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Monster Theory on Beowulf

Monster Theory on Beowulf - Reading Cuimre Feffi‘ey...

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Unformatted text preview: Reading Cuimre Feffi‘ey kmmfi Cohan, editm University of Minnesota Press Adhlneapohs London 2 Beowulf as Palirnpsest Ruth Waterhouse Beowulf includes a palimpsest of Grendel, in that in 107a, Scribe A origi— nally wrote that Grendel was proscribed “in chames cynne [because of Ham’s kin] 3’1 The manuscript was altered from “chames” to “caines” (“because of Cain’s kin”), as Ham (who was the second son of Noah) seemed less relevant than “Cain” to a reader, given the following lines with their reference to the killing of Abel.Z Even during the period of the text’s inscribing, an early reference to Grendel became a palimpsest, as one interpretation succeeded another for reasons we can now only de- duce from context.3 The interpretation of Grendel has been changing from the beginning, as he has been recontextualized, especially since Tolkien popularized him as a monster.4 The palimpsest concept has by extension come to al— lude not only to reinscribings such as the literal and physical reference to Grendel’s being of Cain’s rather than Ham’s kin, but also as an extended metaphor for what has been increasingly recognized in recent years, that studies of Old English texts reveal as much about the period of and cul— tural influences on the decoder as about the Anglo—Saxon period itself.5 There is a continuity between Beowulf and later literature, but not an unbroken line, and in present—day preoccupations with literary and cul— tural studies, that tenuous link needs to be recontextualized continually to take account of the gap of time and cultural change that separates us from a poem a thousand years older.6 Not least important is how our present situation in the cultural milieu of the Western society of the late twentieth century makes of Beowulf a palimpsest on which we cannot help but inscribe our twentieth—century presuppositions. 26 Beowulf as Palimpsest 27 lutertextuallty An approach from the present backward through time is a reversal of one of the happiest hunting grounds of Anglo—Saxon studies, searching for sources, and presupposes a chronological movement from past to present. But the more recent concept of intertextuality does not neces- sarily function as a one—way movement through time. Culler has defined literary works as “intertextual constructs . . .A text can be read only in re- lation to other texts, and it is made possible by the codes which animate the discursive spaces of a culture.”7 Although intertextuality assumes relationships between one text and others, it does not presuppose that those relationships are only linear and chronological. If for an individual a more recent text is a starting point for the exploration of older texts, that intertextuality is as relevant as any other. Monsters in Society and Culture A key feature in Beowulf and in other discourses is the position of mon— sters in society and culture. Their ontological challenge to the late twen- tieth century is a continuing one, especially when the dominant place of film and television in modern Western culture makes it inevitable that monsters such as the Incredible Hulk, King Kong, and even Darth Vader are household names. Knowledge of them will for most people precede knowledge of some of their possible intertexts. For instance, the Incredible Hulk can be seen as the obverse of Dr. lekyll’s Mr. Hyde, and at a greater remove of Frankenstein and his monster and eventually of a subverted Pygmalion myth. Another type of monster is Dracula, who may initially seem only tangentially related to the others, but, like Frankenstein, has become so well known that he regularly features in parodies as well as in serious discourses that overtly use Dracula as their main intertext. Such names may point to archetypes; they are now best known by the names given them in specific literary texts, whether or not a decoder knows that particular text.8 The term monster, according to the OED, suggests a range of mean— ings. The semantic field combines various possibilities, such as the following: — natural or human + deformity (physical and/ or moral) + large size 28 Ruth Waterhouse Not all of these need be copresent; for instance, cruelty and wickedness are not necessarily applicable to animals—like the original King Kong»- who lack moral awareness and whose behavior is appropriate to their nonhuman status. The definitions stress that monsters are Other, as con— trasted with the subjectivity of Self that classes them as alien in some way, though they do not include one aspect relevant to most “monsters”: the emotive impact that they make as Other, usually terror or dread, while an aura of mystery also surrounds them. The response to a mon— ster may be influenced by any or all of the aspects of the semantic field, and may be modified within the discourse, as when by the end of Frankenstein the monster excites pity as well as revulsion, but the terrify— ing