Yuletide Monsters: Christmas Hauntings in Medieval Literature and Modern Popular Culture

When one thinks of modern Christmas, warm images from Christ’s nativity to Santa’s midnight sleigh ride might come to mind. However, Saint Nicholas is not the only thing that goes bump in the night—Yule monsters represent another syncretized and modernized phenomenon, which corresponds to a medieval tradition that presents winter solstice as an ideal setting for monsters to emerge from the darkness of the long night. In celebration of the holiday season, my latest blog in our series on monsters will consider the tradition of Yuletide monsters and discuss some instances of Christmas haunting in vernacular Middle English and Old Norse-Icelandic sources, thereby catching a brief glimpse at a broader medieval tradition of monsters associated with the winter solstice.

Rima Staines, ‘Baba Yaga’ (2014).

Christmas hauntings have a deep cultural and literary history. One seasonal spook, the Slavic Baba Yaga—a present-stealing witch—is generally remembered today as a holiday monster, though her character has only become associated with Christmas and New Years in modern times. Another, perhaps the most famous Yule monster, is Krampus—the notorious, child-stealing Christmas demon and son of Hel (the Norse goddess of the underworld), who is still popular in modern Germany and increasingly abroad. These modern Christmas hauntings align with a robust medieval tradition of Yuletide monsters that come with the cold and specifically the long night of the winter solstice. Even Grendel in Beowulf, who notoriously terrorizes the hall of Heorot, does so for XII wintra tid “twelve winters’ time” (147) specifically. While this phrase surely refers to the monster’s yearlong assault on Denmark, it also seems to stress the dark and snowy season as the prime time for Grendel’s hauntings.

Gruss vom Krampus, 1900s greeting card reading ‘Greetings from Krampus!’

Today, I will mention three popular medieval texts—one poem and two sagas—which feature Christmas hauntings of all types, including by a green man, an undead revenant, a troll woman and a dragon.

Although most of the Christmas monsters discussed in this blog come from popular Old Norse-Icelandic sagas, the Middle English alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins with a mysterious Green Knight, gome gered in grene “a man geared in green” (179), described as half etayn in erde “half-giant on earth” (140) and aluisch mon “elvish man” (681), who appears at Camelot on Christmas riding a green horse and wielding a green axe. Not only does the Green Knight come at Yule (284), he emerges in court wearing a fur-trimmed robe (152-56) and holding a holyn bobbe “holly bundle” (206) in his hand, as if he were the Ghost of Christmas Present from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Ghost of Christmas Present from film ‘Scrooge’ (1970) directed by Ronald Neame.

Moreover, he explicitly wishes to play a Crystemas gomen “Christmas game” (283). The passage describing the Green Knight’s arrival emphasizes his coming for the Christmas festivities, thereby linking him with the tradition of Yuletide monsters. The Green Knight declares that since there is no warrior who can match him in battle:

I craue in þis court a Crystemas gomen,
For hit is Ȝol and Nwe Ȝer, and here ar ȝep mony:
If any so hardy in þis hous holdez hymseluen,
Be so bolde in his blod, brayn in hys hede,
Þat dar stifly strike a strok for an oþer,
I schal gif hym of my gyft þys giserne ryche,
Þis ax, þat is heué innogh, to hondele as hym lykes,
And I schal bide þe fyrst bur as bare as I sitte (283-290).

“I desire in this court a Christmas game, for it is Yule and New Year, and you here are many. If any in this house holds himself so hardy, be his blood so bold—his brain in his head—that he dare stiffly strike one stroke for another, I shall give him my gift, this rich gisarme—this axe—that is heavy enough to handle as he likes, and I shall abide the first blow, as bare as I sit.”

Manuscript illustration of the headless Green Knight in British Library, Cotton Nero A.x f.94v.

Christmas stays a prominent theme throughout the poem, and it operates as a metric by which to measure time. Gawain spends the following Christmas with Lord and Lady Bertilak in anticipation of the subsequent Christmas game, when the Green Knight will deliver a return blow. Christmas feasting both begins and concludes this Middle English romance, enveloping the narrative with this holiday theme. Indeed, Christmas is mentioned nine times in the poem, demonstrating its role in framing the narrative. Yule is mentioned twice, and the first reference comes from the Green Knight himself as to the reason for his journey to King Arthur’s court.

The next text in our discussion is the Old Norse-Icelandic Grettis saga, which contains multiple Christmas haunting episodes, each featuring a very different type of Yule monster. In Grettis saga, the holiday of Yule is likewise a repeated fixture and marker of time, and Yule is referenced thirty-three times in the saga.

