The supernatural is a literary device that has frequently been utilized in works of fiction. The purpose of this literary device have evolved alongside the evolution of literature and language. The function of the supernatural often varies based on the style and structure of the text in question. The supernatural has an important role in both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf. In both poems, the use of the supernatural adds dynamism to the characters, enhances the setting, and assists the poets in conveying their respective messages.
In both Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the protagonists defeat various supernatural creatures, ultimately becoming heroes. The heroic qualities of both Beowulf and Sir Gawain are enhanced by their triumphs over the supernatural. Using the supernatural as a literary device is what gives each protagonist the honour that transforms him into a hero. However, each poem uses the supernatural in a different manner. Unlike Sir Gawain, Beowulf possesses supernatural physical abilities. One of the qualities Beowulf is quoted as having is superhuman strength, and it is this remarkable attribute that enables him to defeat the monster Grendel.
The captain of evil discovered himself in a handgrip harder than anything he had ever encountered in any man on the face of the earth. Every bone in his body quailed and recoiled, but he could not escape. (Anonymous, 47)
With his bare hands, Beowulf manages to defeat a creature that no other hero was able to slay, even armed with weapons. Beowulf is praised and adored for his victory. Without this confrontation with Grendel, Beowulf would not have had the opportunity to prove himself to the Danes and become a glorified hero. Beowulf also ends the feud between the descendants of Cain and the Danes by defeating Grendels’ mother. Their battle takes place underwater: Beowulf must hold his breath for nine hours in order to defeat the monster. After these two trials, it becomes evident that Beowulf himself is possessed of mystical powers, a discovery that only adds to his grandeur.
Sir Gawain’s notoriety is not based on his physical prowess, but on his victory over the green knight, who had previously proven himself immortal. The green knight appears to have supernatural abilities, even living through a beheading. Sir Gawain is, in a sense, supernatural as well; he has a supernatural code of virtue. It is this virtue that saves Sir Gawain from the green knight and leads him to victory. In both poems, the protagonists do not prove their worth through battles with mere mortals; it is their victories over supernatural creatures that transform them into heroes. Defeating the supernatural adds a sense of dynamism to the main characters in both Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The setting in both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf is enhanced by the use of the supernatural. The most vivid example of this takes place when Sir Gawain, having been exposed to bad weather and uncomfortable conditions on his journey to the Green Chapel, is attacked by supernatural creatures. He is forced to battle giants and beasts, and struggles through a harsh, cold countryside. He proves his worth by pressing onwards, determined to fulfill his pledge and uphold his virtue.
Twere a marvel if he met not some monstrous foe, and that so fierce and foreboding that fight he must. So many were the wonders he wandered among that to tell but the tenth part would tax my wits. Now with serpents he wars, now with savage wolves, now with wild men of the woods, that watched from the rocks, both with bulls and bears, and with boars besides, and giants that came gibbering from the jagged steeps. (Anonymous, 173)
There are a number of parallels between the settings created by the authors of the two poems. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poet creates a treacherous environment by using supernatural elements in his description of the landscape. The setting is daunting because it is so thickly inhabited by the unknown. In Beowulf, the setting is again defined by its supernatural elements. Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother is not a simple swordfight, but rather a desperate conflict that takes place in the depths of a murky lake inhabited by sea serpents and other creatures. The use of the supernatural adds a sense of desolation to the scene; an effect that would be lost had the poet not included an element of otherworldliness.
The primary function of the supernatural in these two texts is to infuse each work with religious or moral significance. Both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf are infused with religious content, but because each text was written during a different era, they reveal their religious content in different manners. The most obvious example of this takes place in Beowulf, during the discussion of Grendel’s characteristics. Grendel is a virtual embodiment of religion; he is even a direct descendent of Cain. “Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts” (Anonymous, 34). He is an outcast in Christian dogma, and he repeatedly clashes with Beowulf, whose trials often parallel those of Jesus. Grendel is a supernatural creature who is described as an ogre or a troll, but it is not his appearance, but rather his role in the poem that exemplifies his religious significance. He represents the pagan supernatural, whereas Beowulf represents the Christian supernatural. The clash between the two characters sends a distinctly religious message to readers of the poem. The ritual of feuding – which was primarily a pagan practice – is annihilated by the Christian hero. The murderous descendant of Cain is killed, and the good-natured hero emerges victorious.
There are several more examples in Beowulf of the supernatural’s ability to reveal religious significance, such as the encounter between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. The battle itself is a Christian allegory: Beowulf represents Jesus’ descent to hell and His resurrection. All of the supernatural elements in Beowulf reveal the poet’s belief in the primacy of the Christian faith.
The effect of the supernatural in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is similar to that in Beowulf, but does not offer as much conflict. Throughout the poem, the poet portrays faith in God as humankind’s saving grace. While Sir Gawain makes his way through the wilderness, he is in constant communication with God. Even his evasion of Lady Bertilak embodies Christian morality. However, the poet does not position Christianity and paganism in direct opposition to each other. To the contrary, the poet integrates the supernatural element into a variety of different traditions and beliefs, thereby creating a sense of otherworldliness and adding meaning to the supernatural events and characters. The beheading game and the temptation game are both rituals linked to pre-Christian Celtic mythology; in addition, the very character of the Green Knight is taken from pagan folklore.
The supernatural elements in both poems are gleaned from religious sources. While Beowulf clearly favors Christianity over paganism, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offers a sense of spiritual harmony. Both poets successfully achieve a dynamic balance between Christian and pagan dogma that adds depth to their stories – a depth that would have been unattainable during their respective eras if the use of the supernatural had not been based in religion.
Today, the use of the supernatural in literature is far more common. Over the past century, many authors have used this literary device in a variety of different manners. However, very few of them have enjoyed the success found by the great tales of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The use of the supernatural in each poem adds dynamism to characters, depth to the settings, and profundity to the overall stories. It is the successful usage of the supernatural that gives the poems the longevity to retain their significance many years after their creation.