The Monster Returns | Thesis Extract

Note: This post’s feature image is a still from “If Found…”, an Irish video game from dreamfeel that includes a trans protagonist, as well as many other LGBTQ+ characters!

It has been a great many months since I have posted here, but I have returned to share a sample of the fruits of my labour! Yes, it’s true; the dissertation has been written, submitted, and graded (first class honours, baby!). I am incredibly proud of it, and will definitely post the full paper somewhere, but I do feel a blog post is not the place for that! Still, this blog was made to document the progression of my research, so it’s only fitting that I would post even just a little bit of the culmination of all that work.

There has also been a seemingly endless spew of invective and ignorant pieces about trans people, both in Ireland and the world beyond. But why get into fights on Twitter with people who do not want to learn, only attack those they do not understand?

Instead I want to post this extract from the introduction of my dissertation, as an indirect counter to the misinformation and fear-mongering that has been spread recently.

So please, enjoy!

Of Monsters and Thems: Problematising Cis-Heteronormativity in Old Norse and Old English Scholarship.

“[C]riticism worthy of its name arises from commitments deeper than professionalism.”

(Lawrence Buell, quoted in Postcolonial Ecocriticism, 11)

Allow me to preface this dissertation by stating clearly that I am a transgender, non-binary, queer individual.  That is to say, I am not cisgender, and I am not heterosexual. I feel it is important to make clear that I am not speaking over trans or queer voices – I am one. I by no means have any authority to speak on behalf of any other member of the LGBTQ+ community, but the fact remains that there are not enough trans voices in Old Norse and Old English scholarship, and, as I have been handed a megaphone (that is, the opportunity to write a thesis) it seems unwise to let the moment pass in silence. There is, inevitably, a personal element to this thesis, disguised only thinly by the passive voice, but the issue of prejudice against transgender, non-binary, and even intersex people is larger than any one individual and impacts not only our view of the world in the twenty-first century, but, as it pertains to this thesis, our perception of pre-Christian Scandinavia and early medieval England. 

The queer theory and subsequently, criticism, that does exist in Old Norse and Old English academic spaces1 is largely limited to the heterosexual/homosexual binary, and some discussion of (implicitly cisgender) gender transgression, the most radical of which I have seen is the proposal that the valkyries are a distinct gender outside of the male/female binary2 (see Self’s “The Valkyrie’s Gender: Old Norse Shield-Maidens and Valkyries as a Third Gender”). Queer theory itself possesses gaps and silences that need to be filled; namely a neglect of transgender issues, non-binary genders, and intersexuality. Old Norse and Old English scholars have, like much of the modern Western world, assumed that the male/female gender and sexual binary system is ‘natural’, and thus a historically and geographically universal truth. Unsurprisingly, this presupposition has influenced interpretations and criticism of Old Norse and Old English texts and figures. The aim of my dissertation is to bring transgender and non-binary perspectives to the fore by examining cissexist attitudes and prejudice against trans and non-binary people within theoretical and critical approaches. Subsequently, through close reading, I will illustrate how our perception of Old Norse and Old English texts and figures changes when re-examined through a more trans-inclusive lens.

  1. I do, of course, stand on the shoulders of giants while shouting into my megaphone. Incredible scholars applying a queer perspective to Old Norse and Old English literature include, but are not limited to: Amy Jefford Franks, Rebecca Merkelbach, Richard E. Zeikowitz, Kathleen M. Self, David Clark, Gareth Lloyd-Evans, Brit Solli, Glenn Burger, and Stephen Kruger.
  2. Self refers to the valkyries’ gender as a ‘third’ gender rather than using the non-binary umbrella. The issue with the language around ‘third’ genders is that “by framing variations of gender productions as dismissable deviants, we ignore the nature of personhood” (Jefford Franks, “Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 33).

Queer and Related Terminology

It is important to note at this point that when using the term ‘queer’ in academic discourse, it does not necessarily hold the same meaning as it does in the vernacular of LGBTQ+ spaces. In fact, ‘queer’ is widely considered to be a homophobic and transphobic slur. Many LGBTQ+ people have reclaimed slurs, that is, subverted their negative connotations and remade them into something empowering instead. However, in much the same way that white people cannot reclaim racial slurs, non-LGBTQ+ individuals cannot reclaim slurs used specifically to disempower, Otherise, or vilify LGBTQ+ people.

