How is the male hero constructed in The Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 

This was a 2015 essay for the English Literature module of my Creative Writing degree.

In both The Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the hero is shown and embellished to the reader by his involvement with the trials of a quest or journey and how he reacts to the obstacles and trials during that journey. Odysseus and Gawain are presented through the situations in which they find themselves and their heroic struggles within that constraint. It is about how they deal with, for example: women, nature, their expected behaviour, such as Gawain’s chivalric values, or Odysseus being at the mercy of the gods, and it is through this that we learn more of our hero.

Handed down from these texts, the quest, or epic journey has become a popular plot format for modern writers and simply involves taking the reader from point A to point B. In film this has become known as a road movie, a linear progression where the characters learn and develop on the way. The plot shapes our hero for us. Through his trials we learn more of him. According Burrow, in reference to Sir Gawain, this “experience of literature as a linear art … [comes from] an oral age” (Burrow, 1966, p.1). He states that the linear progression suits being delivered orally as both texts would have been handed down in this way before they were committed to print. This lends both plots the ability to reveal more of the hero’s character as we progress. As Hall quotes Northrop Frye: “of all fictions, the marvellous journey is the formula that is never exhausted”. (Hall, 2012, p.II)

Whereas Sir Gawain is a quest and homecoming the Odyssey quest is constructed just as a homecoming which according to (Murnaghan, 2000, p.xiii) “The story of the returns of the major Greek heroes was a favourite subject of heroic song.” Which again is a reference to the oral origins mentioned by Burrow for the Sir Gawain story. Although in the Odyssey our hero is investigated further by a long sequence once he has returned home. This is important to the embellishment of our hero Odysseus “who is presented as the hero best suited to the arduous task of homecoming and the one whose return is both the most difficult and protracted and the most joyful and glorious.” (Murnaghan, 2000, xiii). Unlike other Greek heroes like the hero Agamemnon “whose own return failed just at the point when he reached home.” (Murnaghan, 2000, xiv). Which suggests that the character of the hero Odysseus is further embellished by his struggles not only in the homecoming quest but through his actions to reassert himself once home. The difference between The Odyssey and Sir Gawain is that Gawain starts from home and returns home in the story, a circular journey. Whereas Odysseus starts from one point and returns home. Though they are still linear in the way one event follows another progressing, step by step, though time and revealing our hero through the changes they undergo from their experiences.

Much of the story deals with how our heroes are entrapped and deal with women. With Odysseus the main ones being Calypso and Circe; with Gawain: Lady Bertilak and Morgan le Fay. The differences in how they deal with these women differ due to the time in which they were written. Gawain has a set of rules to abide by, these include chivalry and courtly love. Ulysses tends to have less restrictions to his actions but for those implemented by the gods. Gawain is restricted by the rules he has to abide by whereas Ulysses is restricted by the circumstance in which he finds himself and what is imposed upon him by the third party. Gawain is constantly tempted by Lady Bertilak: “Bertilak’s hunting in the forest is interlaced with his wife’s temptation of Gawain” (Miyares, 2002, p.191). Almost as if Gawain were as hunted as the creatures of the forest. Not only must he deal with her attentions but there are the rules imposed by Lord Bertilak in that whatever Gawain experiences must be imparted to Lord Bertilak. This differs to Ulysses in that we already assume he is bonding with the women, it is more about how he escapes their clutches. Gawain suffers much torment:

‘I shall not succumb,’ he swore to himself.
With affectionate laughter he fenced and deflected
all the loving phrases which leapt from her lips. (Armitage, 2009, p.82).

This gives the impression that she is desperately trying to tempt him into relations and being the noble knight that he is, he resists her with strength of mind and character. Her role here is the seductress, though one has the feeling she is just trying to entrap him and that there would never actually be physical relations. Courtly love would forbid this. The kiss he has to then pass on to Bertilak is as far as it goes. “… one fears Gawain’s fate may be parallel to that of the killed and gutter deer, boar and fox.” (Miyares, 2002, p.192). Miyares also goes on to argue that Gawain’s “robust warrior-hero consciousness makes him a poor player in the subtle hunting game, as he responds to it with undue anxiety.” Indeed Gawain is very restricted by the chivalric rules imposed upon him. We are in fear of Gawain going too far and receiving violent retribution from Lord Bertilak, but we realise that Gawain is never going to take that step, unlike Ulysses, were it is very much expected.

