The ancient story of Beowulf is famous for its’ monstrous foes fought within it. Grendel and his mother, along with the fire-dragon, are usually what readers recall about the poem. We often remember the monsters in media more so than the hero, but why is that? Many can easily recall such fearsome adversaries as Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit, the Kraken from Clash of the Titans, and the Monster from Frankenstein. All of them stand out far more than the protagonists of their stories. It is possible that these creatures represent long-buried aspects of our psyche, thereby speaking to humans on a primal level. They may also serve as incarnations of the other; emissaries from the world that remain just out of sight. Or perhaps, we as a people have an innate desire to create entities to compare ourselves to in order to reassure ourselves about what we hope is our rightful superiority in the world. Through examining the role of the monster in various writings and media, this paper unearths the similarities that connect them across many tales and stories as well as deciphering the hidden importance of monsters.
In order to closely examine what they may represent, it’s likely that an overview of the monsters within Beowulf would be helpful. The monsters in Beowulf are notoriously undefined, with very few actual descriptions. Grendel and his mother are descended from all manner of strange beings: giants, elves, and ogres. They were brought down from Cain, the first murderer. One aspect that is certain are Grendel’s glowing eyes, a common feature among humanoid monsters that originate in northern England. The dragon stretches over 50-feet in length, but remains uncertain beyond that.
Yet the poet of Beowulf reaches beyond limitations of presentation, revealing the inner thoughts of his monsters. Grendel is not a mindless creature, striking at random, but is instead described as acting upon a grudge. The raucous gathering of Danish warriors in King Hrothgar’s new mead hall disturbs him from his seclusion in the wilderness. Grendel’s mother acts according to the honored tradition of blood feud over the slaying of her son. Even the reptilian dragon possesses an interior motivation; we see it obsessively rage over a stolen goblet. We would not be surprised to see such humanizing techniques in a modern horror story, yet this story is over a thousand years old, and is fascinating in its prescience. This aspect of the poem has led to many adaptations that focus on Grendel, the monstrous star of the poem, with varying degrees of success. One notable example of the concept done well is John Gardner’s award-winning novel simply titled Grendel. This work follows the story of Beowulf from the monster’s perspective, presenting a contrast to the warlike Beowulf, in the philosophical Grendel. Having a monster as a protagonist is the pinnacle of creating empathy, and we are given a front-row seat to Grendel’s search for purpose in a seemingly uncaring world. In the end of the novel, our “hero” is reduced to a gibbering wreck after his confrontation with an almost demonic Beowulf, using his last breath to pronounce a curse upon mankind; “Poor Grendel’s had an accident. So may you all” (Gardner 174).
Despite their exaggerated and frightening features, monsters are often shown to have some small portion of humanity, either in how they act or how they look. This can result in the monsters acting as reflections or representations of different aspects of our psyche. Noted medievalist Jeffrey Cohen was of the opinion that monsters, particularly those that resemble humans, raised questions about our own concepts of identity. He was especially interested in how giants can be considered both human and something other, which is both pre-human and post-human in nature (Cohen 11). Giants appear multiple times across ancient texts, including the Bible, and usually seem to be representations of a time before the rise of humanity, when the world was younger and pristine. This would potentially transform the stories about human heroes slaying giant foes into an allegory for overcoming one’s past in an effort to grow beyond into something new.
Beowulf displays another way monsters can represent parts of humanity, by drawing repeated parallels between Beowulf himself, and the enemies he faces. Grendel and Beowulf are described using similar, even identical terms. For example, they are both characterized as having the strength of 30 men in their arms. When Beowulf does fight human champions, like the Frankish Dæghrefn, his methods are distinctly inhuman, almost monstrous (Orchard 33). Thus, Grendel serves as a dark reflection of what Beowulf might have been, had he forgone all trappings of society- a ravenous, unstoppable menace. The theme of reflection is prevalent throughout the poem, with the mother of Grendel’s watery home being described as a kind of hall, with Beowulf taking the role as invading aggressor in place of Grendel. This flipping of the roles is interesting, as it has Beowulf essentially sinking down to the level of his monstrous foe. Yet ultimately he overcomes the monster, rising to the surface of the swamp grown stronger from his experience. The dragon, fought much later in Beowulf’s life after he has been crowned king, embodies ideals that are the antithesis of what makes a good ruler- unchecked avarice and blind rage at every perceived slight. During their battle, the adjectives between Beowulf and the wyrm are blurred together, both being described with a term that roughly translates to “awe-inspiring,” or “combatant”. The two adversaries eventually kill each other, their bodies intertwined. Beowulf succumbs to the venomous bite of the dragon, and the reptile is finished by a stab through the eye. Monsters, in the context of Beowulf, can then be seen as shadows of Beowulf and his culture, showing the consequences of rejecting society, even twisting the peoples’ traditions to serve their own needs. Perhaps the author intended them to act as a warning to not allow oneself to be consumed by base desires and petty grudges, as these feelings and actions themselves could be considered monstrous. However, the final fate of the aging hero portrays a somber, yet nuanced proposition: that completely overcoming one’s own monstrosity is actually impossible without destroying oneself in the process.