According to Eric Savoy in his essay “You Can’t Go Homo Again”, the term ‘queer’ entered the academic sphere in the early 1990s; he specifically cites the Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference held at Rutgers University in 1991 (129). ‘Queer’, Savoy explains, was a term borrowed from a political activist group called Queer Nation. They had broken away from the New York branch of ACT UP (“the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power”) in the early months of 1990, and were committed to “acknowledg[ing] and deploy[ing] gay and lesbian anger in specific, highly volatile, antihomophobic demonstrations” (141).  In its inchoate state at that time, ‘queer’ “slipped frequently, often in the same performance, between synonymity with gay or lesbian positionalities and an anxious marking of distance from those critical perspectives” (129). In fact, by the time the MLA Convention in New York rolled around in 1992, queerness in academia had taken on a defiant hue and had “an oppositional relation to the gay and the lesbian” (emphasis in original, 130). The contention between gay and lesbian studies and queer theory is difficult to reconcile. Many people dedicated years of their lives to fighting for a legitimate space for gay and lesbian studies in academic spaces, and unsurprisingly, wanted to remain being taken seriously. Thus, they were hesitant when queer theorists began to demand the focus be shifted to queer theory instead of gay and lesbian studies. On the other hand, the frustration of queer theorists in the nineties is difficult to dismiss.  It is exhausting to constantly contort yourself in order to remain palatable to those who would deny you a voice, representation, and basic human rights.

While keeping its history and some of its more negative connotations in mind, ‘queer’ still remains a fitting term for its eponymous theoretical and critical approach. Richard E. Zeikowitz, in his essay “Befriending the Medieval Queer”, asserts that ‘queer’ can “signify any nonnormative behavior, relationship, or identity occurring at a specific moment”, and also “describe an alternative form of desire that threatens the stability of the dominant norm” (67). Jefford Franks3 translates Solli’s poetic definition in which “queer is not defined as an essence, but as a position that implies resistance to the prevailing norm of power” (“Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 32). It should also be stressed that queer is intended to be an umbrella term. There are a myriad of far more specific terms found in the vernacular of the LGBTQ+ community that have as yet not found their way into academic spaces. For instance, what is meant by the term ‘non-binary’, in the context of a discussion on gender? The Transgender Equality Network of Ireland (TENI) defines non-binary as:

“An umbrella term for gender identities that fall outside the gender binary of male or female. This includes individuals whose gender identity is neither exclusively male nor female, a combination of male and female or between or beyond genders. Similar to the usage of transgender, people under the non-binary umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms.”

Helpful Terms and Definitions

It is important to keep in mind this idea of non-binary as another one of these umbrella terms, rather than a third gender. There are countless gender identities that fall under the category of non-binary; gender fluid individuals, for example, “experience different gender identities at different times” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). This thesis will demonstrate how, say, Loki can be interpreted as a non-binary figure, but will not delve into more specific identities. Loki could arguably be labelled as genderfluid, or androgyne – such discussion can become tedious, however, if one is unfamiliar with modern queer jargon. Thus for the sake of simplicity, the remainder of the dissertation will use broader umbrella terms like ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’.

3. It should be noted that Amy Jefford Franks uses they/them pronouns.

Another term which will be useful to keep in mind is ‘cisgender’. A person who is cisgender is simply someone who is not transgender, i.e. “a person whose gender identity and gender expression is aligned with the sex assigned at birth” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). Cisgender is an important term because it “acknowledges that everyone has a gender identity” and so “a non-trans identity is not presented as normal or natural which stigmatises a trans identity as abnormal or unnatural” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). In a similar vein is the term ‘cissexism’, which is the “assumption that a cisgender identity is more authentic or natural than a trans identity” and that “a person’s sex assigned at birth always remains their real gender” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). The system under which modern Western society functions is what is known as a cis-heteropatriarchy, a “society in which men are an oppressive force over women, and within which cisgender and heterosexual identities are assumed as the default” (Jefford Franks, “Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 31). This system or model is “seen as a colonial force in both historic and modern concepts” (32). Literatures of the past have been colonised by reading them through the lens of cis-heteronormative contructs. Chapter One, in particular, will examine the ways in which the cis-heteropatriarchy has been naturalised, and how this affects our interpretations and criticisms of Old English and Old Norse texts.

