The life and values of the people in the British warrior society of the Middle Ages are revealed in the folk epics of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Both poems are of English origin and are told in the English language. Beowulf is the most important of the earliest manuscripts and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is part of the ever-expanding, most famous of English lore known as the Arthurian legends.
Both tales share a common history. The earliest known people of Britain were the Celts. “Their language was etymologically close to Latin (Laird 50).” Sometimes called the first western Europeans, these fierce warriors invaded and founded settlements throughout Europe. By the first century B.C., however, they had been driven out of nearly everywhere in Europe and pushed back to Britain, their place of origin.
The Romans invaded Britain in 43 A.D. Rome fell circa 410. For a time prior to the fall of Rome, the Britons had pleaded for help from the Romans in protecting their lands that was never forthcoming. They invited German warriors to come and help keep peace. But, the Germans soon became natives and began to war with the Celts for possession of the land.
The Celtic inhabitants further retreated into Cornwall, Wales, Strathclyde and Scotland. They were driven back by the Anglo-Saxon invaders. These somewhat barbaric farmers who arrived in the fifth and sixth centuries in what is now England were a mixture of West Germanic-speaking low-landers, mostly, Anglos and Saxons. Strictly speaking, their language was not Anglo-Saxon and no such language existed; there were only Anglian dialects, Saxon dialects, and other Germanic dialects, which have descended with variation until this day (Laird 42).
It took a hundred years or so for the Anglo-Saxons to drive the Celts out or pacify them. Some took sanctuary in Ireland, the Isle of Man, or fled to the continent to found new colonies, however, most probably stayed on the island of Britain and were reduced to servile positions under the invaders. The invading Germans fought a slow war of conquest with the native Celts, and small wars over kingdoms among themselves. Through all of this, the absorbed almost no Celtic language.
Beowulf was probably composed in the first half of the eighth century. It was written approximately two hundred years after the occurrence of the events in the story. It was written approximately two hundred years after the occurrence of the events in the story. It involves the Danes and the Geats. Both are Scandinavian tribes. The Danes were from the Danish island of Zealand and the Geats were from southern Sweden. The author is thought to have been from the south in the kingdom of the West Saxons. The language in which it is written is referred to as Anglos Saxon or Old English. The first line of the poem, “Yes, we have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes’ kings in the old days – how the princes of that people did brave deeds,” seems to indicate that the people were familiar with tales of the Danes and that Beowulf may be just one in a series of such tales.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is believed to have been composed circa 1375-1400 by the same unknown author who may also have composed The Pearl and other poems. The theme of this tale, also, may have already been very old and known to the author. “To a degree, all of the countries that produced Arthurian literature in the Middle Ages were once occupied by the Celts. To scholars, the term ‘Celtic” is essentially a linguistic one, though one that implies a cultural unity as well. The two main branches of Celtic (a sister language group to Germanic, Italic, Indo-Iranian, etc.., in the Indo-European family) are Goideic and Brythonic. The former includes its modern descendants Irish, Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx Gaelic; the latter, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. The traditions about King Arthur arose among the Brythonic Celts, and it is, therefore, in that context that we speak of Celtic Arthuriana (Lacy 90).”
Certainly, many tales such as these two must have abounded during the Middle Ages and, very likely, at the high period of the might, warring Celts. These poems are in the folk epic style. According to one theory, “the first epics took shape from the scattered work of various unknown poets, and through gradual accretion these episodes were molded into an ordered sequence. This theory has largely given way to the belief that, although the materials of the epic may have developed in this way the epic poem itself is the product of a single genius who gives it structure and expression (Holman 170-171).”
What are the elements of the epic?
(1) It must contain a hero, a figure of imposing stature, or national or international importance ad of great historical or legendary significance; (2) the setting is vast, covering great nations, the world, or the universe; (3) the action consists of deeds of great valor requiring superhuman courage; (4) supernatural forces – gods, angels, and demons interest themselves in the action and intervene from time to time; (5 a style of sustained elevation and grand simplicity is used; and (6) the epic poet recounts the deeds of the heroes with a measure of objectivity (Holman 178).
Beowulf fulfills the epic paradigm. The hero, Beowulf is of royal lineage, which his people believed could be traced back to one of their important gods. The setting involves the world of two Anglo-Saxon tribes. Beowulf must use his superhuman courage to combat his supernatural foes, Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a deadly dragon.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also fulfills the epic paradigm. The hero, sir Gawain is the valiant right-hand man of the king. The setting involves King Arthur’s court and the realm of Britain. Sir Gawain gives a blow to the Green Knight and must later receive a blow from the same supernatural being. A victorious mortal in a struggle with a supernatural being must posses superhuman qualities.
In both Beowulf and the Arthurian legends, the heroes receive supernatural assistance through a magically charged sword. Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contain formal, boastful speeches made by the heroes. Both poems are written in an elevated style and told in the third person. Because we know almost nothing about the authors of these epics, they may also be called folk epics.
Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight certainly contain all of the above elements of the epic. But, these tales are more than just folk tales. Both depict rites, customs or events of historic value. Because of the work of archaeologists, some of it quite recent, we can piece together a story of how they must have lived.
