Sympathy for the Devil: the Humanization of Monsters and Beowulf

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The word “monster” has come to define a variety of interpretations; for example, modern media will use it to describe crime perpetrators in an appeal to the community to dehumanize them, thus making them easier to ridicule and condemn. In Christian medieval culture however it held less sinister notions, but rather loosely referenced anyone or thing that had a defect of the body. The medical sciences of the time attributed these blemishes to God's fury over some transgression of the afflicted; it was an ominous indication of foul things to come if the sinner did not beg forgiveness immediately. The epic poem Beowulf is a heroic tale of the endeavors of the warrior Beowulf, who possesses herculean strength and stoic courage. Some of the most important climactic scenes of the poem are Beowulf's fights against three different monsters; these creatures are vicious and bloodthirsty, deserving of death at the skillful hands of Beowulf because they are condemned by God - or at least that is what readers are led to believe. As the hero, the entire story is appropriately tailored to exalt the incredible Beowulf in his prowess and might. However, it can be argued his heroic pedestal has skewed the story in favor of Beowulf when in reality such praise may not have been justly due. A closer inspection reveals that in reality, these monsters are perhaps not so monstrous after all; the poem's plot represents them as barbaric, imposing forces that Beowulf heroically exorcises for the safety and preservation of the community, but if we examine the poem in the lens of possibility that Grendel's race is in fact human, Beowulf's supposed heroism suddenly appears ugly and discriminatory. By the scarce description we are given of two of the three beasts Beowulf encounters and subsequently defeats – Grendel and Grendel's mother – it is difficult to determine whether they were in fact
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