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On the Change in Writing from Maldon to Gawain

As English societyís sense of physical security strengthened, the writings of the periods changed in style and genre, but retained the old values and heroic rhetoric.

In Battle of Maldon the characters boast, brag and tell directly what they are feeling, and they do this is several ways. The mead-hall imagery gives the author an opportunity to tell the reader about the integrity that was expected of each warrior. The character of Ælfwine articulates this: "Remember the speeches we have spoken so often over our mead, when we raised boast on the bench, heroes in the hall, about hard fighting." (Norton, 74). This mid-battle speech was delivered to remind his fellow fighters of their promises to be worthy warriors, and to raise their morale and courage. Similarly, the warriors would often make proud speeches of what they were about to do amidst the heat of battle, as does Leofsunn:

"I promise that I will not flee a footstep hence, but I will go forward, avenge my dear lord in the fight. Steadfast warriors about Sturmer need not reproach me with their words that now that my patron is dead I would go lordless home, abandon the battle. But weapon, point and iron, shall take me." (Norton, 74)

Using these devices, the author demonstrates that the warriors had rules, which were common-knowledge to them. There was extreme shame if they were not upheld, and the warriors were expected to fight to the death for the good of the clan. This seems a bit extreme by 20th century standards, but it was necessary for the survival of their culture.

Beowulf uses imagery that is similar to Battle of Maldon, but the tales are longer and more detailed, as they are no longer a historical account. They contain additional narrative information about what the characters are thinking and feeling. In boastful language similar to Battle of Maldon, Beowulf is described in line 758: "Then Hygelac‘s thane held to his boasting / mindful of his speech stood quickly then / tightened his fist ó fingers crackled." Beowulf is full of this kind of storytelling. What has changed, however, is the description and setting of scene lacking in Battle of Maldon, where only a simple, factual account of the battle is given. The poet tells vividly what is on the mind of Wiglaf:

. . . There swelled in one of them
shame thoughts in his mind.
No man can deny claims of kinship if he cares for valor. Wiglaf his name was . . .
He remembered the bounty from his blood-kin lord wealthy homestead of the Waegmundingas
all land and folk-right his father had owned
He could bear no shame brandished his shield,
yellow lindenwood, lifted on high
his old treasure-sword . . . (Beowulf ll. 2599-2611)

This language is more "story-like" than that of Battle of Maldon, since it gives insights into the characterís thoughts and feelings. This is different from the simple account of Maldon in that it entertains the reader, which is a major shift in focus and style. Instead of chronicling the heroic efforts of the warriors for posterity to emulate, Beowulf is more entertainment than a call to bravery.

Beowulf differs from Battle of Maldon in another way. The threat to society is not invasion by another culture; it is monsters and dragons. The shift from real history to a romantic story is a major shift in style and genre. The storyline of Beowulf is meant to entertain as well as to inform, and the warriorís code is more idealized to reflect this, but is still essentially the same as in Maldon. In the final confrontation in Beowulf, the "code" is what finally defeats the dragon, and this reminds the reader of the importance of loyalty and honor:

"Beloved Beowulf bear up your mind-strength
to finish this monster ó I will fight beside you."
After those help-words the angry serpent came
Raging gold-monster glaring with death-eyes
Flushed with fire-fury to flash away the life
Of that hateful challenger . . . The old battle-king
Remembered his glory-name mightily struck then
With his sharp blade-edge borne so strongly
That it stuck in that neck. (Beowulf ll. 2663-2680)

Sadly, Beowulf dies in the confrontation, but a lesson is taught; if Wiglaf and the other men had fought earlier, they would have been victorious, and Beowulf may have died needlessly.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses the same boastful language and sense of esprit de corps as the other works, but differs in that the story is very romantic and idealized, almost fanciful. The knights still exhibit the courage and resolution necessary to defend England from invaders, but the focus of the characterís speeches changes to personal honor: "Said Gawain, ëStrike me once more; / I shall neither flinch nor flee; / But if my head falls to the floor / there is no mending me!í" (ll. 2280-2283). This courageous attitude would be well-suited to a warrior on the battle field, but neither Gawain, nor any other knights in this story, encounter an outside threat to their kingdom. Gawain does not seem to be speaking from his heart as much as he is adhering to how he was taught to be, since it is only reluctantly that he volunteers, after Arthur speaks up. The speech Gawain makes is bold, but it does not have the same "punch" as the speeches made in The Battle of Maldon and Beowulf because he is not defending anything but his own honor, and not the survival of his culture.

Gawain is a human character in that he has faults. After being set up and tested by the Green Knightís wife, the Green Knight states: "She made trial of a man most faultless by far / Of all that has ever walked over the wide earth; / as pearls to white peas, more precious and prized, / So is Gawain, in good faith, to other gay knights" (ll. 2362-2365). The human frailty adds to the readerís sense of identification with this otherwise perfect knight, and his courage is hardly as steadfast as the warriorsí in Battle of Maldon. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the author sends Gawain on what seems to be a useless escapade, as far as the survival of the culture was concerned. It is as though the knights were so secure in their kingdom that they had nothing better to do than to seek adventure. Surely, the ideals of the chivalric code were borne out of more immediate, tangible and external threats. What has happened to these people is that their predecessors were so successful, the "the code" had become something of a clich�.

The change in tone and genre from Battle of Maldon to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the authorís reaction to the relative stability of England during these times. True, England was seldom secure in the modern sense, but the civilization had developed to the point where its standing armies were sufficient to dissuade minor attacks, and the "mega-heroism" of Maldon was no longer necessary. Literature often reflects the mood of its readers, and the shift from simple historical documentation in Battle of Maldon to wistful diversion in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight indicates a shift from constant war and survival to more leisurely lifestyles. The chivalric code remains the same in the most basic sense in the three textsówarriors should fight to the death, honor their king and clan, protect the people, and show no fearóbut the purpose behind the code changed dramatically as the society developed and strengthened. The change in genre and style from Maldon to Beowulf to Gawain reflects this.

Works Cited

Beowulf Trans. Frederick Rebsamen, New York: Harper Collins

The Battle of Maldon. Trans. E. T. Donaldson. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol. 1. M. H. Abrams Gen. ed. New York, London: Norton

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . Trans. Marie Borroff. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol. 1. M. H. Abrams Gen. ed. New York, London: Norton

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