By: Emily Philbrook
The paradox between civilization and nature has always been one of complexity and depth. One cannot survive without the other, and yet, the relationship is largely parasitic. Civilization feasts off of nature for personal gains while providing very little back, which has led to the climate crisis of today. This dynamic has been centuries long and appears heavily in medieval literature as a common theme of humanity seeking to profit off of nature freely. This theme, however, is often present as a form of monster or supernatural creature, representative of the largest fears of mankind. The stark and haunting reality that humanity is slowly destroying the very essential Earth is infused in the literary works of the Old English epic “Beowulf” and the 14th century romance, “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight”. These works portray the juxtaposition of supposed heroic Old English men to the creative imaginings of monsters created out of nature into something unfathomably supernatural. In reality, however, this was a tactic of ignoring the very real desires of indigenous communities to respect nature, which is why monsters give life to this fear of society at the time; perhaps, the guilt and shame of continued exploitation of nature explodes in the constant creation of grandiose literature that is heralded as a classic. Perhaps, this is what bombards a modern understanding of ecological criticism, rather than the much more nuanced looks of indigenous work, and distracts the literary canon from the reality that this guilt and shame is, and should still, be alive today.
In order to understand nature as a monster, one must first understand what monsters are and how they cultivate fear. In Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture: Seven Theses”, he presents an argument that begins with examining the creation of specific monsters to specific time periods and cultures and that monsters can represent what fears are at the time.
“The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, fantasy, giving them life and uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture,” (Cohen, 1996).
Cohen presents the principle here that literary monsters are figments of society’s fears and fantasies which is what makes stories and legends stand out enough to be told on a large scale. Nature has long been a fear of society, largely because humanity has little control over nature, and a refusal to accept this. In Maragaret Atwood’s 1972 work and literary criticism, “Survival”, she defines Canadian literature as a separate entity from other countries and in her essay, “Nature as Monster”, she directly references this concept of a fear of nature creating literary monsters.
“Nature is a monster, perhaps, only if you come to it with unreal expectations or fight its conditions rather than accepting them and learning to live with them,” (66, Atwood).
In the context of medieval literature, where pride and an inability to accept limitations were paraded as the ultimate heroic traits, this equates to nature being turned into a monster as a representation of the fear of humanity. In many of these pieces of literature, the heroic human figure defeats the monster, despite overwhelming odds, which shows the way that medieval societies refused to accept nature as all-powerful, and conversely continued to perpetuate their own fears of nature attempting to receive redemption from years of exploitation and pain.
This theme of nature as a monster is ever-present in the 14th century classic epic poem, “Beowulf”. The poem, about a hero of the same name saving a kingdom from a murdering monster named Grendel, his vengeful mother, and a dragon, presents these monsters as supernatural while also somehow born out of nature at the same time. In Maria Headley’s translation of the epic, Grendel is presented as being from a wetland area, where his mother is the ruler.
In describing his mother, Headley translates, “she who’d ruled these floodlands proudly for a hundred seasons, ferocious, tenacious, rapacious” (Headley, 1496).
Wetlands are such an essential ecosystem for the existence of the world, and yet, society rebuked them for their smell and appearance. However, this detest may come less from superficial concerns, but rather from a more sinister underlying reality of humanity as the creator of capitalism. While in Beowulf, there is a more nuanced feudalistic economy, the reality is that the kingdom of Hrothgar is the only environment of value on the land of the kingdom. However, Grendel and his mother are from outside of this kingdom, and therefore, their home of the wetlands is considered not valuable, as the wetlands supposedly provide nothing to the king. In reality, wetlands provide biodiversity, nutrients, and an entire range of benefits for the ecosystem, but because these benefits are not considered tangible, the swamp becomes a place to outcast. This perspective on nature as something to provide humans with resources has persisted through millennia of human history.
In Erin Dreelin’s research done at the Water Science Network of Michigan State University, he found that, “people would rather drain and destroy the wetland ecosystem than find an alternative solution that would leave the wetland intact, because as one participant stated… “I hope I am not paying taxes on land I cannot use,” (Dreelin, 2017).
