Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border

The language of monstrosity has long been used to demonize the other, the foreigner, the alien and the immigrant.

In the Old English poem, Beowulf, the Grendelkin are quintessential outsiders—lurking in the shadows and haunting the wilderness as scuccan ond scinnan “demons and monsters” (939). But the Grendelkin are also characterized with a measure of sympathy. Grendel is depicted throughout as a human suffering in exile, portrayed as rinc “man” (720), who is dreamum bedæled “bereft of joys” (721, 1275), and as feasceaft guma “miserable man” (973), forced to wræclastas tredan “tread the paths of exile” (1352).

Early in the poem, the narrator introduces Grendel as:

Wæs se grimma gæst   Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa,   se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten;   fifelcynnes eard
wonsæli wer   weardode hwile (102-05).

“The grim spirit was called Grendel, the famous mark-stepper, he who held the marshes, fens and strongholds, the unlucky man guarded the realm of monsterkind a while.”

Grendelkin fleeing Hroðgar’s Danish patrol. Image from Sturla Gunnarsson’s ‘Beowulf and Grendel’ (2005).

The narrator names Grendel a mearcstapa, a compound generally understood to mean “border-walker,” in reference to his wandering in the wild. And later in the poem, Hroðgar characterizes both Grendel and his mother in virtually identical terms:

Ic þæt londbuend,   leode mine,
selerædende,   secgan hyrde
þæt hie gesawon   swylce twegen
micle mearcstapan   moras healdan,
ellorgæstas (1345-49).

“I have heard that the land-dwellers, my people, and hall-counselors say that they saw two such foreign-spirits, great mark-steppers holding the marshes.”

In this passage, the Danish king describes his monstrous neighbors as mearcstapan “mark-steppers” and as ellorgæstas “foreign-spirits” (a compound that highlights their status as other). Although Manish Sharma makes a compelling argument for “marked wanderer” as a possible translation of mearcstapa—referring to the mark of Cain and corresponding to descriptions of the Grendelkin as Cain’s progeny, in Caines cynne “in Cain’s kin” (107)—nevertheless, “border-walkers” remains the preferred interpretation of the Old English compound.

However, a third available translation of mearcstapa is “border-crosser” and this interpretation of the Old English compound focuses on the Grendelkin’s liminality and sorrowful journeying between the Danish kingdom and realm of monsters. Interpreting mearcstapan as “border-crossers” aligns the monstrous Grendelkin with immigrants, migrants, exiles and foreigners—the very groups actively demonized and discriminated against by the current administration, as demonstrated by executive orders and enforcement practices, including (but by no means limited to) President Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban and Zero Tolerance Policy.

A family of asylum seekers are taken into custody by Border Patrol near McAllen, TX on June 12th, 2018. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

In Allison Meier’s recent blog “How Medieval Artists Used Monsters as Propaganda,” discussing the Morgan Library and Museum in New York’s exhibit, Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders, she draws modern-medieval parallels regarding the monstrous characterization of marginalized groups. She notes how Trump’s rhetorical strategies often rely on this sort of stereotyping and fear-mongering, as demonstrated by statements during his announcement of his presidential candidacy in 2015 that those crossing the US-Mexican border were “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Donald Trump announces his run for presidency at the Trump Tower Atrium in Manhattan on June 16, 2015. Photo by Linda Rosier.

Meier’s point that Trump’s rhetoric on immigration appropriates the language of monstrosity in order to demonize undocumented immigrants and asylum-seeking refugees resonates with the sentiments of the exhibit’s curators, Asa Simon Mittman and Sherry Lindquist, who argue in their accompanying catalogue, “Monstrous imagery was often associated with members of socially disadvantaged groups in order to suggest that they were less than human; such a strategy rationalized repression and could even be used to instigate violence.” I can only add my voice in harmony with those calling for resistance against recent nationalistic and xenophobic (especially anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim) rhetoric, which targets and dehumanizes specific groups of marginalized peoples by characterizing them as monstrous and other.

 The effects of this normalized rhetoric are manifesting and have paved the way for ongoing atrocities and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the United States government. The current administration’s dehumanizing policies on immigration—including separating families, concentrating people in detention centers and holding children in cages—will undoubtedly have lasting social ramifications and could result in future blowback and retaliatory violence.

