Gawain embodies many of the characteristics of the chivalric knight and hero, among them, modesty, honesty, commitment, courage, and an even temperament.
He also engages in the activities that define heroes: a journey, a challenge, and the proof of his worth.
What is especially interesting is that the way in which the tale is structured and narrated permits the reader to observe two different types of heroism: the heroism of youth and the heroism of an older, wiser, and more mature warrior.
In his youth, the physical characteristics of heroism are emphasized.
However, the two heroes differ in the way that they demonstrate these virtues.
Beowulf meets evil monsters which represent the opposite of the warrior spirit: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the fire dragon.
Although he is almost beyond reproach, he does commit a single error, and it is this mistake that serves as the incident around which the lesson of the tale is developed.
Because Sir Gawain is so concerned with maintaining his reputation and image as a chivalrous knight, he tells a lie by omission to his host regarding the green girdle that belongs to the host’s wife.
In his older age the feats of heroism are more subtle, more abstract, and one might question his decision to battle one final time, resulting in his death wound and his people’s loss of their king.
While not false modesty, Sir Gawain hides some of the more base aspects of himself, including his sexual passion.
It is this passion that gets him in trouble and knocks him down a peg, leaving him feeling chastened.
These heroes must be constantly alert to potential threats caused by evil forces who wish to do them harm and create social disorder.
In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," the reader meets a heroic figure who embodies all of the ideal qualities of a chivalrous knight. At the same time, though, he is always aspiring to a higher position and thus seeks to protect and elevate his reputation while affecting an air of modesty.