Grettir Ásmundarson as depicted in a 17th-century manuscript illustration, Reykjavík AM 426.

The major and most frequently discussed Yuletide haunting in the saga concerns the undead revenant Glámr, a Swedish herdsman who ignores Christmas traditions:

Nú leið svo þar til er kemr aðfangadagr jóla. Þá stóð Glámr snemma upp ok kallaði til matar síns. Húsfreyja svaraði: “Ekki er það háttr kristinna manna at matast þenna dag því at á morgun er jóladagr hinn fyrsti,” segir hún, “ok er því fyrst skylt at fasta í dag” (chapter 32).

“Now time past there until when comes the eve of Yule. Then Glámr stood up and called for his food. The lady of the house answered: ‘It is not proper that Christian men eat meat on this day, because tomorrow is the first day of Yule,” she says, “and thus they shall first fast today.’”

Glámr’s response marks him as explicitly unchristian, which may serve to foreshadow his untimely demise:

Hann svarar: “Marga hindurvitni hafið þér þá er ek sé til einskis koma. Veit ek eigi at mönnum fari nú betr at heldr en þá er menn fóru ekki með slíkt. Þótti mér þá betri siðr er menn voru heiðnir kallaðir ok vil ek mat minn en öngvar refjar” (32).

“He answers, ‘You have many restrictions, when I see no good come of it. I do not know that men fare better now than when they did not heed such things. It seems to me that the customs of men were better when they were called heathens, and now I want my meat, and no foolishness.”

Michael Davini, “Viking Village” (2011).

After his praise for heathenism, spurring caution, Glámr ventures into a known haunted region at Yuletide, and he never returns. We are told that kom hann ekki heim jólanóttina “he came not home on Yule-night” and soon we learn that he has died. After days of searching and a number of attempts to bring Glámr’s body to the church to be buried, eventually the townsfolk give up and bury Glámr where they find him, and Það drógu menn saman at sú meinvættr er áðr hafði þar verið mundi hafa deytt Glám “men drew from this, that the evil spirit which had been there before will have killed Glámr.” However, shortly thereafter, it is the undead Glámr who perpetrates Yuletide hauntings, as the saga reports:

Litlu síðar urðu menn varir við það at Glámr lá eigi kyrr. Varð mönnum at því mikið mein svo at margir féllu í óvit ef sáu hann en sumir héldu eigi vitinu. Þegar eftir jólin þóttust menn sjá hann heima þar á bænum. Urðu menn ákaflega hræddir. Stukku þá margir menn í burt. Því næst tók Glámr at ríða húsum á nætr svo at lá við brotum (32).

“A little time after men were aware that Glámr did not lay quiet. People become so greatly disturbed by this, that many fell into hysteria when they saw him, and some lost their wits. Even after Yule men thought they saw him at home on the farm. People became extremely scared.  Many men then fled. Next, Glámr took to riding houses at night, so that he nearly broke them.”

John Vernon Lord, illustration of Glámr riding roofs in ‘Icelandic Sagas’ 2, The Folio Society, 2002.

Grettir famously defeats Glámr, who is frequently associated with the Old Norse-Icelandic draugr, but not until the revenant has cursed Grettir with unceasing fear of the dark, as terrible light from Glámr’s eyes haunts Grettir until the end of his days and he becomes nyctophobic forevermore.

Another Yuletide monster discussed in the saga takes place when Grettir arrives at Sandhaug to investing a trǫllagangr “troll-haunting” (chapter 64), and he encounters a trǫllkona “troll woman” (65). This monster enters the halls of Sandhaug on aðfangadag jóla “Yule-eve” (64), and she plunders the halls during the long night:

Nú er frá Gretti það at segja at þá er dró at miðri nótt heyrði hann út dynr miklar. Því næst kom inn í stofuna trǫllkona mikil. Hún hafði í hendi trog en annarri skálm heldr mikla. Hún litast um er hún kom inn ok sá hvar Gestur lá ok hljóp at honum en hann upp í móti ok réðust á grimmlega ok sóttust lengi í stofunni (65).

“Now it is said of Grettir that when it drew towards midnight, he heard a great din outside. Then a great troll woman came into the hall. She had a trough in one hand, and a blade, rather great, in the other. She looked around when she came in and saw where ‘Guest’ [i.e. Grettir] lay and ran towards him, but he jumped up to meet her, and they wrestled fiercely and struggled together for a long time in the hall.”

John Bauer, ‘Troll Cave with Deer’ (1915).

