The world of English literature has produced many diverse and astoundingly amazing works. Two of the most hailed pieces of literature to have graced the lives of readers throughout the ages are Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. These two poems have been around for a great number of years and have created many ripples across the lake of time. Despite its ancient roots, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight continue to be regarded as two the greatest masterpieces of English literature.
This essay will try to show the impact that these two different poems have had on English literature. It will show that despite the age of both poems, they continue to be relevant up to this very day. This essay will show that it is very much important to continue the reading, the study and the appreciation of these works, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as the other masterful pieces of English literature that have been available to schools and readers for a very long time.
Let us first dissect the epic poem, Beowulf, before we continue with the discussion of the importance of these two pieces. Beowulf was believed to have been written around the time 700 A.D. by an Anglo-Saxon poet. To this day, no one truly knows who wrote the poem but the last surviving manuscript of the poem was found to date back to the time 1000 A.D. and was speculated to have been in the hand of two different scribes. The original manuscript of Beowulf was written in the vernacular, Old English. (Melissa, 1997)
The importance of this piece to the entirety of English literature is both very simple and complex. To put it straightforwardly, Beowulf is the oldest surviving poem to have been written in Old English. This is of great importance because all of the poems recovered from that era were found to have been written in Latin. (Anonymous, 2006)
The importance of Beowulf in English literature, and in fact to the whole of world literature, is very clear even up to this very day. Because of the wars and battles raging across Europe in those earlier decades, very few literary manuscripts were able to survive. Beowulf, in fact, is the beacon and representative of the meager ten percent of the poetry written in Old English that have survived up to today. (Meyerhoff, 2006) What sets Beowulf apart from its other very few Old English counterparts is that it is an epic poem. In Britain, it has been accepted as a national epic. This is despite the debates and contestations regarding its merits as an epic poem.
The mere fact that Beowulf has survived time and history and is available to us today among the very small population of Old English works is enough to prod us to continue in our appreciation and study of the piece. But another importance of the literary piece remains in just that fact, that it has survived an era from which only very few literary works have. This suggests that scholars and even simple individuals are able to take a glimpse at the culture and traditions of that time.
Through Beowulf, we are able to see what these individuals held as important and what factors, both literary and in reality, they took into consideration. We say this not in a manner that will suggest taking Beowulf word for word as a historical timeline but rather in a manner that suggests reading deeper into Beowulf and understanding the thoughts and the emotions of the author. One such aspect of the epic poem that sheds light upon the culture of the said time is its constant use of the theme of Christianity. Although it is supposedly written in a pagan setting, the Christian theme in the poem is highly evident and unmistakable to any of its readers. (Yeager, 1999)
Perhaps the most amazing part about Beowulf as an epic poem is its resilience as a literary piece. Even though it has much merit as an aged piece and as a standard bearer of Old English poetry, Beowulf would not have survived throughout time if it did not have any other merits. The most important aspect of the epic poem, to my mind, is the fact that despite its age, it still continues to strike every reader deeply. It still calls forth the same emotions among its readers.
This is perhaps due to the way it was written. Although the events and places seen in the epic are strange to us, at the very core of the story, we find the same values and interests that are inherent in us even to this very day. Beowulf is so well-written that even to this day, it continues to enthrall and connect with its diverse readership. No matter how old you are, no matter what country you come from, you are able to recognize the masterful workmanship put into creating Beowulf.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Another much acclaimed piece of English literature is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was believed to have been written some time during the fourteenth century. It is considered to be a metrical romance, a romantic tale written in poetic form, about the life of Sir Gawain. (Weston, 1900)
Gawain was one of the more talked about characters of the Arthurian tradition. He far outstrips many of King Arthur’s knights in the number of romantic exploits written about his character. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knigh, Gawain exemplifies many of the virtues considered to be important in men of his stature. (Harper) This adds to the importance of the piece itself. With the different virtues that Sir Gawain is seen to have in the romantic poem, readers can easily see what the culture of the 14th century was like.
The virtues and culture held to be of importance during that time are extolled clearly in the character of Sir Gawain and can easily be identified through his various actions and descriptions in the poem. This is in contrast to other poems and literary pieces written about Gawain wherein he was portrayed as a flawed and even sometimes brutish character.
The importance of this piece may lie in the fact that its author was able to keep up a play of words wherein the reader can derive several different interpretations. This allowed for many different reactions and critics regarding the piece. (Goodlad, 1987)This is probably what kept the piece alive for so long. With regards to literature, it has opened the way for readers to regard different pieces with more wariness, viewing these pieces as perhaps holding more interpretations than that initially viewed.
It also holds much importance as a literary piece that defied the genre from which it came. Instead of relinquishing to the trend of producing literary pieces that were straightforward and direct in their presentation of storylines and themes, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s wordplay and alliterative presentation brought a new style of writing to the fore. To this day, we can witness many new pieces of literature that have taken tot his style of writing providing readers with much more thought-provoking and reflection-inducing pieces. It is safe to say that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has done much to enrich English literature.
Anonymous. (2006). Beowulf. Spark Notes Retrieved 7 January 2008 from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/beowulf/context.html
Goodlad, L. (1987) The Gamnes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 18(1), Retrieved 7 January 2008 from http://repositories.cdlib.org/cmrs/comitatus/vol18/iss1/art4
Harper, R. Gawain. The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester Retrieved 7 January 2008 from http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/cphome.stm
Meyerhoff, S. (2006). The Question of Genre in Byliny and Beowulf. The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies, 4, Retrieved 7 January 2008 from http://www.sras.org/news2.phtml?m=629&print=1
Snell, M. (1997) Beowulf. About.com Retrieved 7 January 2008 from http://historymedren.about.com/od/beowulf/p/beowulf.htm
Weston, J. L. (1900) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Retrieved 7 January 2008 from http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/sggk.htm
Yeager, R. (1999) Why Read Beowulf? Humanities, 20(2) Retrieved 7 January 2008 from http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/1999-03/yeager.html