Horror, Not Just Horrible: A Reconsideration of the Thematic Unity of Monsters in the Beowulf-Manuscript through the Lens of Horror

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Norton, Brittney A.
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Middle Tennessee State University
In 1953, Kenneth Sisam argued that monsters provide a thematic unity to the various works in the Beowulf-manuscript, (The Passion of St. Christopher, Wonders of the East, The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, Beowulf, and Judith), and many scholars have agreed. Sisam, however, excludes Judith from this unity and does not define “monster” in his argument, leaving these interpretations too vague to be helpful. There must be a fuller understanding of “monsters” in order to understand a potential thematic unity, and the theories behind the genre of Horror provide a structure and language with which to explore monstrosity more fully. Using certain theories behind the modern Horror genre, I construct a list of criteria necessary in order to define “monster” more specifically and then apply these characteristics to the humanoid beings in the five texts of the Beowulf-manuscript. A dichotomy arises between monstrous appearance and monstrous behavior, and this project explores how these avenues have, in the past, been merged inappropriately and inaccurately. Through this approach, one may read these Old English works as Horror and evaluate the monstrosity of characters spanning from Grendel (a commonly accepted monster) to Holofernes (the one character Sisam argues is absolutely not monstrous). I use the biological factors and behavioral characteristics that define the monstrous to give scholars the theoretical structures and vocabulary needed to distinguish between humans, monsters, and marvels.
Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf, Beowulf-manuscript, Horror, Monsters, Old English, English literature