Eventually, she drags Grettir from the hall, carries him off and tries to escape to her lair ofan til árinnar ok allt fram at gljúfrum “up to the river and all the way to the gorges” (65). Grettir is ultimately able to cut her shoulder, slicing off the troll woman’s arm, a fatal blow which sends her off a cliff and to her death. After recovering from his encounter with the troll woman, Grettir sneaks into her cave and slays her companion, a jǫtunn “giant” (66).

The final Yuletide haunting discussed in this blog comes from Hrólfs saga kraka, when a massive flying dýr “beast” (probably a dragon of some kind) threatens the hall. The cowardly Hǫttr explains how this night-terror returns during Yule to haunt the hall of king Hrólfr:

Ok sem leið at jólum, gerðust menn ókátir. Bǫðvarr spyrr Hǫtt, hverju þetta sætti. Hann segir honum, at dýr eitt hafi þar komit tvá vetr í samt, mikit ok ógurligt, “ok hefir vængi á bakinu, ok flýgr þat jafnan. Tvau haust hefir þat nú hingat vitjat ok gert mikinn skaða. Á þat bíta ekki vápn, en kappar konungs koma ekki heim, þeir sem at eru einna mestir.

Bǫðvarr mælti: “Ekki er hǫllin svá vel skipuð sem ek ætlaði, ef eitt dýr skal hér eyða ríki ok fé konungsins.” Hǫttr  sagði: “Þat er ekki dýr, heldr er þat mesta trǫll” (chapter 35).

“And as Yule neared, men became gloomy. Bǫðvarr asked Hǫttr what caused this. He said to him that a beast had come there for two winters in a row, great and monstrous. ‘And it has wings on its back and frequently flies. For two autumns now it has visited and caused great harm. No weapon bites it, and the king’s champions, those who are the greatest, do not come home.’”

Bǫðvarr spoke: ‘the hall is not so well guarded as I thought, if one beast shall here destroy the king’s realm and livestock.’ Hǫttr said: ‘It is not a beast, rather it is the greatest troll.’” 

A Winged Dragon in a bestiary, 1278–1300, Franco-Flemish. Tempera colors, pen and ink, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV 4, f.94.

This warning is quickly validated, for when jólaaptann “Yule-eve” arrives, King Hrólfr commands his warriors to stay inside and forbids them from fighting the monster, proclaiming that it is better to lose his livestock than his people. However, Bǫðvarr Bjarki sneaks into the night, dragging Hǫttr behind him, and the hero quickly slays the Yuletide monster terrorizing the kingdom. Then, at Bǫðvarr’s behest, Hǫttr consumes the flesh and blood of the beast, which strengthens and emboldens him, transforming him into a hero (in a way that recalls Sigurðr’s actions after Fáfnir is slain).

These medieval stories of Yuletide monsters participate in a robust tradition of winter-time (and even Christmas-specific) hauntings, which continued throughout the ages and manifests still today. Dickens’ Christmas Carol is perhaps one of the more memorable, with visitations by four ghosts at the home of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Dr. Seuss’s Grinch renders its Scrooge-like antihero in the form of a green Christmas-hating monster bent on stealing Christmas, and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas explores the theme of Christmas haunting when the pumpkin king and leader of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, decides he would rather celebrate Christmas one year instead out of sheer boredom with his own holiday. Jack then proceeds to haunt Christmas transforming cozy festivities into a horror show as if he were a Yule monster of old.

Jack Skellington and Santa Claus from Tim Burton’s ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993).

More recently, in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (and HBO’s corresponding TV series Game of Thrones), winter monsters known as the White Walkers (seemingly inspired by Old Norse-Icelandic revenants), led by the fearsome Night King, come with the cold in the long night to terrorize Westeros. Even Netflix’s edgy reboot of Sabrina the Teen-age Witch, appropriately retitled Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018), gives a nod to medieval tales of wintertime monsters when during the solstice the Spellmans place a protective candle in the chimney to prevent Yule demons from entering their home; however, this does not stop Grýla—an Icelandic giantess—from visiting during the night when the witches’ protective candle becomes accidentally extinguished.

Night King from season eight of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series (2018).

Yuletide continues to provide a haunting wintry setting for monster visits. Although often balanced by saccharine images of Christmas as a source of light and warmth against the cold dark, what lurks beyond the illumination of society during the long night seems to readily elicit horror in the modern—as well as medieval—imagination.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

Billock, Jennifer. “The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa.” Smithsonian Magazine (2015).

Carrière, Jean Louise. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a Christmas Poem.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 1.1 (1970): 25-42.

Chadwick, Nora K. “Norse Ghosts (A Study in the Draugr and the Haugúbi).” Folklore 57 (1946): 50–65

—. “Norse Ghosts II (Continued).” Folklore 57 (1946): 106–127

Cereno, Benito. “The Legend of the Baba Yaga Explained.” Grunge (2020).

