Ascupart and the trouble with giants

Whenever Bevis is mentioned he is almost automatically linked with the giant Ascupart. In Southampton it may be said that Ascupart gets equal billing with Bevis the hero, even though in the best-known version of their story the giant is violent, cowardly, and treacherous. He only agrees to be Bevis’s ‘page’ or servant to save his skin, and reverts to serving his former Saracen master as soon as Bevis’s fortunes appear to decline. This leads to him persecuting the one person to whom he truly owed his life, the Saracen princess Josian.

Ascupart is, however, just one of a number of giants who populate medieval manuscripts. Perhaps equally famous is Colbrond, the opponent of Guy of Warwick and champion of the Danish invaders. The final battle between Colbrond and Guy takes place close to Winchester. Although Ascupart comes to the Isle of Wight with Bevis where they fight together to regain Bevis’s lands, the giant’s subsequent treachery finally catches up with him in Saracen lands where he is not killed by Bevis, but by a group of Bevis’s liegemen.

Even more famous as a literary figure than either Colbrand or Ascupart is the Green Knight in the late 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Often regarded as a version of the mythical ‘green man’ and sometimes connected with ‘woodwoses’ and nature spirits, the supernatural Green Knight is described as ‘half-etayn’ – he appears to be a half-giant. Ascupart too is not regarded as a full-sized giant by his own kin. In spite of his great size he explains to Bevis and Josian that he is regarded by other giants as so small that they drove him away for not being like them (a characteristic, incidentally, that he shares with J.K. Rowling’s Hagrid). There is nothing to link Ascupart with nature spirits, and where the Green Knight carries a holly-bob –a festive bunch of holly, Ascupart, like other giants in medieval stories, carries as his weapon a club as big as a young tree.

The name ‘etayn’ used to describe the Green Knight comes from the Old English ‘eoten’, but Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons) had 2 words for ‘giant’. Both are found in the Old English poem Beowulf, where Grendel the troll is described as belonging to a race of giants using both the OE word eotenas, and the Latin word ‘gigantas’. Knowledge of the Latin word came via the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity, but as the naming of the Green Knight shows, the OE word continued to be used long after the Norman Conquest.

Later ages have regarded giants as figures of fantasy. Jack the Giant-killer, for example, encounters one at the top of the beanstalk, but the Anglo-Saxons regarded giants as a highly skilled race who must have once inhabited the land and whose works could still be seen and discovered. The term orþanc enta geweorc – ‘the skilful work of giants’ describes what seem to be the Roman remains of Bath in the fragmentary poem known as The Ruin, while the only sword that will kill Grendel’s fearsome mother is also described as the skilful work of giants.

The perception of giants altered as a result of the Norman Conquest. Their special relevance to Britain lay in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s late 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain]. In the service of the Norman conquerors, Geoffrey created this history of the origins Britain and its rulers up to the Conquest. Britain in this account was established when Brutus, grandson of Aeneas of Troy, arrived from Armorica and having killed all the giants he found living in the island, named it Britain after himself. According to Geoffrey, the last giant to be killed was called Gogmagog and he was thrown over a cliff by Brutus’s champion.

Many other nations developed similar ‘foundation myths’ in which giants functioned as originary opponents. The origins of all these giants lay in biblical accounts such as Genesis 6: 4 – Gigantes autem erant super terram in diebus illis – ‘there were giants on the earth in those days’ (The Vulgate Bible), and they were always marginal beings, associated in some biblical sources with the devil and Antichrist.

Many medieval texts repeated Geoffrey’s assertion of the existence of giants in Britain before the arrival of the ‘civilising’ descendants of the Trojan heroes. The characterisation of Ascupart reiterates the oppositional nature of giants in general and this is important as one means by which Bevis establishes and differentiates his identity. He is strong enough to overcome this giant single-handed. He is also prepared to show mercy to his vanquished foe at the request of his lady, even though he suspects the giant will eventually betray him. This expresses the chivalric ethos of doing the lady’s bidding, but also introduces the medieval counter-argument that a man would not be wise to take the advice of a woman. In this way, Bevis’s apparently paradoxical act of mercy touches briefly on the competing pressures of chivalric, courtly, and Christian conduct which would be played out more elegantly half a century later in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The relationship between Bevis and Ascupart includes brief elements of humour, as when the giant refuses to be baptised – objecting that he is too big to be ‘drowned’, and in the espisode when he carries Bevis, Josian and the horse Arondel on board ship. But he also shows himself to be a coward when he refuses to stand beside Bevis during his confrontation with the dragon. He finally leaves Bevis and returns to his old master, for whom he hunts down Josian and allows her to be mistreated shortly after she has given birth. His lack of ‘humanity’ is just one more aspect of his Otherness, although he redeems himself a little when he accedes to Josian’s request for some privacy to ‘do what is needful in private.’

This treacherous giant, sometimes referred to as Bevis’s ‘page’, does not meet his death at the hands of the hero, but at the hands of other Englishmen coming to the aid of Bevis. This communal ‘execution’ by knights dressed as pilgrims expresses a unity of cultural opposition to all the negative connotations, actions and attitudes embodied in Ascupart. Not least of these negative aspects is his physical size, which implies a kind of bodily ‘chaos’ that is the opposite of the implicitly contained, disciplined, and scarred body of the hero-knight, and the civilisation for which he fought.