Literature is always based on the adventures of different heroes. Especially for the epic literature, heroes are the symbols of different nations, countries, cultures. Heroes’ characteristics are shaped by their authors and they are profiled according to their authors’ peerless writing technique and imaginative power. One of the best known heroes (maybe the most widely known after the film Troy) is Achilles, whose character was developed in Homer’s famous work Iliad, as a courageous soldier, an admired and respected man. On the other hand, he has some unpleasant characteristics such as the lack of discipline, lustfulness, the desire of glory and selfishness. Another famous literary hero is Sir Gawain, who is created by an unknown writer and is put in the center of this unknown writer’s famous poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Gawain has the qualities of a hero including having a strong will, loyalty and bravery. These two heroes have some similar characteristics which they have in common with other heroes but also some serious differences. This assignment aims to compare and contrast different characteristics of Achilles and Sir Gawain.
To begin with the similarities, bravery is the first common characteristic of Achilles and Sir Gawain. Being brave can be considered as the basic condition to be a hero and it has always been expected from all heroes. Sir Gawain and Achilles are defined as brave individuals. In the Iliad, there are some quotations showing Achilles’ bravery such as “Achilles, swift of foot…”, “…peer of the plume-waving war God…” (Homer, book 22, p. 145). Sir Gawain is also shown in a very brave manner in the poem. When the Green Knight offers a challenge to anyone to come forward and strike him with his ax, only Sir Gawain accepts this challenge in order to save King Arthur. His bravery can also be understood from the conversation between the Green Knight and Sir Gawain. When the Green Knight says “Did I flinch or flee from you when your blow felled me”, Gawain replied; “Enough! I will not flinch when you hack!”(p. 81, line 2274-2280). This dialogue points out Sir Gawain’s bravery because he does not move even a bit while The Green Knight swings to chop off Sir Gawain’s head.
Another characteristic both Achilles and Sir Gawain have in common, is honor. Achilles has a tendency to influence people around him due to his honorable situation. Homer states in the Iliad “Patroclus did as his dear comrade had bidden him’’ (Homer, book 1, paragraph 31, line 1). Also, in the same work there is the quotation of Agamemnon, “That man is worth an entire army, the fighter Zeus holds dear with all his heart” (Homer, book 11, p. 141-142). Having understood honor in Achilles we can go on with Sir Gawain’s honor. When it comes to Sir Gawain the signals of honor can be found easily. In his opinion, he is the weakest one of all and if he lost his life, he would be the least missed. Of course, this is not true but it may be a necessity to be a hero like “Sir Gawain”. Moreover, if Sir Gawain had not accepted the challenge of the Green Knight, the person who would have accepted the challenge would be King Arthur. This is a proof of Sir Gawain’s honor because he chooses to risk his life in order to save the king, the symbol and the ruler of his country. The last main similarity between Sir Gawain and Achilles is their charismatic personalities. This property is one of the most important ones shared by all heroes. Their charismatic personalities allowed Achilles and Sir Gawain to control over the people around them. However, Sir Gawain does not prefer this way because he is very modest and in the poem there is not a single sentence related to his authority or something like that. This does not mean that he does not have a charismatic personality. Furthermore, in the book “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analysis”, there are statements like “more than a hundred are eager to serve him”, a phrase showing Sir Gawain’s charisma. Achilles benefits from his own charismatic status. By speaking and using his charismatic personality, he can easily convince his friends. Homer severally mentions that Achilles can easily make his friends including Patroclus to obey him. This is a proof that indicates his charismatic power. Whether they use this power or not in the history, heroes are associated with charisma.
Having stated the main similarities between the two heroes we can evaluate the differences in their personalities. They are unique individuals and they had their own life styles. These differences make them Sir Gawain and Achilles; two different heroes. The first difference they have is their physical endurance and strength. Sir Gawain is a normal human being whereas Achilles has some supernatural, godlike, features. Sir Gawain is a mortal knight but Achilles is almost immortal. This physical difference allows Achilles to move /fight more freely compared to sir Gawain. A question should be asked right here; in the place of Sir Gawain under the same circumstance (while The Green Knight is chopping off Sir Gawain’s head) could Achilles have been so fearless? Secondly, they are different from each other in the way they treat women and according to their attitudes towards authority. This dissimilarity takes an important part in the poems. Achilles is disrespectful towards the authority while Sir Gawain has deep respect to his king Arthur. “What a worthless, burn-out coward I would be called if I would submit to you and all your orders” (Homer, book 1, paragraph 23). This sentence shows Achilles’ brusque attitude towards King Agamemnon. He does not have any respect to any authority. On the other hand, Sir Gawain accepts the challenge on behalf of the King Arthur. According to him, maintenance of the authority is more important than his own life and thus, King Arthur must survive. The way Achilles treats women differs from Sir Gawain’s attitudes towards women. Achilles keeps Trojan king Priam’s girl and does not behave as if he treats a woman. In contrast to Achilles, Sir Gawain acts like a gentleman should do. In many parts of the poem his gentle attitudes towards women are mentioned. “Sir Gawain, spoke gently to her there, thank the lady” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analysis, p. 161). Obviously, the words ‘’gently, thanked’’ emphasize his courtesy. Other examples are “my lady, may good fortune ever follow you…” and “as your like, damsel” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analysis, p. 33). This strong dissimilarity makes Sir Gawain more admirable and respected.
In addition to all differences mentioned above, in terms of selfishness they are very different from each other. The reason that leads Sir Gawain to accept the challenge of the Green Knight is the feeling of self sacrificing. Possible death of King Arthur will cause many problems therefore Gawain thinks it should be himself who accepts the “challenge” or in other words “death”. This is the most important behavior that shapes Sir Gawain as a hero. Contrary to Sir Gawain, Achilles is a selfish individual in the earlier parts of the story but he later begins to change. In the early parts, apart from himself he does not care about anybody else.
Finally, in my opinion Sir Gawain is portrayed more positively than Achilles. Achilles is much more selfish and he has a big desire to have reputation. He does not even fight for his country but rather for glory, for being remembered after his death. However, Sir Gawain is shown as a real brave, self-sacrificing person who thinks of his country’s interests more than his personal benefit. On balance, it might not be fair to compare these heroes because they act according to the roles given to them by the authors. Neither Achilles nor Sir Gawain is perfect role-model heroes but still Sir Gawain except being too modest, is a good prototype of hero.
- Iliad by Homer, translated by Samuel Butler, “The Internet Classic Archive”, http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.html
- “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analysis” compiled by Elisabeth Brewer
- “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, “Sparknotes”, http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gawain/section4.rhtml