Beowulf And The Wonders From The East: Monsters And Men

In the late 700’s, the Vikings began their raids in England. Their excursions first targeted monasteries on the coast and slowly spread across the nation until the English and Nordic cultures blended into one. The history of the invasion is well documented in historical texts and letters written by the monks in the monasteries, and through allegorical fiction written by intellectuals of the time. However, the melding of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings was anything but peaceful and smooth; it was fraught with animosity, prejudice, and hate. In Wonders of the East and the Beowulf manuscript, the English portray foreign people as monsters on account of their different cultures and beliefs, as well as of fear of the unknown knowledge that they represent. In Beowulf, the feelings of fear develop into feelings of hate and the author attacks the Vikings by representing them, collectively, as Grendel. Wonders of the East portrays foreign people as monsters; however, it is not a blunt attack on a specific group of people, even though it does convey a feeling of unease and distrust for the ‘monstrous’ things.

The author of Wonders of the East provides detailed and strange descriptions of the different monsters that have been encountered to the east of England, such as “people… born who are six feet in height. They have beards to their knees and hair to their heels. They are called Homodubii, that is ‘doubtful humans’” (177). Although the words are descriptive and precise measurements are used to make the writing seem more realistic, some words are purposely vague to create an aura of mystery around the Homodubii. For example, the phrase “doubtful humans” is designed to be ambiguous; it could be interpreted in many different ways. They could be doubtful because the author is not sure whether the Homodubii are of the human race or an entirely different species altogether, an observation which brings their humanity into question. The author also could have meant “doubtful humans” in the sense that the Homodubii doubt the existence of the God of Israel, or the Christian God, so that they are of a different, pagan faith, which would make them different, strange, and presumably inferior to the English. If both meanings of “doubtful” are put together, this combination exemplifies the onetime English belief that because this foreign race does not believe in Christianity, it is doubtful that they could even be human, therefore showing the English feeling of having the superior religion and, thus, of being the superior race. These interpretations also highlight a pre-existing prejudice towards this race of people because they do not look like the accepted race of white Anglo-Saxon men, and they do not share the same belief set as the Anglo-Saxon people. But each instance reinforces the idea that this is an example of the early English apprehension towards mysterious things and of the feelings of superiority to those foreign things.

Elsewhere in Wonders of the East, the author describes chickens that burst into flame when they are touched; he then describes this ability as a form of “unheard of magic” (175). The reason that this can be seen as mistrust towards the creatures is because, in the Middle Ages, things that were said to be magic were not to be trusted. Magic was used by witches and fairies to manipulate and use people, and it was a sign that the magic wielder was working with the devil. So to describe the chickens as magic is equivalent to saying that they are a product of the devil, which would make them into an unholy enemy of God and Christianity and therefore the English people. Additionally, the diction that is used throughout Wonders of the East reveals a general feeling of mistrust and loathing for the foreign creatures found in the east. For example, words such as “thought to be” and “doubtful” are repeated several times when referring to human-like beings, which shows that the author does not trust them and he is questioning their humanity. The entire piece is built around assumptions and speculation; for example, on page 179 the author writes, “Certainly, whichever person they catch, they eat him up.” This statement presents the assumption that these creatures are cannibals because they catch people and it is presumed by the author that they eat them. By using the word “certainly,” the claim goes from a statement of fact to an assumption. After all, the word “certainly” means “undoubtedly, irrefutably, unquestionably or without doubt” (OED), but there is no further proof given that the beings mentioned eat people or do anything cannibalistic. The reader is supposed to take the author’s word as valid. There is no textual evidence given to back up this claim, nor any stories or artwork given as further proof; therefore, the author does not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this species is made up of primitive savages who eat humans. From all this, it can be concluded that the author is jaded by assumptions he has made and is afraid of these foreign creatures and their culture which is why he makes presumptions about their behavior. The recounting of recently discovered species then continues with a description of a place that has “dragons…who are in length one hundred and fifty feet long” and because of these dragons “no one.. can travel easily”(179).

Around the same time that these accounts of foreign lands were being commemorated in print, the Vikings had begun to perfect their long boats, also called “dragon boats” because often they would be carved in a way that made the bow appear to be the head of a dragon. The largest of these boats were warships that could be up to one hundred and twenty feet long and hold over sixty rowers (History). From this information, the argument can be made that the dragons being described were actually Viking warships. This could be further backed up by the fact that it was difficult for people to travel through these areas because of the ‘dragons’. Additionally the Vikings were known for their skill in fighting, being great warriors their homelands were also well known to be surrounded by many narrow, shallow rivers that made it difficult for European style ships to sail through, therefore making the ships easy targets for the Vikings. Equating the Vikings with dragons creates the imagine in the reader’s mind that they were monstrous people. Dragons were specifically known in stories and lays as being greedy treasure hoarders and as being vicious, destructive, and ruthless. This image then symbolizes what the Vikings represented to the author, a foreign people who were coming to destroy his homeland and steal its wealth, and everything that the English people held dear; this is especially true because this compilation was written down during the same time period when the Vikings began to invade England.

