Arthur and the Man of the Mount of St. Michael (or, recycling old reading drafts in lieu of real content)

February 19, 2007 at 7:43 am (reading notes)

In “Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome,” Arthur meets a giant on St. Michael’s Mount. A dizzying array of epithets are applied to the giant, attributing to him a mix of animal and (negative) human characteristics. Among other generally disparaging words used to describe the giant, such as “sot,” “carl,” “warlock,” “tyrant,” “dog’s son,” “glutton,” and “wight,” he is twice referred to as a “freke.” Cooper glosses freke as creature — not necessarily man, not necessarily animal, but some created living thing. The OED, however, hints at a more complicated value for the word than the gloss implies; in fact, “creature” is not given as an entry. Given the context in which the giant is situated and the other epithets used to describe him, the gloss of “creature” seems less than fitting. Instead, the term seems to be more value-laden than Cooper’s careful “creature” conveys.

Freke is the noun form of the adjective freck or frack; the substantive form is defined, “properly, one eager for a fight; a warrior, champion; but usually a mere poetic synonym for ‘man.’”[1] It appears that some poetic words for “man” seem to start out describing an ideal type or behavior and gradually come to stand for the larger class of which that ideal type is a member – e.g., the shift from “warrior” to “man.”[2] In this case, though, the text glosses freke (twice) as “creature” – not warrior, and not man. And as a creation, the giant is apparently singular: “he was the foulest wight that ever man saw, and there was never such one formed on earth, for there was never devil in hell more horribly made” (90). Cooper’s strangely neutral gloss nevertheless allows for a reading of the giant as possessing some human characteristics when the passage is read as a whole, despite his singularity.

The adjective form freke is derived from the OE frec (fric, fræc), and the OED gives a list of cognates that span a continuum from courageous and daring to bold and insolent to covetous and greedy.[3] The term seems to allow for recognition of variance of degree (rather than kind) in behavior attributed to men who perform violent acts. They can be positively, ambivalently or ambiguously, or negatively motivated; they can be courageous, hot-headed, or outright badly-behaved. While the individual warrior or man may exist anywhere in this continuum, it seems that in the case of the giant, the latter contains or encompasses the extreme negative end of the continuum. In this way, he helps create an apparent dichotomy between himself as embodiment of foulness and vice and Arthur, in his ultimate moment as Good “Sir Conqueror” (87), as an embodiment of knightly virtue. While the episode with the giant seems to create a behavioral or moral binary, an analysis of the word freke hints at the slipperiness, tension, and ambiguity inherent in the knightly body.

The episode with the giant on the mountain of St. Michael is one of the most visceral, vivid, and violent scenes in Le Morte Darthur. In addition to the depictions of violent combat, we see here rape and the murder of not only men but women and children. While combat, rape, and death are nothing new in the narrative so far, here they are combined into one episode and perpetrated nearly simultaneously by one actor. But the giant’s desires are not so cleanly and clearly different in kind from those of the human knight. The giant, that ambiguous “creature,” shares with the knight the desire to eat, the desire for sexual contact with women, and the desire to do violence on another man’s body. The giant’s body is, perhaps, a site where the conflicting, properly separate desires of the courtly knight merge, and in the disintegration of these ethical boundaries is a space of horror and alterity that must be eradicated by the actions of the King.

In King Arthur’s court, the act of eating is rarely described in detail; rather it is contextualized within a larger social activity, such as a high feast or a hermit taking a knight in out of the cold. The process of consumption itself is rarely described. There are no descriptions of hunger or chewing, or even of enjoyment of food in the court scenes. We get a vivid picture, however, of the gluttonous “sot” and his appetites as he prepares his meal (87), complete with “pickle and powder with many precious wines” (89). We learn exactly what he likes to eat and exactly how it is prepared We see him cook, and gnaw, and then we are treated to the vision of the contents of his belly and body spilling over the ground as “gore” that “foul[s]” the grass (90).

