Taking Back Horror; The Infamous Figure of Grendel in Beowulf

Could Hollywood horror directors learn a thing or two from Anglo-Saxon literature? Rosemary Kelly discusses.

Horror is defined as a literary genre that arouses feelings of horror; read deeper and horror is understood as “an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust”. Modern horror tropes include gore-filled, jump scare-reliant movies that pocket billions in cinema ticket sales or views on Netflix. A rare treasure is a horror that sits with you after the screen has gone black, looking over your shoulder with every late-night snack trip. We are an audience that lives for imaginative, troubled characters. I cannot relate to this monster. I am the human in this narrative. An example of some recent horror flicks that have “made it” include IT from 2017. What these films have in common, is the more deniable supernatural experience; a demon in the shape of a clown that eats children. We search for entertainment that differs greatly from our own daily lives. Has horror in its truest meaning been lost on the modern audience? How relatable are the highest grossing horror films to the audience that views them?

Travel back to England of the 10th century, a time before television. This England was that of the Anglo-Saxons, a people with Germanic origins. With little or no visual aids, tales were told through the oral tradition. One famous tale is Beowulf, an epic poem consisting of over 3000 lines. A heroic epic telling the famous tale of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who fights monsters. But how do you scare an Anglo-Saxon? With a liminal figure like Grendel. Grendel, although understood to be a monster and a villain in Beowulf, has undeniable human characteristics that reveal the flaw in our great hero Beowulf and the chink in the societal armour of Anglo-Saxon England. Grendel survives alone in the moors, a built hatred for the mead-consuming, epic heroic saga sharing “comitatus” of Hereot. For twelve long years Grendel succeeds in his personal feud against the good king Hrothgar and his great mead-hall, years made even longer in a society which expected a man to die in battle for his king. The fear of being an exile, “a well-known wanderer in the wastes” looms over an Anglo-Saxon audience. This fear is lost on a modern audience that craves solitude in a technology dependent society. (My phone has buzzed several times since I started writing this piece, so I rest my case.)

What adds to the fear felt in Beowulf however, is the difficulty in picturing Grendel; we are given little to no description of him. A ‘hellish fiend’ and ‘ill-starred man’ in R. D. Fulk’s translation, a ‘powerful demon’ to Seamus Heaney. Grendel is an unimaginable foe. Unlike the dragon that appears later in the poem, we have no solid picture of Grendel to go by. The fear of the unknown strikes the reader hard. How does one protect themselves from the unimaginable? The worst is yet to come; what if we become Grendel? Grendel’s existence and survival outside of a comitatus throws into question the  foundations of Anglo-Saxon society. It reveals Beowulf’s femininity and the perhaps unintentional reversal of clear gendered roles in society, through his portrayal of the role of peace-weaving between his own people, the Geats, and the Danes. It also reveals the mere pride in Beowulf, who travels outside of his own kingdom to fight this fearsome foe. Is Beowulf fighting for peace, risking his life for a king that is not his, or is it merely his ego in control?

Beowulf calls for self-reflection, something often lost in popular contemporary horror. Perhaps it is time producers took a step back in time and dipped their toes into the historic fear tropes of Anglo-Saxon England and not 2018 Hollywood.