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 Lord of the Rings. Throughout literary history authors have created and restored figures from all times that seem to represent what is honorable and chivalrous. The two literary legends compared in this paper are Beowulf and Parzival. These two figures in their own way find within them what is virtuous. At first impression it seems as though Beowulf is the warrior who contains the honor within himself, but as the two characters are compared in depth, it becomes obvious that Parzival’s journey through manhood brings him to a much more noble and 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. They jumped to whet their desires for the unknown and the chance to be a hero. A young Beowulf, we learn, challenges a peer to a match of strength. Unferth tells this tale of “when for pride the pair of [them] proved the seas and for a trite boast entrusted [their] lives to the deep waters, undissuadable by effort of 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 have seemed beyond his reach for glory. Later on, Beowulf hearing the horrific tales of the monster Grendel that had been reeking havoc at Heorot, abruptly left his homeland to prove his gallantry. “The wiser sought to dissuade him from voyaging hardly or not at all,” but the strong-headed Beowulf refused to listen to reason.
Unlike Beowulf, Parzival was actually hidden from all opportunities of adventure by his mother. She fled to a place where she believed she could escape all traces of knighthood, which she believed to be evil. She was not successful though, and as soon as Parzival laid his eyes on the god-like knight, he made up his mind to leave his mother and all that he knew to seek adventure. The absence of her son drove her to an early grave. This action is one that Parzival was later deemed “unhonorable” for and one he deeply regretted.
These boys both started out young and refused to listen to the reason of their elders. Against the wishes of the people who were wiser and more experienced, they let their pride and ambition overtake them. This did not show to be a promising beginning for either of them.
Their roads do take a different turns though. Beowulf, arriving at Heorot, is immediately described as a person who, “has the head of a hero,” but his arrogance accompanies this hero-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 terrible monster. He proclaims, “With bare hands shall I grapple the fiend, fight to the death here”(Beowulf, 65). Though Beowulf is extremely arrogant, there is some truth to what he boasts. He does perform in the manner in which he promised, be with this success comes extreme arrogance that should not be found in a true hero.
Beowulf, unlike Parzival has already experienced combat. He brags that “fame-winning deeds have come early to [his]hands .. Men knew well the weight of [his]hands. Had they not seen [him] come from fights where [he] had bound five Giants – their blood was upon [him] – cleaned out a nest of them.,”(Beowulf, 64). Beowulf was raised fighting and had never been defeated, 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. It was said of him that, “No kurvenal had reared him, he knew nothing of fine manners,” (Parzival, 83) He seemed doomed to fail in the world of the knighthood, because of his lack of spiritual and physical training. He is described as “na?ve”, “simple”, and as a “raw young man” not at all prepared for he sought out in his vast world. His first encounter was with the Red Knight, Ither, who we later learn is a relative of Parzivals’. Parzival battles with Ither and kills him. After the battle is finished, Parzival stripped the corpse of its armor for himself. “Later on reaching years of discretion, Parzival wished he had not done it.” (Parzival, 91) At this time in his life though, because of his ignorant nature and preconcieved notions of knighthood, he does not see how this is wrong.
A great example of Parzival’s ignorance is his tendency at a young age to take everything literally. When entering the Gral castle, which is where his greatest dishonor occurs, he is greeted by squires who try to help him dismount and remove his armor. Parzival proclaims, when asked to dismount, “It was a king who commanded me to be a knight,” and refuses to get down off the horse (Parzival,92). Parzival takes the definition of knight literally. A knight’s literal definition is “rider”, so because of his naivet?, Parzival would not dismount. He took the term Knight to be literal, and did not want to dishonor himself be getting off the horse. He completely ignored the common reference to knighthood and made a fool of himself.
Another example of Parzival’s naivet? in the realm of knighthood, is his failure to ask the Gral King what is ailing him. This failure proves to be Parzival’s biggest mistake throughout the entire tale. He must spend the rest of his young life repenting for his dishonor to the king. Through this repentance he learns and matures. We never truly see this growth in Beowulf.
When comparing what is honorable between these notable characters, it is necessary to see where they were at their strongest and weakest point. When Beowulf is at Herot, Hrothgar warns Beowulf that he must beware the temptation of power, and that he must always be honest, fair, and just. Beowulf fights both Grendel and Grendel’s mother, and comes up victorious in both struggles. There is honor in his fighting these monsters, but it also seems that a great motivation for him is glory. He returns home and the kingdom falls upon his shoulders. With this responsability he proves that he is capable of being a great king and a virtuous leader.
Parzival’s journey to greatness takes him on a much more difficult path to virtuosity. The reader sees Parzival grow through being educated and encountering many life altering experiences. He is taught that to be honorable, “you must never lose your sense of shame,”(pg. 91). When he receives this advice, he is still at a point in his life where he does not completely understand the notions of humility and integrity, but he begins to show some signs of compassion. Parzival realizes his mistakes and knows that he must “make amends” for the wrongs he has done to others, (pg. 135).
The reader sees a natural progression in Parzival’s behavior. As the tale continues, the adjectives to describe him evolve from na?ve and ignorant, to strong, valiant, and brave. He states, “may I forever be disgraced in this life and my fame brought to naught; and that these words are fact let my prosperity stand surely in the eyes of Him Whose hand is highest?and let me be mocked and damned in this life?I was a young fool-no man-not yet grown to years of discretion.”(pg 141). Through his travels he grows to become chivalrous and honorable.
To fully compare Beowulf and Parzival though, one must define what honor and chivalry really are. In Parzival, chivalry is described to be “endowed with two rich revenues: a true sense of shame and noble loyalty.”(pg. 167). Beowulf seems to be lacking in ones of these areas. He does not have a “true sense of shame.” As he grows older and rules over his kingdom, he is faced with no real challenges, until a dragon in his kingdom is disturbed. With only one man standing behind him to rally against the dragon, he goes on to fight this fateful battle. This step is extremely ignorant: as an old man, there is no way to defeat the dragon and survive. As king, he has a duty to serve his people, and by challenging a fire breathing dragon, it is doubtful that he will come out victorious. This move is extremely pigheaded, because Beowulf does not have an heir to his throne and he will leave his 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 he also kills himself and any real leader that Geatland had, and leaves the country in chaos. It seems as though through the entire tale of the heoric Geat, he never learned anything; he never really made a transition in character. Without growth, it is very hard to be truly honorable.
Parzival realizes his faults and asks to be guided and taught. He recognizes that he is a “sinner” and through trials and tribulations, he finds himself in an exalted position. His story, unlike Beowulfs’ ends on a happy note. Parzival finds his true love and rules over the kingdom he was destined to lead. He becomes “worthy in God’s eyes” and a “man of reputation and honor.”(pg 388, 394).
Beowulf and Parzival begin their journey to honor on the same path, but only Parzival experiences fully emotional and spiritual growth. Beowulf never experiences any humbling confrontation, he only knows success. Beowulf though, never experiences true happiness. He never marries or bears an heir to his throne, and dies a sad old man. With Beowulf’s death, so goes the death of his kingdom. Parzival as a young man commits several sins, and does not fit the hero stereotype, but through his sins and misdeeds, he learns honor and virtue. Though Beowulf was successful and seems to achieve everything in life, he never knew what it was to be truly honorable like Parzival. Though Beowulf was successful and seemed to achieve everything in life, he never achieves true honor like Parzival.