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The Monster and the Hero
“You are the last of us, the only one left / of the Weagmundings. Fate swept us away, /sent my whole brave high-born clan / to their final doom. Now I must follow them.” (Beowulf’s Death, ll. 31- 34).
These are the last words uttered by Beowulf, the most legendary hero of the eponymous Anglo-Saxon pagan poem. Beowulf is the oldest poem written in English more than 1200 years ago. It was composed in Old English, probably towards the end of the seventh century, by an anonymous author, and is set in Scandinavia. It was long held that it was a pre-Christian composition which had been given an acceptable Christian frame of reference by the scribes who copied it down in monasteries. However, according to Andrew Sanders, this argument is no longer tenable. He maintains that “the anonymous poet-narrator recognizes that his story is a pagan one and that his characters hold to pagan virtues and to a pre-Christian world-view, but he is also aware that older concepts of heroism and heroic action can be viewed as compatible with his own religious and moral values.”1
As all pagan poems, it tells of the frequent, terrible battles between the brave hero, who represents the forces of good, and different monsters, often frightening supernatural powers who embody the forces of evil, two opposite figures that, each in his own way, are extraordinarily different from what we would refer to as ‘common’ people. Like all classical heroes, Beowulf is the man of exceptional qualities who, in some way, embodies to a supreme degree the values on which a society founded its own mythology and identity.
As in other epic poems, like The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, and the Aeneid by Virgil, the epic hero is the protagonist of Anglo-Saxon pagan poetry. In fact, Beowulf reflects the ideals of the period normally referred to as the Heroic Age and celebrates the exploits of a great warrior whose character and actions are held up as a model of aristocratic virtues. He is endowed with exceptional attributes and virtues, and is by far superior to any other man: he is strong (a feature highlighted even by the etymology of his name, Beowulf= BeeWolf, i.e. ‘Bear’), powerful, brave and generous. In battle he is always “mighty and canny” (Beowulf’s battle with Grendel, l. 16); when facing him in battle, even the monster Grendel has to acknowledge that Beowulf’s handgrip was “harder than anything / he had ever encountered in any man / on the face of the earth” (Beowulf’s battle with Grendel, ll. 31-33).
Driven by the thirst for fame through the achievement of deeds of courage and endurance, he usually sets on journeys or adventures, during which he has to face fearful adversaries that try to defeat him, gathering allies and returning home significantly transformed. He has the moral stature of an authentic leader: in fact, he fights to protect his friends, family and country, always ready to sacrifice even his life to defend his people- whose welfare is more valuable than his own safety- against any threat or enemy, indifferent to death, accepting what fate, ‘Wyrd’, has in store for him with sheer endurance, viewing it as God’s will. His followers acknowledge the special qualities he possesses and are ready to follow him blindly, as his most faithful retainer and successor Wiglaf does, even when his old Lord has to face his most terrible challenge, the fight with the fire-breathing dragon.
The epic hero exemplifies traits and moral qualities that are highly valued and appreciated by the society from which the epic originates; actually, through the hero there is the celebration of the values and nobility of the society itself. So he ends up being both a strong unifying element for his people, a symbol of the glory of the nation he honours with his valiant actions, and its epitome.
Many epic heroes are recurring characters in the legends of their native culture. For example, Beowulf stands as a metaphor for Anglo-Saxon traditions and culture. First of all, the poem is a picture of the aristocratic life of the 6th century, revealing a way of life ruled by natural laws: eating, drinking, fighting. The men described are all men of action, but the hero, Beowulf, is the strongest and the most courageous, absolutely fearless, as the anonymous poet narrates: “Of living strong men he was the strongest / Fearless and gallant and great of heart” (The Coming of Beowulf, l. 3-4).
This short extract, taken from Beowulf, epigrammatically summarises the importance of the hero by making frequent use of a highly hyperbolic language. Another essential value is loyalty to the clan but above all to the lord. The main purpose of the pagan poem is to exalt the hero’s incredible physical and moral strength. In order to achieve this objective, the poet introduces an enemy that can stand up to the hero, a very dangerous monster that the protagonist must face. This obviously highlights the hero’s power, because he is finally able to defeat the enemy. In the battle between Beowulf and Grendel, the latter is seen as a savage creature who devours men and drinks their blood: “As a first step he [Grendel] set his hands on / a sleeping soldier, savagely tore at him, / gnashed at his bone-joints, bolted huge gobbets, / sucked at his veins.” (Beowulf and Grendel: The fight, ll. 1- 4). Consequently Beowulf, who is stronger than him, is considered a force of nature without any weakness: “He had cleansed Heorot. He who had come from afar, / deep-minded, strong-hearted, had saved the hall / from persecution” (Beowulf and Grendel: The fight, ll. 36- 38). The hero, in particular Beowulf, doesn’t fight alone, but he is helped by his loyal companions, who have the same moral characteristics as the protagonist and who defend their captain also at the risk of their own life, thus following the model of behaviour he had set for them: “The earls ran / to defend the person of their famous prince; / they draw their ancestral swords to bring what aid they could take to their captain, Beowulf” (Beowulf and Grendel: The fight, ll 16- 19).
