By J.S. Mackley
Paper presented to: The Fantastic Imagination, Richmond American International University, London, 25 November 2011
Introduction: In the 2007 film of Beowulf, the dying Grendel is seen being comforted by his mother, crying in agony ‘hæ hærod me, hæ mordred me’. Throughout the film, Grendel’s motivation is clear: he is disturbed by the noise from the Gæts at Heorot, and moves to find a way of ending the disturbance, permanently. In the text, however, there is no such empathy for Grendel. He is described as a ‘grimma gæst’, a cruel spirit. In this discussion I want to consider a similar demonising of the ‘other’ in the form of the giants who were the indigenous inhabitants of Albion before the first civilised settlers arrived: this story is told in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum britannie (History of the Kings of Britain), but their story develops and the giants are treated more sympathetically 150 years later when they are presented in the Anglo-Norman poem Dez granz geantes.
Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the Historia regum britannie in Latin around 1135–38. He is most famous for first popularising early stories of King Arthur. One of Geoffrey’s sources a welsh monk called Nennius who was writing around 830AD. Geoffrey’s writings demonstrate his rather vivid imagination: he claims that he had copied details from a manuscript, “ancient book in the British language that told in orderly fashion the deeds of all the kings of Britain”, although no such book still survives and historians generally believe that it, too, was another of Geoffrey’s fabrications. However, Nennius described how the first settlers of Albion were led by Brutus, the great Grandson of Æneas, one of the survivors who fled Troy. Geoffrey took up the story to establish a bloodline for England that could compete with those of other European nations: medieval regions were named after the Trojan survivors, but Brutus is the only character credited with having named an entire nation after himself. Landing in Totnes, Devon, he gave his own name to the land, BrUtain. However, before they could settle, Brutus and the descendants of the Trojans needed to rid the land of the indigenous population, a race of brutish and uncivilised giants.