In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and Christopher Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus”, it is quite evident that the main character in each of these seems to regard honor in two different lights. Sir Gawain lived during a time where people were known based on how they presented themselves and where a knight’s reputation would forever follow him. On the other hand, Doctor Faustus came up in a surrounding where people only cared to further themselves. He did not ever stop to worry about what others thought of his actions, and he focused solely on his own lifestyle and what he wanted. Throughout both of these texts, priorities between the characters are clearly different, and a reader would note that Sir Gawain acts to maintain the quality of honor that he values so much while the only thing that Doctor Faustus cares for is his own power and control.
To summarize, Sir Gawain’s entire story revolved around keeping himself as a man who would overcome any obstacles needed to uphold his honor. Not only did he care about his reputation, but Sir Gawain was a man with great virtues and a spirit that was genuinely good. He was not the only person in this text that cared so deeply about this quality as it is shown that this was the Green Knight’s focus in determining whether a man was of great character or not. Honor even held high value in Arthur’s court. Arthur was willing to take the deadly challenge himself to uphold the honor of his kingdom. Though many knights were afraid for Gawain and his life, none of them stopped him as they all well understood the importance of Sir Gawain’s journey.
As for Doctor Faustus, the most honor that he held was in his title – a doctor. Even for him, this title meant nothing as it brought nothing of value to him. Of course, what matters is the importance of which he upheld honor. In the case of this man, that would be close to none. In the beginning of the story, Doctor Faustus only wanted the power that he had yet to have already. He was a very well educated man and could have been easily respected. However, the only knowledge he desired was magic of evil. Once his time limit seemed to near an end, he then focused on saving his soul just so that he would not have to endure eternal damnation. Doctor Faustus could not have cared any less about values, being a man of good morals, or defiling his own name. He was a selfish man who only chased after his evil desires, and that is what he gave into even when no one else thought that it was a good idea for him to do so.
Each of the main character’s characters were revealed early on in both of the stories. Sir Gawain was the only knight who stood in the place of his king to accept a life threatening challenge (“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” 193). Greg Walker offers another aspect as to why Sir Gawain took the challenge. As Arthur and his court were being ridiculed by the Green Knight and losing their authority, Sir Gawain’s compliance with the challenge showed that Arthur had another brave force, and it began to restore Arthur’s dignity. Sir Gawain took the challenge to protect his king and keep his court dignified. He was not simply a representative but also a subject of his king (Walker 111-122). Upholding the honor of his king, court, and fellow knights meant a lot to Sir Gawain.
At the beginning of Doctor Faustus’s story, he had come to the conclusion that all of his knowledge was not enough. He wanted more, and this eventually led to the giving of his soul to Lucifer (Marlowe 1140). Doctor Faustus indeed knew of what was good and what was bad. He believed that God existed and had even studied theology (Marlowe 1129). Faustus simply did not care about any of that even though he grew up in a world that was surrounded by religion and Christianity, and he deliberately went down the wrong path. Kirshbaum described Doctor Faustus as “a wretched creature who for lower values gives up higher values” (qtd. in Engberg 1). The fact that Kirshbaum referred to him as a creature shows that he is not even worthy to be on the level of a normal human. “Creature” shows signs of disgust, and that is how people probably would have felt had they known what Faustus had gotten himself into. Faustus knew this and he gave into it anyway.
These two characters not only regard honor for themselves differently, but it is also present in how they honor and respect other people. Sir Gawain treated everyone he encountered with great honor and respect. It did not matter about their class status. He did not even try to prove himself greater than anyone else. When he was in the Lord Bertilak’s castle, Sir Gawain was treated like a king, and he treated everyone else just the same. He also made it an effort to honor Lord Bertilak and his wife (“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” 211) even though doing so simultaneously was not an easy task. The two wanted very different things from Sir Gawain.
In contrast, Doctor Faustus continued to follow the same pattern of being self-centered throughout the story. He clearly did not honor God, and he never truly cared to respect Lucifer. The only time he cried out to God was during his last moments so that he could be saved. The only reason why Doctor Faustus was on Lucifer’s side was to get what he wanted. There were many times where Faustus did not want to have anything to do with Lucifer. Eventually, it was fear of what Lucifer could do to him that kept him there. These were people who were above Faustus greatly in status and power, and even they did not get any honor from him.
