|The following is a modified version of the first chapter of my book,
Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (University
of Minnesota Press, 1999). Because it was originally delivered as
a lecture for a general audience, it contains a less theoretical and more
immediately accessible account of the work performed by the monster within
the cultural imaginary of Anglo-Saxon England.
Quotations from "The Wanderer" are slightly modified from the translation of Michael Alexander, those from Beowulf are excerpted from Howell Chickering's dual language edition of the poem. For copyright reasons I am unable to reproduce the illustration of the monster called the Donestre which I analyze below. A reproduction of the image may be found in John Block Friedman's The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (p. 16), as well as in my own book.
When read chronologically through the three scenes, the Donestre's body undergoes a revealing transformation. At first more manly than bestial, the monster's animal head is fully anthropomorphized to give an sympathetic look ó as if he were a medieval version of Simba or some other friendly character from The Lion King. Or, at least, one of the characters from The Lion King on steroids: his hands, calves, and chest bulge with muscles. Unlike any Disney drawing, though, this body possesses genitalia -- here painted bright red and prominently displayed. Compared to the hypermasculine body of the Donestre, the traveler's form is thin, has bad posture, and looks feeble. As the Donestre devours his victim, the monsterís body becomes more leonine: he is on all fours, as if he has just pounced; his nose and lips form a snout; his eyes suddenly lack whites. An oral, animal ecstasy characterizes the second scene as the Donestre -- bare buttocks arched above the prone foreigner's hips -- devours the man's erect arm. That this combination of violence and eroticism is difficult to contain in the illustration is indicated by the Donestre's very human left foot, which steps out of the picture and into the frame -- the only part of the image to violate its protective border. The last segment of the three-part story finds both bodies much reduced. The traveler has vanished, replaced by a peacefully oblivious head. The monster has become an indistinct collection of curved lines that center around a trembling hand, a dark eye, and a tight frown.
The literal incorporation of one body into the flesh of another, cannibalism might be glossed as the fear of losing that boundary which keeps identities individual, separate. The Donestre illustration from Wonders of the East uses cannibalism to explore the limits of personal identity, the fragility of the body as a container of a singular selfhood. The monster here is a cultural, linguistic, and sexual Other who seems to be intimate (he knows you, he can talk about your relatives, he can share in your homesickness), but who in fact brutally converts an identity familiar and secure into an alien thing, into a subject estranged from its own body. In the last scene of the narrative the traveler has been completely transformed. The severed head is an empty point of fascination that directs the viewer's gaze back to the new body in which the traveler is now contained, at the monster he has now become; the traveler ponders what he once was from the outside, as a foreigner. The Donestre transubstantiates the man, making him realize through a bodily conversion that he was always already a stranger to himself. The Donestre-Traveler stares at the mute, lifeless head with such affective sadness because at this moment of plurality he sees the precariousness of selfhood, how much of the world it excludes in its panic to remain self-same, singular, alone.
The monster exposes what Lacanian psychoanalysis calls the extimité, the "intimate otherness" or "interior exteriority" of identity. To be fully human is to disavow the strange space that the inhuman, the monstrous, occupies within. To succeed on a mass scale, this disavowal requires two things: a measure of cultural uniformity and relative social calm. Britain in the centuries before the Norman conquest was a hybrid collection of peoples who were constantly forced to examine who they were in relation to a shifting array of differences. "Anglo-Saxon England" is a blanket term that hides more than it reveals. In a real sense, there were no Anglo-Saxons, only scattered groups of varied ancestry in growing alliances who were slowly building larger political units. "England" existed as an ambiguous region of a larger island, and was very much in the process of being invented as a unifying geography, as a nation-idea capable of transcending the differences among those bodies it collects beneath its name. The various Germanic peoples who sailed to Britain beginning in the fifth century were ethnically diverse. As they settled the island they intermingled with the Celts and with each other. The Latin church meanwhile continued to colonize in successive waves. In 835, the Vikings began their violent incursions, raids, and settlements. The history of Anglo-Saxon England is a narrative of resistant hybridity, of small groups ingested into larger bodies without a full assimilation, without cultural homogeneity: thus the kingdoms of Hwicce, Sussex, Kent, Lindsey, Surrey, Essex, East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex were sutured over time into progressively larger realms, but despite the fact that they were eventually loosely unified under King Alfred, these areas retained enough force of difference to remain dialect regions that persist to the present day.
