Jeffrey Jerome Cohen Of Giants:
Sex, monsters, and the Middle Ages
Medieval Cultures Volume 17
University of Minnesota Press 1999
Consider these monsters — the Titans, Goliath, Grendel, Gogmagog, Ysbaddaden, Ymir, the Giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, Harpin de la Montagne, the Green Knight, the Carl of Carlisle, Gargantua, the Brobdingnagians, the giants in Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer, King Kong, Roald Dahl’s BFG, the jolly Green Giant — which speak to us variously of terror, comedy, cannibalism, rape, sadism, dismemberment, stupidity, folk humour, folk wisdom, advertising and, usually, maleness. And, of course, size matters… What is there about these figures that simultaneously repels and attracts us?
You might suspect that any academic title with the word “sex” in the title is probably Freudian in inspiration. With Of Giants one of the jumping-off points is the psychoanalytical approach of Jacques Lacan which, as I understand it, in part reinterprets Freudian theory through linguistic criticism. In this book this approach can result in what almost seems a parody of the academic verbal jungle: “a gestalt radically estranging subjectivity from somacity… This misconstruction is a kind of teratogenesis… The giant can be perceived only synecdochically…”
But persevere! For this book reveals an aspect of medieval literature that is rarely confronted and more usually shied away from. As Cohen points out, it was as long ago as 1936 that J R R Tolkien put the monsters in Beowulf at the centre of academic criticism instead of the periphhery; and monsters are of course what the general reader – maybe you or me – unhesitatingly goes for. The same applies to Arthurian and other fantasy literature of the Middle Ages, and Cohen addresses this, though in rather more difficult language. The author suggests that the giant is crucial to an understanding of the way identity is formed. He (and it is usually, but not always, a “he”) has a frightening otherness and yet is strangely familiar: he is what the author and others call an “intimate stranger”. In other words, what is seen as something inhuman outside ourselves is but a projection of an aspect of our personality.
In examining the transformations of the Giant from a rapacious terrifying ogre to a figure of comic stupidity Cohen draws mainly on examples “within a specifically English national imaginery”, from Anglo-Saxon portrayals, through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘history’ in the 12th century and on to the giant as an embodiment of national identity (as in the London Gogmagog figures). Simultaneously the medieval romance tradition saw the giant as an idealised hero’s monstrous adversary, but even by Chaucer’s time he was treated as a figure of fun. After an exploration of how the giant can somehow transform into a saintly being — perhaps for us the Beast in Beauty and the Beast illustrates this well — Cohen finally examines how, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Giant gradually shrinks in stature to become a kind of twin that the hero cannot do without lest he lose his own sense of identity.
So, persevere with Cohen’s complex discussion and you may gain insights into how these creatures – and we ourselves – tick.
A revised review from 2001