I love monsters.
I have a soft spot for the creatures that skulk about on the periphery of society, casting menacing glances at the odd passerby. I do enjoy a good skulk myself every so often. But I am not supposed to love monsters; rather, I am supposed to hate them, fear them, reject them. So why am I not afraid?
Well, what are you afraid of? What do you check for under your bed at night? Gender? Your mom? These might seem like silly questions at first, but our society has been fixated, in fascinated horror, on notions of gender construction and discrepancies between these constructions and our reality. Moreover, it isn’t just Freud who believes we have weird psychological relationships with our mothers; a whole host of critics have explored the terrors of our dear maternal figures. Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French literary critic (who really is very much worth researching), unearthed an image of the maternal in the work of Ferdinand Céline that left chills running down my spine: “[T]he mother gives us life, but since she does not give us immortality, she gives us death as well” (704).
Isn’t that a delightfully awful thought? I can’t decide if this is a genuine anxiety, or deliberately pessimistic and just scrambling for more reasons why women are awful and can’t do anything right. Sure, they’re life-givers, but what’s the point if they’re not immortality-givers? To me, that appears to make mothers twice as monstrous; not only are they women, but all of their offspring will eventually die. It’s just unprofessional.
In “Horror and the Maternal”, Acker faces the most monstrous mother of all: Grendel’s Mother. For those unfamiliar with her, Grendel’s Mother is one of the three monsters Beowulf battles in one of the most important Old English epic poems, (yep, you guessed it) Beowulf. Her son, Grendel, appears as a sort of disfigured, clawed monster that terrorises the mead-hall of Heorot until our great hero swoops in to save the day and do away with the foul beast. Grendel’s Mother is, understandably, not super thrilled about this. She emerges from her mere to exact revenge on the men of the hall, killing one of them, Aeschere, in his bed while he sleeps – an eye for an eye, as is customary in the heroic/feudal society in which the poem is set. Women aren’t really supposed to be the ones exacting revenge, but Grendel’s Mother is the last surviving member of her family, so the role of avenger falls to her.
Here’s the thing: I don’t find Grendel’s Mother monstrous. I’m not scared of her. But I think she makes men anxious.
Acker calls Grendel’s Mother a “feminine antitype”, but doesn’t expand on what he means by ‘feminine’ in the first place. We could assume that Acker is referring to the construct of femininity of the time, but even that is an unclear concept; does he mean the femininity of the time in which the poem is set, or the femininity of the time in which the poem was written? But really, the impression I get is that Acker is speaking about femininity as something ubiquitous, timeless, unchanging – when in reality constructs of femininity and masculinity have evolved hugely, and continue to transform now.
I believe this prompts us to ask whether Grendel’s Mother is categorised as monstrous simply because she does not strive to achieve the feminine ideal (be that the ideal of her culture/time/society, or ours today). I do not believe it is unfair to say that the feminine ideal is an impossible goal, often full of contradictions; no woman ever actually reaches it, though they are expected to try regardless. Hildeburh, for example, with whom Grendel’s Mother is often compared, fails in her role as peace-weaver; she does not reach the feminine ideal, but since she tries, that does not make her a total monster.
(As a side-note, my peer John Buttimer wrote a wonderful blog post on the ‘bad’ queen Modthryth, which I think may be relevant here – she is another female character in Beowulf who is condemned for refusing to reach for the feminine ideal, and instead inflicts physical violence on those who attack her with the psychological violence of the male gaze. Needless to say, I love her.)
When Acker uses the term “feminine antitype” to describe Grendel’s Mother, what he appears to mean, in my opinion at least, is “aggressive”. To Acker, as well as many other critics both male and female, aggression is never feminine; that is to say, aggression is masculine, and passivity is feminine. He even goes so far as to state that Grendel’s Mother’s aggression is “arguably in a fashion reserved for men” (705, italics mine). Note that he does not qualify this with a time period, or with a particular culture or society.
The only response I have is why? Why is aggression never feminine, and why is passivity never masculine? Moreover, is it even useful to gender attributes like aggression and passivity? If you are not going to refer to constructs of gender at particular points in history and in specific parts of the world, thus contextualising social/cultural values/anxieties/norms, then your ideas of gender constructs become far too ambiguous, broad, inaccurate. Linking the feminine with passivity and the masculine with aggression just feels lazy. Should we instead turn our focus towards expanding what the feminine and masculine can encompass, or even delve into the world of the non-binary? A discussion for another post, maybe.
So what makes Grendel’s Mother monstrous? Well, Acker explains that in Old English as well as Old Norse texts, “a mother, expected to be empowered chiefly through her son, was too horrible to consider in the destructive role of an avenger” (707). (My first thought when reading this was: Are you not considered a mother until you have a son?) It’s interesting that the destructive nature of revenge is acknowledged, considering how detrimental its cyclical nature was on heroic society, but it is only horrible when a woman, worse, a mother takes part. Thus Grendel’s Mother is a monster because 1) she is a mother, and mothers don’t provide immortality, 2) she is aggressive, which is not associated with the feminine ideal of her culture and 3) she abides by the feudal code of the society in which she lives, which again, isn’t very womanly.
That doesn’t make her very monstrous to me at all.
Acker, Paul. “Horror and the Maternal in ‘Beowulf.’” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 3, 2006, pp. 702–716. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25486349.
Note: This post’s feature image is by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf (1908). Taken from Wikipedia.