Anglo-Saxon England is not so very different from
the monstrous Donestre who fascinated it: familiar and strange, hybrid
rather than homogenous, a body that absorbs difference without completely
reducing or assimilating it. Because of its diversity and because of its
permeable, perpetually transgressed borders, Anglo-Saxon England was relentlessly
pondering what it meant to be a warrior, a Christian, a hero, a saint,
an outlaw, a king, a sexed and gendered being. If there is a generalization
under which such a long and varied time period can be gathered without
doing reductive violence to its expansiveness, it is simply that during
the span of years now designated by "Anglo-Saxon England" the limits of
identity were under ceaseless interrogation because they were confronted
by almost constant challenge. It is not surprising, then, that the monster
became a kind of cultural shorthand for the problems of identity construction,
for the irreducible difference that lurks deep within the culture-bound
The Work of Giants
When the various Germanic tribes which are now called the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the land now called England, they encountered towering structures of ancient stone that made them feel like children standing before them. They described these alien architectures as enta geweorc, "the work of giants." Some of these structures were the great monoliths, dolmens, and stone circles like Stonehenge built by the mysterious pre-Celtic peoples who have left no other trace of their presence on the island. Other monumental edifices were constructed by the Romans during that brief period when the Eternal City could see all the way to the hinterland of Great Britain: the aqueducts and temples of Bath, for example, were just as wondrous and seemingly out of place to the Anglo-Saxons as they are to the tourists who visit them by the hundreds today. Since these Germanic tribes built almost exclusively with wood, stone in their sign-system was associated with the primitive and the inert. Wood was a living substance to be carved and joined, the raw material of community; stone was recalcitrant and dead, good for etching runes but otherwise impossible to transform. Like their forebears, the Anglo-Saxons contrasted wood's modernity with the ancient, elemental harshness of stone. Men built with wood. Giants, the vanished race who had ruled the earth in its larger-than-life, paleolithic days, were architects of stone.
The bible only confirmed what their native mythology already told them, a story which the legends of the conquered Celts corroborated: humanity was a secondary race of creatures, belated, the gods' afterthought. Northern myth held that giants had been the first race to carve their identity into the earth's landscape, and that the human body was their continuation and reduction. Creatures of the world's First Order, giants were so close to nature that they were linked to meteorological phenomena -- to the storms, lightning, fog, and blizzards that terrified northern explorers with their violent unpredictability. Giants were inextricable from the earth and stone they worked, so they gained an explanatory function as creators of landscape, ancient ruins, and mysterious architecture.
The Old English text which most vividly captures this dreamy origin of the giants' work is "The Wanderer." The poem is spoken by a homeless exile (OE anhaga) who treks through a bleak, frozen landscape and meditates upon the cruelty of this world where the price of speaking is loss:
to give my cares words.
None are there now among the living
to whom I dare declare myself,
tell my heart's thought.
enwrapped my gold-friend. Wretched I wandered
winter-weary, bound over the waves,
sadly I sought the hall of a gold-giver
where far or near I might find
him who in meadhall might take care of me.
clasps him and kisses him, and on knee lays
hand and head, as he had long ago
in days now lost.
Then the dream breaks. The Wanderer awakens to find that he remains alone among bitter frost and frigid waves. Sea birds perform their inhuman rituals, while snow and hail swirl: a cold world oblivious to the sorrow that wells within him. In this winterscape "sorg bi? geniewod" ("sorrow is renewed," 50). His ache for his beloved (swæsne), the dead lord, has not been reduced through a life spent wandering the empty world.
