A quick recap of the series so far:
In Part 1, I shared the stories of The Rolling Head and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Sir Gawain). In Part 2, I discussed the interweaving of land, race, and Indigeneity. 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. In Part 4, I continue the thread of monstrosity through to the ramifications of disproportionate punishment.
During Gawain’s adventure, he ends up at the distant court of Haut Desart, where he and Lord Bertilak (later revealed to be the Green Knight) play a game: each must reveal and share in any bounty earned, received, or given to the other. At one point, Lady Bertilak gifts a green band that will protect Gawain from death; however, he lies and hides it from Lord Bertilak. At the end of the narrative, Gawain returns home carrying the green band as a symbol of his shame. The court listens to his story and begins to wear a green band themselves. David Coley and Lynn Arner note this moment as an act of assimilation. Camelot’s appropriation and assimilation of the Green Knight ensures that he remains othered, through the monstrous race trope, and displaced.
A Cree Elder that Gary Granzberg coins “Mr. Turnaround” indicates that “The Rolling Head emphasizes the initial separation from the source of strength and balance. It emphasizes cutting things in half and separation.” Prior to pre-Rolling Head incident, it was a “Garden-of-Eden type existence.” The act of violence disrupts the harmonious state, creating isolation within the family. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the theme of separation from community is seen across multiple characters from the Green Knight in Camelot to Gawain in Haut Desart to Morgan Le Fay’s own separation from Camelot. In wider Arthurian lore, Morgan Le Fay’s familial connection attaches her directly to Camelot and she uses the Green Knight as a tool for her own political agenda. The Camelotian Le Fay’s role in Haut Desart emphasizes her isolation from and within both courts, blurring the lines between them. She exists in a liminal space as exile and colonizer; a space she abuses in her plot against Guinevere – for remember, the Green Knight was sent to Camelot by Morgan Le Fay with the goal of scaring Guinevere to death. The colonial potential of the Green Knight becomes nullified through these muddled spaces.
In “The Rolling Head” stories, the isolation and separation are overcome by the children asking for help. This element of the story is seen by Hannah Askew as a lesson in communal responsibility: “In the story of Mashos and the Orphans, two young, orphaned children who are running away from the rolling head of their murdered mother also ask for, and receive, help from a number of sources, including a hero, who ferries them across the river.” In many renditions of the story, it ends with communal renewal: the children building a balanced community. However, in Sir Gawain, the return to community ensures the erasure of the monstrous other through the assimilation and appropriation of Haut Desart/Green Knight’s cultural symbols, not through the act of healing intergenerational trauma. The familial trauma represented in Morgan Le Fay’s and Gawain’s actions are not truly resolved or healed but re-packaged by the court to continue as before.
However, the poem does not end here but includes a final evocation of the fall of Troy, the eventual fall of Camelot, and the biblical end of all time, which recalls another common medieval symbol: the wheel of fortune. It is a reminder of the fleetingness of this empire. It intertwines with the blurred spaces to highlight that we all exist within the space of humanity and monstrosity.