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22.05.13 Flight, Basilisks and Beowulf

22.05.13 Flight, Basilisks and Beowulf

Tim Flight’s book is an investigation into how the early medieval English saw themselves as human beings and as somewhat peripheral members of the civilized world. The author begins by sketching the English worldview with the help of an analysis of the ideological and geographical boundaries as visible in the mappa mundi of Cotton Tiberius B. v and texts such as The Wonders of the East, The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle (both in the Nowell Codex, where we also find the only extant version of Beowulf), or the Liber Monstrorum. His main argument is that monsters are located typically in the wilderness and at the periphery, and thus help to establish the normative quality of the center and defend this geographical and conceptual division by avoiding contact with humans or by killing any intruders. However, the balance can be changed by the spread of humans so that even the wild and peripheral places may become civilized, which is an important point since the British Isles, as seen on the map of the world in Cotton Tiberius B. v, are nothing but peripheral in their geographic location.

The bird’s-eye view of the first chapter is then complemented by a closer look at one monster in particular: the wolf. This is necessary since modern urban western culture has overcome many of the age-old prejudices against the wolf and now sees it mostly in a positive light. Not so the early medieval English, as Flight argues. For them, the wolf poses a very real threat to their livestock and sometimes even to humans themselves. Furthermore, the wolf is also the carrier of ideological projections and, as the prototypical inhabitant of the wilderness, represents a monstrous threat to civilization and Christianity. It becomes associated or identified not only with the outlaw but even the devil himself.

Of course, establishing such clearcut categories harbors the danger of presenting things too simplistically. Flight is aware of the ambiguities and complexities inherent in many of the categories, and endeavors to provide a more balanced picture by means of discussing the cases of the dog-headed saint Christopher, on the one hand, and the unnatural behavior of the wolf that guards the martyr-king Edmund’s head on the other. One is tempted to see these examples as illustrations of an attitude best expressed in proverbial form as “Handsome is as handsome does.” However, the exception confirms the rule, and while these and other examples of unnatural behavior and appearance qualifiy the main argument that monsters are and behave always monstrously, and while they query the strict division between human and non-human, they do not invalidate this basic division.

The third chapter discusses the medieval monster par excellence: the dragon. Flight sketches the dragon’s rich tradition in Western culture and focusses on the monster’s specific characteristics in Old English texts, which are its choice of burial mounds for its abode, and its guarding of treasure. With Christianity, the dragon’s apocalyptic function is further reinforced. This aspect is combined with its anti-civilization stance that takes center stage in its destruction of Beowulf’s royal hall and its greedy hoarding of treasure. It is also in this chapter that Flight provides the solution to the riddle of the title: Basilisks and Beowulf. Reading the title for the first time, I appreciated the alliteration with the second element Beowulf, yet I was a bit mystified by the “basilisks,” and curious to discover which he would discuss, especially in connection withBeowulf. The answer occurs on page 91 where Flight, after discussing the basilisk in connection with some glosses, comes to the following conclusion: “Thus we might use dragon and basilisk interchangeably, and without censure.” This is simply nonsense, which becomes clear when we replace the fifty-foot, flying and fire-breathing draca or wyrm in Beowulf with basiliscus--a six- to twelve-inch crawling serpent with admittedly poisonous breath. Luckily, this is Flight’s only misguided flight of fancy, and his book is otherwise characterized by a solid understanding of the primary texts and a clear line of argument. The problem with the dragon in Old English literature lies elsewhere: it is very rare. The iconic nature of the Beowulf-dragon makes scholars often forget that there are not many other textual or artistic witnesses. Nor do we have many unambiguous examples of human-dragon transmutations. Fafnir of the Norse tradition, and arguably the Last Survivor inBeowulf, come to mind, but that’s about it for the early medieval period in England and we have to wait for the post-conquest era to find more examples (e.g., in the Middle English Bevis of Hampton). This lack of dragon-human transmogrification is probably the reason why Flight tries to interpret the fragmentary element from the Repton cross as a depiction of such a transgression, yet due to the lack of any further evidence, his speculations remain speculations.

