Let us continue the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Green Knight offered Sir Gawain one year to arrange his affairs. At the end of the year, he is to voyage to the Green Knight’s home to receive his matching cut. The interlude from game to journey includes detailed descriptions of the natural world and its changing seasons. Unusually, during his journey, the focus is not on his encounters with wolves and giants, but on the harshness of the ice and sleet of the winter. For much of his expedition, Sir Gawain’s greatest foe is the landscape itself with its threatening cliffs, naked rocks, and large icicles.
In the Rolling Head narratives, the land is a protective space that exists in relationship with its inhabitants. Animals are neither good nor bad: they often assist the children in their survival and defeat of their parents; however, it’s the mother’s liaisons with snakes that sparks the tale’s violence. In Sir Gawain, the movement between Arthur’s court and Haut Desart shows a harsh and unforgiving landscape that must be overcome through divine intervention; any relationship with the land is supernatural and thus, othered.
The aggressive landscape carries through into the matter of Britain’s mythology. In the later Middle Ages, England’s sovereign national identity relied heavily on its (imagined) ancestral connection to the Trojan empire. The claim of England’s ancestral link to Troy had been part of political propaganda since at least Geoffrey of Monmouth’s the History of the Kings of Britain, where Monmouth used the claims of Trojan ancestry to legitimize the Norman conquest of the British throne. The beginning of the fourteenth-century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight echoes (almost word-for-word) the British national creation story in Monmouth by situating its origins in Troy. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Brutus liberates Britain from indigenous giants except for Gogmagog who is saved for a ceremonial battle. It is in the victory against Gogmagog that Britain’s dynasty is secured. The self-authorizing claims rested not on an ancestral or sacred connection to the land, but through ritualized combat, conquering, and colonization.
From Sir Gawain’s and Monmouth’s understanding of sovereignty and their focus on conquering the landscape, the blending of the Green Knight with the land highlights a terra nullius for his space. The Green Knight clearly resonates with the fearsome landscape, becoming intertwined and inseparable from it. The Green Knight’s eyes shone like lightning: “he loked as layt so lyʒt” (139). His body is described as tree-like for “fro the swyre to the swange so sware and so thik, / And his lyndes and his lymes so longe and so grete,” (from the neck to the hips so square and so thick / And his loins and his limbs so long and so great; 138-139). The people of this land become inseparable from the landscape and as such are just as dangerous but also potentially conquerable or tameable.
The assimilations or displacement of the indigenized beings becomes embedded in Britain’s own sovereign identity. The Rolling Head narrative allows us to understand the intermixing of land and race in the colonial project; a theme that we will continue in Part 3 of our series.