Monstrosity in Literature and Film

Monstrosity is a curious thing. Anything can be considered monstrous. People, animals, and things conjured from the imagination can all be attributed monstrous characteristics and therefore considered monsters. But we know from experience that if a character is a true character, three dimensional, complex, real, it isn’t just one thing, good or bad. Nothing is that black and white. People are a mixture of good and bad, and even that determination is a result of context and perspective. The monsters in the books we read and the films we watch are no different. There are many characteristics that we, as humans, might see as monstrous. Being extremely large, having body parts that are distinctly unhuman as a human being, scales, huge teeth, claws, “evil” thoughts or intentions, and so much more. There is no set description of what makes a monster monstrous. Monstrosity is defined by what we imagine to be monstrous, and, in most cases, difference.

In the book The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser the first monster that the main characters, The Redcross Knight and the lady Una, encounter is a half serpent half woman creature called Errour. They are warned against disturbing her in her home, but the Redcross Knight saw this warning as a challenge and went in after her. Inside the cave, Errour’s supposedly monstrous characteristics are laid out. She has a long knotted tail, a half serpent body, and has several odd looking offspring. “And as she lay vpon the durtie ground, Her huge long taile her den all ouerspread, Yet was in knots and many boughtes vpwound, Pointed with mortall sting.” (Spenser, 1987, pg. 45) This is the explanation that is given for her monstrosity, the reason the Redcross Knight has the responsibility to kill her. The Redcross Knight provokes her, attacks her in her home and puts her children in danger, and even when she tries to retreat, the Redcross Knight persists in his murderous pursuit. The Knight believes that because of the way Errour and her children look, and the fact that she lives in a “den” that he percieves to be dirty, that this makes them monsters. They are different than what he percieves as normal, and therefore are monstrous. But to Errour, the Redcross Knight must have seemed much more monstrous than she could ever be. After all, he was the one who came into her home armed to the teeth to kill her for no reason other than the fact that she looked different than he and his kind did.

Medusa’s story, from the greek myths, can easily be compared to that of Errour’s. Medusa is known as a terrifying monster, a woman with live snakes in place of hair, who turns any that look at her to stone. This may be what she is known for, the details that make her a monster in most people’s minds, but it isn’t her full story. Medusa was originally a beautiful woman, considered monstrous to no one, even though she was born a gorgon, like her monstrous sisters. Because she looked like a human woman, and a pretty one, she wasn’t considered to be a monster like her family. She was even a beloved priesstess of the godess Athena. But, as some writers say, when the god Zeus raped her in Athena’s temple, Medusa was blamed for it’s defilement and cursed with snakes to replace her hair, and facial features so ugly that when people looked at her they turned to stone. “Earlier poets depicted Medusa as a monster from birth, but later writers say she was turned into a monster by Athena or Minerva.” (Maquire, 2022) Unlike most monsters in greek mythology, their are no stories of Medusa hurting or killing people, or intentionally turning people to stone. But because she had that power, and she was transformed to look different, “monstrous” it was imagined that she must be a monster and was hunted as a prize and killed for her head. “…When Perseus arrived without horses for a gift as was requested by Polydectes, Polydectes instead asked Perseus to retrieve for him the head of Medusa, the only mortal Gorgon, in the hopes that he would not succeed.” (Maquire, 2022) Both Errour and Medusa were victims. They fought to protect, not to kill. Their only crimes were their differences from the humans who eventually came after them.

Assosiations with snakes aren’t the only characteristics that humans consider monstrous, though. Another common monster talked about throughout history is the giant. This depiction of a monster is interesting, as giants are usually described as very, very, large humanoid creatures. I.e, they look human, just on a larger scale. They can be depicted as evil, good, in between, and sometimes as more mindless than anything else. Even when giants are depicted as good, though, they are often times still depicted as monsters. In the movie The BFG, the main giant is depicted as kind hearted and good, but also as the exception to the norm. The rest of the giants in the movie are carniverous and eat humans. As such, the BFG is often thought of as a good monster. A monster, not because he behaves in a monstrous way like the rest of the giants in the movie, but because he looks like them, and therefore doesn’t look like a human.

A photo still of a young girl on the shoulder of an elderly giant.
Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance in The BFG.2016 Storyteller Distributuion Co., LLC

Some of the same can be said for the giant that is featured in the film The Green Knight, although this particular giant is depicted a less humaniod than is typical. In this film, the giant appears as though his head is made of wood, and he is green in color. The way his body is arraged does give the impression that he is supposed to be a humanoid creature, though. In this film, the Green Knight presents King Arthur’s court with a challenge. Anyone who attempts to strike at him can do so, but they must allow him to give an equal strike in a years time if they choose to do so. Because Gawain wanted to prove himself, he accepted the challenge and beheaded the giant. The giant was however unharmed, and Gawain then had to find the Green Knight in a year’s time to accept and equal strike at his own head. Yes, in this film it is implied that the giant beheads Gawain at the end, but does this make him a monster? After all, Gawain beheaded the Green Knight first, under the full impression that he was going to die and that he wouldn’t have to aquiese to an equal strike a year down the line. The Green Kight adheared to the codes of chivalry and broke no oaths. So why is he considered to be the monster in the film and in the original Aurthurian poem, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight? The answer to that question is simple. It is because the characters in the film and the poem percieve him to be one. He looks as if he is other, but he isn’t purely animal, so he must be monstrous.

The Green Knight from the film The Green Knight

Another, but different, case of monstrosity comes from the novel Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley. Towards the end of the novel, the hero of the story, Beowulf, goes out to slay a dragon that has been desecrating his kingdom. The interesting thing about this example of monstrosity is that there is no language evident that suggests that the dragon is a monster simply because she is a dragon, but rather that she was a monster because the people saw her actions as monstrous. After she has been killed, she is described like this: “Never again would she soar through a starry sky, revel in rising rhapsody, rolling in and out of clouds and mist, a raging rainbow, glistening golden.” (Headly, 2020) The way she is described implys, that as a dragon, her loss in the world is something to be lamented. It is her actions and behavior that was monstrous. A similar theme plays out with dragons in the movie, How to Train Your Dragon. In this movie, though, dragons are seen in the begining as being monstrous simply because they were dragons, different. The similarity to this translation of Beowulf comes later in the film, when the people begin to understand dragons better and accept the fact that they weren’t inherently evil because they were different, but rather that they were just trying to survive. It is then accepted that only their behavior could be considered monstrous, and once people’s opinions of them changed, and the dragons were able to be trained to join society with them, they were no longer considered to be monsters.

A scene from How to Train Your Dragon

In short, it is clear that monsters are only what we imagine them to be. Often times, this is categorized by difference. If somone or something is different from us, we usually atomatically consider those differences to be monstrous. It isn’t until we consider things from other points of view that we can begin to disentagle monstrosity from difference.

Works Cited

Deblois, Dean, et al. How to Train Your Dragon. Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Headley, Maria Dahvana. Beowulf: A New Translation. MCD x FSG Originals/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

Lowery, David, director. The Green Knight. 2021.

Macquire, Kelly. “Medusa.” World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 14 Jun 2022. Web. 13 Oct 2022.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Edited by Thomas P. Roche and C. Patrick. O’Donnell, Penguin Books, 1987.

Spielberg, Steven, et al. The BFG.

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