Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.
Slaying dragons is costly. In much of the western hemisphere the ultimate metaphor for the perils that await humanity in a world imperfectly understood, dragons were the bane of the medieval imagination. And earlier. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible and were stock creatures in the bestiaries of the Mesopotamian imagination. And, of course, it is a dragon that causes Beowulf’s fall. Almost a type of a latter-day Gilgamesh, Beowulf likewise holds an early, if non-negotiable place in the western canon. In this month’s Atlantic, James Parker discusses the dynamic of this pre-Christian poem in our post-Christian context. Specifically he addresses how modern renditions, perhaps inadvertently, Christianize the story. A popular subject for movies and graphic novels, Beowulf is a monster-hunting story that begs for baptism.
The story itself is familiar to most alumni of American high schools. Perhaps before we’re ready to be exposed to Old English, we find ourselves assigned a story of drinking, rage, and violence. Make no mistake—Beowulf is a hero. A deliverer like the judges of old. Grendel, after all, is the spawn of Cain, the evil seed that continues into a moody world of stygian nights and dismal swamps. Parker’s brief article demonstrates the reception history of the poem nicely. It also raises the question of what’s going on when heroes fight monsters. When the Christian imagery that’s deeply embedded in our culture comes to play Beowulf can’t help but become a Christian monster slayer just as Grendel becomes the enemy of God. All of this may be quite unintentional. What we see, however, isn’t imaginary. That’s the way reception history works.
Parker suggests that, although Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem, the cosmic order laid out in the tale is a Christian one. Even today in a post-Christian America it’s vital to understand how important religion remains. It’s not so much that churches are overflowing (unless they’re mega-churches stating that you can get rich by attending) as it is a recognition that centuries of Christian identity can’t help but leave their mark on culture. We see crosses in the handles of swords. Or even in the grid patterns laid out in city streets. Telephone poles. What’s so remarkable is that we see such things naturally and think nothing of it as we go on our secular way. There may be monsters out there. What may not be so obvious is that in slaying them we’re engaging in a religious activity as old as Gilgamesh, if not as obvious as a crucifix held up to a vampire in the present day.
Posted in Bible, Books, Britannia, Classical Mythology, Literature, Monsters, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Atlantic magazine, Beowulf, Christianity, Dragon, Gilgamesh, Grendel, James Parker, Monsters, reception history
The problem with monsters is that they’re not easily reduced to a lowest common denominator. This becomes clear in an article about the under explored (from a western perspective) monsters of Australia. Christine Judith Nicholls, in “‘Dreamings’ and place – Aboriginal monsters and their meanings” (sent by a friend), describes many of the scary creatures of the outback. The article title references Dreamtime, a kind of aboriginal journey that ties into indigenous Australian religion. The division between imagination and reality isn’t as wide as we’re sometimes taught. (More on this is a moment.) Nicholls’ article demonstrates that many of these monsters impress on children the dangers of wandering away from parents. Indeed, that is clearly part of the socializing function of monsters. The question, however, is whether that’s all there is to monsters or not. (Nicholls doesn’t use reductionistic language—she does note this is a psychological explanation.)
In an unrelated article in The Guardian, by Richard Lea—“Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds”—researchers suggest that fictional characters seem to appear in “real life” from time to time. All those who read fiction know this phenomenon to a degree. Just because someone is completely made up doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t exist. Since our minds are the ultimate arbiters of reality, fictional characters and monsters may indeed be “real.” This isn’t to suggest that physical, flesh-and-blood imaginary beasts lurk in the dark, but it isn’t to suggest that they don’t either. Reality is something we haven’t quite figured out yet. The more we think about it, the more it appears that both hemispheres of our brains contribute to it.
When the morning newspaper raises alarm after alarm about the frightening tactics of the Trump administration the temptation is to give up to despair. That’s not necessary, actually. Reality requires our consent. Imagination can be a powerful antidote to the poison spewed by politicians. What fictional character—or monster—might step into a situation such as this to make it right? If the power of millions of smart minds were concentrated on such a being, would it not become real? Friends have suggested over the past four months that the arts—creativity—are going to be especially important in the coming years. If we are to survive evil we’ll have to use our imaginations. That’s something that the aboriginal peoples can teach us, if only we’re willing to believe.
Posted in Consciousness, Current Events, Literature, Monsters, Posts
Tagged aboriginal culture, Australia, Christine Judith Nicholls, Dreamtime, indigenous religion, Monsters, Richard Lea, The Guardian
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. To my way of thinking, if I’m aware I’m doing something wrong, I try to change it at that point, rather than waiting. Needless to say, then, I’m up to my old habits of reading about horror movies. Actually, Darryl Jones’ Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film goes a bit broader than just the cinema. As the subtitle indicates, this charming book also addresses narrative fiction as well and the result is quite engaging. Divided thematically, Jones considers the various types of horror without delving into pretentious theorists to give him academic credibility. Here is a true fan who’s capable to sharing the excitement of the genre. Along the way, accompanying the usual observation that horror and religion share considerable conceptual space, he makes the point that in movies horror is one genre that makes use of academics as characters of authority. Sure, there are others, but in this realm to be educated is a benefit, whether the plan is to take over the world or to stop some evil force from doing the same.
I’ve been watching movies that can be broadly classified as horror since I was young. And I had admired—emulated to some extent—the professors and scientists I saw in those presentations. When a monster was on the loose, you went to find an expert to learn what to do. At the risk of contradicting myself, theorists have been suggesting that one of the problems with post-truth is the death of expertise. Anyone can be an expert these days. The question, “Why should I listen to you?” is on every self-appointed smarty’s lips. Earning a doctorate, the horror world tells us, gives you access to some kinds of knowledge that others don’t have. Problem is, zombies don’t respect such learning. They only want brains to consume.
It never seemed to me that watching horror was a means of learning. As a kid escapism is part of everyday life—taking things seriously is for adults. Growing up, however, I kept my love of scary movies in reserve. Little did I realize that it was a form of training. Now university-affiliated academics are finally able to begin admitting that they find monsters compelling. More than that, they actually learn something from them. Although not a resolution, I see myself reading further books about horror movies this year. It may be a naive hope, but it would be wonderful if they were all as insightful as this one has been.
Posted in Books, Current Events, Higher Education, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Darryl Jones, Higher Education, horror movies, Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film, Monsters