In early northern European culture the wooden mead hall was the center of community, the materialization into concrete public space of heroic group identity. "The Wanderer" asks what it is like to suffer the trauma of loss, and discovers that what seemed a dissolution of wholeness is actually its reconfiguration into a diminished, bleak, and lonely state of autonomy. The text arrives at this insight by imagining an originary moment before the subject was alienated within the symbolic order that grants his meaning-in-being. Lacanian psychoanalysis, embedded in class- and time-specific ideals of family structure, dreams of an originary trauma that attends the separation of the infant from the mother, when the entrance into a paternal language occurs; the presymbolic bliss of "The Wanderer" is a bit queerer, and resides in the complete union of two male bodies, symbolized in the gesture of the embrace and lost through the violence of other men. Like Lacan, this elegy imagines a prehistory during which the subject could feel at home in his own body, at home in the world.
At home, or at hall. Architecture articulates identity: in the time of wholeness, in the time before loss and lack, the Wanderer resided with his lord in sele-dreamas, "hall-bliss" (93). In the submissive tableau of being embraced, laying head upon lap, the Wanderer knew plenitude. The narrator rejoices not in his individuality (he is not even named) but in full dependency. This primal enjoyment, frozen in time and frozen as place, is made possible through the hall, the structure that separates warm, communal Inside from frigid, solitary Exterior. Under the protective wood of the hall's steep gables, fires blaze and feasting resounds. Men drink and sing and exchange the gold rings that serve as a materialization of the system of relations that binds them like brothers, like circles of a closed chain. The exiled Wanderer is sele-dreorig: not homesick, but hall-sick (25).
My translation of sele-dreamas, as "hall-bliss" will recall a more familiar modern English term: "domestic bliss." Perhaps it is worth pausing for a moment to consider what the house means to contemporary American culture, in order to better understand what the hall means to the Wanderer. "The house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace." So Gaston Bachelard succinctly speaks the name of "the chief benefit of the house." His reverie over the integrative powers of this quintessential modern structure is rapturous, impossible, enticing. Like the Wanderer, Bachelard offers through his verbal conjuration a moment of repose for a world doomed to homelessness. The passage is worth lingering over:
Likewise, outside the Wanderer's hall an inimical
geography sprawls: tempest-troubled seas, dark promontories, the habitations
of monsters. The danger of a happy hall is that one of these lone monsters
will hear the sweet music that escapes from the windows, will rise from
the dark mere, and will burst through the door like the giant cannibal
Grendel and devour the place of home.
"Being Insists in Suffering"
The door splinters at the giant's touch and Grendel strides into the hall of Heorot. The men still sleep. Grendel seizes Hondscio, the nearest warrior, and guts him as he dreams. The giant rips the body to pieces, "bat ban-locan, blod edrum dranc " ("he bit into muscles, he swilled blood from the veins, he tore off chunks"). The giant eats the sleeper alive, everything, "even hands and feet". The fear which animates this gory evisceration is that all which is rhetorically outside, incorporated into the body of the monster, will suddenly break through the fragile architecture of the hall, which is the fragile identity of the body, and expose its surprised inhabitants to what has been abjected from their small world to make it livable. Like the sleeping, peaceful, unspeaking Hondscio, the traumatized subject will be ingested, absorbed into that monstrous Other seemingly beyond (but actually wholly within) the cultural order which it menaces.
In "The Wanderer" these monstrous anxieties cannot find expression in fleshly form. Instead they are written across the landscape, becoming no less potent for not having found a body to inhabit. The world itself comes to life, acting as one malevolent body:
The ground bound by driving sleet,
Winterís wrath. Then darkness arrives,
Nightís shadow spreads, and sends from the north
The rough hail to persecute mankind.
