A Monsters Importance
The importance of a monster or supernatural being to a story can often be confused for only being there for mystery, excitement, or entertainment, but the following cases prove that their worth is much greater than that in the grand scheme of things. Whether the monsters or loathly ladies of the works discussed in class can be classified as monster, inhuman, or somewhere in between, these characters can strangely teach readers what it meant to be human socially, aesthetically, and spiritually in the times in which each story was written. After a close reading of many such works, one can come to the conclusion that being human meant being a child and lover of God, for in-text clues about God make it seem like being human meant being not only a descendent of God, but also a lover of God. Physical and supernatural characteristics of a human being also had strict standards, and if any lines were crossed the character became something less or more than human. Of all five of the chosen characters, not one seems to fit the human mold completely, for whether they are monsters or not, each one is supernatural one way or another. Grendel, Grendels mother, and the dragon from Beowulf, the Green Knight from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the loathly lady from The Wife of Baths Tale play important roles in each works depicted social structure and ideas about what it meant to be human in the society of the times.
In each work, criteria for being human is explored, but one reoccurring idea is that to be from God, to love God, and to love all of those from God is one way to be human. If one looks beyond the obvious reasons as to why Grendel cannot be considered fully human, his hatred for mankind and God, as well as what seems to be Gods unwillingness to aid him puts him in the category of being subhuman for the times in which Beowulf was written. The unknown author says that, God would not grant throne-gifts to gladden / a scourge who spurned the Sovereign of Heaven (Beowulf 146-147). While Grendels reign seemed dominant and never ending to Heorot, the author foreshadowed it would end, for the Lords will / now became known: no more would the murderer drag under darkness whomever he wished (Beowulf 630-632). Also, no more would he menace mankind with his crimes, / his grudge against God (Beowulf 721-722). Grendel is introduced as a murdering machine that is numb to the sorrows suffered by men (Beowulf 104). This conveys the idea that Grendel sees his murders as justified, for he had no more remorse, / so fixed was his will on that wicked feud (Beowulf 118-9). The authors choice to use God and Grendels grudge against him sets Grendel apart from the other human characters that are on Gods side and also have him on theirs. This usage suggests the idea that a hater of God and mankind cannot be completely human himself.
The case is very similar for Grendels mother, a subhuman monster who is called a she-demon (Beowulf 1219). In relation to God, the lordly one looked on the hellish hag is a perfect description of the way the author separated the men of God from the monsters (Beowulf 1340). While Beowulf went on his quest to defeat Grendels mother, God played an important role. It was by Heavens favor furnishing help. The Ruler of All readily aided / the righteous man (Beowulf 1371-1373). God clearly chose to assist his human follower over his monstrous match, and Beowulf even said, My foe would have won our war underwater / had the Lord not looked after my life (Beowulf 1457-1456). When it comes to Grendel and his mother, their hatred toward mankind and the God of those humans eventually led to their demise, for without the help of God, they may have defeated Beowulf. However, Gods help did just the opposite, and it is quite possible that the author was trying to convey the message that no matter how strong someone may be, a human of God is the strongest of all.
Though the trust of the Green Knight was difficult to immediately gain due to his insane request for a game, it is undeniable that he is indeed a man of God even if he cannot be considered a pure human due to his enchantment that will be focused on later. The Green Knight, no matter how violent his game may be, possesses a humanly love toward mankind and God as well. The Green Knight says it himself that he is also known as the Knight of the Green Chapel, so it can be said that he is a man of God simply from where he makes his mark in society. Gawain, said that green man, may God keep thee! (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 2240). The Green Knight was noble and tested Sir Gawain as a representation of the entire Round Table under the orders of the woman who enchanted him and made him superhuman, but he is, in the end, still noble and a knight, as any that go under God, for thy great loyalty (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 2472). When it comes to God on the qualification scale for being human, the Green Knight can be considered human, and a fine one at that.
While the dragon from Beowulf is going to be talked about in this essay, an attempt to define him according to human standards isnt relevant, so moving on to the loathly lady from The Wife of Baths Tale is necessary as well as relevant, for she is very human in her love and following of God. While defending herself against the rapist knight, who she for some reason wants to marry, the loathly lady says, Crist wol we claime of him oure gentilesse and gentilesse cometh from God alone It was no thing biquethe us with our place (Chaucer 1123, 1168, 1170). She trusts in God and proves this when she relies on what she feels is right in the eyes of God to make her future husband believe the same things as she does, no matter that social standards have conditioned him to think. Each characters involvement with God puts them in a category based on their human status, but other social ideas that have nothing to do with God overrule that and make the categories even more distinct for Grendel, his mother, the dragon, the Green Knight, and the loathly lady.
