In completing my thread of posts on medieval animals, I'd like to return to the venomous toads of last week.
I gave two twelfth-century British examples of these amphibians: swarming man-eaters in Gerald of Wales, and poisonous dungeon lurkers from the anonymous Peterborough Chronicle and Thomas of Monmouth's Life of St William of Norwich. Both these kinds of toads are easy to transform into historical allegories.
Gerald traced his ancestry from a Norman family who had been enthusiastic colonizers of Wales. To solidify a new dominion, these conquistadors had intermarried into the local royalty, producing hybrid (Norman-Welsh) children. Gerald's anthropophagic toads are a common trope in the literature of colonization. A land that is being subjugated by newcomers is imagined to be capable of devouring its occupants. The expression of this anxiety -- or fantasy -- goes at least as far back as the Hebrew bible, where the spies sent by Moses into Canaan return with stories of indigenous monsters and a country that can engulf its settlers ("The country we explored will swallow up all who go to dwell in it. All the people we saw were giants [Anakim]," Numbers 13:32). Contemporary versions of the trope mostly involve cannibalism, but see the recent film King Kong for a spectacular version of the foreign land where native fauna devours new arrivals.
The poisonous toads are, I think, more specific: not subtle allegory at all, but the kind of symbolism that beats you vigorously over the head to ensure that you get it. The metaphoric poison of the civil war between Matilda and Stephen finds its creepy embodiment in the lethal toads of the Peterborough Chronicle and Thomas of Monmouth. Their shared setting is also important: both tell narratives that unfold in the dungeons of castles, architectures linked in the English mind to conquest and upheaval. The strife that the two claimants for the crown engendered resurfaced Conquest-induced traumas and anxieties that had gone dormant. The toads, serious creatures as venomous as asps, embody the return of this perturbation over national community and its limits.
Yet does every animal have to be reduced to a human story?
Alphonso Lingis has written eloquently of the animal we carry within, and the ways in which this inner alterity scatters the human:
Our bodies are coral reefs teeming with polyps, sponges, gorgonians, and free-swimming macrophages continually stirred by monsoon climates of moist air, blood, and biles. Movements do not get launched by an agent against masses of inertia; we move in an environment of air currents, rustling trees, and animate bodies ... Our legs plod with elephantine torpor; decked out fashionably, we catwalk; our hands swing with penguin vivacity; our fingers drum with nuthatch insistence; our eyes glide with the wind rustling the flowering prairie. ("Animal Body, Inhuman Face" Zoontologies 165-82, quotation at 167)
Donna Haraway, former theorist of cyborgs, current theorist of interspecies comminglings, similarly writes that dogs – like any animal that has become our queer companion – "are not about oneself ... They are not projection, nor the realization of an intention, nor the telos of anything" (Companion Species Manifesto 11). The multiplicitous interrelationships in which animals and humans find themselves entangled amount to "ontological choreography, which is that vital sort of play that the participants invent out of the histories of the body and mind they inherit and that they rework into fleshly verbs that make them who they are." (100). Derrida's l'animot , Lingis's oceanic humanity, Haraway's companion species: an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human, to invent through alliances with possible bodies a monstrous kind of becoming that carries history within but which is not reducible to historical allegory, cannot in the end be sorted for its use value.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features a protagonist's movement across similarly animated geographies. In that somber errantry we can see not just an instance of the pathetic fallacy, where anthropocentrism leads a human author to glean nothing but human meanings from a non-human landscape, but what the philosopher Gail Weiss has called "embodiment as intercorporeality," can see the ways in which our very identities are dispersed across the relations we form (Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality ) Even better, this vegetal and animal dispersedness could be termed an interspecies alliance, the mode by which a knight of the Arthurian Court can share his sorrow at the world's chill with birds who huddle in winter misery. These animals give voice to their sadness in a language that, while not human, is also not so very difficult to understand:
The hazel and the hawthorn were all intertwined
With rough raveled moss, that raggedly hung,
With many birds unblithe upon bare twigs
That peeped most piteously for pain of the cold.
The good knight on Gringolet glides thereunder
Through many a marsh, a man all alone. (744-49)
We know already that this last line must be untrue. Despite what at first glance appears to be his somber solitariness, Gawain's subjectivity is entangled in hazel and hawthorn, his embodiment completed by shivering birds, his knightly identity inseparable from his good steed Gringolet.
Sir Gawain glides through a world alive with flora and fauna, a world where he can never be "a man all alone."
(Much of this post taken from my essay in progress, "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages." Comments welcomed. The image of slaughtered Lego Anakim that begins this post is taken from the stunning Brick Testament of the Rev. Brendan Powell Smith, specifically here)