People who are intersex are “individuals who are born with sex characteristics (such as chromosomes, genitals, and/or hormonal structure) that do not belong strictly to male or female categories, or that belong to both at the same time” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). Many intersex individuals do not identify themselves as being members of the LGBTQ+ community (InterACT, “FAQ: Intersex, Gender, and LGBTQIA+”). I will, however, be including issues surrounding intersexuality, because cissexist and cisnormative attitudes also affect intersex people. Doctors can use language to describe intersex bodies (such as ‘disorder of sex development’) which is rejected by intersex people because it often “supports the idea that their bodies are wrong, or up to doctors to ‘fix’” (InterACT, “FAQ: What is intersex?”). Intersex people assert that they are not ‘disordered’ or ‘broken’, but simply have different bodies that do not fit in neatly with the male/female sexual binary system. The language used by medical institutions to discuss intersex people is reminiscent of the language historically used to describe queer and transgender people4.  Feminist psychology has produced many works based on the gender/sex distinction (that is, gender as cultural and sex as biological or ‘natural’), but intersexuality “poses a fundamental challenge to the assumed ‘naturalness’ of biological sex” and insists that we should “see ‘sex’ (as much as ‘gender’) as socially constructed” (Kitzinger, 494). A more detailed conversation about intersex issues can be found both in this introductory chapter, and in Chapter One.

4. It was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association ceased to consider homosexuality as a mental disorder (Lyons, “Psychiatrists, in a Shift, Declare Homosexuality No Mental Illness”). The WHO only announced in 2019 that it no longer classified being transgender a mental or behavioural disorder (BBC, “Transgender no longer recognised as ‘disorder’ by WHO”). The WHO have given countries globally until  January 2022 to implement changes for transgender healthcare.

A more recent but important term to know is ‘TERF’, an acronym that stands for ‘trans exclusionary radical feminist’ (Pearce et al., 677). Thanks to technological phenomena like the Internet and social media, trans people have become more and more visible in feminist activism, “prompting a concurrent rise in discrimination, most notably from within the radical feminist movement” (Munro, 23). Many TERFs do not refer to themselves as such, however, instead preferring to label themselves as ‘gender critical’. This is a misleading term as it denotes “less a critical approach to gender, and more an emphasis on claiming ‘biologically defined’ notions of femaleness and womanhood over gender identity and social concepts of gender” (681). Trans-exclusionary radical feminists argue that allowing people to self-determine their gender will give ‘men’ – which, it should be noted, “is a category frequently presumed to encompass trans women and non-binary people assigned male at birth” – an opportunity to invade women-only spaces (Pearce et al., 680). The extent to which TERF rhetoric and attitudes affect trans activists and perpetuate harmful cissexist prejudice will be explored in greater detail in Chapter One.

January 2021 update: Find the full dissertation here.

The Wonders of the Thesis | Literature Review

The aim of my thesis is to create a queer critical perspective of Old Norse and Old English literature. While there have been queer approaches to both of these areas in the past, many have stayed within the frame of the homosexual/heterosexual and male/female binaries; my approach strives to dismantle and problematise both of these constraints on the queer critical approach to medieval literature. The general starting points I plan to begin with are translation, monster theory (including notions of the Other and liminality), feminist literary criticism, contemporary queer theory, and even some aspects of Postmodernism.

I will begin by grounding myself in current queer critical approaches and theories, such as Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger’s collection of essays Queering the Middle Ages or Richard E. Zeikowitz’s “Befriending the Medieval Queer: A Pedagogy for Literature Classes”. I want to use these various perspectives to create my own working definition of what it means to be queer, and more specifically what it means to be queer in a medieval text. I will seek to expand this definition to go beyond the boundaries of a binary sexuality and gender system, and thus see how our perspective on certain episodes or characters in medieval texts change accordingly, if at all. This definition will of course largely be impacted by my knowledge of monster theory and feminist criticism; the most significant complementary piece being Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Her theories on the binary, and discussions on displacement and performativity will be essential when attempting to include transgender (binary and otherwise) identities into the mainstream queer approach.

One of the most important sources for my research is J.J. Cohen’s chapter “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” published in The Monster Theory Reader. Cohen describes a “set of breakable postulates in search of specific cultural moments” in this chapter (38). He notes the way monsters emerge from individual and collective anxieties, and can be used in a political way – such as the way in which the Nazis made ‘monsters’ of Jewish people in order to further their political agenda.  His discussion on the body of the monster in particular links directly to questions about transgender and/or intersex bodies. I want to use Cohen’s seven theses to examine the way in which queer and trans people have been made into the monstrous Other. Cohen asserts that monsters act as warnings and encourage people to act within the status quo; but for those who know they have been cast in the role of monster, it is the status quo/the place in which ‘heroes’ dwell that poses danger. I will use Cohen’s theses to uncover the perspective of the monster, that is, the queer or trans community. In a similar vein, I will be dismantling and problematising pieces such as Acker’s “Horror and the Maternal in ‘Beowulf’” to demonstrate the inadequacies of labelling characteristics and behaviours as masculine or feminine. Some Postmodernist critical technique comes into play here, namely distrust of metanarratives, as outlined in Linda Hutcheon’s The Politics of Postmodernism. Pieces like Acker’s begin to unravel at the seams once the delicate structures of the metanarrative in which it operates (the metanarrative being, in this case, a binary gender system) are torn down. Hutcheon’s work on Postmodernism and metanarratives will be an important tool in dismantling these binary structures. 