Monsters, particularly those displayed in travelogues, can be said to be representations of the other and the exotic, inhabiting worlds that are out of sight. In medieval culture they could be said to mark boundaries, both geographical, such as on maps of the world, and anatomical, blurring the lines between human and animal. The allure of potentially seeing these wondrous beasts was likely a driving force behind many of the exploratory and trade expeditions that were undertaken at the time. Monsters can also be seen acting on the complete opposite intention. On the famous mappaemundi, or maps of the world, terrifying sea monsters prowl the waters at the peripheries of the map itself, marking off the boundaries of what was known, possibly deterring sailors from traveling beyond those points. The actual dangers may have been more mundane, such as waterspouts or exposed reefs, but the sea beasts likely demanded people’s attention for a more suitable first impression. Therefore, as markers, monsters may have acted as cautionary signs, intended to keep people from venturing too far from civilization or accepted traditions. Some humanoid monsters, such as the Donestre, with their twisted and animalistic features, were taken to be warnings of what could happen to those who strayed from the teachings of God, becoming as warped physically as they were supposedly spiritually. Indeed, Saint Isidore of Seville trace the word monster to the Latin monere, ‘to warn’, and he suggested that monsters were a warning from God against deviation (Mittman 337). This may partially explain why monsters were considered to be relegated to the distant reaches of the world, having been banished there for violating natural and cultural norms. Saint Augustine had another theory about the root of the word. He traced it to monstrare, “to show,” and declared that monsters were meant to be a demonstration of God’s powers, marking them as necessary parts of the natural order .Monsters, then, could act as both attraction and deterrent, sparking the imagination of entrepreneurs looking to travel to distant lands, while also frightening the “common folk” away from straying too far off the beaten path, lest they be killed in a myriad of gruesome ways. This duality of being both alluring and repulsive seems to be an inherent aspect of the very nature of monstrosity.
This idea of monsters being from outside the bounds of the normal world appears in Beowulf as well. Grendel and his mother live beneath a marsh far outside Hrothgar’s holdings. They had apparently been dwelling relatively peacefully there for years, before being disturbed by the construction of Heorot. Grendel is even described as a “marsh-stepper” and “border-walker”, further emphasizing his separation from the world of man. His crossing over from his world through the boundaries of Hrothgar’s hall is shown to be an unwelcome and violent attack on the neighboring world of the Danes. Beowulf, monstrous in his physical prowess, is also an outsider, coming from distant Geatland over the ocean waves to aid Hrothgar. This makes Beowulf himself a wondrous being from the lands beyond Daneland, further emphasizing his similarities to his adversaries. He then crosses another boundary, that of the cavernous lair of Grendel’s mother, this time acting as an outside force, much as Grendel did before him. Beowulf is almost killed by Grendel’s mother for his trespass, being saved by what could only be described as a deus ex machina. The dragon incident is another example of borders not being respected, as a thief carelessly invades its lair and carries away a piece of the hoard stashed there, causing the dragon to awaken in a fiery fury. The dragon then departs from its remote lair and terrorizes the people of Geatland, continuing the cycle of disrespecting the boundaries of others’ homelands. After defeating this invader, Beowulf’s final triumph could be argued to be the posthumous erection of his own tomb at the headland, the border, a final way of using his body to mark off his world from that of the monstrous. (Mittman 341) So, in the end, Beowulf, with his prodigious strength, marks the boundary between man and monster, both conceptually, as he displays certain monstrous attributes, and physically, with his tomb acting as a marker for the boundaries of his kingdom.