Pride is also illustrated in different lights between the two texts. A good point that Chanin Storm makes in “Pride in Medieval Literature” would be that in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” honor is what is worthy to the knights and pride has no place with them. When Sir Gawain finally found the Green Knight, that is when honor is explained and revealed of its importance through the story (1). Sir Gawain and the reader are able to see how truly important honor is. The reader can already easily tell how much Sir Gawain valued this quality throughout the story from his perseverance. However, the truth behind the Green Knight at the end adds even more significance to it, and that is what ties the story together.
In “Doctor Faustus”, pride is shown to be a reoccurring deadly sin (Storm 1). Pride was the reason Lucifer fell from heaven and became the prince of devils (Marlowe 1136). Pride was the first deadly sin that appeared in front of Faustus (Marlowe 1145). In my opinion, pride just so happens to be a defiled version of honor. Actions are carried out for one’s own merit and through a selfish heart. This goes against the integrity that comes from honor and genuinely striving to keep oneself worthy of respect. “Doctor Faustus” does not uphold honor throughout its story. Rather, it recognizes the selfish and impure pride.
One common event in both of the stories is the fact that deals were made. Again, the main characters have a different perspective on this. Sir Gawain strived the entire story to keep the two deals that he made. Both deals were evenly weighted to him as far as the seriousness that he viewed them with even though to the reader, one seemed idiotic to take while the other was child’s play. That even meant taking an adventure to seek out an opponent who he assumed was going to chop off his head and kill him. He had many opportunities to not follow through with it, but it was something that Sir Gawain could not bear to do. Let that be emphasized. Sir Gawain was willing to risk his life for not only the honor of his name and Arthur’s, but because it was the genuinely honorable thing to do. He was not going to allow himself to give in to not fulfilling a deal even if he could have gotten away with it. Though Sir Gawain did fail on the second pact that he made, it is very apparent how hard he strived to keep it and how badly he felt afterwards. The Green Knight also forgave him for it because of his honesty. Though Gawain did not have to, he told Arthur and the other knights of his flaw and they all continued to wear a girdle as a reminder of his flaw for the rest of his life to learn from it (“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” 237).
Doctor Faustus made his deal and signed the contract in his own blood. However, this was not enough for him as there were also various times when he contemplated breaking it off. A broken deal with Lucifer, one of the most powerful forces, could have been the most foolish things he would have done. The thing that Faustus once desired so greatly became something that he was uncertain about. This was when he realized that eternal damnation was not exactly what he wanted. All he cared about was making things great for himself, and he could not even follow through wholeheartedly with what he started. Mephastophilis even ordered Doctor Faustus to sign the deed a second time because of the wavering and doubting position he was in (“Doctor Faustus” 1159). The only reason why Doctor Faustus agreed to that was out of fear.
The overall tones in both of these stories are indeed contrasting, and they contain a significant difference in the sense of honor. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a poem that many people would consider to be about bravery, heroism, dignity, and nobility. “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” is a play that does not quite attract the same stardom. People read it and see a dark plot that grows a bit out of hand. This difference is magnified when observing the actions of these specific characters along with their true intentions and desires. Sir Gawain proved to be a knight who placed the virtue of honor as something he would give up his life to protect while Doctor Faustus was a character who took no regard to honor and only sought out power of his own.
Engberg, Norma J. “The Truncated Passive: How Dr. Faustus Avoids Laying Blame Or Taking Reasonability.” Journal Of The Wooden O Symposium 5. (2005): 1-12. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.
Marlowe, Christopher. “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 1127-1165. Print.
Storm, Chanin. “Pride in Medieval Literature.” HubPages. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Trans. Simon Armitage. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 186-283. Print.
Walker, Greg. “The Green Knight’s Challenge: Heroism And Courtliness In Fitt I Of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight.” Chaucer Review 32.2 (1997): 111-122. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.
Nhi Do is a student at Lone Star College, North Harris.