impact that a monster has on both the protagonists within the text and the audience/ reader is an important part of the overall signification of the term. it is easy to see how even the eX—Iedi knight Darth Vader can be labeled “monster,” because he is large, wears a masklike helmet that hides his de— formed face, and is evil, an instance of the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde paradigm in which Mr. Hyde has all but overcome Dr. Jekyll. The fear he inspires is also relevant to his twentieth—century “monster” status, and an element of mystery surrounds him for most of his period on screen. We can also see why Grendel’s nonnatural hugeness and depravity and the reactions of awe and dread have placed him for so long in the category to which Frankenstein’s monster can be assigned; further, like Dracula and other vampires, the dragon (OE draca) mortally wounds his victim, Beowulf, by biting his neck. Modern monsters do not offer such a close parallel for Grendel’s mother, a point to be considered later. Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Stevenson’s story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is presented through a series of embedded narratives in which discourse time dis— rupts story time markedly.9 It opens with Mr. Utterson, the lawyer, whose first recorded speech is, “I incline to Cain’s heresy. . . . I let my brother go to the devil in his own way” (29). His kinsman Mr. Enfield’s account of his first meeting with Mr. Hyde includes the remark that Hyde’s tram— pling on the girl child “was hellish to see” (31) and that Hyde carried it off “really like Satan” (32). When Utterson asks for a description of him, Enfield says, “He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling Beowulf as Palimpsest 29 of deformity, although i couldn’t specify the point” (34). When Utterson himself meets Hyde, his description of him is that <(Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish; he gave an impression of deformity without any namable malformation” (40). Dr. Lanyon’s posthumous narrative records of Hyde that “there was something abnormal and mishegotten in the very essence of the creature” (78), and lekyll’s own posthumously recorded statement says that Hyde’s pleasures “soon began to turn towards the monstrous” (86). Every major protagonist in the text chooses signifiers that point to the deformity and evil that fit Hyde into the monster para- digm, even though his dwarfish size is also a feature remarked on more than once. Stevenson’s monster is an alter ego of Dr. Jekyll,10 closer to him than Frankenstein’s monster is to Frankenstein, in that Jekyll and Hyde are mutually exclusive; they cannot coexist, but engage in a perpetual power struggle in which Hyde progressively gains in strength and Iekyll is only just successful through his suicide. Predating Freud, Stevenson emphasizes the deliberate and willed separation of Self from Other within the same individual. The choice of one individual to split him— self between his better and his worse aspects has an impact not merely upon himself but also on others, as the monstrous Other preys upon society as well. The Self—Other relationship is not simple in the gothic novel, for it can be an alienated relationship within the individual, as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (where Other is perceived as the perversion of reason, even madness); within the individual’s society (where Other is perceived as antisocial, breaking society’s rules, or nonsocial, going beyond society’s norms); or within the individual’s normal physical context (where Other is perceived as non— or supernatural)“ Mr. Hyde does not overtly em— body this last Other, as do most of the other monsters to be considered, but the first two encapsulate his monstrous aspects.12 Such a paradigm of what is monstrous reflects facets of the increas— ingly uncertain cultural mores of the late Victorian period and the ap— proach of modernism, with its emphasis upon the metafictional explo— ration of consciousness itself and how Other is comprehended; Stevenson cannot keep the damage that a self-created monster wreaks confined to its creator, but (as with Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray) shows how individ- ual and society constantly interact.‘3 30 Ruth Waterhouse Shelley’s Frankenstein Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written some two generations earlier, is about a monster, though the name she has assigned to his creator has been transferred to him (where Dr. lekyll and Mr. Hyde maintain their separate entities, though only one appears at any one time), in recogni— tion that the two are inextricably related.14 Shelley presents her monster within a series of retrospective embedded narratives, framed by Captain Walton’s letters to his sister, and includes not only Frankenstein’s first— person narration of his life but also a long section in which the monster himself is allowed to relate his experiences from his own subjective stance. There is no real question about the status of the creature: monster is the