Luckily, the clerical tradition in form of saints’ lives provides a rich source for monstrous beings and their encounter with humans. Flight discusses in depth the lives of the two early English saints Guthlac and Cuthbert. Both chose to retreat to the wilderness. Guthlac made his home in a heathen burial-mound in the fens and Cuthbert on the deserted island Inner Farne. They thus settle in the territory of monstrous beings (read “demons” in the Christian tradition) who attack these intruders. The ensuing conflicts illustrate clearly Flight’s thesis that monstrous beings try to maintain the boundaries between civilized space and wilderness but can be pushed back by human beings with the help of God. Thus, wilderness is turned into civilized space and incorporated into the oikumene. The last text in this chapter, Cynewulf’s poem Juliana, illustrates how the demonic forces try to adapt to and counter this intrusion by tempting humans to sin. Cynewulf’s “interview with the demon,” to use Flight’s punning subtitle, constitutes a medieval counterpart to C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (1942) by providing an insight into the machinations of the hellish enemy who uses temptation and sin to “change the Christian, civilized world into a heathen wilderness, suitable for the demons themselves” (Flight 147).

The early medieval English and their descendants were always a sea-faring nation, and consequently were in love with, fascinated by, and in awe of the Big Blue. Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt, for example, calls Britain “This precious stone set in the silver sea” (Richard II, 2.1, l. 46), and thus continues a tradition that finds expression already in poems such as the Old English The Seafarer, though the latter also refers to the concept of the “aquatic wilderness.” The earlier English may lack the epic of the big fish and we have to wait till the nineteenth century when Herman Melville fills this gap with his Moby Dick (1851), but the ingredients were already there. The short chapter on the whale in the Old English Physiologus is only the most prominent textual witness of the early medieval English view of the big fish as a monstrous defender of the wilderness of the sea and Flight connects it with other occurrences of the whale as an inhabitant of the aquatic waste-land.

It would be an insult to label the first five chapters (or roughly 160 pages) of Flight’s study as “prolegomena” for his discussion of Grendel and his mother in the final two chapters, yet they do succeed nicely in preparing the ground for an in-depth analysis of the monsters and their function in the Old English epic Beowulf. The main focus in these chapters is on the Grendelkin’s characterization as mearcstapan, “mark-steppers” i.e., “border-walkers,” as creatures who exist on the borderline between human beings and non-human monsters, civilization and wilderness. Their home under the waters of the monster-infested and haunted mere stands in stark contrast to Hrothgar’s newly-built mead-hall Heorot, which is a symbol for cosmic order, human community, and civilization. The construction of Heorot can be interpreted as an incursion of human civilization into and colonialization of the wilderness which so far has been the domain of the Grendelkin. Grendel’s attacks on Heorot must therefore be seen within the larger picture of the conflict between center and periphery, civilization and wilderness, and the monsters’ attempt to defend borders. Grendel’s monstrous size and his violation of cultural taboos--he eats the flesh of his victims and drinks their blood--put him beyond the pale of civilized humanity. However, both Grendel and his mother are said to be of human descent (in Caines cynne l. 107) and show rationality in their behavior--and are therefore to be held accountable for their deeds. Their monstrosity is thus not innate but, as Flight argues, derives from “their confounding of the boundaries between seemingly opposing and mutually exclusive categories” (194).

The last chapter, then, takes the eponymous hero into focus. Although Beowulf is presented clearly as a human warrior with a prominent place in Geatish society, he exhibits traits that link him to the monstrous. Thus, he is, like his maternal uncle Hygelac, of more-than-average size and his strength equals that of thirty men. This, together with his affinity to the element water and his predilection for fighting and killing without weapons make him the third mearcstapan. Yet in contrast to Grendel or the legendary Danish king Heremod, Beowulf does not turn bad. On the contrary, he stays on the right side of the borderline and his excursions into the wilderness have the aim of protecting the civilized center from the monstrous attacks of his enemies. Flight (219) fittingly concludes: “For what is Beowulf if not a man with the potential to become a monster, who does not succumb to the sins that would effect the transformation?”

As a coda, Flight points out that his main arguments hold true even today. Monsters in whichever form reinforce human understanding of civilization by challenging it, and (wo-)man can become a monster by breaking cultural taboos and crossing moral borders, as the numerous atrocities committed across the globe prove. Flight also links medieval concepts and behavioral patterns to modern reactions to monsters and shows that the philosophical mechanisms underlying the early medieval English worldview still characterize our own.

In sum, Tim Flight’s study offers a very readable and clearly structured and argued discussion of the role of monsters in early English society in the tradition of Andy Orchard’s Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the ‘Beowulf’ Manuscript (1995, rev. 2003). He strives to include textual as well as pictorial evidence and combines them into a coherent narrative so that the resulting text is a pleasure to read.