Basilisks and Beowulf: Monsters in the Anglo-Saxon World

by Tim Flight

Hardcover, 2021



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Reaktion Books (2021), 264 pages


An eye-opening, engrossing look at the central role of monsters in the Anglo-Saxon worldview.   This book addresses a simple question: why were the Anglo-Saxons obsessed with monsters, many of which did not exist? Drawing on literature and art, theology, and a wealth of firsthand evidence, Basilisks and Beowulf reveals a people huddled at the edge of the known map, using the fantastic and the grotesque as a way of understanding the world around them and their place within it. For the Anglo-Saxons, monsters helped to distinguish the sacred and the profane; they carried God's message to mankind, exposing His divine hand in creation itself. At the same time, monsters were agents of disorder, seeking to kill people, conquer their lands, and even challenge what it meant to be human. Learning about where monsters lived and how they behaved allowed the Anglo-Saxons to situate themselves in the world, as well as to apprehend something of the divine plan. It is for these reasons that monsters were at the very center of their worldview. From map monsters to demons, dragons to Leviathan, we neglect these beasts at our peril.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Michael.Rimmer
I really enjoyed this exploration of the Anglo-Saxon cultural relationship with monsters. Flight is an academic, and (as far as I can tell as a non-academic) he knows his stuff, which he communicates in a detailed but easygoing manner which makes for great reading.

The book is broken into chapters
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exploring themes of belonging and otherness in respect of geography and borders, civilisation and barbarity, order and chaos, Christianity and paganism, then moves on to Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards key monstrous figures, including wolves, dragons, whales and, of course, Grendel and his mother, and what they can tell us about the Anglo-Saxon world view. In setting out these perspectives, Flight invites the reader to reflect on the degree to which Englishness has changed, and what it has retained, his short concluding chapter explicitly stating some of the parallels he draws himself.

I was particularly interested in Flight's reflections on the plasticity of the state of monstrousness, of what defines and separates a true human being from a monster, how one can become the other, what monster tales told the Anglo-Saxons about themselves, and why we continue to be fascinated by ravening beasts who may decide us, physically or spiritually.

Loved it.
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264 p.; 8.5 inches


1789144337 / 9781789144338
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