The act of being honorable has been written about and discussed for ages,beginning from The Laxdaela Saga to the more recent works by Tolkein, The Lordof the Rings. Throughout literary history authors have created and restoredfigures from all times that seem to represent what is honorable and chivalrous.
The two literary legends compared in this paper are Beowulf and Parzival. Thesetwo figures in their own way find within them what is virtuous. At firstimpression it seems as though Beowulf is the warrior who contains the honorwithin himself, but as the two characters are compared in depth, it becomesobvious that Parzival’s journey through manhood brings him to a much more nobleand honorable place.
Beowulf and Parzival’s journey’s began on the same path,each fatherless, they strove to search out what they saw as adventure. Theyjumped to whet their desires for the unknown and the chance to be a hero. Ayoung Beowulf, we learn, challenges a peer to a match of strength.
Unferth tellsthis tale of “when for pride the pair of them proved the seas and for atrite boast entrusted their lives to the deep waters, undissuadable by effortof friend or foe whatsoever from that swimming on the sea,”(Beowulf,65).
Beowulf’s stubborn pride lead him even at a young age to challenge what may haveseemed beyond his reach for glory. Later on, Beowulf hearing the horrific talesof the monster Grendel that had been reeking havoc at Heorot, abruptly left hishomeland to prove his gallantry. “The wiser sought to dissuade him fromvoyaging hardly or not at all,” but the strong-headed Beowulf refused tolisten to reason. Unlike Beowulf, Parzival was actually hidden from allopportunities of adventure by his mother. She fled to a place where she believedshe could escape all traces of knighthood, which she believed to be evil. Shewas not successful though, and as soon as Parzival laid his eyes on the god-likeknight, he made up his mind to leave his mother and all that he knew to seekadventure. The absence of her son drove her to an early grave. This action isone that Parzival was later deemed “unhonorable” for and one he deeplyregretted. These boys both started out young and refused to listen to the reasonof their elders. Against the wishes of the people who were wiser and moreexperienced, they let their pride and ambition overtake them. This did not showto be a promising beginning for either of them. Their roads do take a differentturns though. Beowulf, arriving at Heorot, is immediately described as a personwho, “has the head of a hero,” but his arrogance accompanies thishero-like status(Beowulf, 59). He proceeds to boast to all of the Hall of Heorot,that he is an accomplished fighter who has come to save them from this terriblemonster. He proclaims, “With bare hands shall I grapple the fiend, fight tothe death here”(Beowulf, 65). Though Beowulf is extremely arrogant, thereis some truth to what he boasts. He does perform in the manner in which hepromised, be with this success comes extreme arrogance that should not be foundin a true hero. Beowulf, unlike Parzival has already experienced combat. Hebrags that “fame-winning deeds have come early to hishands .. Men knewwell the weight of hishands. Had they not seen him come from fights wherehe had bound five Giants – their blood was upon him – cleaned out a nest ofthem.,”(Beowulf, 64). Beowulf was raised fighting and had never beendefeated, so he never really knew what it was like to not be successful.
