of the animals, becoming human together (Mason 15). Gilgamesh met his downfall when he befriended and came to love Enkidu. His friendship transformed him into a man and subjected him to all of mankinds downfalls. The epic commences with the main character, Gilgamesh, an unstable man who is two-thirds god and one-third human, as well as great king on earth and a strong god-like human. As king of Uruk he depicts the traits of the tyrant. Gilgamesh is first described as a, tyrant to his people. (Mason 15). He is young and has an appetite for woman and sex. This overbearing behavior leads Gilgamesh to believe by an old birthright, that he is entitled to, The privilege of sleeping with their brides (Mason 15). This seemingly lack of compassion disappears with the arrival of Enkidu who, in the words of Ninsun, Gilgameshs mother, lifts [Gilgamesh] out of the tiredness. (Mason 20). Enkidus imminent arrival forces a compelling change within Gilgamesh. Suddenly it seems that his lack of compassion, iron-fist authority upon his people, and thirst for woman is a faade for his true character. With Enkidus influence, Gilgamesh is propelled to accept a new attitude.
Initially, Gilgamesh emerges as an unabashed valiant leader, noted in his quest to slaughter Humbaba. However throughout the quest he has moments showing the quality of a coward. In Humbabas pine forest, it was Gilgamesh who was afraid. It was Enkidu who reminded him to be fearless (Mason 34). Although Gilgamesh previously presented himself as an infallible, fearless warrior, he truly holds a dual nature, a saddening trait of mankind. This proves the bravest of people at times show fear, and even the strongest can be outfought. While not infallible, the warrior fought to protect the community in times of crisis and jeopardy, as seen in the battle against Humbaba. Firstly, both he and Enkidu peer at Humbaba, the monstrous distorted slave of the Gods, which, aroused the two almost to pity (Mason 40). This brief pity made them pause long enough for the monster to strike Enkidu. The mens compassion betrayed them for the first time. While Enkidu is pinned by the monster, Gilgamesh is frozen with fear, unable to move. To help him (Mason 40.) The two manage to get their acts together and kill the beast, angering the Gods enough to sentence Enkidu to his death. On his deathbed, he tells Gilgamesh,
She made me see things as a man, and a man sees death in things.
Youll know when you have lost the strength to see
The way you once did
No longer hear and see the same.
As your do. Your eyes have changed.
You are crying. You have never cried before.
Its not like you (Mason 49-50.)
Thus Enkidu predicts the pain that Gilgamesh will suffer as a man from his falling tears.
The search for immortality seems to be an obsession for many men all throughout history. Gilgamesh investigates the possibility of immortality following the saddening death of his friend and brother Enkidu. That man, Gilgamesh, feeling the fear of the possibility of his own mortality which was before unrealized before the death of Enkidu, searches for a technique to preserve himself and bring back Enkidu. Perhaps insane, he tried to bring Enkidu back to life. To end his bitterness, his fear of death (Mason 55). His fear of death, a common trait among men, drives Gilgamesh to seek out Utnapishtim, the only man to know the secrets of immortality. The jaunt results in his receiving of secret about a flower that gives new life. However, he holds onto the flower rather than quickly devouring it and a sneaking serpent robs Gilgamesh of this chance to bring youth to himself. As follows, Gilgamesh never receives the secret to immortality and to bringing back his friend. In time he recognized this lose as the end of his journey (Mason 91). The end of his journey is the acceptance of manhood, and all the downfalls that come with it.
When describing this less-than-perfect human world, men often allude to the Biblical story of the fall of man. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is no exception. According to the Bible, Adam, who represented the race of mankind, was intended by God to be a perfect creature living in an untouched paradise. However, the first woman, Eve, was eventually tempted by Satan, convincing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. As punishment for their sin, they were thrown from Paradise to earth. "Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life ... in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread." (Genesis 3:17-19). Hence, the fall of Man, the ultimate metaphor for the loss of human innocence. The temptations that are all around man plague Sir Gawain in his quest to face the Green Knight. Throughout, Gawain counters these temptations with his own faith in God and in chivalric values.
Sir Gawain is consistently illustrated as a flawless knight, demonstrating both physical and moral greatness, His five senses were free of sin; his five fingers never failed him (Isaacs, II, 640-641). Yet these characteristics of greatness, like that of all mankind, are flawed. Gawain's courage is shown in his acceptance of the Green Knight's challenge. As Arthur prepares to face the Green Knight's challenge alone, the whole court at Camelot sat stiller now (Isaacs, I, 301). This is until Sir Gawain rises and beseeches Arthur to bestow him the task, Think of your brave knights, bursting to fight this foolish business fits my station, not yours: let me play this green mans game (Isaacs, I, 351-359). Gawain is bound by honor to service his king, and he alone remains loyal to Arthur, regardless of how dangerous the situation seems. Gawain again proves his loyalty and courtesy at the Castle, when the Lords wife approaches him several times. Accepting her advances would be a breach of the loyalty he has pledged to the Lord for hospitality. Gawain is also careful that he neither insults the lady, for doing so would also constitute an evil deed according to the laws of knightly courtesy. Gawain is able to successfully mediate between the loyalty and the courtesy. In this way, Gawain remains free from two serious sins, adultery and insulting the lady of the court.
His flawed morality finally fails, when the Lady offers him a love token, a green sash, which she claims has magical abilities, For any man bound with this beltcan never be killed here under Gods own heaven (Isaacs III, 1851-1853). In the end, his natural fear of death causes him to accept the green sash. Instead of praying to Mary when facing the Green Knight, as before, Gawain places his faith into the sash given to him by his hosts wife, due to his wish to remain alive in his confrontation with the Green Knight. Furthering his crime, he fails to give the green sash to the Lord of castle, even though it was in their contracted game to give each other whatever they had received during the day. Because of his failure to reciprocate and give the Lord the green sash, he receives a striking blow to his neck. But you failed a little, lost good faithfor love of your life. I can hardly blame you (Issacs, IV, 2366-2368).
And when Gawain returns to human society at the end of the poem, it is with a sense of unease, having realized his failure. This band and this nick of my neck are one and the same, the blame and the loss I suffered for the cowardice, the greed, that came to my soul (Isaacs, IV, 2506-2508). Members of Camelot's court decide to wear a green sash to honor the great knight. This is because on some level, they all realize that although Gawain is not perfect in an absolute sense, he is as perfect as a man can possibly be in an imperfect world. In the end, all of the knights wore a green sash as if to symbolize that man is not perfect.
The heroic character of Beowulf is a grand warrior, who embodies loyalty, courtesy, and pride in his everyday manner. But like all men, he has some downfalls. In his case, it is pride and desire to always be the hero. An early example is his fabled tale of the swimming match with Brecca, in which Beowulf loses the race because he must defend himself from sea-monsters. Often, for undaunting courage, fate spares the man it has not marked. However it occurred, my sword had killed nine sea-monsters (Heaney, 39, 572-575).
Beowulf, upon hearing of the chaos that Grendel causes to the Danes says, my people supported my resolve to come here because all know of my awesome strength (Heaney, 29, 416-418). His conquest of Grendel and his mother validates his reputation for indomitability, A protector of his people, pledged to uphold truth and justice this man was born to distinction (Heaney, 117, 1700- 1703). Having abolished all of evil monsters from Denmark and proving himself a hero, Beowulf returns to Geatland bringing with him the story of his incredible feats. Before he leaves, the ruler of Denmark, King Hrothgar dispenses to Beowulf some important advice to live by.
O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.
eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.