By Alistair McLennan
PhD Dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2009
Abstract: The purpose of this thesis is to examine Old English and Old Icelandic literary examples of monstrosity from a modern theoretical perspective. I examine the processes of monstrous change by which humans can become identified as monsters, focusing on the role played by social and religious pressures.
In the first chapter, I outline the aspects of monster theory and medieval thought relevant to the role of society in shaping identity, and the ways in which anti-societal behaviour is identified with monsters and with monstrous change. Chapter two deals more specifically with Old English and Old Icelandic social and religious beliefs as they relate to human and monstrous identity. I also consider the application of generic monster terms in Old English and Old Icelandic.
Chapters three to six offer readings of humans and monsters in Old English and Old Icelandic literary texts in cases where a transformation from human to monster occurs or is blocked. Chapter three focuses on Grendel and Heremod in Beowulf and the ways in which extreme forms of anti-societal behaviour are associated with monsters. In chapter four I discuss the influence of religious beliefs and secular behaviour in the context of the transformation of humans into the undead in the Íslendingasögur. In chapter five I consider outlaws and the extent to which criminality can result in monstrous change. I demonstrate that only in the most extreme instances is any question of an outlaw’s humanity raised. Even then, the degree of sympathy or admiration evoked by such legendary outlaws as Grettir, Gísli and Hörðr means that though they are ambiguous in life, they may be redeemed in death.
The final chapter explores the threats to human identity represented by the wilderness, with specific references to Guthlac A, Andreas and Bárðar saga and the impact of Christianity on the identity of humans and monsters. I demonstrate that analysis of the social and religious issues in Old English and Old Icelandic literary sources permits nuanced readings of monsters and monstrosity which in turn enriches understanding of the texts in their entirety.