To introduce her new book Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature, Dr Dana M. Oswald (University of Wisconsin-Parkside) wrote an intriguing article about the seductive powers monsters used to have in Medieval Literature and which they still exert today, as evidenced by the steady stream of monster-related films and literature. Dr Oswald explains why monsters have always had influence on us.
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Long before Angelina Jolie sashayed across Grendel’s mother’s mere, flicking her tail seductively, monsters have been creatures that not only frighten, but that also entice and fascinate viewers. What drew me to this project, Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature, is precisely that which draws most audiences to monsters: they seduced me. Indeed, contemporary culture seems to be undergoing a monster renaissance, as books and films about vampires and werewolves proliferate, and people dress up as zombies to go on pub crawls or, on college campuses, to play Humans v. Zombies (HvZ), a game that mimics the viral spread of zombie-ism depicted in film and literature. What draws us culturally to these monstrous creatures is not merely their alterity, but their familiarity. It is the humanity of monsters and their most human features, appetites, and vulnerabilities, that give them such appeal and that invite us, as Nietzsche suggests, to become them. While it would be easy to say that monsters reflect the taboos of the cultures in which they exist, their function is far more complex: they serve as objects of desire, examples of prohibition, and models of change, sometimes simultaneously. Case in point: Jolie’s Grendel’s mother seduces both Hrothgar and Beowulf, both of whom father monstrous and horrifying children who seek to destroy the communities constructed by their fathers. This is a narrative that differs significantly (and perhaps problematically) from the source material, but also one that places the sexual and reproductive body at the center of the conversation about not only monstrosity, but also political and social power. Monstrous seduction, then, is not just about allegory, but about the dilemmas of embodiment and identity, power and desire.
The human attraction to monsters is related to curiosity. Of course we desire to see novelties: a goat with two heads, enormous gold-hoarding ants, men who hop about on one enormous foot that can also be used to shade them as they rest. But seeing invokes a kind of ownership or possession, as Stephen Greenblatt suggests in Marvelous Possessions. To view creatures under the control of the cage or the page allows us a safe and controlled experience of the foreign and delightful with little danger. However, many medieval monsters seem to exceed these boundaries as they actively seduce humans, refusing the limits placed on them by the constraints of the page, just as their bodies exceed the limits of culture. As many scholars have noted, the famous Blemmya of the Tiberius manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Wonders of the East curls his fingers around the frame of his own image, reducing the distance between his headless body, his face located on his chest, and the viewer of the text. This Blemmya, I noticed immediately upon looking at the image, has invited the interaction of the viewer: parts of the image have been erased. So the monster seduces and draws in, suggesting that he will not be contained, and the viewer engages, responding to the text not just intellectually, but physically. And the part that has been erased from this image? His sex organs: he has been castrated, a maneuver that indicates the kind of fascination he invites.
Many medieval monsters do seduce in less aggressive ways, but ways that still indicate the human sexuality incipient in their monstrous forms. Indeed, although most monster studies focus on male monsters, a number of female monsters—aside from Grendel’s mother—exist in medieval narratives. In the romance, The Sowdon of Babylon, we find not only a mother giant, Barrok, but giant babies who die for loss of their mother, inviting our sympathy even as we view her actions as murderous. In Mandeville’s Travels, we read about Hippocrates’ daughter, a lovely young woman cursed into the shape of a dragon. In her human form, she lures knights to her, hoping one will transform her permanently through a kiss, but in her dragon form, she terrifies them, and dashes them against the rocks after they try to flee. Indeed, she is mistaken for a prostitute by one unfortunate, indicating not only the appeal of her inheritance but her sexuality. While the dragon woman punishes the men whom she desires, some monstrous women are punished by men who desire them. The tusked women from the Wonders of the East are so strangely beautiful, with their ox tails, boar tusks, ethereally white bodies, and long flowing hair, that Alexander the Great first desires to capture them, but cannot, so he kills them instead. He, like the knights in Mandeville, is drawn to their beauty, but unlike those knights, he seeks them fiercely precisely because of their monstrous appeal, but then murders them for it. Their seductive bodies invite desire, but require masculine censure and domination.
The seductive monsters are not merely victims: sometimes they seek to seduce in order to consume, as does the Donestre of Wonders of the East. He calls to lost and lonely travelers in their own languages, drawing them to him so he can eat them, then mourn their loss. While this kind of seduction is not particularly sexual, the image in the Tiberius manuscript depicts this monster as extremely well-endowed, and indeed, he is the only male monster whose manhood has not been erased by a later viewer. The text mentions nothing about the masculinity of this monster, but to the artist, his pursuit of the human is inherently sexually charged. This is not to say that all monsters are sexual monsters—but I have found that the monstrous is a particular locus for the concerns and anxieties of medieval writers and artists regarding gender, sex, and the body. Just as university students’ dressing up as zombies, infecting and killing one another in play suggests their fascination with disease transmission, death and the degeneration of the body, and mindless appetite, so too do medieval monsters have something to say about the cultures that draw and interact with them, fascinated by their bodies and the human and superhuman possibilities they suggest.
Dr. Dana M. Oswald
University of Wisconsin-Parkside