Monster Theory Applied to Beowulf
Monsters are legendary creatures characterized by grotesqueness, supernatural powers, and the desire to bring harm and suffering to people. The main difference between monsters and other mythological creatures lies in the sociological aspect that characterizes them. Monsters are essentially transgressive, that is, they violate traditional ideas and social norms. Monsters are unmotivated by hostility towards humans, but there must be a reason for their appearance and existence. Applying the thesis of the hostility of monsters to material reality, it makes sense to interpret people who deliberately and unreasonably violate social taboos as monsters. However, considering the possible motivations for monstrous creatures in such classic texts as the Legend of Beowulf, it is possible to give a reason for their existence. The monsters of modern society may turn out to be much like those of the ancient texts, having similar circumstances that gave rise to them.
Grendel, whose first monster Beowulf defeats throughout the tale, seeks to take over the kingdom in which he rests. Lines 720-740 describe Grendel’s fury as he prepares to attack as he watches the sleeping inhabitants of the castle, planning his raid, dreaming of the smell of blood (Beowulf, p. 22-23). Grendel’s fury, however, is justified by the fact that he is cursed by God – his entire race is cursed, so he can do nothing but raid and eat the flesh of innocent people. In addition, line 720 describes him as “joyless” (Beowulf, p. 22). This indication suggests that the very psychology of Grendel comes from a feeling of uselessness and vulnerability. The fact that he kidnaps and dismembers thirty people (lines 120-125) can be attributed to his jealousy of the human race, expressed in aggression and the desire to avenge them for the happiness of living without a curse (Beowulf, p. 4). The monster thus appears not for a random reason, but because of the curse, the spirit of doom that accompanies its existence.
After Beowulf rips off Grendel’s hand and he dies in his dwelling, Grendel’s mother comes to Herot to seek revenge. Her motivations are completely understandable, for no matter how monstrous the beings are, they are attached to their children and mourn their loss. Grendel’s mother feels that she must take revenge on Beowulf as her natural duty requires it. It can be concluded that she would not have turned into a monster, that is, she would not have violated norms and taboos if her son had remained alive. However, she is also the heiress of a cursed family. Grendel comes from the lineage of Cain, a fratricide from the Old Testament given by God to a cursed existence. In line 1259, she is described as being “forced down into fearful waters,” which symbolizes the severity of the brand that lies on her family (Beowulf, p. 41). Thus, the reason for her becoming a monster is dual, for she is not only cursed but also longs to avenge her kindred soul, albeit a monstrous one.
The Dragon, whose fate is to poison and kill Beowulf, is also a monster for a reason. However, in his rationalization of behavior, there may be similarities with Grendel from the beginning of the legend. Lines 2217-2220 describe how the Dragon was outwitted by thieves who robbed him, which “drove him into a rage” (Beowulf, p. 70). Rage is caused by a feeling of inferiority, due to the possibility of being outwitted by ordinary people. The dragon is unable to come to terms with the fact that his power is not unlimited, which is why he begins to prove the existence of his power through chaos, destruction, and aggression. Thus, the reasons for the manifestation of monstrous qualities in the Dragon are quite human, explainable from the point of view of natural psychological reactions. The modern reality, as well as the historical perspective, is full of examples of people who behave in this way. Feeling the inability to feel satisfied with themselves, and their ego, they tend to compare themselves with other people, while not being able to match their level. A deep awareness of this and an unwillingness to admit and accept it are the catalysts for rage.
Monster theory tends to view malevolent creatures from the lore of myth and legend as symbolic embodiments of the social problems and hardships that plague human society throughout its formation and development. The legend of Beowulf, a monument of Old English literature, being passed through such an analytical prism, proves the effectiveness of this theory. Grendel’s anger taken out on the people he abducted and ate is an expression of annoyance at God’s punishment passing through the generations. The cultural code itself, originating from the Old Testament, speaks of moral standards being built in society and, as it were, the obvious presence of people striving to rebel against this new order. At the same time, it can be assumed that Grendel, like his mother, becomes a monster in the literal sense only when they show their monstrous insides expressed through chaos and violence. This proves that the monster is not a cursed and doomed creature, but one that rebels against it through cruelty to its neighbor. Thus, a person becomes a monster only by allowing their aggressive personality traits to cross the border of the unfulfilled, and in this transgression lies the essence of monstrosity.
Heaney, Seamus, translator. Beowulf.