Sexual encounters are given more emphasis and description than physical hunger throughout Malory’s text. We learn of the desires leading up to these encounters and the offspring that they sometimes produce, but the act itself is nevertheless glossed over – the narrative eye averts itself from the actual meeting of bare heterosexual bodies and the event is subsumed in the larger narrative as the sex act relates temporally and causally to the events surrounding it.[4] On the mountain, however, we learn a great deal about the sexual appetites of the giant. He lies in wait for no less than the wife of the King, and in the meantime rapes women (after having them cook his meals). And this is more than the “half by force” rape we’ve been introduced to earlier – this is serial-killer fare, sex acts that culminate with dismemberment, evisceration, and death. We learn it will take him less than four hours to accomplish the rape and murder of three damsels (89), and we learn that he makes enough of a display of these actions for bystanders to be able to report the details of them (88).

Of all the bodily acts we witness in Malory, the meeting of clothed and armored male bodies is described with perhaps the most vivid detail. While the male bodies may hack and slash one another — in some cases enacting an undressing through violence as swords pierce armor and flesh, knights unlace helmets to deal death strokes, and clothing becomes tattered and bloody before wounds are searched while the injured lie abed — the public, authorized spectacle of knightly combat still observes certain conventions. The knights in combat may spill blood and brain matter and even behead each other, but in the St. Michael’s Mount episode the violent strokes accumulate beyond any exchange of blows we’ve seen yet. Arthur pierces the giant’s brain, then “swap[s] his genitals asunder” (90), then “cut[s] his belly asunder” (90), but still the giant lives and they continue to fight. Plainly an unusual opponent would require unusual means to defeat, and if we read freke as “creature” it is easy to focus on the giant’s singularity and various associations with animals, the devil, and the monstrous, thus eliminating the need to search for motive. If we read freke as “man” or “warrior,” however, the question of motive and desire is raised and the slippage between the warrior and the monster becomes more evident.

With the fight between the giant of Genoa and Arthur on the mount of St. Michael, we meet appetite, lust, and violence (barely) contained in one giant body. The giant is marked by what his flesh “asks” (89), and it asks for unmediated and uncivilized contact with the bodies of others — or their fragments in the form of beards for his cloak trim, men’s haunches for his snacks, pierced babies’ bodies for his dinner, and the eviscerated bodies of women for his “bed.” Remarkably, while the “foul wight” wears clothing, cooks food, and wields weapons, he does not speak; he does not answer Arthur’s question, “why hast thou slain this fair duchess?” (89-90). He does not answer Arthur’s challenge of “dress thee, dog’s son” with anything but a “glare” (90). He does not articulate his motivations, though in theory he is capable of speech, since the widow knows that he is waiting for Guinevere (88-89). In this episode, it is the flesh that does the asking, and what is asks is unsupportable.

In keeping with the passage’s emphasis on physicality and extremity, the proper mode of disposition for the giant is evisceration, castration, and beheading. His eradication is a moment where Arthur is authorized to perform acts of violence that might be seen as excessive, even monstrous, and certainly unchivalric, in another context. Arthur “swap[s] his genitals asunder,” “cut[s] his belly asunder,” and has his head struck off to display on a spear (90-91). That Arthur and the giant are capable of behavior that is similar in kind, though of course quite different in context, points perhaps to the slippage possible in the OED’s definition of the word freke that is used to describe this giant creature who has something, after all, in common with the men he fights.

Works Cited

“frec, fræc.” An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921.

“frec (æ, i).” A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. 4th ed. J.R. Clark Hall, ed. Toronto: University ofToronto Press, 1960.

“freck, frack, a.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 27 Jan 2007

“freke.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 27 Jan 2007

Malory, Sir Thomas. “Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of
Rome.” Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Helen Cooper, ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. 82-94.

[1] OED.

[2] The OED compares berne, tulk, and wye, words that originally conveyed a sense of heroic, warrior-like behavior and gradually came to figure as “man” in general, in some cases “person” in general.

[3] In J.R. Clark Hall, frec (adj) is defined as greedy, eager, bold, daring, or dangerous; Bosworth Toller offers, in addition, desirous, gluttonous, audacious.

[4] The moments where bedroom activity is described nearly always involve a second knight, either before, during, or immediately after the episode of heterosexual sex.

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