This mindset that an ecosystem has to have a tangible product for human use to be valuable is inherently capitalist and dangerous to the preservation of the climate, but explains the creation of monsters out of wetlands, as an ecosystem that is somehow “anti-human”, and therefore, capable of creating a monster like Grendel and his mother. This is further complicated by the reality that Grendel’s mother is specified as a woman leader who created life. Nature is constantly in a tension between being a mother (the giver) and a monster (the punisher for taking) and this tension creates a monstrosity to be feared in medieval literature, rather than something marvelous to be accepted.
This concept is expanded and actualized in later medieval works, such as “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight”, when Gawain, an introverted knight in King Arthur’s court must compete in a “Christmas game” disguised as a quest against a mysterious creature called “The Green Knight” in which he must behead the creature and seek out the creature a year later to have the beheading returned. The Green Knight, as a monster, is low-hanging fruit on the tree of symbolism, even for medieval times, as the monster himself serves as a true representation in color and stature of nature. He is green and often depicted as resembling a tree. In Michael George’s “Gawain’s Struggle with Ecology: Attitudes toward the Natural World in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” , he compiles and reviews various ecological perspectives and readings of the poem, and especially of the Green Knight as a monster.
“In the Green Knight’s character—and in his entry into the hall—the poet destabilizes the line between civilization and wilderness,” (37, George).
George is explaining the introduction of the Green Knight to the play, where the monster bursts through the door of the feasting hall unannounced and dramatically, as a portrayal of the harsh collisions of humanity and nature. When humanity confronts nature, nature is to submit, and yet, when nature confronts humanity, nature becomes a monstrosity to fear. In the 2021 film adaptation of the poem, directed by David Lowery, “The Green Knight”, the monster is depicted as resembling a tree and each movement is reminiscent of branches and leaves. This visceral imagery only furthers the distinction that George draws in his work; that there is a defining line that makes something wild or civilized and anything that strays from this line is to be feared. This straddling of different categories is also explained, once again, in Jeffrey Cohen’s, “Monster Culture: Seven Theses”, in which he explains that monsters are often anything in society that cannot fit in neat and comprehensible labels or categories. Nature, as a force, or even a more literal sense, trees, are living beings, and yet, are treated distinctly different from humans or animals. In “Sir Gawan and the Green Knight”, much of the poem blurs this boundary between wilderness and society, and represents the fear of nature that civilizations were cultivating in the medieval period.
Medieval literature is haunted by the fears of a society unwilling to accept limitation or uncertainty for the sake of comfort; a fear of nature being one. This fear was projected into the literature of the time with nature being centered as a monster that must be defeated and hunted by humans. In the epic poems, “Beowulf” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, the central monsters of the story are complicated by their human-likeness and their refusal to accept humanity as the ultimate ruler. In many ways, this concept of nature has perpetuated fears of natural elements and events, and was used in medieval literature as an excuse to exploit and use the Earth as both a feeding and dumping ground while providing nothing to replenish what was being taken. This fear of the power of nature, as being both a giver and a punisher, created monsters that must be defeated, for humans must be stronger if feudalism were to survive in the period. If monsters are fears of the culture at the time, and nature is often symbolized by the literature as a monster, what were so many afraid of? It is this question that today, ecocritics continue to ask in contemporary literature; how does nature feel about how humans have been treating her? Does it matter?
Atwood, Margaret. Survival. House of Anansi Press, 1972.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture: Seven Theses.” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 1997.
Dreelin, Erin. “Environmental Perception of Wetland Ecosystems.” Water Science Network, Michigan State University, 30 Jan. 2017, https://water.msu.edu/environmental-perception-of-wetland-ecosystems/.
George , Michael W. “Gawain’s Struggle with Ecology: Attitudes toward the Natural World in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” NEH Isle of Man, National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers, July 2010, https://www.csub.edu/~cmacquarrie/isle_of_man/.
Headley, Dahvana Maria. Beowulf: A New Translation. Scribe, 2021.
George , Michael W. “Gawain’s Struggle with Ecology: Attitudes toward the Natural World in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” NEH Isle of Man, National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers, July 2010, https://www.csub.edu/~cmacquarrie/isle_of_man/. Headley, Dahvana Maria. Beowulf: A New Translation. Scribe, 2021.