Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Monsters and the Monsters

Beowulf wasn’t the first scary story I ever read – I’ve loved reading horror for about as long I can remember. I gorged myself on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Wait Til Helen Comes, the collected works of R. L. Stine, and then moved on to Dracula, Shirley Jackson, and Stephen King.

And really, in that crowd, I wouldn’t call Beowulf a scary story at all.

But if you want to think about scary monsters, well, it’s a good place to look.

There’s Grendel, of course. A demon, bent on wreaking destruction on Hrothgar and the Danes.  He kills for the sheer delight of it, it seems, and oh, he is a foul, terrifying nightmare of a creature. Grendel glories in his monstrousness, making it so easy for the reader to feel nothing but happiness at his death. Grendel is the monster, and Beowulf is the hero, and killing the monster is the thing the hero does.

But not everyone delights in Grendel’s death, and here’s where Beowulf’s take on monstrousness gets really interesting.  Grendel, like all of us, had a mother. And his mother is, understandably, devastated by his death, and by the display of part of her son’s body like a trophy, and she takes revenge. Beowulf, being the hero, kills this monstrous mother as well.

That moment, for me, is the moment when Beowulf truly becomes a scary story. Not that rampaging monsters who are nigh-unstoppable without a Hero of Heroes aren’t scary – they are. Grendel has stalked my nightmares in much the way he stalked Heorot. Grendel is pretty firmly in the monster camp – he commits brutal murder on a regular basis for no apparent reason other than the joy of it. His death at Beowulf’s hands seems justified. But the death of Grendel’s mother is a more complicated thing.

Yes, she looks monstrous. Yes, she bore a monstrous son. But her act is not a monstrous act, but rather a human one – revenge for her loss. The death of the king’s beloved counselor for the death of her beloved son. A life for a life. Wergild. So if her act is simply the act of a mother, who is the monster in this situation? Is it Beowulf, the hero? And if the monster is the hero, is the monster also us?

I’m not the first person to think about this question (see, for example, J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay, from which I appropriated the title to this post, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.”) But for me, that question – what does a monster truly look like?  - has been one that has haunted me ever since. It is certainly a question that has informed my writing because I think that the scariest monsters aren’t the ones easily identifiable as such. I think that what makes a monster truly scary is its humanity, the moment where we look at something monstrous, and we see ourselves reflected in that horror.

Acknowledging the monstrous in yourself? Truly a horror story.

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