Making a Monster

The worst monsters to the Anglo-Saxon mind were those who thought like humans but chose to act differently.

Tim Flight | Published 26 June 2018

Here be monsters: a centaur, or homodubius, from Wonders of the East in the Nowell Codex, c.1000.

Whether they were being feared, marvelled at or tirelessly debated by theologians, monsters were real and present to the Anglo-Saxon mind. Nowhere can this be better seen than in the Nowell Codex (c.1000), a manuscript whose texts have been shown by Professor Andy Orchard to have been brought together because of the monsters they shared.

The five texts in this manuscript, now called The Life of St Christopher, The Wonders of the East, The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, Beowulf and Judith, provide an intriguing discussion of monsters in their many forms. Wonders and Letter, for instance, discuss strange people and creatures that exist on the eastern fringes of civilisation. They describe fire-breathing dog-headed people (cynocephali), dog-sized ants that mine gold and gigantic lake monsters. Crucially, although they are physical aberrations, these monsters seem content to live away from man (and far from Northern Europe) and those that are potentially dangerous only become violent when people encroach on their territory or try to capture them. Indeed, some will even actively flee from humans, as if desperate to maintain the boundary between them.

Beowulf, however, is concerned with those monsters that cross the physical boundary between where monsters and humans are supposed to live. The compound noun mearcstapa, used to describe two fof the poem’s three monstrous characters, appears nowhere else in Old English. Mearcstapa translates as ‘boundary-walker’ (literally, ‘mark stepper’). It is used twice in the poem, exclusively applied to Grendel and Grendel’s mother, man-eating monsters who break into the magnificent hall of Heorot to abduct their meals: ‘The grim-spirit was called Grendel, a famous boundary-walker, he who ruled the moors, the fen and the fastness; the homeland of the monster-race’; ‘they saw two such great boundary-walkers who ruled the moors, alien-spirits’.

Beowulf, like the Iliad and other great narrative poems of the ancient world, is masterful in its understatement, but it still seems odd at first glance to describe monsters that kill and eat innocent people as mere boundary-walkers. However, as demonstrated by the other Nowell texts, people and monsters are supposed to respect the boundary between their habitats and crossing it is a serious transgression. When Grendel and his mother visit Heorot for a midnight snack, they are crossing a physical and ideological boundary between the wild moors, ‘the homeland of the monster-race’, and Heorot, the area where the humans live. Calling them mearcstapan is also an effective way of increasing the terror of the monsters, giving the sense of lurking evil just beyond the boundary of man.

Where the other monsters of the Nowell Codex only kill or eat people when provoked or sought out, the Grendel-family seek and devour humans indiscriminately and, in so doing, break both moral taboos and boundaries. They are also ethically monstrous, which is reflected in their contrasting choice of habitat; they transgress the mearc of mankind’s rules and ethics – represented by Heorot, the civilised space which they invade – and so must be slain as a punishment for their crimes.

Though they are described as monsters, perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Grendel-family is their humanoid appearance: ‘One of them was, as far as one could know for certain, the likeness of a woman; the other was wretchedly shaped in the form of a man who walked in the path of exile, except he was stronger than any other man.’ (Strength alone is not a mark of monstrosity as Beowulf, a man, was strong enough to defeat them.) Indeed, the poem states that they are descended from Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, cursed by God for killing his younger brother, Abel.

For Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430), a fundamental influence on Anglo-Saxon thought, monstrous races that displayed rational thought, in spite of their physical grotesqueness or strange powers, were to be reckoned human. Thus, although humanoid creatures, such as fan-eared men and women with tusks and tails, are described in Wonders and Letter, this resemblance is largely superficial, as they do not behave like people. By contrast, Grendel and his mother do behave like people. They exhibit rational behaviour in addition to their human ancestry. They live in a niðsele, ‘hostile-hall’, full of treasure and weapons, like the Danes who live in Heorot, described in similar terms as a guðsele, ‘war-hall’. Furthermore, Beowulf’s killing of Grendel’s mother is hauntingly similar to Grendel’s own crimes. Both enter a hall, within which they kill the rightful inhabitant and, in so doing, cross physical boundaries. The acts are only distinguished by the motivations behind them: Grendel and his mother are not justified in slaying and eating innocent people; whereas Beowulf is justified in slaying monsters that have waged many years of immoral murder. The poem is telling us that we are all capable of terrible crimes and it is down to the individual to ensure they do not transgress an ethical mearc and so become monsters like Grendel and his mother.

Moreover, only people (if we use Augustine’s definition) can be mearcstapan. The third boundary-crossing monster of Beowulf is the dragon, which leaves its barrow to lay waste to Geatland in retaliation for the theft of its precious cup and in so doing slays Beowulf. It is not described as a mearcstapa, however, despite its physically monstrous appearance. The dragon behaves as it should, according to an Old English proverb – ‘the dragon must be in the burial-mound, wise and proud in treasures’ – and so does not transgress any moral boundaries in seeking revenge. Similarly, the law-abiding monsters elsewhere in the Nowell Codex do not cross any boundaries, physical or ethical, and so are not condemned to be mearcstapan.

The Grendel-family, with its human ancestry, humanoid appearance and behaviour and lifestyle similar to the people they eat, are inherently more despicable than the other Nowell monsters: their rationality means that they have a moral choice about whether to kill and eat people, but choose to transgress both ethical and physical boundaries. It is a peculiarity of the human race to be mearcstapan and in this way the poem gives us a dire warning. The message of Beowulf remains pertinent over a millennium after the Nowell Codex was created: we must all ensure that we do not transgress the moral boundaries of our culture, lest we ourselves become monsters.

Tim Flight recently completed a PhD at Oxford, specialising in the Anglo-Saxon period.

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