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Comparing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Song of Roland

In mythological Europe, knightly heroes abounded whereever one could choose to roam. There are hundreds of tales of knights who embodied the concept of chivalry, slew huge dragons, slew legions of foes in single combat, and still made it home in time for dinner. Of all these tales, ballads and poems, a few have risen to the fore front of the genre as an example for the rest of the stories to follow. I will be comparing the positive and negative personality traits of two heroes from the famous poems “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and “The Song of Roland.

On the lighter side, both Gawain and Roland had more positive ttributes than they did negative. Both men were honorable, almost to a fault. For example in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Gawain agreed to be on time for his own execution: “Nor I know you not, knight, your name nor your court. But tell me truly thereof, and teach me your name, and I shall fare forth to find you, so far as I may, and this I say in good certain, and swear upon oath. ” (G&GK, pt. 1, ln. 0-403)

Gawain’s agreement might have been honorable, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly bright. Roland had the same type of problem. His honor also got him to into trouble. One perfect example of this was when Roland made his Uncle Ganelon so angry by antagonizing him that Ganelon used Roland’s concept of honor to make Roland take the rear guard and be slaughtered.

Roland antagonized Ganelon by saying: “Quoth Roland: ‘ Ganelon my step she is the man” (SOR, ln. 9) Roland also felt honor bound not to call for reinforcements against the pagan horde until almost every single one of the knights were dead. “Companion Roland, your Olifant now sound! King Charles will hear and turn his armies round; hell succour us with all his kingly power. ‘ Roland replies: ‘may never god allow that I hould cast dishonour on my house or fair France! ” (SOR, ln. 1063-1068) To go along with that incredible sense of honor, Gawain was the best man in King Arthur’s court with weapons.

Gawain might have been fairly humble about it, but the poet emphasizes Gawain’s prowess with weapons by self deprecation. “While so bold men about upon benches sit, that no host under heaven is hardier of will, Nor better brothers-in-arms where battle is joined; I am the weakest, well I know” (G&GK, ln. 351-354) Roland was even more so, fighting exquisitely with sword, lance, and ax to defeat egions of pagans in “The Song of Roland. ” “Leopard nor lion ne’er grew so fierce as he (Roland)” (SOR, ln. 15)

Both Roland and Gawain are portrayed as totally above board and honest. Gawain promises to show up for his execution, and indeed he does. Roland promises to take up the rear guard with a minimum of men. Both of these men embodied the attributes of chivalry. On the other hand, some of those same attributes helped to get Gawain and Roland into trouble. For example, even though both Gawain and Roland were honorable, Gawain nearly lost his head due to his honor when he ade his deal with the Green Knight to trade blows in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’.

Gawain’s lack of fear also caused him to take on opponents much more dangerous than he could handle by himself. When the Green Knight suddenly popped into existence in the middle of King Arthur’s hall on a green horse, it shouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist to figure out that a non-magical fighter isn’t going to fare too well against this particular opponent. Roland had the same problem. Taking on incredibly long odds was apparently a knightly characteristic that wasn’t on the ‘most desirable chivalric habits’ list.

Neither of the two appeared to be much of a people person, antagonizing and fighting with people who were better off being friends. Gawain was involved in an affair (stole some kis ses! ) with the Green Knight’s wife while he was vacationing in their castle prior to his scheduled meeting with the Green Knight as he had agreed to the previous New Year’s Eve. Roland angered Ganelon and paid for it with his life. Roland just wasn’t too bright when it came to politics, apparently. All of these attributes might be considered undesirable in a knight.

Though the characteristics of honor, fearlessness, and poor people kills might seem to be perfect for a knight, a perfect hero just doesn’t seem realistic to a listener or a reader with out some sort of a vice or flaw. It makes them seem closer and more human to who the reader. This is important to a good story, simply because if a hero is totally unbelievable the ballad becomes more of a tall tale or a story to be laughed at. And while it might be fun to laugh at a “B” ballad every once in awhile, it just doesn’t compare to a good action plot line. As a result, Gawain and Roland each flaws. Roland’s just happens to be terminal.

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