Monsters in Anglo-Saxon Texts
This essay will examine what Anglo-Saxon interest in monsters, From Beowulf’s Grendel kin, the works of Giants, Dragon's, Elf’s and Grendel’s mother. The arguments in this essay are to back up the themes which will be talked about in the opening paragraph.
Monsters are the outcasts of Anglo-Saxon society from research on the topic of monsters and the word “monstrare” it can be argued that in Anglo-Saxon writings monsters are used to show the difference between “normal” and the other but also shows their lack of knowledge.
Looking at the tale of beowulf when we encounter Grendel for the first time. He lives in a marsh land outside the community a liminal space. Living in the marsh shows how removed from the people in Heorot. He lives in a place almost that signifies the anti hall, the anti Heorot.
“Grendel represents the cultural other to whom comfortably to society dictates is an impossibility because those dictates are not comprehensible to him; he is at the same time a moisturized version of what a member of that very society can become when those dictates are rejected”.
He is described as a descendant of cain a kin killer he who cannot be trusted and who has rejected god of God having “the wrong faith”. Eotenas in the Book of Genesis.
When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in England, they found towering structures of stone that made them feel like children standing before them. They described these alien architectures as enta geweorc, "the work of giants." Some of these structures were the great monoliths, dolmens, and stone circles like Stonehenge built by the mysterious pre-Celtic peoples who have left no other trace of their presence on the island. Like Grendel the giants were living on the out skirts of society for example in thick wooded areas further more they are written about in Anglo-Saxon texts but also further afield. The bible only confirmed what their native mythology already told of the giant’s, a story which the legends of the conquered Celts corroborated: humanity was a secondary race of creatures, belated, the gods' afterthought. Northern myth held that giants had been the first race to carve their identity into the earth's landscape, and that the human body was their continuation and reduction. Creatures of the world's First Order, giants were so close to nature. Giants were inextricable from the earth and stone they worked, so they gained an explanatory function as creators of landscape, ancient ruins, and mysterious architecture. It can be argued that giant's are used to back up Biblical myths for example david and Goliath. Giant stories also tie in with Beowulf, as Beowulf returns from killing Grendels mother with a hilt from a giants sword. On the other hand giants are also depicted as cannibals in norse mythology. It is hard to say exactly what giants show but there is no argument that they are different from the common people or “ normal ”.
The most common of Anglo-Saxon to monsters are dragons which exist will in to middle english like elf’s . Unlike Grendel, Dragons do not want to be accepted in to society they want to have their layer, treasure and live beyond the liminal. It is unclear from the norton critical edition of beowulf why the dragon is where he is but it can be argued that the dragon is used “to show” a moral story of greed a thief going in to the dragons cave to take what is not his only to meet his death. Obviously the moral or teaching from this is “thou shall not steel”.
Elves were ambivalent, amoral Creatures in Anglo-Saxon Folklore Beowulf Lists them along with other monsters. Elf’s exist trough out Anglo-Saxon texts from old to middle english although modern folklore has depicted Elf’s as a lot frendler then they were in Anglo-Saxon texts. Originally the Anglo-Saxon elf was like the ancient Irish fairy. The elf’s had pale skin and “spread diseases”, the pale skin used “to show” sickness. “The ancient Anglo-Saxon Heathens believed (as did their other Germanic counterparts) that illness was caused variously by arrows or darts shot by elves”
Anglo-Saxon text also contain cures to these elvish attacks these cures were to cure madness, fevers and other mind altering aliments. Like the ancient Irish fairy Elf’s depict the unknown or at least the Anglo-Saxons fear of the unknown.
The another monster which needs to be written about is Grendel’s mother. An unnamed monster. Grendel’s mother shows anti female themes. Grendel’s mother is a strong and brave female fighting for her sons vengeance. Fighting for vengeance is something a man should do. She also keeps Grendel’s dead body showing her to be anti Christian by not burring the body as burial would be the Christian thing to do. This further solidifies the argument that Anglo-Saxon texts are closely linked to the biblical references. It can be argued that the Anglo-Saxon interest in monsters shows in this respect like with Grendel the fear of the foreigner but in Grendels mothers case the fear of the more powerful women but the unchristian in both.
The Anglo-Saxon used monsters to show what could happen to you if the rules were not obeyed weather its being exiled or steeling. Also monsters are used to show fear of the unknown.
Grendel is the Anglo-Saxon texts showing the other where as the Dragon shows us a moral story when all these are included with the elf’s and Grendel’s mother we understand that the Anglo-Saxons myth making reveals their lack of knowledge.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Old English Literature and the Work of Giants”. A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1993. Page 24 Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/ 30/11/12
George Washington University. “Monsters, Cannibalism, and the Fragile Body
in Early England”. Prof Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Inc. 27/11/2010 Retrieved from :http://www.gwu.edu/~humsci/facpages/cannibal.html
Malcolm Godden, Michael Lapidge . The Cambridge companion to Old English literature. United Kingdom: cambridge University Press, Published 1991. Page 216
Jolly, Karen. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context. University of North Carolina Press, 1996
this essay was written for Old English EN2012 in 2010 by me