In terms of the Old Norse primary texts, I will be using Carolyne Larrington’s translation of The Poetic Edda. This translation is one with which I am intimately familiar from my undergrad, and Larrington’s other critical work on Old Norse literature both complements my research and signifies to me the perspective she had while translating the Edda. She employs the feminist literary critical approach of “reading against the grain”, which I believe also proves useful when examining texts from a queer perspective. Having looked closely at her word choice in some instances already, one can see gender being problematised in a way other translations may have obscured or made more palatable for a binary, cisgender audience. Thus Larrington’s translation will be vital for my research. In addition, I will be using Dr. Tom Birkett’s prose retelling of the Norse myths as an example of modern, prose adaptation of the texts. In a sort of contrast, I will be using both Fulk’s edition of the Beowulf manuscript, as well as Seamus Heaney’s translation of the poem Beowulf. As with every translation, our interpretation of a text is tinged by the translator’s own experiences and biases; I am using multiple translations in an attempt for some kind of balance, as well as the opportunity for comparisons. Heaney’s word choices when translating sections on Grendel’s Mother, for example, have been criticised for having unnecessarily negative connotations.

Feminist literary critical techniques can also be used for a queer critical perspective; as I mentioned before, Carolyne Larrington uses the “reading against the grain” technique in her essay “What Does Woman Want?: Mær und munr in Skirnismal”. I wish to use her example and listen to the gaps and silences left by heteronormative and ciscentric perspectives which have dominated traditional academia. In a similar fashion, I want to examine other examples of feminist criticism in the Old English and Old Norse fields, including Mary Dockray-Miller’s “The Masculine Queen of Beowulf” and “Female Community in the Old English Judith” and Clare A. Lees’s “At a crossroads: Old English and feminist criticism”. These are critics I admire very much, but I believe feminist approaches can inadvertently become (ironically) andro-centric, and, in the case of Lees’s piece, intersectionality can be forgotten or fall to the wayside. I want to build on the arguments and observations made by these feminist critics, perhaps even problematise them, to reveal a more intersectional, dialectic, and possibly complicated view of gender in medieval texts and the world beyond.

By using these texts together for my thesis, I hope to rearrange them like stars into a new constellation, and change today’s queer critical perspective of medieval literature.


Acker, Paul. “Horror and the Maternal in ‘Beowulf.’” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 3, 2006, pp. 702–716. 

Birkett, Tom. The Norse Myths. Quercus, 2018.

Burger, Glenn, and Steven F. Kruger, editors. Queering the Middle Ages. NED – New edition ed., vol. 27, University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006. 

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “MONSTER CULTURE (SEVEN THESES).” The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2020, pp. 37–56. 

Dockray-Miller, Mary. “The Masculine Queen of Beowulf.” Women and Language, vol. 21, no. 2, 1998, pp. 31.

—.  “Female Community in the Old English Judith.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 70, no. 2, 1998, pp. 165-172.

Fulk, R.D., translator. The Beowulf Manuscript. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Heaney, Seamus, translator. Beowulf: A New Translation. Faber & Faber, 2000.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2002.

Larrington, Carolyne, translator. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, 2014.

—. “What Does Woman Want? Maer und munr in Skirnismal.” Alvissmal, vol. 1, 1992, pp. 3-16.

Self, Kathleen M. “The Valkyrie’s Gender: Old Norse Shield-Maidens and Valkyries as a Third Gender.” Feminist Formations, vol. 26, no. 1, 2014, pp. 143–172. 

Zeikowitz, Richard E. “Befriending the Medieval Queer: A Pedagogy for Literature Classes.” College English, vol. 65, no. 1, Special Issue: Lesbian and Gay Studies/Queer Pedagogies, pp. 67-80.

Note: Featured Image: Hild, Thrud and Hløkk | 1895 | Lorenz Frølich | Taken from Wikipedia |Public Domain


“[I]t may be helpful to regard the mythological material as a place where one might more easily explore alternatives to the two genders delineated in a masculine/feminine binary.”