term most frequently applied to Frankenstein’s creation, and is repeatedly applied to him by Frankenstein himself and also by Captain Walton (492); the creature speaks of “the deformity of my figure” (379) and, most poignantly when he sees himself reflected in a pool, he says, “I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am” (379). At the end he says of himself that “the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil” (494). He fits the parameters of “monster” in his not truly human status, his murderous crimes, and his size, and particularly in the terror and dread he evokes in those he meets. The creature and Hyde share many similarities: both are (or give the impression to those who describe them) deformed; both commit crimes, leading in the end to murder; both are associated with evil, the reverse of Christian Virtue. But they are also differentiated: Frankenstein’s “wretch” (another term used frequently of him) is not coexistent with his creator, and is not his alter ego; he lives his own separate life. He is not totally evil, as his period with his “cottagers” shows. His crimes are presented not as they affect society in general but as a direct attack upon Frankenstein’s own family and friend. He is created as Other to Frankenstein’s Self in individual terms and, not wishing to live once Frankenstein is dead, he goes off to perish on his own funeral pyre. He is Other who differs from Hyde’s Otherness. He is a human creation with his own consciousness and ability to learn, and he reflects the romantic period in which Mary Shelley was writing, with its confidence in the creative ability of the Self, as represented by the poets. The self—confident assertion of the individual artist’s right to usurp the power of society has influenced Mary Shelley’s mere mortal who Beowulf as Palimpsest 3’1 tries to usurp the power to create life, and she simultaneously elevates and deconstructs the Self who asserts the ability and right to create Other as another human—but in fact creates a monster. She also sug— gests a key difference between romanticism, with its concern with Self, and gothicism, which is fascinated with Other. Beowulf’s Monsters To approach Beowulf through twentieth— and nineteenth—century para— digms of a monster is to make of the earlier poem a palimpsest that is influenced by these later monsters (and by many others i have not dealt with here). Beowulf ’s monsters can easily be recontextualized in accor— dance with certain aspects of those already considered. The third, the dragon, has seemed problematic, partly because it is so mysterious, and scarcely described,15 and many aspects of the dragon have evoked a tremendous amount of discussion: for instance, it can be perceived as an exteriorization of the vices of greed, pride, and presumption,16 or as merely a monster of the marvellous type found in the Liber Monstro— rurn.” It fits most closely with the imaginary animal. As befits its animal status and contrary to Tripp’s suggestion that it is a man—dragon, it is not loaded with the negative Christian terms that abound in the earlier sec— tions about Grendel and his mother.18 From a twentieth—century per— spective, the monster it most resembles is Dracula (whose very name suggests a diminutive of drum). This resemblance is most marked when the dragon meets Beowulf for the third time: 13a waes peodsceaoa priddan sioe, frecne fyrdraga faehoa gemyndig, raesde on oone rofan, pa him rum ageald, hat 0nd heaoogrim, heals ealne ymbefeng biteran barium; he geblodegod wearé sawuldriore, swat youm weoll. (2688—93) [Then for the third time the enemy of the people, the fearsome fire—dragon, hot and battle—fierce, mindful of the feud, rushed on the brave one, when the opportunity was given him, enclosed all his neck with his sharp teeth; he was bloodied with his life—gore, his blood welled out in waves] Stoker's Dracula The vampirelike action of the dragon leads to the retaliation by Beowulf and Wiglaf that causes its own death, and in other ways the dragon does 32 Ruth Waterhouse not fit the paradigm associated with Count Dracula in the text given his name:19 it is not human, and it does not depend on blood for its contin— uing life. But there are other intertextual aspects that draw attention to themselves from a twentieth—century standpoint. At the beginning, be— fore his nature is known to the main protagonists, Count Dracula locates treasure troves by the supernatural means of the blue flame hovering over them, and the fire—breathing dragon is introduced in relation to its discovery of the treasure hoard: Hordwynne fond eald uhtsceaéa opene standan se 6e byrnende biorgas seceo, nacod niédraca, nihtes fleogeé fyre befangen; hyne foldbuend (swiée ondr&)da(6). (2270b—75a) [The old twilight predator, the naked hostile dragon, found the pleasur— able hoard standing open, he who, flaming, seeks barrows, flies at night, encompassed with fire; him the people in the land fear greatly] The climax t0 the Dracula story (built on a series of different perspec— tives, such as diaries and letters, all of which present