The word ‘monster’ comes from the Latin ‘monstrum’ and means exceptional phenomenon or wonder. The definition is normally applied to imaginary creatures whose appearance is so terryifying and strange as to excite intense fear and horror in the observer. Though theis shapes may vary according to cultures and legends, they all share a common feature: they appear to violate all normal categories and to be out of place in what we would call the ‘normal’ world.
The monster represents the antagonist of the hero and as such he is portrayed in all his terrible, even gruesome attributes. Grendel, the first monster to appear Beowulf, is viewed as the enemy of God and as a descendant of the biblical Cain, the first murderer. He is considered the “upholder of evils” (Beowulf and Grendel: the fight, l. 11), actually relishing the prospect of the destruction he can provoke: “His glee was demonic, / picturing the mayhem” (Beowulf’s battle with Grendel, ll. 10-11). A monstrous being, he is physically and psychologically hideous, in fact he is grotesque, unreasonably savage and sadistic: “He grabbed and mauled a man on his bench, / bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood / and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body / utterly lifeless.” (Beowulf’s battle with Grendel, ll. 21- 24). In this way the narrator of Beowulf talks about the figure of the monster, so terrible as to arouse both revulsion and fear, challenging even the power of human imagination, unable to figure out the full extent of his power.
So the monster appears to stand for whatever is savage, uncontrollable, uncivilised, in contrast with the civilised moral world and culture of the epic hero, the eternal conflict between dark and light: in modern terms, it is the dichotomous opposition between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. However, this is only one of the possible decodifications of this figure; in fact, the monster can also be the embodiment of all the repressed, hidden fears of the people that ‘produced’ him, people that lived in an age of uncertainties and violent transformations of the often fragile political order of their society. He could be viewed as the external projection of the internal conflicts and contradictions of the society itself and its own violence, temporarily silenced and suffocated but always ready to explode inside its body. He might also evoke the fears of what is mysterious and unknown, something challenging and violating ‘normal’ categories of thought, whatever is ‘other’ to the dominant signifying system.
In Beowulf we have three demonic creatures: Grendel, his mother and the dragon, monsters that break into the narrative at moments of celebrations and community, coming from a mysterious and unfriendly outside. This contrast has been taken to signify a series of bleak oppositions between the social and the alien, between a social ‘order’ based on moral ties and obligations and another reality ruled by ‘disorder’, where creatures are intent on destroying human beings and their social structure. At such moments, “the poet suggests the gulf existing between the social world of humankind and the insecure, cold, untamed world of the beasts, the inheritance of the outcast, the exile, and the ousider”.2
An interesting interpretation of Beowulf’s antagonists is proposed by Seamus Heaney in the introduction to his celebrated translation of the epic poem. He maintains that Grendel and his mother are external enemies that enter the hero’s life casually, because Beowulf faces them in foreign lands to conquer glory and fame. Talking about the monster, Grendel in particular, the Italian writer Pietro Citati says: “Mentre il poeta canta come Dio fabbricasse la terra, il sole e la luna, […] nell’ombra si nasconde un mostro, quasi affascinato dal proprio rivale. […] Grendel č una delle piů grandiose incarnazioni della totalitŕ del male, che siano mai apparse nella letteratura”.3
On the other hand the dragon is the last enemy who attacks Beowulf in his own land. There are a lot of interpretations about the figure of the dragon in literature. First of all the word dragon derives from the Latin draco. He is dangerous and very frightening, the most terrible antagonist a hero can face.
Dragons play an essential role in the literature and legends of the British Isles. In The Faerie Queene (1590), Edmund Spenser describes a similar hideous creature that his hero, the Red-Cross Knight, must face: “His body was monstrous, horrible and vast, / Swollen with wrath and poison and with bloody gore; / […] all with brazen scales was armed, / Like plated coat of steel […] His huge long tail, wound up in hundred foldes, / […] His deep devouring jaws / Gaped wide, like the grisly mouth of the hell” (Book I, Holiness). Once more, here as in Beowulf, the poet uses hyperbolic language, both in his presentation of evil and of good.
Dragons are often held to have major spiritual significance in various religions and cultures around the world. In many Asian cultures dragons were, and in some cultures still are, revered as representative of the primal forces of nature, religion and the universe, associated with longevity and wisdom. Coming back to Beowulf, the dragon has a double symbolic value: it is the last test the hero must face before dying, showing once more his moral superiority and wisdom and, at the same time, it is the signifier of all the unknown fears a man hides within himself in the decisive battles of his life. Actually psychologically the monster becomes the mirror image of something we are afraid of; in fact we recognise in the monster whatever we don’t accept in ourselves. The monster is the symbol of the outsider in general, a metaphor for the figure of the ‘Other’. For example, the anonymous writer of Beowulf creates a sort of parallelism between Grendel and negative aspects of Anglo-Saxon people. Sometimes the monster can be viewed as a secret part hidden in everyone that can’t be actually perceived by society because it is kept repressed in the dark well of the unconscious. In literature an example of this symbolic function of the monster can be found in the English novel of Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Leaving the known means facing the unknown, a new world that is alien to us but not only. The unknown is not necessarily external to us, it is also our unconscious.
1 Andrew Sanders, The Short Oxford Story of English Literature, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 21.
2 Andrew Sanders, The Short Oxford Story of English Literature, p. 22.
3 Pietro Citati, Beowulf, l’eroe senza donna che vince i mostri, Le origini, in Ritratti di donne (Milano: Rizzoli Editore, 1992), p. 84.