The slaying of a monster is often used as a hero’s final obstacle during his journey. By defeating an enemy greater than themselves, he or she shows the growth they experienced over the course of their travels. Monsters are also useful in representing abstract concepts, such as evil and darkness, so by overcoming them, the hero triumphs over evil itself. J.R.R Tolkien was extremely proficient in creating monsters that were embodiments of dark forces that must be combatted. The theme of monstrous creatures of shadow is one of the main elements of Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings and its extensions. One of the best examples is Ungoliant, from The Silmarillion, who is a “darkness made visible” monster in the shape of a gargantuan spider. (Bergen 110) Another is the demonic Balrog that menaces the Fellowship while they’re traveling through the abandoned mines of Moria. The Balrog is described as being composed of “shadow and flame” in the vague shape of a humanoid figure, and is only defeated by the sacrifice of the party’s most powerful member, Gandalf, the wizard. Tolkien was very clear about his monsters being intended as embodiments of pure malice and corruption, with no effort made to show any humanizing or empathetic aspects to them. The heroes simply must defeat them, as failure to do so would plunge the world into a shadowy grave. In this context, the monster is merely an obstacle, a physical representation of all the evil in the world that the hero must face.
Tolkien was also one of the first scholars to argue that the monsters in Beowulf were an essential part of the story, with his contemporaries focusing more on the scarcer historical elements. They felt that the monster fights were “trite” and “unseemly”, but Tolkien disagreed. He argued that the conflict between heroes such as Beowulf, and monsters like Grendel and the dragon, provided important examples of the ever present struggle between good and evil in the world at large. Tolkien, who had been fascinated with dragons since he was a child, also examined the significance of the battle with the mighty beast. “Something more significant than a standard hero, a man faced with a foe more evil than any human enemy of house or realm…” (Tolkien 17) This concept of monsters, particularly dragons, being so far beyond normal man that only a true hero can defeat them, appears multiple times across medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature. In biblical and patristic texts, the dragon features as one of the most common symbols of evil, functioning as a formidable and monstrous adversary of God, man and beast alike. (Rauer 52) Medievalist Christine Rauer compared dozens of dragon fights with the one that takes place in Beowulf, and found several elements shared between them, such as the invasion of the beast’s lair, the dragon’s magnificent treasure hoard, and the ways it is finally defeated, usually with a stab to the underbelly. The dragon perfectly fits the role of a final trial for an aspiring hero, as it combines the most dangerous parts of wild beasts, including the venomous fangs of a serpent and the talons of a massive bird-of-prey, with the perils of a raging inferno. Some scholars have theorized that dragons are a creation of humanity’s subconscious, an amalgamation of the predators we faced during our development as a species. A foe such as this, a primordial incarnation of fear, greed, and power, could only be defeated by one showing true courage and strength. Tales of dragon slayers serve as lessons meant to remind us that those who show bravery can overcome any opponent, no matter how monstrous.
As we have seen, monsters have played many important roles throughout our stories and literature. They can represent deeply hidden aspects of ourselves, reminding us of the potential danger that comes from giving in to our own primal urges. Monsters can also be seen as parallels to the heroes that face them, helping to provide contrast between what is seen as acceptable, and what is monstrous. We take them as an example of what not to do in a civilized context. Another aspect of wondrous and monstrous creatures is that they can be beneficial, drawing in daring adventurers with whispers of their presence in uncharted lands. These same stories of half-man, half-beasts frighten away the faint of heart from potentially dangerous locales, as well as acting as a teaching tool of what happens to those who do not heed the word of God. Arguably the most important role of the monster, though, is to be an enemy whose defeat inspires us to be like the heroes of old. They are embodiments of the trials we have faced to ensure our relatively fragile grip on the world we inhabit, always lurking in the shadows to remind us to keep on our guard. Monsters, then, are a fundamental piece of who we are as a species, reminding us of our past, enticing us to explore far-off lands, while also deterring us from entering treacherous areas, and motivating us to become greater than what we once feared. Even today in our modern era, we continue to tell new stories about monsters, with new generations being challenged, frightened, and inspired by tales of wondrous and inconceivable beasts.
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Mittman, Asa Simon. “Monsters and the Exotic in Early Medieval England.” Literature Compass, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 2009, pp. 332-348. Web. Accessed 7 December 2017.
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Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. London, England; Boston, MA: Allen & Unwin, 1983. Print.