Literary works that began during the Anglo Norman period and extended through up until Shakespearean poetry had a strong emphasis on moral teachings. This period in England was marked by a strong influence of the Reformation and the Code of Chivalry which shaped society around basic, universal morals. As observed through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Doctor Faustus by the Pearl Poet and Christopher Marlowe, respectively, the supernatural and magical elements in these poems provided a basis upon which the morals of key characters in them would be tested and observed as a form of entertainment that widely spread Christian/Protestant ideals and ideals from the Code of Chivalry.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the actions and appearance of the Green Knight in King Arthur’s court pose as a challenge to the Code of Chivalry to the Knights of the Round Table. The Green Knight, described as “a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human from head to hips, so long and thick in his loins and his limb I [one] should genuinely judge him to be a half giant,” (lines 137-140), is viewed to be an immense supernatural human who challenges the fabled chivalry of King Arthur’s knights.
The use of a being that is perceived to be so powerful and massive places a direct challenge towards the Code of Chivalry and exemplifies its value to the knights when not only does King Arthur accept the Green Knight’s challenge to the beheading game, but also through Sir Gawain’s selfless act of replacing and sacrificing himself to preserve the King’s life (“For I find it unfitting, as my fellow knights would, when a deed of such daring is dangled before us that you [King Arthur] take on this trail…I am weakest of your warriors and feeblest of wit; loss of my life would be least lamented”.
The Pearl Poet uses the daunting and intimidating figure of the Green Knight and the actions of Sir Gawain to particularly uphold the Code of Chivalry and show its importance towards the preservation of the King’s life and of the honor of Camelot.
Additionally, the major challenge of the Code of Chivalry involved in the poem is that of posing a true threat towards Sir Gawain’s life as he must fulfill a death sentence after observing the Green Knight’s magical ability to walk away from Camelot after being beheaded by Sir Gawain. “For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist,” (line 444). This contextual evidence of the Green Knight’s actions after being beheaded furthered his formidable façade against which Sir Gawain continued to pursue to fulfill his promise. Overall, Sir Gawain’s pursuance to challenge the Green Knight and follow through with his promise to be beheaded by the Knight gave the poem a strong focus on the morals and extent to which the Code of Chivalry was valued at the time.
On the other hand, in Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, a strong emphasis was placed on the Christian ideals of predestination and humanism that, through Dr. Faustus’ deal with Satan, was exemplified through the supernatural presence of Lucifer and Mephastophilis. In terms of magic, the poem’s basis for the overreaching character of Dr. Faustus involved Dr. Faustus’ lust to perform dark magic and learn more about the world. Dr. Faustus’deal, one carried out with Lucifer and facilitated through the demon Mephastophilis in which “Faustus hath bequeathed his soul to Lucifer,”(lines 74- 75), and insistence of pursuing a path of sin and no remorse posed a challenge towards Dr. Faustus’ ability to control his destiny. In terms of predestination, Dr. Faustus is identified by the audience as an overreacher who continues to place himself in darker situations and is locked into a binding deal with Lucifer.
On the other hand, humanism is employed in the work through the advice given by Mephastophilis (a demon well versed in the horrors of hell) and the Old Man. The advice to not continue through with Dr. Faustus’ deal with Lucifer and to repent and show remorse for his actions reveal an opportunity to control one’s own destiny, especially due to the fact that Dr. Faustus is told that repentance would eventually make his soul be seen as favorable to God despite his twenty four year deal with Lucifer. “Adders and Serpent, let me breath awhile! Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer! I’ll burn my books-oh, Mephastophilis!” (Scene 13 lines 111-113).
It is evident in the final lines of the poem that Marlowe eventually reveals Dr. Faustus to be remorseful in the face of death to signify that all of his bad actions and short sided mind for power eventually lead to an outcome that, even through dissuasive advice, Dr. Faustus ultimately regretted. This emphasized the morals of good and discouragement of sin to the audience.
Overall, the use of the supernatural and the magical elements of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Doctor Faustus emphasized and exemplified the moral principles of society at the time the works were written. In regards to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Code of Chivalry was continually challenged by the disheartening image and magical actions of the Green Knight. Additionally, in Doctor Faustus, Dr. Faustus’ Christian ideals/morals are viewed as compromised and, through Dr. Faustus’ demise, portray the significance of heeding to advice and avoiding an overreaching character. All in all, the use of supernatural and magical elements in these works provided exaggerated temptations that strongly persuaded these characters to follow (or attempt to follow) a path against the universal morals of the time.