Grendel: Boundaries of Flesh and Law
By Almudena Nido
Paper given at the 10th Global Conference: Monsters and the Monstrous (2012)
Abstract: In Beowulf, Grendel presents itself as a figure of inescapable ambiguity and as an embodiment of paradox that causes consternation in the human community. There is no definite way of definition for the monster in the masterpiece of Old English literature, and Grendel is presented as an exile in space and discourse, his malicious shadow compared with other types of monsters in Scandinavian literature or as an allegory of Evil in a Christian perspective. These theoretical approaches have missed the fact that the monster is something inherent not only to epic but to society itself.
Following Michel Foucault’s theories of power and resistance, this paper will offer a more comprehensive vision of what Grendel represents and what its presence and violence in human society can show. The monster has to be taken into account not only as the personification of pure evil or as the necessary antagonist for the hero, Grendel exists because power in Heorot exists. The monstrous presence in Heorot has an impact as powerful as the forms of human power that have imposed themselves on space and discourse. Grendel and his Mother inhabit the darkest space ever possible in society: that of resistance, that of being the Other against whom members inside society can define themselves and can assert their position as part of the community.
With each stride and attack, Grendel enforces and articulates the community’s identity. Even though the monster roams outside the field of human space, at the same time, it is inside human consciousness and space, and the monster forms the threshold and the very limit needed by society in Beowulf from a natural and legal perspective. Importantly, the hero’s actions on the monster will be written on its body revealing an anxiety on borders and pain in Beowulf. Grendel is the night that Heorot needs in order to shine. A night that has to be denied but, without which, society cannot exist.