Book Review–Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle AgesMinnesota: Minnesota University Press 1999. 235 pp. (PBK) ISBN: 0-8166-3217-0. $22.05.

With the publication of the groundbreaking essay, “Monster Culture: Seven Theses” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen established his place on the short list of modern critics able to marry complex literary theory with contemporary cultural relevance. His particular blend of postcolonial, Lacanian and post-structuralist theories demonstrates that, far from being mutually exclusive, the three major schools of literary theory most practiced in American universities today can be combined to underscore an overall argument more clearly and forcefully than can any one of them used alone. Cohen’s 1999 publication, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages , provides a gracefully-constructed blueprint in six chapters of how to achieve this seamless marriage of theory, textual analysis, and cultural relevance.

This is not a text to be read or taken lightly; full concentration is required to stay with Cohen’s densely-packed argument. On the first page of the introduction, he renders evident the complexity and broad range of the subject matter and of his thinking on it through a tightly-packed single-paragraph summary of giants in the western tradition from Humbaba in the Epic of Gilgamesh to the 20th century film giant King Kong . Thus indicating the sustained presence and continued relevance of giants in western culture, and with brief allusion to their function as signifiers of boundaries and transgressions, Cohen turns to a more specific discussion of the giant in the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English traditions at the foundation of his argument. Claiming that “the giant appears at that moment when the boundaries of the body are being culturally demarcated” he argues that “in the England of the Middle Ages, he signifies [those] dangerous excesses of the flesh that the process of masculine embodiment produces in order to forbid” (xiii). He further establishes his central point by claiming that “the giant is at once a seemingly monolithic representation of otherness and a figure whose indomitable corporeality suggests the difficulty of being merely human in a world that demands the austere discipline of minute self-regulation’’ (xiv). Cohen then points out that the focus of cultural work on medieval monsters tends to be the monstrous races mentioned in texts such as the Liber Monstrorum or drawn on Mappa Mundi. In this book, he instead focuses on the giants of Anglo-Saxon texts, the giant of Mont-St-Michel in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, Wace’s Roman de Brut, and the chronicles of Mannyng and Lille, giants in medieval romance, and Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Topas, in an effort to promote greater consideration of the giant’s function in literature as a violently-gendered being, one who at once embodies the intimacy and extimacy of man’s excesses and reveals the limits of man’s action and of the newly-emergent nation. To these texts and the monsters within them Cohen applies psychoanalysis, postmodern identity theory, “including certain strains of gender and queer theory” and “constructivist theories of sexuality”, mentioning specifically the works of Michel Foucault and of Judith Butler as particular influences (xvi).

In chapter one, Cohen examines the relationship between the giant/Other and Anglo-Saxon humanity, arguing that “because Anglo-Saxon England was continuously faced with challenges to its integrity and self-definition, the hybrid body of the monster became a communal form for expressing anxieties about the limits and fragility of identity” (xvii). Beginning with The Wanderer and The Ruin, continuing with Beowulf, and rounding out his argument with thePoetic Edda, the writings of Alfred the Great and Aelfric, and stories from the Old Testament, Cohen uses the giants of Anglo-Saxon literature to underscore his claim that “the monster became a kind of cultural shorthand for the problems of identity construction” (5). He points out that in Norse cosmology, “the giant is simultaneously the origin of the world and its greatest enemy” and refers to the enta geweorc, or work of giants, present within the very landscape (10). Ultimately, Cohen argues, Anglo-Saxon England saw the giant as symbolic both of the origins and the ruins of identity.

In chapter two, Cohen establishes the role of the giant in the creation of national identity in medieval England. He focuses on the figures of Gogmagog, the giant of Mt.-St-Michel, and the legend of Albina to show the transformation of the giant from the Anglo-Saxon to the Anglo-Norman cultural tradition, in which “the giant became a monstrous body standing at the originary moment when a heterogeneous group of conquered Anglo-Saxons, ruling Anglo-Normans, and even some Celtic peoples began to imagine themselves a collective entity[…]brought about through the agency of the giant” (31).

Chapter three deals with the dismemberment of the giant in medieval romances as a symbol of the political coming-of-age of the nation, as evidenced in Arthur’s defeat and decapitation of the giant of Mt-St-Michel (66-71). As Cohen remarks, “almost all of the “identity romances” feature these belligerent monsters” (73). The purpose of such giants is to teach the young knight how to be a man, both biologically and culturally. Aiding in the crafting of heroic identity for the individual within the text, the giants also contributes to the crafting of national identity with the textual community.

Chapter four deals specifically with Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Topas as an example of the use of the giant in self-figuration. Arguing that Chaucer’s purpose is to “divorce gender from the dangers of sexuality” Cohen points out the focus on youthful features and childish elements throughout the description both of Topas as an individual and of the tale he tells (100). He then continues to argue (convincingly, but somewhat improbably) that Chaucer has deliberately avoided masculinity and the ultimate fight with the giant in this tale because “England in the late Middle Ages was always haunted by the violence it committed against women’s bodies” and because Chaucer, himself, is using this tale as a rhetorical device within which to contain the trauma he feels at having (perhaps) raped Cecily Chaumpaigne (117-118).

Abruptly, Cohen turns from this interesting and contentious argument to chapter five, in which he tackles the subject of hybrid monstrosity, focusing specifically on the Middle English romance of Sir Gowther to demonstrate that the transformation of the human body into hybrid serves as a didactic tool to “teach him the necessities of abjection as differentiation, as entrance into stable being” (131). Cohen states that “the narrative ends by transmuting its hero into a figure who stands wholly outside of temporality, physicality, and the material body” which he claims is the logical ending for a fantasy dealing with the concept of embodiment as escape (141). Although the transition from chapter four to chapter five seems incongruous initially, ultimately these chapters do work together in terms of their treatment of the literature of giants and hybrids as escapist in nature.

The final chapter of the book deals with questions of exorbitance, both corporeal and sexual, beginning with a tour-de-force discussion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as “the fullest, most complex euhemerization of the giant” and ending with a discussion of the carnivalesque, humorous giants of Rabelais and of the Old French and Middle English giants Rainoart and Ascopart (144). Cohen uses these texts to argue that in the later Middle Ages in England, “the giant is not a force to be overcome and banished, but rather an interior Other, foundational rather than antithetical to chivalric identity” (159). Coming full-circle from the initial boundary-drawing and boundary-smashing giants of the Anglo-Saxons, to the interior/ Other giants of post-Conquest England and, finally, to the excessive, transgressive and ultimately didactic giants of Middle English literature, and comparing them to such disparate modern figures as the Jolly Green Giant advertising vegetables and the Amazing Colossus Man, Cohen concludes by pointing out that “the myth of the giant has been reconfigured across time while remaining structurally unchanged, performing the same violences, the same abjections, the same masculinist interpellations” (186). From ancient epics to present-day car commercials, Cohen’s book reminds us that our monsters are our own, and that they are always with us, ready to challenge, to entertain, to teach, and ultimately to transform western culture from one generation to the next.

Melissa Ridley Elmes

Melissa Ridley-Elmes received her MA in Medieval Literature from Longwood University in May, 2009. She currently serves as the Art History and British Literature instructor at the Carlbrook School in Halifax, Virginia.

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Book Review–Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages by Melissa Ridley Elmes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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