In the earth-realm all is crossed;
Fate's will changes the world.
Wealth is lent us, friends are lent us,
man is lent, kin is lent;
all this earth's frame shall stand empty.
In fact, the poem might be described as a cycle of apocalypses, of endings that seem to end all endings but in fact lead only to more tragic conclusions. About midway in the poem, deep in sadness, the Wanderer turns to the stone ruins of a city he sees before him and projects his story of persecution by a giant, unknowable Other onto the alien wreckage. A silent testament to the destructive inevitability of time, the windswept remains are described as "eald enta geweorc idlu stodon" ("the old work of giants, standing abandoned," 87). Associated with a race defined simultaneously by its terrible power and its ancient vanishing, the time-broken architecture becomes a living elegy. The Wanderer, alienated from his origin, projects this estrangement upon the ruins, estranging them from human origin:
that human laughter is not heard about it
and empty stand these old giant works.
A man who looked on these walls wisely
who sounded deeply this dark life
would think back to the blood spilt here
weigh it in his mind. His word would be this:
"Where are the horses now? Where are those men [who once lived here]? Where is their lord? Where is the hall of the feast? Where is the hallís joy? ...
How that time has passed,
dark under night's helm, as though it had never been!
In The Wanderer and other Old English elegies,
the resonance invoked through the ancient giants fits perfectly the poems'
cycle of loss and vanishing at the hands of fate and time. More recent
humans have theorized that the Egyptian pyramids, pre-Columbian ruins,
and geometric patterns in English wheat fields are the work of ancient
aliens, carried from the margins of space in their chariots of the gods.
The existential melancholy behind such stories of origin arises because
these more than human beings have abandoned humanity to itself, leaving
enigmatic traces of a joyful closeness never to be regained. This sorrow
may be culturally specific in the form of its expression, but sorrow and
loss are perhaps a transhistorical constant -- are perhaps the price paid
for becoming a creature of language.
The Letter Killeth
In Dante's Inferno, as the narrator prepares to descend into the ninth circle of Hell, he sees in the distant fog what he believes are enormous towers encircling the vast pit of Malebolge. From his wise guide Vergil he learns that these structures are living giants, buried in the earth from the navel down. The fiercest of the monsters bellows at Hell's two tourists: "Rafel mahee amek zabi almit!" These enigmatic, indecipherable sounds provoke Dante's guide to declare, "'His very babbling testifies the wrong / he did on earth: he is Nimrod, through whose evil / mankind no longer speaks a common tongue.'" (tr. John Ciardi, XXXI.76-8). Medieval tradition held that the giant Nimrod had been the architect of the Tower of Babel, that failed monument to human pride which God destroyed in anger. Nimrod's giant body becomes the very architecture which he aspired to build, a living and speaking enta geweorc. The Tower of Babel is an affront to the House of God that would bring divinity down to earth. God's punishment against its human builders is to render them wanderers who must circle the earth, speaking new languages that ensure they will never by each other be fully understood:
Again at a point of origin and human identity a monster, the giant, is lurking. Anglo-Saxon tradition multiplied the architects of Nimrod's heaven-bent construction, attributing the tower not to one lone giant but to an entire race. Ælfric's homily For the Holy Day of Pentecost gives a full account. He counterpoints the speaking in tongues awarded the apostles and the moment of linguistic unity it created with the expulsion into arbitrary signification embodied by the giants:
Human identity and restless nomadism become inextricable in early medieval England. The monster's connection to human identity received its fullest consideration in the narratives the Anglo-Saxons wove for themselves as they tried to make a hybrid past cohere, as they tried to discern why history had placed an intimate stranger, a monster, at the heart of selfhood. Grendel, the most famous monster of Old English literature, embodies this Anglo-Saxon fascination with extimité well. The giant intrudes into the narrative of Beowulf just as lord Hrothgar's poet is singing of the creation the world -- a bright song which begins with the shaping of the earth (91-2) and ends at its populating (97-8), before the introduction of original sin. Hrothgar's warriors are by conjunction immediately brought into this Golden Age ("Swa ¶a drihtguman dreamum lifdon," "So the men lived in joy," 99), until Grendel suddenly intervenes:
dwelling in the darkness endured that time,
hearing daily the hall filled
with loud amusement, the music of the harp,
the clear song of the poet.
