In Part 1, I began with the stories of The Rolling Head and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Sir Gawain). In Part 2, I considered the colonial interweaving of land, race, and Indigeneity in both texts. In Part 3, the Rolling Head stories remind us that the lines between monster and human are blurred, which helps us better understand the monstrous races of Sir Gawain.
According to John Borrows, a leading Anishinaabe scholar on Indigenous law, Anishinaabe legal narratives can be broken into archetypes of monster, hero, trickster, and caretaker. Borrows writes that “[s]tories about how our communities dealt with monstrous behaviour are found throughout the corpus of Anishinaabe thought…[h]ow a community deals with Monsters.” The story of the Rolling Head is one of the stories that helps define and understand what makes a monster.
So, what then defines a monster? In Anishinaabe law, Borrows writes that “Humans are monstrous; they are figures of destruction and dissolution. They are metamorphic, in both meanings of the term.” The destruction described extends from the community to the environment itself with the ultimate result of “mak[ing] it difficult for others to thrive or survive.” Borrows further argues that the human-monster “violently lash[es] out at their challengers,” and they “attempt to destroy competitors’ reputations and opportunities by characterizing them as religiously, economically, politically, socially, or otherwise different, dangerous, or deranged.” In other words, the human-monster works to disrupt the community and their potential competitors by styling them as the other. They shift the image of the monster onto their competitor instead of themselves.
In the Rolling Head, the line between monster and human blurs. The wife is made physically monstrous by becoming a ‘rolling head,’ who chases and attacks her own children (among others). The husband is made monstrous in murdering, cannibalizing his wife, abandoning his children, and/or wrongfully blaming them, exiling the children from the community. According to Hannah Askew in her summary on Anishinabek law, the rolling head story provides a reading of the effect of disproportionate punishment, especially its intergenerational impacts.
In Sir Gawain, the Green Knight is visibly and physically othered from the knights of Camelot. However, his primary crime is disrupting a feast, insulting the hosts, and demanding a game. Not items that necessarily scream for an execution to be the required outcome of his actions. Of course, the game itself is violent in nature. The knight of Camelot is offered a free stroke with the Green Knight’s axe, which will be returned by the Green Knight in the exact same place on the body of the knight. His biggest crime though is mocking Arthur and his knights, calling them ‘beardless babies.’ In response to his sneering comments, Arthur suggests to Gawain that if he chooses his cut wisely, his opponent won’t be able to return it. Gawain goes for the head.
Despite the seeming physical monstrosity of the Green Knight, from an Anishinabek perspective that highlights the transformative powers of human into monster, Gawain’s choice to behead the Green Knight shifts him into the role of the monster. Gawain becomes the Rolling Head father who disproportionately murdered the cheating wife for Gawain’s actions are disproportionate to the crimes of the Green Knight; Gawain is the human-monster who “violently lashes out at their challenger” and renders them disfigured and/or othered. For as my professor, David K. Coley once emphatically declared in a graduate seminar, “he [Gawain] didn’t have to go for the head!”
Stay tuned for the final part of ‘Off with His Head: Reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight through the Rolling Head Stories,’ where we will finish our series with a look into community.