Son and father from Honduras are taken into custody by Border Patrol near the U.S.-Mexico Border near Mission, Texas. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

Cyclical violence is a frequent occurrence in the martial world of Beowulf. Yet, Grendel’s mother, who comes to avenge the death of her son, surprises Beowulf when she appears in the form of blowback resulting from Grendel’s defeat at the hands of the Geatish champion. Hroðgar, however, is not at all shocked by the monster’s reciprocal violence, and even goes so far as to implicate Beowulf in perpetuating the feud between the Danes and Grendelkin. The Danish king explains that:

Heo þa fæhðe wræc
þe þu gystran niht  Grendel cwealdest
þurh hæstne had   heardum clammum,
forþan he to lange   leode mine
wanode ond wyrde.   He æt wige gecrang
ealdres scyldig,   ond nu oþer cwom
mihtig manscaða,   wolde hyre mæg wrecan,
ge feor hafað   fæhðe gestæled (1333-1340).

“She (Grendel’s mother) then avenged the feud because you (Beowulf) killed Grendel yesternight, through violent nature, with hard grips, since he too long wasted and destroyed my people. He fell at war, guilty of life, and now another mighty criminal-slayer comes, she wished to avenge her kinsman, and has carried on the feud from afar.”

Grendel as a child. Image from Sturla Gunnarsson’s ‘Beowulf and Grendel’ (2005).

In this passage, Hroðgar seems to sympathize with Grendel’s mother’s plight, twice described as a sorhful sið “sorrowful journey” (1278, 2119), and frames her vengeful response to the death of her son in terms of his own feuding culture and revenge obligations. Nevertheless, the Danish king appears able to empathize with his enemy—a mother who has lost her child—perhaps because her situation is all too familiar to the human experience, then as now.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading:

Baird, Joseph L. “Grendel the Exile,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 67 (1966): 375-81.

Higley, Sara Lynn. “Aldor on Ofre, or the Reluctant Hart: a Study of Liminality in Beowulf,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 87 (1986): 342-53.

Meier, Allison. “How Medieval Artists Used Monsters as Propaganda.” Hyperallergic (July 2, 2018).

Mittman, Asa and Peter Dendle. The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous. New York, NY: Ashgate Publishing, 2013.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23.4 (1981): 484-494.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript.  Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Schulman, Jana K. “Monstrous Introductions: Ellengæst and Aglæcwif.” In Beowulf at Kalamazoo: Essays on Translation and Performance, edited by Jana K. Schulman and Paul E. Szarmach, 62-92. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012.

Sharma, Manish. “Metalepsis and Monstrosity: The Boundaries of Narrative in Beowulf.” Studies in Philology 102 (2005): 247-279.


Sample Blog Post Assignment #2

The assignment below supports our ongoing efforts to promote instructors’ use of the Medieval Institute’s sites for pedagogical purposes. Maj-Britt Frenze graciously shared this sample from her course on Tolkien’s Mythologies and Monsters. The first sample assignment can be found here, and the original discussion of the Medieval Undergraduate Research page can be found here.

Extra Credit Blog Instructions:

For up to 5 points added to their final grade, students may compose a blog (c. 500 words) based on content from the course. Students may adapt an existing project from the course into blog formatting or compose entirely new material.

Students will receive 2 points on their final grade merely for completing the assignment, and up to 5 points for truly excellent work which can be published on the Notre Dame medievalist website for undergraduate research.

Blog content may be based solely on one or more medieval texts, may compare a medieval text with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (or another fantasy author, if the student prefers), or may compare a medieval text with a modern film. [Potential questions to answer in your blog: How is this medieval text reimagined in a modern context? Why might any alterations have been made to the original story? What aspects of medieval works are still familiar and present in modern literature and film? Why are medieval themes so popular in story-telling today?]

The Blog posts will be graded on:

  1. Originality of Content: Did the student compose something new and exciting that delves deeply into a text/material?
  2. Careful and thorough use of source(s): Does the student incorporate a few short quotations from a medieval text? Does the student refer to movie scenes, etc, clearly so the audience can follow the student’s argument?
  3. Style: Does the student write in a clear manner? Has the student carefully proofread the piece?

Aesthetics: Did the student incorporate appropriate images and conform to any copyright restrictions? Does the design of the blog look appealing?