Grendel disperses the unity of Hrothgar's war band with an eruption of misdirected violence. He rips bodies to pieces, devours the men he kills in their sleep, transforms them into something other, into union with his monstrous flesh. He supplants Hrothgar as ruler of the hall, inverts the system while in a way exactly maintaining it. Grendel is a monsterized version of what a member of that very society can become when its laws are do not bind, when the authority of leaders or custom disintegrates and the subordination of the individual to hierarchy is lost. Intimate otherness: Grendel is another version of the anhaga, as if the banished speaker of The Wanderer had turned in his exile not to beautiful poetry but to cannibalism, to the dismemberment of that cultural body through which he came to be. Grendel's body must therefore be ripped to pieces, his hand and head displayed as trophies by Beowulf, but it is in the end unclear what makes Beowulf so very different from the lonely monster he dismembers.
If the Wanderer and Grendel are merely different figurations of the same role, the same cultural position, another point of human origin has found a monster lurking both without and within. By way of conclusion, it is perhaps worth venturing to the home that the monster inhabits, to see what relation it bears to Hrothgar's Heorot before its violation, to the Wanderer's eternally lost but incessantly beckoning hall. The Beowulf-poet describes the location of the submarinal cave which Grendel and his mother share in horrifying terms:
This monstrous realm is also a gendered place: here Beowulf meets, fights, and is almost crushed to death by a giantess, a protective mother. Grendel's devoted parent, supposedly less fierce than her son (1282-84), is in fact more terrible, and figures within the poem's homosocial world that "vortex of summons and repulsion" which Julia Kristeva has called abjection (Powers of Horror 1). In this horrifying, fascinating space repulsion curves into desire, and everything thought to be "ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable" is revealed as residing deep within the architecture of selfhood. Kristeva allies abjection specifically with the maternal, with everything that the Wanderer's wished-for embrace excludes. Grendel's unnamed mother, his companion on the paths of exile (1347-48), violently reinserts into a masculinist account of heroic self-fashioning the bodies, origins, and possibilities it excludes. It is a tribute to the complexities of the poem that it accomplishes this reinsertion by demonstrating that the underwater home of the Grendel "family" is also a roofed hall (hrofsele) "described in human, almost homey terms" (Orchard 30) -- just another version of Heorot -- where Beowulf plays the very role which Grendel previously enacted. As the dragon will prove again later, the difference between foe and defender is a question of perspective, with each term forming the secret interior of the other. Like Hrothgar in Heorot, Grendel's mother lives for fifty years undisturbed in her hall. Yet her habitation is at once hrofsele ("roofed hall") and nithsele ("hateful hall"), both beatutiful and frightening. This home which is something less than Bachelard's integrative vision of domestic bliss is worth comparing to a more modern version of Beowulf's descent into the mere, this time as described by a critic of the poem who determined to find in modern Scandinavia the exact location of the Old English narrative:
Beowulf celebrates the death of the giant; the Liber monstrorum (c. 650-750), composed by someone familiar with the Beowulf tradition, opens with a nostalgic reflection on the dwindling space of the monstrous in the "modern "world, then fills the void opened by the triumph of the human race over the monsters by offering a long catalogue of unfailingly disturbing hybrid bodies, cannibals ready to devour the fragile forms of anyone who does not see in their flesh something already human. Anglo-Saxon England knew well the inhuman presence that stands at both the origins and the ruins of identity, and had the perfect term for this haunting: enta geweorc, the work of giants.