From Grendel to Zombie: Monsters as Descendants of Cain

Beowulf. Sir Gawain. Dr. Van Helsing. These individuals and, eventually, society as a whole all share something very deep and profound that binds almost every individual on the planet to every other person who has ever lived. These literary figures are all slayers of an agent of evil that is grounded upon the act of rising from the deepest pit of the underworld both literally and figuratively to take on the form of monstrous opposition to the very quintessence of humanity.

Grendel. The Green Knight. Count Dracula. The nameless homogenized members of zombie hordes.  These are all members of a family tree capable of tracing their origin back to an unusually precise abstract element of human nature. These are monsters whose very existence challenge preconceived notion of what it means to be human by suggesting that what it means to be monstrous is to be nothing more or less than abomination of the one inviolate code capable of ensuring the propagation of the species.

The magical element of the supernatural and the mythic is that it can reach across generations to speak to each new evolution in society that is given the name “civilization.” And yet, after eons of civilizing influences and progression, the capacity for one human to murder another has still not managed to be evolved or mutated right out the genetic strain of the species.  The story of the great slayer of the hideous monster Grendel belongs to the very specific chronology of impressing upon existing pagan mythology a uniquely Christian interpretation such that the monster that must be slayed before it destroys mankind. The stimulus for this interpretation is one invested with the legacy of the abomination of the Biblical commandment that humans shall not kill one another. This scriptural mandate traces the lineage of its philosophy all the way back to the very first taking of one human life by another human and, in turn, that philosophy reaches forward through millennia to describe the monstrous Grendel as “a descendent of Cain, whom the Lord had banished from mankind for the slaying of Abel” (Ashliman 2010).

In Beowulf, Grendel is characterized by a long history of rising from the depths of the sea before he engages in his favorite pastime of killing seafaring warriors almost as if, perhaps, the bottom of the ocean is the actualization of the Land of Nod. Grendel’s continual threat results in the contribution to one of the longest-lasting tropes in literature; the evil that threatens all of humanity being vanquished by the singular hero who saves all of civilization as the result of possessing greater bravery and a superior intellect to the inhuman abomination.

The European vampire as portrayed by Bram Stoker and just about every vampire story written in its wake thus becomes itself a direct descendent of Cain through Grendel.  Many cultures across the globe have their own vampire myths, but Stoker impressed a Christian view of abomination upon it by making the vampire into a localized anti-Christ whose very being is a sacrilegious parody of the resurrection of Christ. Dracula and his vampire offspring literally rise from the ground in which their dead bodies were buried to replicate the figurative rising from the underworld into the light represented buy Grendel’s breaching the surface of the sea. This act, too, becomes a symbol of the ultimate abomination to the Christian view of humanity which states that only one person gets to rise from the dead. With the transformation of Grendel into the vampire comes the loss of any trust that one brave warrior can defeat such evil.

If it takes a team to kill a vampire, of course, one must be forced to admit that it takes a village to kill a horde of zombies. Zombies in their Haitian origin are not the dead risen from the grave, but a person very much alive but whose conscious will has been taken away from him. The movies transformed that cultural myth into one far more consistent with the lineage tracing backward through vampires to Grendel in which the dead rise from the grave, thus presenting these monsters as creatures who threaten the bright world of humanity by rising from the depths. The fact that zombies must attack in groups—the infamous zombie hordes—is perhaps the most adamant response to the ceaseless movement away from the lone slayer to the team of slayers. It has only recently been that “film zombies exist in a network and/or exhibit networked behavior” (Ricciardi).

This progression may be an enlightened reply to the ideological dimension afforded by the expansive influence of social media and the subsequent necessitating of networking with others as a means of achieving success in modern society. From this perspective, the zombie hordes who become as a result of the combination of death and resurrection something otherworldly and supernatural within while appearing relatively normal without harken back to Grendel but in a way align even more closely with Green Knight. In a perverse abomination of the standards of chivalry, the networking concept which gave rise to the Round Table and its allegiance of knights joined together to vanquish foes such as the Green Knight is now the collective entity against lone heroes are charged with standing up against.

The co-opting of Round Table ideal of networking of individuals into a cooperative approach has now reached the point both the monsters and the slayers must are now dependent upon the power of the collective in a way that seems an utter rejection of the idea that society should feel comfortable entrusting the traditional role of hero to organized slayers like law enforcement and the military. While the recognition of the Green Knight as familiar-but-not-familiar is most adeptly symbolized by hordes of zombie who are familiar-but-not-familiar, the network of knights represented by the Round Table is no longer familiar at all as a symbolic of protection.

The cultural progression which gave birth to the monsters capable of connecting their family line all the way back to the earliest humans to walk the earth is inextricably tied to the mythic qualities outlined in the Bible. Zombies, vampires, the Green Knight and Grendel are all tied together as a result of being examples of the one unifying abomination common to all cultures and religions. In a very literal figurative sense, these creatures have become monstrous because they are descendants of Cain, the first human to kill another human. Dracula the vampire adds a second level of abomination by parodying the resurrection of Jesus in his capacity to awaken from death.  The Green Knight and modern conceptions of zombies as the dead brought back to life are both invested with monstrous dimensions as a result of a mystery primeval corruption of their humanity that makes allows them to still appear recognizably human while decidedly being far less than human. Then there is Grendel, tendered by the oral tradition of the saga as a being directly of the same blood lineage as Cain, the man who killed just because he could.

Works Cited

Ashliman, D. L. Beowulf: A Summary in English Prose. Univ. of Pittsburgh, 2010. Web. 14          June 2016.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. the Middle Ages. New York,      NY: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.

Ricciardi, Michael. “The Zombies Among Us – Exploring The Resurgent Popularity of Zombies In Modern Culture” October 30, 2013.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight | Robbins Library Digital Projects.” Sir Gawain and the            Green Knight | Robbins Library Digital Projects. Trans. Jessie Weston. University of             Rochester, n.d. Web. 14 June 2016.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Charlottesville, Va.: U of Virginia Library, 1996. Print.