Maj-Britt Frenze
Ph.D. Candidate

Karrie Fuller, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame/St. Mary’s College

Sample Blog Post Assignment #1

In light of my recent introduction to the Medieval Undergraduate Research site as a useful pedagogical tool here, I thought it might be helpful for some instructors to see a few additional sample assignments in current use. Pasted below is the prompt I am testing out this semester in my upper division Canterbury Tales course, which, based on the drafts I’ve seen so far, is likely to produce successful results. A second sample written by Maj-Britt Frenze and designed as an extra credit project will follow soon.

I intentionally wrote the assignment below to be easily adapted for many kinds of courses. Please feel free to borrow and/or modify it for your own use. This assignment could also work for graduate courses (see my rationale on how important it is for grad students to build online, public profiles here).

Blog Post Assignment

[Note: This assignment has two due dates, one for a draft, and another for a revised version. Because students’ work will be available online for anyone to see, I want them put out their best, carefully revised work.]

Length: 750-1000 words

  1. For this assignment, you will be writing in a digital genre for a real audience of academic and public readers. Your work will be published online at the Medieval Institute’s Medieval Undergraduate Research site (
  2. Your topic should introduce and interpret a text (or, alternatively, a manuscript of the text) from the course calendar. Choose one that you have not yet written about and that you do not plan to write about for your final essay. This is a short piece, you want your topic to be specific, i.e.—one character in a tale, a particular setting, theme, image, etc.
  3. The point of this assignment is to learn what can be accomplished in a particular digital genre as opposed to a traditional academic essay. The following requirements are intended to get you thinking about how to present your work effectively using a technological platform, or, rather, how to craft your ideas with a slightly different set of tools. Your blog post must, therefore: 
  • Make a connection between the medieval text and the modern world in a way that demonstrates its relevance to the modern reader (connections to pop culture, tv, film, books, social media, news, etc., all work well). Why should your readers care about what they might see as an old, dusty, out-of-touch narrative?
  • Use multimedia intentionally and thoughtfully. Don’t just plop some pictures in and move on. Any pictures, videos, memes, etc., need to be on topic, integrated into the post, and add real value to the point you are making. If you use manuscript images, be sure the images are not copyrighted, or else let me know so that we can request permissions to publish them. Include photo captions when necessary to identify subject matter and/or cite the source/owner of the image.
  • Close read and interpret carefully chosen passages from the text.
  • Address a wide audience that includes your colleagues and professors, but also your family, friends, and future employees (who will care about your ability to write well!). In other words, don’t assume that your audience has previous knowledge about the text, or that they know the specialized jargon of your discipline. Do write professionally, but accessibly.
  • Include a Works Cited in MLA format at the end and, if relevant, consider linking to online resources in the body of the post. One advantage of digital genres is that you can insert links to other online academic resources anywhere in your post. Be sure to carefully vet those sources for quality and relevance. Libraries and museums (e.g.––The British Library, The Getty Museum) often have excellent catalogs, blogs, online galleries, and more. Many academics and universities also work on fantastic projects: online editions, facsimiles and images of manuscripts, mapping projects, blogs, etc.
  • Include a list of 5 tags (keywords about your posts). Blog sites are organized by categories and tags. Your post will be categorized under our course title “Canterbury Tales,” but you will decide the tags for your post. Tags are keywords that identify the subject matter of your work, such as authors, themes, time periods, etc. A user might, for instance, want to click on the “Chaucer” tag to see a listing of all the posts about Chaucer on the site.
  • Interlink with one or two of your classmate’s posts (in your final draft). Interlinking between posts on a blog site is one way to increase traffic and to highlight the connections between the site’s various entries. These links constitute a form of citation that is not possible in print essays, and they allow you to explore how to use this digital citation method. Thus, when you turn in your first draft, we will workshop the blog posts, and you will be required to make a connection between your work and someone else’s with a link to their post. You can simply write in brackets and bold text [link to X’s post here]. Integrate this connection as smoothly as possible into your text. It should sound like it belongs there, not like you added it because your teacher made you do it.                                                         

Some Sample Student Posts from Spring 2018

Astin Ballard, “Emily’s Modes of Expression in the ‘Knight’s Tale’-A Precursor to the #MeToo Movement

Karrie Fuller, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame/St. Mary’s College