Being human also meant possessing only humanlike physical characteristics, and when other monstrous or supernatural characteristics were present, the character became slightly less than human. In the case of Grendel and his mother, their hideous looks, gigantic size, and overwhelming force categorize them as at least half human, for they still have the basic human body structure. However, they are described as illshapen and superhuman in stature and strength, proving that they are not fully human physically (Beowulf 1192, 1194). The dragon from Beowulf has absolutely nothing physically human about him at all. He is closer to monster or animal than he is to human, and as it was sad before, the dragon has nothing human about him, yet he still plays a very important role in the structure of the story and its underlying themes. The Green Knight is in a class all his own, for this noble knight can be best described as superhuman (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 276). He is described as the mightiest on middle-earth in measure of height, / and his loins and his limbs so long and huge, / the largest man alive and green all over glowed (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 136-150). While the Green Knights bodily color and stature contributes, the fact that he could survive decapitation and go on with daily life, including speech, after the severance truly makes for a superhuman character. After the beheading, his body neither faltered nor fell but stoutly he rode forth, still strong on his shanks and he settled himself then in the saddle as firmly as if unharmed by mishap, though in the hall he might wear no head (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 430-439). His supernatural abilities and large green stature set him apart physically from any other human on earth, yet he is still human, for it was only an enchantment that made him superhuman. While he is drastically different physically, yet still beautiful unlike the monsters, he is still a true human on the inside. When readers are first introduced to the loathly lady, it is assumed that she is just a wise, old, ugly woman who has the answer for the knight. However, her superhuman ability to transform herself into a young and beautiful wife removes her from human and pushes her up to superhuman. While she seems to have all the normal physical attributes of a human, she is different due to the fact that she could change from one human to another physically. As each of these characters fit into different categories when it comes to their physical make up, what is really important about them is how they fit into the greater scheme of things in an all-around fashion.
These five characters, whether they are lordly and humanlike in all aspects or not, all play huge roles in defining society, and without them each story would be missing a link. Besides the previously mentioned reasons, each character has a mentality, belief, or motive that sets them apart from the human characters, yet they are still a vital part of the social structure. The opening lines on Grendel in Beowulf give the reader a true sense of who Grendel is in the eyes of the people who suffer and make up that social structure along with him. He is described as a horror from hell who was born to the band whom God had banished / as kindred of Cain and earned his own exile (Beowulf 91, 95-6). The speaker says that Grendel was a cursed creature that was cruel and remorseless (Beowulf 105). Any creature described in such a way that he could be pleased with the plunder and proud of his murders emits pure evil and a clear opposition to the rest of the previously mentioned characters, which seems to earn him his exile from humanity (Beowulf 109). Grendels mother plays a very similar role, and without Grendel and his mother, there would be no characters in Beowulf that were a clear opposition for the men of God while being monstrous and able to fight back physically on an entirely different level. The thing that makes these monsters different is their strangely human intellectual characteristics. Both Grendel and his mother possess human rationale when it comes to the revenge of loved ones and holding grudges, and without them Beowulf would be lacking true villains and challenging tests for the storys hero.
Also from Beowulf, the treasure hording dragon, however inhuman he is, is vital to the story and structure because not only does it change the social structure forever by killing Beowulf, but it conveys the idea Tolkien felt was most important in Beowulf, and that is that life is transitory: all light and life depart together (Tolkien 17). The dragon is clearly inhuman in all physical ways, but also because it hates all mankind. It is described as a spiteful specter whose foe was the hated human, Beowulf (2355, 2357). This makes the dragon strikingly similar to Grendel and his mother, and proves that he is purely a monster.
The Green Knight is very high in the social ranking, for not only is he a knight, but he is a strong and beautiful man at the same time. He is not horrific or monstrous, yet he fills what could have been a large void by bringing some supernatural fun to the Round Table while using the enchantment to prove the worth of Arthurs knights.
On the social scale for the loathly lady, simply noticing she is a woman is important, for unless a woman was royalty she was low on the social scale. However, the loathly lady is special, for she is a supernatural woman who has the power to transform her old, ugly self into a young and stunningly beautiful woman. She brings the supernatural flair, the wise answer, and does it all while fitting two ranks on the social ladder. Even though she is not completely human, she has the power to fit the bill of two different women in one lifetime and shows how important women, even the elderly, could be and should have been during those times.
Though it seems nearly impossible to compare such characters as these, each one can come together to explain the importance of the greater themes from their respected works. Grendel and his mother were monstrous, sure, but they descended from Cain and understood the way people of the times thought, using it to their advantage until Gods overwhelming power ended their reign. The dragon was horrifying and successful in killing Beowulf, but it also died at the hand of the one it killed, proving a greater theme and leaving the slot of the only one that could defeat Beowulf to a creature completely inhuman. The Green Knight and the loathly lady each represent what a little magic to an ordinary human can do for society, and all five of these characters fit the mold of the ones who taught readers what it was to be human many years ago.
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