Parzival did not expierence success until he learned what honor really was. Itwas said of him that, “No kurvenal had reared him, he knew nothing of finemanners,” (Parzival, 83) He seemed doomed to fail in the world of theknighthood, because of his lack of spiritual and physical training. He isdescribed as “naïve”, “simple”, and as a “rawyoung man” not at all prepared for he sought out in his vast world. Hisfirst encounter was with the Red Knight, Ither, who we later learn is a relativeof Parzivals’. Parzival battles with Ither and kills him. After the battle isfinished, Parzival stripped the corpse of its armor for himself. “Later onreaching years of discretion, Parzival wished he had not done it.” (Parzival,91) At this time in his life though, because of his ignorant nature andpreconcieved notions of knighthood, he does not see how this is wrong. A greatexample of Parzival’s ignorance is his tendency at a young age to takeeverything literally. When entering the Gral castle, which is where his greatestdishonor occurs, he is greeted by squires who try to help him dismount andremove his armor. Parzival proclaims, when asked to dismount, “It was aking who commanded me to be a knight,” and refuses to get down off thehorse (Parzival,92). Parzival takes the definition of knight literally. Aknight’s literal definition is “rider”, so because of his naiveté,Parzival would not dismount. He took the term Knight to be literal, and did notwant to dishonor himself be getting off the horse. He completely ignored thecommon reference to knighthood and made a fool of himself. Another example ofParzival’s naiveté in the realm of knighthood, is his failure to ask theGral King what is ailing him. This failure proves to be Parzival’s biggestmistake throughout the entire tale. He must spend the rest of his young liferepenting for his dishonor to the king. Through this repentance he learns andmatures. We never truly see this growth in Beowulf. When comparing what ishonorable between these notable characters, it is necessary to see where theywere at their strongest and weakest point. When Beowulf is at Herot, Hrothgarwarns Beowulf that he must beware the temptation of power, and that he mustalways be honest, fair, and just. Beowulf fights both Grendel and Grendel’smother, and comes up victorious in both struggles. There is honor in hisfighting these monsters, but it also seems that a great motivation for him isglory. He returns home and the kingdom falls upon his shoulders. With thisresponsability he proves that he is capable of being a great king and a virtuousleader. Parzival’s journey to greatness takes him on a much more difficult pathto virtuosity. The reader sees Parzival grow through being educated andencountering many life altering experiences. He is taught that to be honorable,”you must never lose your sense of shame,”(pg. 91). When he receivesthis advice, he is still at a point in his life where he does not completelyunderstand the notions of humility and integrity, but he begins to show somesigns of compassion. Parzival realizes his mistakes and knows that he must”make amends” for the wrongs he has done to others, (pg. 135). Thereader sees a natural progression in Parzival’s behavior. As the tale continues,the adjectives to describe him evolve from naïve and ignorant, to strong,valiant, and brave. He states, “may I forever be disgraced in this life andmy fame brought to naught; and that these words are fact let my prosperity standsurely in the eyes of Him Whose hand is highest…and let me be mocked anddamned in this life…I was a young fool-no man-not yet grown to years ofdiscretion.”(pg 141). Through his travels he grows to become chivalrous andhonorable. To fully compare Beowulf and Parzival though, one must define whathonor and chivalry really are. In Parzival, chivalry is described to be”endowed with two rich revenues: a true sense of shame and nobleloyalty.”(pg. 167). Beowulf seems to be lacking in ones of these areas. Hedoes not have a “true sense of shame.” As he grows older and rulesover his kingdom, he is faced with no real challenges, until a dragon in hiskingdom is disturbed. With only one man standing behind him to rally against thedragon, he goes on to fight this fateful battle. This step is extremelyignorant: as an old man, there is no way to defeat the dragon and survive. Asking, he has a duty to serve his people, and by challenging a fire breathingdragon, it is doubtful that he will come out victorious. This move is extremelypigheaded, because Beowulf does not have an heir to his throne and he will leavehis kingdom without a leader. This act of Beowulf’s shows excessive pride.
Beowulf does put up a good struggle and defeats the dragon, but by doing this healso kills himself and any real leader that Geatland had, and leaves the countryin chaos. It seems as though through the entire tale of the heoric Geat, henever learned anything; he never really made a transition in character. Withoutgrowth, it is very hard to be truly honorable. Parzival realizes his faults andasks to be guided and taught. He recognizes that he is a “sinner” andthrough trials and tribulations, he finds himself in an exalted position. Hisstory, unlike Beowulfs’ ends on a happy note. Parzival finds his true love andrules over the kingdom he was destined to lead. He becomes “worthy in God’seyes” and a “man of reputation and honor.”(pg 388, 394). Beowulfand Parzival begin their journey to honor on the same path, but only Parzivalexperiences fully emotional and spiritual growth. Beowulf never experiences anyhumbling confrontation, he only knows success. Beowulf though, never experiencestrue happiness. He never marries or bears an heir to his throne, and dies a sadold man. With Beowulf’s death, so goes the death of his kingdom. Parzival as ayoung man commits several sins, and does not fit the hero stereotype, butthrough his sins and misdeeds, he learns honor and virtue. Though Beowulf wassuccessful and seems to achieve everything in life, he never knew what it was tobe truly honorable like Parzival. Though Beowulf was successful and seemed toachieve everything in life, he never achieves true honor like Parzival.
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