Kathleen M. Self  | (p.146)

We have long used tales of monsters and heroes to explore the impossible – or what we perceive to be the impossible, at least. Monsters and heroes are believed to be the antithesis of one another, but delving into monster theory and concepts of the ‘Other’ reveals more similarities between the two than we may at first like to admit. Those who know me even a little bit will be aware of my love for monsters, and I don’t think that this love came out of nowhere. In many ways the societal narrative in which I live has cast me in the role of monster; I am a queer, transgender non-binary individual, and I’m here to eat your children in the middle of the night. I am also here to introduce you to other non-binary individuals I have found in Old Norse literature: namely Loki and the valkyries. 

We mostly think of Loki as a man, and popular depictions reinforce this; Tom Hiddleston, a cisgender man, portrays the god in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Let me problematise this for you: throughout the course of the Norse myth cycle, Loki gives birth, more than once. 

Odin said:

‘[…] eight winters you were, beneath the earth,

a milchow and a woman,

and there you bore children,

and that I thought the hallmark of a pervert.’”

Lokasenna | translated by Carolyne Larrington | (p.84)

This particular episode is unfortunately otherwise unknown, however in the Master Builder narrative, we do see Loki transform into a mare and seduce the stallion Svadilfari. This results in the birth of the eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Now, I’m no expert (just kidding, yes I am) but that doesn’t sound very cisgender to me. If you look at Larrington’s translation, you can see that Odin explicitly calls Loki a woman. In the words of Richard E. Zeikowitz: “Traditional readings of these characters have obscured or ignored their disruptive queerness” (67). While Lees is referring to Old English figures like Grendel, this is absolutely applicable to Old Norse figures as well. 

The Children of Loki |Willy Pogany | 1920 | Taken from Wikipedia.

Why would I bother to point this out? Why should anyone care? Well, Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger assert that a queer approach to medieval studies “promises the recovery of cultural meanings that are lost, obscured or distorted in work that either ignores questions of sexuality or attends only to hegemonic or heteronormative understandings of it” (67). As someone who identifies as queer, I have become aware of these paper-thin structures that rule our lives; the notion of a binary gender system is one such structure. It permeates everything we do, thus influencing our study of these texts and characters. Non-binary genders are not a new concept, and toying with gender fluidity is a human preoccupation that crops up again and again. Take an Old English example; Grendel’s Mother is one of the three traditional monsters of Beowulf. She is generally considered to be a woman, although critics such as Acker do not categorise her as particularly feminine, and her pronouns switch between being masculine and feminine throughout the text. So what is it exactly that makes her a woman, and not non-binary? The fact that she is the mother of Grendel? Why, then, do we consider Loki to be a man, since he, too, gives birth? What is the difference between a mother and a father here? The only thing that appears to differentiate them is the labels we ourselves have prescribed them. Even if we were to say, ‘a woman is anyone who gives birth’, that too is insufficient. Not only does it exclude transgender women, it ignores women who have had hysterectomies, who cannot have children, who do not want to have children. Are these people not women, then? In Acker’s essay on horror and the maternal, he states that a mother is “expected to be empowered chiefly through her son” (707). Are you not a mother until or unless you have a son? 

My point here, to put it bluntly, is that our current conceptions of what constitutes a woman or a man are not infallible, but rather the opposite. Trying to place Loki or Grendel’s Mother neatly into the gender binary simply does not work; they are comfortable in their dislocation. They are non-binary.

“[I]nsert them into a binary of masculine and feminine, wherein they sit somewhat uneasily in the feminine category.”

Kathleen M. Self | (p. 144)

Self proposes that the valkyries, too, fall into the category of some third gender outside of the traditional binary. This quote specifically struck a chord with me, as it describes astutely what I felt before coming to the realisation that I was non-binary. Valkyries are hardly examples of the ideal feminine; they take part in battle, have control over the fates of the warriors, and dress in armour. Clothing was especially important for differentiating gender through what Self calls “body codes”: “clothing, cosmetics, behaviours, miens, affective and sexual object choices” (144). That is to say, masculinity and femininity are codified, making the fact that valkyries wear warrior’s armour considerably more significant. There were strict laws in medieval Scandinavia against dressing out of accordance to your gender; you can find similar instances of members of the LGBTQ+ community being arrested for not dressing in accordance with their gender in the States in decades as recently as the sixties. Valkyries mix body codes and thus problematise their gender. 

Hild, Thrud and Hløkk | 1895 | Lorenz Frølich | Taken from Wikipedia.

It is interesting, however, that they are not condemned for this; Grendel’s Mother is labelled a monster, and Loki is called a pervert by Odin, yet the valkyries are a mostly positive or revered presence in the Norse myths. I reiterate that monsters and heroes are not as different as we may like to believe. They are a binary system that similarly crumbles under scrutiny. I may be non-binary, but I won’t be gobbling up your children anytime soon. I can’t say the same for Grendel’s Mother, however.