Sides of a Coin: Sir Gawain and Robin Hood as Heroic Foils

Sir Gawain, as an extension of King Arthur, and folk hero Robin Hood, are heroic characters that both figure in the British literary tradition. Their narratives have both contributed to the construction of national history, and have been used to depict British identity—as literature is wont to do. Their heroism, as manifested in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and History of Robin Hood, respectively, are equal in significance; however, the values on which their heroism is based differ, precisely because they act as foils to each other. This is further supported when reading into their characters in terms of their social standing, their reactions to the directive of their courts, and their respective villains.

In literature, the term foil has been used to describe characters that contrast each other in order to accentuate certain characteristics. However, there are also instances in which the characters can be dramatically similar, in order to further emphasize their key differences. Sir Gawain and Robin Hood fall in the latter category of literary foils. For one thing, they are both members of the aristocratic elite. In Roger Lancelyn Green’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain introduces himself as “son of King Lot of Orkney, and nephew to royal Arthur” (476) In addition, not only is he a member of Arthur’s line—in other legends, the king’s rightful successor—he is also a knight of the Round Table, a collective whose fame and valor has been heard of for their bravery and high virtue (476) The text establishes the knight as royal and well-versed in the ways of the court by virtue of his standing—Gawain is established as favored.

Although it is questionable at best and grasping at worst to consider Robin Hood’s station as in the same level of acclaim as Gawain, it can nevertheless be denied that he belongs to the same social class. In the text, it is said that “[his] mother was sister to Squire Gamewell, of Gamewell Hall” (Pyle 463) Through his mother, he is a nobleman, and the presumed heir to his uncle’s estate. However, upon the latter’s death, monks (who were in possession of the title after coercing the dying man into signing it over) “shut the doors against [Robin Hood] and would give him nothing to support himself” (463-64) While he was robbed of his inheritance, his nobility remains intact even as he goes into the woods.

Both Gawain and Robin Hood are members of the aristocracy, though perhaps the former is higher up than the outlaw. It is in this similarity that they foil each other, as their responses to their royalty differ despite their station. In the text, Gawain is spurred to his heroism in order to defend the integrity of the court to which he belongs. When Arthur is threatened, his authority endangered, Gawain speaks up—he rises to his feet, saying,

‘My lord king and noble uncle, grant me a boon! Let this adventure be mine, for still there is my old shame unhealed: still I have to prove my worth as a Knight of your Round Table, still to fit myself to be a champion of Logres.’ (Green 476)

His reaction to a slight on his court is immediate defense. Despite the apprehension shown by the other knights present, Gawain takes up the challenge that Arthur had so hastily responded to, and so upholds his king’s sovereignty. His response is representative of values of courtly conduct and diplomacy—traits for which he will later be known.

Robin Hood, on the other hand, responds to the court in the opposite. Instead of rising to its defense, he become its source of antagonism. Though loyal to the king (“God save him! and confound all his enemies!” [sic] 467) he is nevertheless an outlaw. He lives outside the court’s rule, and bands together with other young men in a court of their own. He forfeits the benefit of his stature, and so doesn’t have the predilection towards upholding the integrity of his nobility. Unlike Gawain who responds in duty, Robin Hood is more concerned with heroism that brings to the fore his opposition to the dominant power behind the court—in Howard Pyle’s iteration, the Catholic church. He responds in duty—not to the court, nor his king—but to the people. His allegiance is to “women and children, and the poor people around me; it is only from the miserly rich, and those who live upon the labors of others, that [he takes] anything” (467)

These different responses inform the reading of their respective villains. For Gawain, this is the Green Knight, the Lord Bertilak. The text describes him as almost a monster—a sight to behold, yes, but a monstrous one at that. The Green Knight is first introduced as a “strange and terrible figure” but the text also goes to great lengths to describe him as “[riding] as a knight should” (Green 475) This can be read as an Other for whom Gawain can see a representation of that which he strives to protect. Bertilak is different; he is frightening. But he is also bound by the same courtly rules on which Arthur and the knights operate. Thus, Gawain has an instinctive understanding of how to approach him. They are bound by the same values of chivalry; however he strikes the Green Knight, he is to be struck in the same vein. The power plays they engage in later, where the Lady Bertilak comes into the picture, still retain an acknowledgment of an honor code (as in Gawain’s refusal of the Lady’s invitation to her bed, and his unrelenting honor in providing the Lord with the kisses given him).

With Robin Hood, his villain is not separate from the court and so his actions necessarily are separate from its values. In terms of abstract symbolism, he fights against oppression (of the poor, by the church). In the text, this is represented by his mockery of the monks and the rich, his disdain for the ordained (“[He] heard the bishop’s name who was his great enemy” 465). How he fights against this does not rely on fair play. There is subterfuge involved, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to undermine his enemies, but also because his character requires it (“Robin Hood, who loved a good joke as well as a good booty” 464). Because he has moved away from intricacies of courtly manner—has gone against it, in fact—he is not bound to acting in good faith. That the Church embodies that only serves to portray Robin Hood’s heroism as in-character—and a foil to Gawain’s. Unlike Gawain, an honor code does not apply to him.

These similarities and differences portray both Sir Gawain and Robin Hood as nuanced characters who are perhaps more alike than at first glance. They figure into the same narratives of struggle, but foil each other in an attempt to provide a clearer understanding of the two kinds of heroism that have informed British literature and identity. Gawain is a hero of the court; Robin Hood is a hero of the people. Though they differ in the factions of society for which they fought, they are both models of heroism that have contributed to English mythos.

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