In the Prologue of Beowulf, we are told of the death of a Danish king and the process of burial:
Scyld’s hour came when he was in the prime of his strength. After a long reign the king departed into the care of God. His dearest retainers carried the beloved Danish leader to the sea’s edge, as he had commanded while he could yet speak. Rime-crusted and ready to sail, a royal vessel with curved prow lay in harbour. They set down their dear king amid ships, close by the mast. A mass of treasure was brought there from distant parts. No ship, they say, was ever so well equipped with swords, corselets, weapons, and armour. On the king’s breast rested a heap of jewels which were to go with him far out into the keeping of the sea. The Danes furnished Scyld Scefing with offerings from their treasury that were as good as the gifts provided by those who, when he was a child, launched him alone across the ocean. High overhead they set his golden standard; then, surrendering him to the sea, they sadly allowed it to bear him off. And no one, whether a counsellor in the hall or a soldier in the field, can truly say who received that cargo (Abrams 26).
Until the year 1939, this passage seemed to be pure fantasy. But, the place that received the cargo of just a ship was excavated above the River Deneb in Suffolk. “the ship had no cabin, but a burial chamber had been made of rough oak planks. The richer end of the grave was aft where weapons, jewelry and objects of display were concentrated. The chief sensation was the discovery of a large number of solid gold objects enriched with beautiful cloisonne work in garnet and millfiori glass, which appear to have belonged to two belts (Phillips 254). Also, discovered in the same place was a purse which had seven gold cloisonne plaques originally sewn to its outer face, gold clasps in the same rich style and the elaborate fittings of a large sword.
The jewelry has been of particular interest to devotees of Anglo-Saxon studies since it is in an entirely new style. Numerous other objects were found, but the most mysterious part of the find involves what was not found. There was no body in this elaborate casket. There have been many questions regarding the whereabouts of this body and who it might have been. Archaeologists are convinced that no body had ever been placed into the casket. Maybe the body was lost at sea or in combat, or perhaps this was a ritual to satisfy practitioners of the old religion and traditions of Anglo-Saxons while the dead body was actually given a Christian burial.
One other notable historical fact is mentioned in Beowulf, which further demonstrates its value as more than mere legend or fantasy. There was “a raid on the Franks made by Hygelac, the King of the Geats at the time Beowulf was a young man, and this raid occurred in the year 520 (Abrams 20).”
In Arthurian legend written during the Middle Ages, much of the focus of the story shifts away from King Arthur and to his knights or Guinevere. In Celtic tales of Arthur this is less true, however, it is quite characteristic of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. many people have wondered if there really was a King Arthur. There seems to be historical evidence that a man we know as Arthur may been responsible for the unification of the people of England and the creation of a time of peace and prosperity. Certainly, some archaeologists have considered this possibility so great, that they have spent a great deal of time excavating in the traditional places where the kingdom of Arthur has been said to be centered. They may not have yielded evidence of this legendary king, but they have made significant archaeological discoveries which can be linked directly with England’s beloved Arthur.
Arthur is a par t of English history. The Anglo-Saxons conquered and settled what we now call “England” in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is believed that they formed many small kingdoms, out of which the kingdom of England grew. In the year 400, most of the island had been part of the Roman empire. The Roman empire in the east survived until 1453; the Roman empire in the west died in the fifth century. But, the influence of Rome lingered on. Meanwhile, a series of military disasters back in Rome forced the Romans to abandon their interests in England and the country became vulnerable to attacks from various barbarian tribes. At that time, in the mid-fifth century, the greatest part of England was ruled by a dictator named Vortigern. He raised a very powerful force of Saxon mercenaries under two leaders called Hengest and Horsa. At some point, the Saxons rebelled against Vortigern. According to Christopher Brooke, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Liverpool, in his book, The Saxon and Norman Kings:
From then on settlers from northern Germany came in numerous shiploads, sailed up the Thames, the rivers of the Wash and Humber, settled, formed little kingdoms and confederations, and conquered the native “Britons.” The Britons were not completely defenseless. Early in the sixth century they found a great leader whom tradition calls Arthur, who drove the German invaders out of a great part of the southern midlands (20).
We get much of our information from the fifth-century British cleric, Gildas, in his book, On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. According to Gildas, after the death of Vortigern, the British organized a resistance led by Ambrosius, under whom they fought many victorious battles. The greatest victory in the 490s occurred at a place called Badon Hill. Victory at Badon Hill gave England forty hers of peace with foreign invaders, although, internal struggles continued. Gildas did not name the British leader at the battle of Badon Hill. Only later did people begin to believe that it was Arthur.
The following quotation appears in “one of the most famous passages in British historiography, the tale of the twelve battles of Arthur and his leadership at Badon,” found in Nennius’ History of the Britons: “the twelfth battle was on Badon Hill where 960 men fell in one day at a single onset of Arthur; and no one killed them but he alone, and in all the battles he come out victorious (53).”