Where Wonders of the East was a subtle attack on foreign people and the Vikings, Beowulf is a blunt attack on the Vikings and their culture. The poem performs this critique by describing the Vikings as monsters through their portrayal as the monster Grendel, the antagonist of the story. Throughout Beowulf, a complete description of Grendel is never given. Bits and pieces are described, such as his arm which Beowulf rips off, but never the entire creature. This tactic is important because it shows that the English did not know what to expect of the Vikings; they were not sure what they looked like or how to prepare for their arrival on English shores. It also gives Grendel, and therefore the Vikings, more power because it is easier to prepare to battle something that is tangible, but there is no way to prepare to battle the intangible. Thus the monstrous Grendel is a representation of the English fear of foreign people as well as of the fear of the unknown. The fear of foreign people is further developed later in the story when Grendel is described as having a “heathen soul.” A heathen as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is “a person who does not believe in a widely held or practiced religion,” in this context the widely held religion is Christianity, which is not practiced by Grendel, and by association the Vikings.

By choosing to use heathen the author is taunting the Vikings because people marked as heathen were often outcast, exiled, and hated by the community. It also is a way of saying that the Vikings are inferior to the English because their religion is not well known or widely practiced, which presumably means that they are an uncivilized, subordinate race. The line continues on to say that “there, hell received him” which is degrading to the Vikings because the story is saying that, since they too do not believe in the Christian God, they are pagans who do not deserve to live in heaven, which is the end goal of living, to be good on earth so that after death the soul can ascend to heaven and be with the True Father. However, the insult may have missed its mark because the end goal in the religion of the Vikings was to reach valhalla, where the brave warriors who died in battle would then sit beside their gods as their equals (Choosing Heaven). This shows that the English disapprove of the Vikings’ religious beliefs and find theirs to be superior. Beowulf is the superior and ideal hero of this tale whereas Grendel is the monstrous and evil villain, an arrangement which is made obvious through the author’s diction when describing the opposing characters. Through this device his stance on the Viking attack on England is made clear; he despises the Vikings and believes the English are the superior race. When describing Grendel words such as “a terror,” “hostile,” “fierce,” “reckless,” and “ruthless” are all used, and each of these words has a negative connotation associated. “Terror” specifically leaps out as a vehement word because it is the root of terrorism which is defined as “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce”; the latter half of that definition can be associated with the Vikings’ method of invading England. They were brutal, vicious and used intimidation to defeat the English.

Although “terrorism” is a modern word created in France during the Reign of Terror, it still has a deep significance in this text. There must be a reason why the editor chose to translate text using “terror” to describe Grendel, instead of another synonymous word such as “evil” or “frightening.” That is because Grendel is meant to represent the violent and intimidating figures that were the invading Viking invaders. Beowulf, however, is described using words that are heroic, positive, and hopeful such as “worthy,” “mighty,” “victorious,” “brave,” and “protector of warriors.” The last phrase “protector of warriors” is especially significant because to be the man that protects the protectors is a great honor; it proves that he is the best and most noble. He is the man that the fiercest of fighters want on their side, and the one that they chose to lead and defend them in battle. As it relates to the English, this term is their way of saying that they are courageous and chivalrous, that they are the ones who will protect themselves and the world from the evil that is the Vikings. It is also their aim to calm the people of England and to give them hope that everything will be all right; it is sincerely hoped that the Vikings will not be victorious in taking over England because they are the true heroes. As history shows, the English were not successful in keeping out the Vikings. They were even forced to adopt some of “pagan” holidays and rituals that they had thought to be so monstrous and evil. The Vikings for all their pillaging and destruction of England turned out to be great rulers who helped to advance England to where its culture is now.

The English did their best to represent the Vikings as monstrous foreign invaders who were going to destroy everything that they held dear, presenting them as treacherous demons and unheard-of beings. Through their clever use of metaphors, allegory and diction, the great authors of the Beowulf manuscript were able to weave fanciful tales that depicted the Vikings, and foreign people, as frightening, detestable creatures that were “doubtful humans.” Although Beowulf may have won the day in Beowulf, Grendel emerged victorious in the end.

Bibliography

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