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David J. Puglia - Review of Tim Flight, Basilisks and Beowulf: Monsters in the Anglo-Saxon World

David J. Puglia - Review of Tim Flight, Basilisks and Beowulf: Monsters in the Anglo-Saxon World

Long before the emergence of Bigfoot, big cats, or the Loch Ness Monster, Anglo-Saxon Britain was replete with legendary monsters. In Basilisks and Beowulf, Tim Flight asks why Anglo-Saxons were obsessed with monsters, both the ones lurking in foreign lands and those haunting the peripheries of their own isle. He finds that monsters served a significant function in demarcating civilization and wilderness in the Anglo-Saxon mind. While not a folkloristic study in the purist sense, the book has potential to be of use to folklorists and scholars engaged in legendary monster studies.

Flight pursues the Anglo-Saxon’s obsession with monsters through Old English texts, including literature, art, theology, and other extant resources. These surviving materials come from the cultural elite, of course, which makes commenting on the worldview of the common Anglo-Saxon man or woman difficult. Facing this unavoidable challenge, in at least some chapters, the author does appear to have tapped into authentic folk beliefs a millennium past. The Anglo-Saxons, it seems, feared what lurked in the far reaches of their cold, wet island: the very real bears, wolves, lynxes, adders, whales, wildcats, and wild boars, not to mention dragons and demons. This frightening natural world and its monstrous denizens existed in binary opposition to their fragile civilization.

In the wilds dwelled monsters, both proven to exist and legendary, associated with paganism, the devil, sin, and chaos. Humans wandering into that wilderness risked monster attack, if not transformation into monsters themselves. Monsters, too, could invade civilization, returning it to chaos, as when wolves made hunting forays into villages, dragons destroyed hamlets, or Grendel murdered revelers in Heorot. While folklorists will approach the book as a take-some, leave-some buffet, there are morsels that will whet their appetites. Most important is Flight’s attention to how real creatures came to be defined as monsters, including wolves and whales, tying into recent folkloristic inquiry into the “monsterizing” of real creatures and further banishing the now-spurned assumption that all legendary monsters are imaginary.

After an overview of Anglo-Saxon Britain, Flight begins with “Map Monsters,” his only chapter on monsters outside of Britain, where monsters as symbols of anti-civilization assisted Anglo-Saxons in defining their own civilization. Camels, elephants, and foreigners fit neatly with satyrs, basilisks, and other monsters to form this bestiary of otherness. In “Of Wolf and Man,” the author shows how wolves were said to inhabit those very areas of Britain most associated with the wilderness, such as wooded areas, and how they took on attributions of violence, hostility, and sin, perhaps unfairly. In “Hic Sunt Dracones,” Flight demonstrates the dragon’s connection to wilderness, to avarice, and to men themselves. In “Saints and Satanas,” the author considers supernatural demons rather than flesh-and-blood monsters, though he finds that these beings served much the same function. In “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” the author examines whales, those leviathans that ruled the wilderness of the sea, a monster so wild it could not even momentarily cross into civilization (land) without dying. These initial chapters set the reader up for the two-chapter climax, which revisits Beowulf in light of the previous chapters. “Mearcstapan, Part One: The Grendelkin” and “Mearcstapan, Part Two: Beowulf and Others” consider Grendel and his mother as monsters before turning to the possibility of Beowulf as a monster himself.

Those not familiar with Anglo-Saxon Britain will finish the book with a new appreciation for an ancient culture, the monsters that haunted it, and their role in dividing civilization from wilderness. There are, of course, several aspects of the book that gave me pause. I dislike the book’s limiting fore title, Basilisks and Beowulf. A more accurate title would have been the simpler and to-the-point subtitle, Monsters in the Anglo-Saxon World. On the topic of the basilisk, I found the author’s decision to use the terms “dragon” and “basilisk” synonymously distracting. While I appreciated the author’s attention to the unique heritage of basilisks and dragons in Britain, because they are distinct traditions elsewhere, I found using the words interchangeably from sentence to sentence unnecessarily confusing, without adding additional value. Lastly, while not a fault nor blameworthy, the era’s bygone nature, its scant resources, and its non-existent informants necessitates plenty of conjecture. Though the author’s postulates are entertaining and provocative, they require a litany of “likely,” “presumably,” “perhaps,” “may be,” “it is most likely,” and “it is not impossible.”

Flight finds that monsters were, indeed, central to the Anglo-Saxon worldview. Standing in opposition to civilization, they helped define what it meant to be human and what it meant to be out of the wilds. The island of Britain remained mostly wild, betraying only the slightest hint of civilization, and monsters helped separate civilization from wilderness. For folklorists and legendary monster scholars, this book is a useful contribution to a growing corpus examining how we construct monsters, sometimes out of known creatures, and use them as symbols of fear, evil, or the unknown.


[Review length: 817 words • Review posted on December 2, 2022]