For Ulysses we have no chivalric restrictions however, he co-habits and sleeps with Calypso for seven years, where he is her prisoner. Instead of relying on his own strength of character he pleads to the gods to remove him from her company. As the gods discuss:

he’s still languishing on that island, detained
Against his will by that nymph Calypso
No way in the world for him to get back to his land. (Lombardo, 2000, p.70).

Though these women are painted as seductresses in both Sir Gawain and the Odyssey the way the hero deals with it is different. Gawain relies on his strength of character as an upstanding knight, and Ulysses relies on the gods to remove him from this nymph who he is powerless to resist. In the end Ulysses is missing his wife so much he tells the gods to get Calypso to let him go.

Much of both the Odyssey and Sir Gawain present the heroes struggling against nature. This further drives the plot and reveals more of our heroes in how they deal with it.

… Medieval society lived hand in hand with nature, and nature was as much an enemy as a friend. It is not just for decoration that the poem includes passages relating to the turning of the seasons, or detailed accounts of the landscape, or graphic descriptions of our dealings with the animal kingdom. (Armitage, 2009, p.vii)

Undertaking a journey in those times would have been long and hard. Winter would have made food vary scarce. Animals in those times would have been exceedingly dangerous. We learn more of both Ulysses and Sir Gawain’s characters as they battle the elements and all that nature puts in their paths. Gawain passes “through mud and marshland, a most mournful man” (Armitage, 2009, p39). Often in the case of Ulysses nature is often influenced by the gods: “the great seafaring ship … Poseidon slapped it with the flat of his hand” (Lombardo, 2000, p.197). Both would have been in constant need of food and both often are taken in by a kindly soul, or someone with an agenda, and given a feast and a bed. Food is often well covered in the Odyssey as (Hall, 2012, p.11) notes: “Much food preparation and eating is described, including the touching scene where Odysseus delights Demodocus by passing him a chunk of roast pork ‘with plenty of fat’, sliced from the sumptuous joint”. There is often a lot made of food and in those days of scarcity one can imagine why, especially with the oral tradition this could have been related by hungry souls. As for Gawain: “…the outdoors is associated with winder hardship, the rigours of Gawain’s quest, and contrasted with the desirable indoor world of festive well-being.” (Burrow, 1966, p.87). The compare and contrast method is well, and often, executed to enhance the effect, both on the reader and to embellish our heroes resolve. While Gawain battles with the landscape Odysseus is often battling with the sea: “it [the sea] dominates Book 5, which includes Odysseus’ heroic swimming feat. When the storm smashes his raft” (Hall, 2012, p.13). We are shown more here of his heroic, almost godlike, desire to survive; coming though something that would kill a lesser man.

Derived from an oral tradition the Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stories were embellished for many years before being committed to text. We can see this in the linear plot structures which lend themselves to exciting revelations and plot twists which embellish and develop our heroes. These are stories to be told and enjoyed. Both Gawain and Odysseus are developed as heroic characters by the situations that the plot delivers them to. This includes great struggles with nature and the landscape: the desire for survival, restrictions of hunger, exhaustion and the threats of nature and climate. Then their own personal restrictions: for Gawain his chivalric values, his code of conduct, and for Odysseus the gods and keeping his position. This affects the way they deal with the seductress women and the way they are expected, and we ourselves expect them, to behave to the other characters, enemies and friends alike. In the final analysis we know, from all we have learnt of our heroes, and from all that has been presented to us, that they are the ones best suited to survive, not only the quest, but the test of time, and remain our heroes throughout the ages.

 

Bibliography

Armitage, S. (2009) ‘Introduction’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Armitage, S. London: Faber & Faber Ltd.

Burrow, J. A. (1966) A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Hall, E. (2012) The Return of Ulysses, A Cultural History of Homer's Odyssey. London: I. B. Tauris

Miyares, R. V. (2002) Sir Gawain and the Great Goddess [online] Oviedo, Spain. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232926726_Sir_Gawain_and_the_Great_Goddess (accessed: 9 Dec 2015)

Murnaghan, S. (2000) ‘Introduction’ in Homer, The Odyssey, translated by S. Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett.

 

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