in Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in the Medieval and Early Modern Imagination. Ed. Larissa Tracy and Jeff Massey (Leiden: Brill, 2012): 207–231
by Larissa Tracy
Nothing is as final as beheading. The separation of the head from the body insures the locus of the soul is removed from its corporeal agent. Whether done to prevent the dead from rising again, as in Grettis Saga, or as a trophy of a slain enemy in Beowulf, nothing is as permanent and fatal as beheading. Decapitation is the ultimate indignity — mounted heads of traitors on city gates and the complete and final execution of foes or criminals testify to their crimes. And yet, despite the dire consequences associated with historical decapitations, the beheading game (jeu parti) is a popular motif in a wide variety of medieval texts from the earliest challenge in the Old Irish Fled Bricrend (Bricru’s Feast), to the heady companionship of Bendigeidfran in the Middle Welsh Mabinogian, the magical transformations of the French Le livre de Caradoc and La Mule sans frain, and the artful dislocation of the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK). In these instances “beheading not only happens all the time, but constitutes a kind of happening that appears to continue happening, a phenomenon whose aesthetic structure, via its extreme and perfect finality, is ordered toward the perpetual.”[i] In most of these texts, the continued speech of the dismembered head or perseverance of the decapitated corpse, rather than serving as a frightening portent of impending death, serves as a magical marker of the continuance of life and the endurance of magical belief. The talking head represents the impossibility of beheading, quite literally; they “voice what beheading is in its most intense actuality, from the impossible, real, and thus inevitable perspective of the beheaded.”[ii] However, late medieval authors like Thomas Malory strip away the impossibility and levity of beheading as a game, and focus on the silence evoked by needless killing and the failures of knighthood. In earlier texts the motif of the talking or reattaching head contradicts the human fallibility of knighthood because the beheaded do not die, but Malory reaffirms the reality and consequences of such “games” as when Gawain accidentally beheads a woman pleading for her love in the episode labeled “The Fyrst Batayle that ever Sir Gawayne ded After he was made Knyght” in the book of Torre and Pellinor in the Morte Darthur.[iii] The sequence of adventures that befall Gawain, Torre, and Pellinor in this book of the Morte Darthur showcase some grisly and prominent (yet silent) heads as Arthur’s best knights learn what is and what is not honorable about chivalric violence. In the very dangerous world of fifteenth-century England reflected in Malory, human heads do not reattach, nor do they talk. They do not exist in the liminal Otherworld where beheading is ultimately impossible, but in the world of possible and actual consequences. The beheading episodes of Fled Bricrend; Branwen, Daughter of Lir in the Mabinogian; Caradoc and Mule; and SGGK, provide a striking contrast to Malory’s stark episode, where Gawain, a new-made knight, fails to grant mercy and must wear his penance around his neck, an echo of the “bende of þis blame” [blazon of the blemish][iv] (2506) that Gawain bears on his neck for his failure to relinquish the girdle to the Green Knight, but with far more severe consequences than Gawain’s wounded pride. Unlike Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight, which serves as a training exercise for the realities of knighthood, Malory’s Gawain must learn a bitter lesson beyond his own shame. By silencing his heads, particularly in the Gawain episode, Malory voices his disillusionment with the magical elements of earlier Arthurian tradition and rejects the romanticism inherent in texts like SGGK, in which there are no real consequences, and no one really loses their head.
[i] Nicola Masciandaro, “Non potest hoc corpus decollari: Beheading and the Impossible,” in this volume.
[ii] Masciandaro, “Non potest hoc corpus decollari.”
[iii] Sir Thomas Malory, Malory: Works, ed. Eugene Vinaver, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971). All quotations are taken from Vinaver’s edition, Book III: Torre and Pellinor, 59–76. Hereafter, only chapter and line numbers are given.
[iv] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. and ed. William Vantuono (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999). All Middle English quotations are taken from this edition, and hereafter line numbers are given in parenthesis. All modern English translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, Pearl: Verse Translations, trans. Marie Borroff (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001).