Slaying Monsters: How Our Notions of Heroes Have Changed – Beowulf


Above: Grendel

“He seized one sleeping man, ‘biting the bone-joints, drinking blood from veins, great gobbets gorging down. Quickly he took all of that lifeless thing to be his food, even feet and hands.'”

This from the first epic in the English language. A heated discussion on the heels of my previous post about the “cruel” and abhorrent atrocities committed by the heroic figures in the Odyssey set off a bottle rocket in my so called mind. I had averred that art must be understood in its cultural historic context and to dismiss or condemn any work of art because we disapprove of the mores and ideals in it is to miss the point.

The history of literature and all art is in a very real sense the vivid history of our moral and ethical evolution.  It is also, IMHO, a fossil record of our species’Cotton Vitellius A. XV, f.132 attempts to restrain our basest most powerful instincts for a higher good: altruism, something that allows people to live harmoniously in communities and for civilization to rise and develop.

From the New Yorker on Beowulf Great overview from a contemporary perspective.

My fav translation of Beowulf is Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, I guess, though I also love Tolkien’s Beowulf.

An interesting thing relative to my previous post is that though Beowulf was brutal and in a sense monstrous, he slays three MORE brutal, hideous monsters–to save his friends.

Inch by inch we become kinder, more considerate.

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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12 Responses to Slaying Monsters: How Our Notions of Heroes Have Changed – Beowulf

  1. I love love love this! I actually revisited Beowulf recently, and I totally agree that our notions have been changed by society and culture. I write about this type of subject on my blog,, so I love finding others who do the same! Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Micah says:

    ‘Art is a fossil record of our species.’ – just about the best (and most impressively pithy) explanation for the value and importance of art I’ve come across. Very cool.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mikels Skele says:

    Hey, now, I never suggested dismissing Homer! My comment was about the “where-have-all-the-heroes-gone” school of classics. That’s a whole different kettle of fish.


    • I think we are beating a dead horse at this point Mikels. Beneath our quibbles is a basic agreement: Nice is nice and preferable to slaughter, beheadings and that hideous yuk. Perhaps, I will grant you, I overstated my point about the dearth of heroes; I surely wasn;t suggesting infanticide and maiming are ever excusable. Context! Context is everything!


  4. Lonie Fulgham says:

    Been meaning to read The Clerk’s Tale… not sure why l, but it looks intriguing based on the wiki…


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