In Part 1, I introduced the stories of The Rolling Head and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In Part 2, our series began its red reading (according to Jill Carter (Anishinaabe), red reading is the theoretical approach to literature wherein a canonical text is read through an Indigenous perspective) of Sir Gawain with a consideration of its colonial interweaving of land and race.
The lessons of the Rolling Head stories remind us that the lines between monster and human are blurred. A mother can be a human in one moment and a monster in the next. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the line between the Green Knight’s “monstrous” or “uncivilized” wilderness court and the “civilized” imperial Camelot is blurred. The concept of monstrous races is foundational to the colonial project and is one that permeates the Green Knight narrative. According to Sylvester Johnson, “classifying populations as monstrous races—debating or denying their very status as members of the human race—was integral to inscribing the political distinction between those people deemed worthy or capable of inhabiting civil society or sharing political community and those incapable of such” (189). Both the Green Knight and the Rolling Head begin their antagonist journeys as humans. For Rolling Head, her kinship and relations with animal kin leads to her husband’s jealous wrath and the mistreatment of her body, rendering her physically monstrous. Late in Sir Gawain, it is revealed that the magical, nature-associated body of the Green Knight is an act of jealous magic from Morgan Le Fay in order to frighten Guinevere to death. It is through their connections to nature and the actions of others that their humanity becomes an object of debate.
Ultimately, The Green Knight poses a threat to Camelot that extends past his ability to survive without a head. He is dangerous because he is able to win at Camelot’s own game. In Part 2, we saw how Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain claims that Britain was won through a wrestling match between the indigenous giants and Brutus’ warriors. The conquering of the giants is described as playful sport: they “experience great pleasure from wrestling with the giants” and “enjoyed beyond all reason matching…against such monsters” (53-54). Similarly, the Green Knight is the initiator of the violent gameplay, suggesting a potential role reversal. This intertextual connection shifts the Green Knight from an indigenizing force, where, in Lynn Arner’s words, Gawain has “gone native” (87), but into a potentially colonizing one, which ups the stakes for Camelot in the Green Knight narrative. It suggests that the Green Knight has the power to colonize Camelot itself.
In the end, the potential colonial dangers of the Green Knight appear to be nullified through the usage of monstrous races. The monstrosity of the Green Knight separates him from Camelot as another magical being to be overcome and conquered, reasserting Camelot’s imperial dominance. His humanity is negotiated by the Arthurian knights, whose ability to invalidate the threat returns the Green Knight to his human state. In Rolling Head, the mother’s monstrosity is not undone, but it is overcome by the next generation: the cycle is broken by her children’s ability to work with their animal and plant kin; ultimately, they build a harmonious community. Community is also key to the disruption of the Green Knight’s monstrosity as well. Gawain and Camelot appropriate and assimilate the symbols of the Green Knight by wearing a green band. The othered creature is left in the wilderness far from the civilization of Camelot, but it is sanitized as a new ally (or even, subject?).
In Part 4, we will continue the thread of the monstrous race through to the theme of disproportionate punishment.