Basilisks and Beowulf: Monsters in the Anglo-Saxon World
by Tim FlightGenres: History, Non-fiction
This book addresses a simple question: why were the Anglo-Saxons obsessed with monsters, many of which did not exist?
Drawing on literature and art, theology, and a wealth of firsthand evidence, Basilisks and Beowulf reveals a people huddled at the edge of the known map, using the fantastic and the grotesque as a way of understanding the world around them and their place within it. For the Anglo-Saxons, monsters helped to distinguish the sacred and the profane; they carried God’s message to mankind, exposing His divine hand in creation itself.
At the same time, monsters were agents of disorder, seeking to kill people, conquer their lands, and even challenge what it meant to be human. Learning about where monsters lived and how they behaved allowed the Anglo-Saxons to situate themselves in the world, as well as to apprehend something of the divine plan. It is for these reasons that monsters were at the very center of their worldview. From map monsters to demons, dragons to Leviathan, we neglect these beasts at our peril.
This would probably have been a more interesting read for me back when I was doing English literature and studying Anglo-Saxon literature! I’m a little out of touch now, a decade later, but it was still interesting to delve back into this kind of thinking, this kind of linking texts and cultural attitudes together to better understand something more like the whole experience.
The central thesis here is that monsters are about enforcing the barriers between humanity and the unknown, humanity and monsters. They represent blurry points where people can become monsters, where monsters might also be kind of people, and sometimes they just make it clear how scary the unknown is.
I didn’t find it too surprising/original, but it was reasonably convincing.