In off the moors, down through the mist bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
(Beowulf, lines 710-713, translated by Seamus Heaney)
The poet of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf certainly exploited the association of movement with the lurking terror of monsters. In the original language – Old English – the movement of Grendel is amplified by the pounding alliteration at work: ‘Grendel gongan, Godes yrre bær.’ And so we almost hear his doom-laden, monstrous strides. Cue ‘OMINOUS MUSIC’, or so goes the 1997 draft of the screenplay for Robert Zemeckis’ movie version of Beowulf. But I won’t spoil the purist’s day by any further allusions to that CGI-enhanced visual paean to Angelina Jolie’s curves. (I’ll leave that for another post.)
It’s fascinating that the movement of monsters is also sometimes exploited to great effect in the art of the Anglo-Saxons, which is quite surprising on one level, as their manuscript art is sometimes perceived as quite static. In the example I’m thinking of, we don’t actually see any of Heaney’s greedy ‘loping’, but we do witness something perhaps equally perturbing: a monster whose movement is momentarily suspended as it’s about to launch itself off the page!
This monster is the BLEMMYE, a headless (acephalous, if you want the technical term) creature with its face fused into its chest, one of the so-called ‘Wonders of the East’. In an eleventh-century English manuscript (British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B.v.), this clearly male Blemmye stands, in full-frontal nakedness, on the edge of the drawing’s frame. (The picture above is my own rendition - sorry not as good as the real one: click on BLEMMYE for that.) His big black unblinking eyes stare at you, assessing you. You have to stare back. You have to look. After all, he's not too terrifying, and not quite in the Grendel-mould, well not the Grendel Ray Winston faces who thrashes and smashes warriors like little rag dolls – sorry, I slipped there. It’s hard to tell if he’s hungry for flesh, though his ribs are poking through just under his jouls. You notice he has six toes. The ones at the back – which resemble the dewclaws on a dog – seem to grip the bottom of the frame, whilst his surprisingly elegant fingers curl around the frame’s sides. Yes, it would seem that this Blemmye is set to leave behind the bare rocks and troubling, fiery sky of his own world. So will he step out off the page? Will he launch himself into your world?
What seemed to disturb the Anglo-Saxons about these types of monsters – the monstrous races, as they’re sometimes called – is their familiarity. They’re not fully human, but even in their deformity, there’s enough about them to remind one of their human origins. Indeed, the prevailing theological view of the early medieval period was that monsters originated from Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve. The Beowulf poet picks up on this: Grendel and his mother (she’s not given her own name) are said to be from the kin of Cain, and they are said to have lived for a while in the home of the monster race. Perhaps, then, for those Anglo-Saxons who imagined monsters, the peril of their proximity was disturbing in the first place because, like all people, they shared their genealogy with monsters.
Further reading: 'A context for the sexualization of monsters in The Wonders of the East'