Dracula from sub- jective Viewpoints, none from an objective third—person narrator) has Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris both using their knives to “shear through the throat” and “plunge into the heart” of Dracula (447) to destroy him; Beowulf’s sword having failed, he and Wiglaf attack the dragon with their battle knives, and each plunges his weapon into the dragon to kill it. Morris is mortally wounded in the fight, and Beowulf also receives his death wound. It is necessary to cut off the heads of the undead who have become vampires, and, switching monsters momen— tarily, we find that Beowulf in the hall of Grendel’s mother cuts off the head of the dead Grendel and also the head of his mother. Earlier in the poem, there is reference to that other dragon slayer, Sigemund (884), but it is explicitly stated there that he is alone on that exploit, for Fitela is not with him (889). It is not part of a contemporary convention that the poet is following in having two warriors together slaying the dragon, just as Harker and Morris together attack Dracula’s throat and heart. Is this coincidence, or is it an archetypal motif, or is there a possibility that Bram Stoker is recalling earlier intertexts? Dracula, relating to Harker the history of his race, says: <‘Here, too, when they Beowulf as Palimpsest 33 came, they found the Huns, whose warlike fury had swept the earth like a living flame, till the dying peoples held that in their veins ran the blood of those old witches, who, expelled from Scythia, had mated with the devils in the desert”> (41). And Van Helsing, in giving the history of vampirism, says that the vampire follows “the wake of the berserker, lcelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar” (286; emphasis mine). The references to miscegenation allude to the tradition associated with exegesis of Genesis 6:4, where the filii dei and the filiae hominum intermingle, giving birth to giants. This is a part of the mon— strous genealogy that the Beowulf poet attaches to Grendel, making him “caines cynne.”20 Self—Other Relationships The Dracula story reflects a different culture from that of Beowulf, one closer to Stevenson’s, with the monster figure’s depredations affecting not only the individuals but also their society. But unlike the Self—Other relationship that is so close in Dr. [ekyll and Mr. Hyde, in Dracula the pre— dominant point of View of the Self (Selves) representing what Varnado calls “the orderly, rational bourgeois life of the West” is differentiated from Other with his combination of legendary, historical, and Eastern dimensions.21 The sign on Mina’s forehead that signifies her partial tak— ing over by the monstrous Other does not disappear until that Other has been finally destroyed. The power struggle between Self and Other has been realized with Other given great intertextual power as an archetype, thus suggesting the gothicism of the text. Neither Dracula nor the dragon plays a major role in the text in which he occurs, but both become very powerful signs for the monstrous but fascinating dread that Other gen— erates, though Dracula does not have to compete with figures such as those in the Grendel family in evoking that awe. The mysterious dimension of Grendel is a crucial part of how he is presented in Beowulf.22 There is no overt close description of him, though his eyes, his hands, and of course his head are foregrounded in the dis— course, and though he seems to be huge, able to seize thirty men at once and carry them in his monstrous “glof,” his size is left vague. From a twentieth—century stance, an awareness of this lack of specific descrip- tion is as much an indication of our current expectations as it is a com— ment on the contemporary society.23 More important is Grendel’s re— lationship to Beowulf, and the extent to which the two can be regarded 34 Ruth Waterhouse as obverse and reverse of the same paradigm, or as doubles or second selves.”1 It is clear, however, that because Grendel has been raiding Heorot for twelve years before Beowulf ’s arrival, he cannot be classed either as de— riving from Beowulf in the way that Frankenstein’s monster is derived from Frankenstein or as his alter ego, like Mr. Hyde. Yet if Beowulf and Grendel are linked as analogous to Self and Other, the modern monsters can suggest something about Grendel. He is large, he is explicitly and fre— quently linked (by the third—person narrator as well as by the protago— nists) with evil, and his superhuman aspects, such as his strength and the terror he evokes, are all part of the paradigm of the monster. Major dif— ferences from the more recent monsters are not only Grendel’s attack upon the society of the Danes prior to Beowulf ’s arrival, but also the va— riety of attributed motives for his depredations: the torment of hearing the revel in the hall (86—89a), the seeking out of the Danes after the beer banquet (115—17), his malice and hostility (146—61), and the references to his eating of those he kills (though it is not made cle...
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