The word “monsters” usually recalls childhood fears of some ugly thing lurking underneath your bed, just waiting for your feet to dangle over the side so it can pull you under. It makes you remember the time when you were afraid so afraid of the dark that you had to dash quickly out of room after switching the lights off just to reduce the chances of that beast in your closet gobbling you up. Like last night.
Monsters, of course, are also important literary devices and symbols that have been used to represent the unknown, the inexplicable, and the truly creepy parts of our world. Deeply steeped in fantasy and myth, monster stories are usually about facing a grand fear, typically death. Such is the case for Old English epic poem, Beowulf, which has more mythological beasts than an episode of HBO’s True Blood. You’ve got dragons, sea monsters, some half-human descendant of Cain named Grendel, and his protective mother. J.R.R Tolkien, author of the equally fantastic The Lord of The Rings trilogy, was a big supporter of examining the use of fantasy and monsters in Beowulf, arguing in the famous lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that such elements were a work of art and integral to the poem’s themes of mortality, bravery, and even religion.
Grendel is the biggest jerk in the story, attacking King Hrothgar’s mead hall and eating his warriors for a late night snack. This is your worst childhood nightmare realized: monsters are not only real, but they are also breaking into where you sleep and eating you like a bag of potato chips. The fact that the attacks happen at night in the dark, desolate, and bone-chilling tribal regions of the Denmark/Sweden area only amplifies the fear that plagues King Hrothgar’s people. No wonder everyone is holed up together in a giant mead hall.
Of course, such fear must be conquered. Enter Beowulf, a brave warrior who is not fazed by the possibility of death, mere monsters, or their overbearing moms. Long story short, he victoriously slews all of them—even though his last encounter with the dragon cost him his life—coming out as the singular hero who saved countless people. Hooray!
But some fear is not so conquerable. The fear of outside creatures or elements infiltrating a refuge is also found in William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies, in which a pack of British boys wash up on a deserted tropical island and start to establish a semi-society for them to survive—sort of like the Dane and Geat tribes represented in Beowulf. The boys are all fearful of a imagined beast somewhere on the island, offering it severed pig heads to appease it, as if it were a monster under a bed that could be satisfied by a stuffed teddy bear tossed under so it won’t gobble you up. Talk about childhood nightmares. Of course, the childish fears are manifested in other events that bewilder the boys—such as a lifeless parachuting man gliding toward the island.
However, the fear that plagues them is not some Grendel-like creature that can be vanquished—it’s something inside of the boys. Simon, the only boy on the island who gets this fact, confirms his suspicions after having a hallucinatory conversation with that severed pig head. Much like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven in which a fairly one-sided chat with a stately bird causes the speaker to project his own fears and grief until he descends into madness, Simon’s talk with the pig head also reflects the inner demons and monsters that are at work within the human psyche. There are no dragons to be slain, no battles to be fought, and no chance for a Beowulf character to ride in and save the day. The epic poem focuses on the external and more manageable unknown, while Golding’s novel takes that unknown and follows that fear within. And that monster is something you cannot fight off with a nightlight.