Nennius’ History of the Britons and another historical manuscript called the Annals of Wales are two accounts whose contents date back to the mid-fifth century, although they were written in the eighth or ninth century. Some scholars believe that they contain hard evidence of the existence of Arthur. That they contain such evidence may be debatable, but they are considered the greatest sources of the tales concerning Arthur.
Another late tradition connects Arthur with a hillfort known as South Cadbury in Somerset. Some believe it is the location of Camelot, even though there is no mention of Camelot until as late as some twelfth or thirteenth century French literature:
When the Camelot Research Committee dug there between 1966 and 1972, they caused a sensation. On top of the fort, they found the 18-acre are had been refortified with a drystone wall, inside which had been timber buildings including the feasting hall of a Dark Age warlord. Elements of the refortification strongly recalled Roman military architecture; imported pottery from the Mediterranean gave a hint of aristocratic luxury and showed the buildings were occupied in the last quarter of the fifth century – precisely the time at which Arthur is supposed to have flourished (Wood 49).
The dig at Cadbury does not prove there was a King Arthur or a Camelot, but it does “prove that in the later fifth century (c. 470-500) someone was powerful enough to wall this hillfort, erect buildings and build gates; someone whose retinue was large enough to need such an extensive site; someone who built in a hybrid Roman-British style (45-50).”
The significance of this hillfort and others like it is not clear. They may represent the centralized control of a leader like Vortigern, or they may simply be part of small local kingdoms or local defenses. Dating at a number of sights link them with the period circa 470-500, when Arthur is thought to have lived and the wars with the Anglo-Saxons were being carried on.
We have established that both Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are folk epics with historical value and that each contains evidence of the existence of such Medieval societies as have been discussed herein. Perhaps there are further grounds for the writing or the telling of such tales. They appear to contain certain political and religious value.
Maybe these tales groomed their listeners for the political demands of the day. In both, the characters exhibit noble and desirable traits. Particularly noticeable is the idea of responsibility to a king and the virtues of courage and loyalty. Beowulf never backs down from the fight. Sir Gawain takes on the challenge for his king, Arthur. Both keep their work and commit themselves to the tasks at hand. This could be a lesson in fortitude and honor for future soldiers in any military.
It is interesting to note that the Anglo-Saxon tribes believed that the bloodline of their kings could be traced back to Odin (Wodin). some legends of Arthur suggest that he was chosen to be king because of his half Celtic and half Saxon origin. The Celtic half may have had magical origins owing to the religious rites of the Druids, according to some accounts.
There are some vague references to Christianity in Beowulf. One particular passage is peculiar because it seems disharmonious with the rest. The passage follows a pagan burial rite and precedes the rest of the tale which is about the activities of pagans. The passage is as follows:
Such was their custom, the hope of heathens; in their spirits they thought of Hell, they knew not the Ruler, the Judge of Deeds, they recognized not the Lord God, nor indeed did they know how to praise the Protector of Heaven, the glorious King. Woe is him who in terrible trouble must thrust his soul into the fire’s embrace, hope for no comfort, not expect change. Well is the man who after his death-day may seek the Lord and find peace in the embrace of the Father (Abrams 29).
It is strange that such a passage of condemnation should have been included by an original author in a tale glorifying the deeds of his people. More likely, this passage, and other such passages, may have been added to the story at a later time by a Christian writer as a kind of disclaimer. Because this tale is about pagans, it seems possible that the manuscript we have may be a product of more than one author, who had different religions and lived in different times.
By the time of the writing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Christianity has taken hold of England. Yet, much of the pagan traditions must have remained as is evidenced in the appearance of the Green Knight. The Celtic new year occurred at Beltane, on or about May 1. Perhaps in the tale, there is a confusion with the Christian new year, which is why a spring-time deity in the form of a green man appears to challenge Arthur’s court. The Norton Anthology suggests that “the motif of the green man’s decapitation originates in very ancient folklore, probably in a vegetarian myth in which the beheading would have been a ritual death that ensured the return of spring to the earth and regrowth of crops (Abrams 218). The green man surely represents a pagan god of Spring. He tempts Sir Gawain three times at this castle. Perhaps he challenges the Christianity as well as the virtue of King Arthur’s court.
Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have origins in ancient legends which may have been recounted many times throughout pre-history to children or maybe to warriors sitting around a fire. Both tales are classic folk epics, the motif of which may have one common ancient origin. Both seem to be spiritual as well as political allegories. they are evidence of the rich history of the land we know as England. The intertwining of legend and history in these stories have great power to entertain and inform. They are evidence of the early talent of the writers of England, a country that has been a source of the world’s greatest literature for centuries.
Abrams, M. H., ed. Norton Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1987.
Brooke, Christopher. The Saxon and Norman Kings. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.
Holman C. Hugh., ed. A Handbook to Literature. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986.
Lacy, Norris J., ed. The Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing company, 1986.
Laird, Charlton. The Miracle of Language. Greenwich, Ct: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1960.
Phillips, C. W. “Ancestor of the British Navy.” National Geographic, February 1941.
Wood, Michael. In Search of the Dark Ages. New York: Facts of Life Publications, 1987.