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Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Volume: 17
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 260
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttts9b4
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  • Book Info
    Of Giants
    Book Description:

    A monster lurks at the heart of medieval identity, and this book seeks him out. Reading a set of medieval texts in which giants and dismemberment figure prominently, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen brings a critical psychoanalytic perspective to bear on the question of identity formation-particularly masculine identity-in narrative representation. This is a compelling inquiry into the phenomenon of giants and giant-slaying in various texts from the Anglo-Saxon period to late Middle English, including Beowulf, several works by Chaucer, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8960-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: The Intimate Stranger
    (pp. xi-xx)

    Of the giant, Edmund Burke once wrote:

    It is impossible to suppose a giant the object of love. When we let our imaginations loose in romance, the ideas we naturally annex to that size are those of tyranny, cruelty, injustice, and every thing horrid and abominable. (Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful,157-58)

    His body an affront to natural proportion, the giant encodes an excess that places him outside the realm of the human, outside the possibility desire. Yet a different cultural moment has enabled the same monster who gives “satisfaction” only through his “defeat and death” (Burke, Enquiry, 158)...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Ruins of Identity
    (pp. 1-28)

    In the most celebrated essay in Anglo-Saxon studies, J. R. R. Tolkien liberated Old English literature from its monsters. The opinion of philologists such as W. P. Ker had long held sway:Beowulfwas a poem valuable for the historical allusions that limn its periphery, worthless for the three battles against monsters that form its narrative heart. This fascination with grotesque bodies is the poem’s “radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre.”¹ In 1936 Tolkien delivered the Gollancz Memorial Lecture to the British Academy and challenged Ker’s dismissive summation. “Beowulf:The Monsters and the Critics” argues...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Monstrous Origin: Body, Nation, Family
    (pp. 29-61)

    For many centuries, Guildhall, London’s center of civic governance, enclosed within the order of its architecture a pair of menacing giants. These intimate strangers at the heart of the nation were two immense statues erected before the mid-sixteenth century, perhaps as early as the reign of Henry V. The effigies have been given various names. Sometimes one was “Gogmagog” (the leader of a troop of giants in Geoffrey of Monmouth’sHistory of the Kings of Britain),and the other “Corineus” (the man who defeated Gogmagog in a wrestling match, occasionally represented as giant sized himself); sometimes these figures were “Colbrand”...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Body in Pieces: Identity and the Monstrous in Romance
    (pp. 62-95)

    In the Sega video game Mortal Kombat, players triumph over their opponents through the martial arts, usually by kicking them to death. The victor’s electronic avatar reaches into the prostrate enemy’s body and rips out the spinal cord, to which the brain is still attached. He performs a brief victory dance, displaying the gruesome trophy, and then moves on to other conquests and adventures. The demographics for video games are revealing. Although their audience is diverse and cuts across race and gender lines, their most avid consumers are middle- and upper-class adolescent males, and it is for this group that...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Giant of Self-Figuration: Diminishing Masculinity in Chaucer’s “Tale of Sir Thopas”
    (pp. 96-118)

    Caroline Walker Bynum has argued that the years around 1300 saw a widely renewed cultural fascination with the fragmentation of the human form, with the body in pieces.¹ First in Italy and then elsewhere in Europe, autopsies were performed to determine legal cause of demise, transforming dead flesh into living narratives; soon thereafter, dissection of cadavers was included in medical school curricula. Saints’ bodies were more frequently divided at their deaths. Sacred hands, fingers, hearts, and hair were enclosed in reliquaries shaped like the bodily fragments that they displayed. The corpses of candidates for sanctification were torn open to search...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The Body Hybrid: Giants, Dog-Men, and Becoming Inhuman
    (pp. 119-141)

    In an intriguing short story, Vladimir Slepian writes of a man who decides to become a dog.¹ One limb, one organ at a time, he transforms himself, mapping the affects of the canine body across a human form in the strangest kind of diagramming. Dogs are quadrupedal, and so he ties shoes to hands and feet. When his new paws prevent him from lacing the fourth shoe, he uses his mouth, which becomes a dog's clever snout. His metamorphosis almost succeeds, but then he comes to the tail and can find no somatic analogue. For him to involve his sexual...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Exorbitance
    (pp. 142-184)

    The 1950s were a decade of monsters: giant spiders, giant ants, giant bees, giant praying mantises, giant alien fungi, and of course, plain old giants. No other period in recent memory has been so obsessed with constructing, deconstructing, and reconfiguring the category “monster,” with employing the label for nationalistic, capitalistic, misogynistic, and culturally imperialistic ends. One of the most memorable giants of the time was Glenn Manning (Glen Langan), otherwise known asThe Amazing Colossal Man(1957, Columbia TriStar). Manning’s sad story begins when he is exposed to radiation during the testing of a nuclear bomb. His hair falls out,...

  11. AFTERWORD: Transhistoricity
    (pp. 185-186)

    As I finish writing this book about the life of the giant in medieval England, I am haunted by a very American television commercial for an imported automobile, a four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle manufactured in Japan. The giant in this advertisement is an immensely fat white man, middle-aged and balding, dressed in an expensive dark suit—visual shorthand for Evil Corporate Culture incarnate. With the self-absorbed glee of a nasty child, the giant strolls over an expansive green landscape, plopping down the skyscrapers he carries in his arms like toys. A city springs to life around the monster: ominous buildings,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 187-210)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 211-230)
  14. Index
    (pp. 231-235)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 236-237)