Both Beowulf and Redcrosse Knight exemplify the perfect hero in two separate periods, The Middle Age & The Early Modern Period. The story of Beowulf shows the effect of the spread of Christianity in the early Danish paganistic society that values heroic deeds and bravery above all else. Beowulf’s heroism is explored in three separate conflicts, those with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the sea monster. Redcrosse Knight, the protagonist of “The Faerie Queen,” stands for the virtue of Holiness—though he is the individual Christian fighting against evil. What is a hero? According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, a hero is a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life.
“The Faerie Queen,” written during the early modern period, narrates a massive change in Christian religious thoughts and practices. Redcrosse Knight offers his services to Gloriana, Queen of Fairyland. Una (representing truth) reveals that the dragon of hell has captured her parents and that she needs assistance in getting them free. Redcrosse takes on the challenge of getting her parents released (Canto 1). This demonstrate a hero, he will go through great trials and fight fierce monsters and this in itself is the character of a heroic knight. Not only does his armor protect his body and those with him, but also being a Christian (Protestantism) he has the protection of Christ. For the Christian to be holy, he must have true faith.
Much of Beowulf is dedicated to verbalizing and demonstrating the heroic code, which values strength, courage, and loyalty in soldiers, hospitality, generosity, political skill, and good reputation in all people. The heroic code is crucial to warrior societies as a way of understanding their relationships to the world and the danger waiting outside their borders. Redcrosse Knight, conversely, accustom to the chivalric code, must defeat villains who impersonate the falsehood of the Roman Church. Redcrosse must defend the natural realm of villains plus the spiritual realm of evilness. The rich qualities of loyalty, humility, sacrifice for the good of others, and sympathy for those less fortunate are seen woven into the text as well as the negative consequences from greed and pride. He encounters several evildoers, the dragon from hell, Archimago (evil sorcerer), Sansfoy (without faith), Sansloy (without the law of god), Duessa/Fidessa (falsehood and the Roman Church) to name a few. These evildoers fight Redcrosse Knight through deceit, lust, and untruth. Therefore he must be armed with faith in Christ to overcome the evils of the spiritual realm.
As we can see, equally Beowulf and Redcrosse Knight have a vast amount of bravery. They both defeat enemies that attack or capture innocent people. They both constantly pray to Christ for assistance in fighting off evil they encounter as well as having sympathy for those in distress. These qualities idealized by thanes and knighthood, such as bravery, courtesy, honor, and gallantry toward women are visible in both Beowulf and Redcrosse Knight.
One variation is that women are not as prominent in the Old English period and women are in the Middle Age period. We see this in both poems. In Beowulf we only hear about Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, and Grendel mother. However in “The Faerie Queene,” we see many women characters, Gloriana, Una, Duessa/Fidessa, Lucifera (Hell), Caelia (Heavenly), Fidelia (Faith), Sperenza (Hope), and Charissa (Charity). In some way or another Redcrosse has a connection to these women, good and bad.
Additionally both heroes have an encounter with a character from hell. Beowulf dives into the lake (personification of hell) where Grendel’s mother is waiting to attack. He cannot cut her with his sword, so he tosses it away and finds a larger sword killing Grendel’s mother by cutting her head off. He sees Grendel dead body nearby and cuts off his head as a trophy and return to Denmark (pg. 61, 1356-84). This expresses an important virtue, loyalty. Redcrosse Knight encounters Lucifera (Queen of Hell) and the parade of vices. He has been weakened by his visit to the House of Pride. Although he had the instinctive good sense to flee from that castle, his conscience is still at work. This failure leads him near death in the dungeon of Orgoglio, a giant that represents godless pride. Arthur (represents magnificence) comes along and helps Redcrosse rise up from his lowest state (Canto 7). Redcrosse also defeats the dragon. Just as Christ descended to hell to defeat Satan, Redcrosse had to enter the hellish mouth of the dragon to finally kill it. He is not victorious alone he is saved twice by very timely help. The Well of Life and The Tree of Life, both represents the grace that God gives to mankind, which aids Christian in danger of falling prey to sin (Canto 10). No matter how well equipped or prepared a Christian is, he is no match for sin and death without the underserved grace of God. Thus the message about the Christian life is one of humility; we can never take the credit for God’s victory.
Another similarity of both these warriors are rewards for being heroes, however in very different ways. After Beowulf kills Grendel he is consider the greatest hero in Danish history. Hrothgar says that Beowulf will never lack for riches, the horses and men of the Geats were all richly adorned, and a party was held to celebrate Beowulf’s victory (pg. 48-52, 710-915). Redcrosse Knight, on the other hand, will receive his reward in heaven. If he continues to live sinless and fight against evildoers he will receive eternal life. The battle will not end until the end of the world, when Christ will reveal which religion is false and which is true. While the code maintains that honor is gained during life through deeds, Christianity asserts that glory lies in the afterlife. Christian doctrine also advocates a peaceful, forgiving attitude toward one’s enemies (Canto 12).
Just as they both have similarities Redcrosse Knight has flaws as well. Redcrosse runs into Despair, a gloomy old man that knows Redcrosse’s sin and weaknesses and almost persuades him to take his own life. Despair is not one of the seven deadly sins however a Christian should not be caught in despair, as it is a sin to take your own life. Again as a noble and courageous knight, Redcrosse obtain assistance from Caelia and her daughters in the House of Holiness to regain his strength.
In both poems, Beowulf and Redcrosse Knight developed from heroic warriors into wise leaders. Beowulf rises from an unfretted warrior to a reliable king and Redcrosse Knight eventually becomes St. George, the patron saint of England. Both possessed the necessary characteristics to become very successful nobles. Though these two outlooks are somewhat oppositional, each character acts as society dictates. Beowulf acted as a hero-warrior and Redcrosse as a chivalric-warrior. Though their Christian values are somewhat similar. The images of warrior code presented in both poems are significant roles that are important to Christian life—Faith and Holiness. As stated in the Bible “Faith without works is dead.”
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