Fahey, Richard. “Medieval Trolls: Monsters From Scandinavian Myth and Legend.” Medieval Studies Research Blog (2020).

—. “Dragonomics: Smaug and Climate Change.” Medieval Studies Research Blog (2019).

—. “Zombies of the Frozen North: White Walkers and Old Norse Revenants.” Medieval Studies Research Blog (2018).

Firth, Matt. “Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas. The Postgrad Chronicles (2017).

—. “Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong.” The Postgrad Chronicles (2017).

Jakobsson, Ármann and Miriam Mayburd. Paranormal Encounters in Iceland 1150–1400. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2020.

—. “Vampires and Watchmen: Categorizing the Medieval Undead.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 110 (2011): 281–300

—. “The Fearless Vampire Killers: A Note about the Icelandic Draugr and Demonic Contamination in Grettis Saga.” Folklore 120 (2009): 307–316.

Kirk, Elizabeth D. “‘Wel Bycommes Such Craft Upon Cristmasse’: the Festive and the Hermeneutic in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Arthuriana 4.2 (1994): 93-137.

Palmer, Alex. “Why Iceland’s Christmas Witch Is Much Cooler (and Scarier) Than Krampus.” Smithsonian Magazine (2017).

Phelan, Walter S. The Christmas Hero and Yuletide Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1992.

Squires, John. “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” Brought Christmas Demon Grýla to the Screen for the First Time.” Bloody Disgusting (2018).

Su, Minjie. “Old Norse White Walkers? Draugr, the Walking Dead in Medieval Icelandic Sagas.Medievalist.net (2017).

Troop, Sarah Elizabeth. “Monsters of Christmas.” Atlas Obscura (2013).

Villareal, Daniel. “These 20 Terrifying Christmas Monsters Will Haunt Your Holidays.” Hornet (2019).

Zarka, Emily. “Draugr: The Undead Nordic Zombie.” Monstrum, Public Broadcasting Station (2019).

Dragonomics: Smaug and Climate Change

Today, we talk about dragons. I refer specifically to the greedy, northern (often fire-breathing) variety as described in Beowulf and featured in Tolkien’s Hobbit, and I will consider how these monsters present environmental catastrophe as a direct result of hoarding and greed.

My discussion of dragons and climate change continues my recent series of blogs interested in placing medieval literature (and in this case also modern medievalism) in conversation with current crises. This blog develops an earlier argument made in a paper at a “Tolkien in Vermont” conference (2014), titled “Dragonomics: Smaug and Pollution on Middle-Earth,” in which I argue that pollution in Tolkien’s Hobbit is linked to both the literal destruction by the dragon, and the rampant greed that motivates Smaug and ultimately initiates the plunder and violence at the Battle of Five Armies.

‘Dragon Hoard,’ Stephen Hickman (1985).

In the past, I have defined dragonomics as “the relationship between greed and catastrophe characteristic of certain representations of medieval dragons (especially the Beowulf-dragon),” which I separately argued also may apply to the study of Smaug in Tolkien’s Hobbit. In Beowulf, both the draca “dragon” slain by Sigemund (892), and the draca slain by Beowulf (2211), are depicted as excessively greedy, possessing heaps of beagas “rings” (894 and 3105) and frætwe “treasures” (896 and 3133). To emphasize the extent of their respective plunder, the dragon in the Sigemund episode is named hordes hyrde “guardian of the hoard” (887), and likewise the Beowulf-dragon is characterized repeatedly as hordweard “hoard-guardian” (2293, 2302, 2554, 2593), an epithet otherwise used throughout poem to describe kings, such as Hroðgar (1047) and Beowulf (1852).

Smaug’s hoard is equally impressive, and Tolkien describes the dragon atop his treasure: “Beneath him, under all his limbs and his coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light” (215). Likewise when Smaug attacks, Bard of Lake-town acknowledges that the dragon is “the only king under the Mountain we have ever known” (248). Smaug similarly styles himself a king in his riddling conversation with Bilbo. Before he journeys to destroy Esgaroth, Smaug proudly remarks that “They shall see me and remember who is the real King under the Mountain!” (233).

Smaug and Bilbo, from Jackson’s ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ (2013).

Indeed, it is the hoarded wealth of a dying people that lures the Beowulf-dragon to the barrow (2270-72), and similarly, in Tolkien’s Hobbit, we learn that the dwarves’ obscene wealth is what lured Smaug to Erebor in the first place. Thorin explicitly notes how their hoard attracted Smaug:

“So my grandfather’s halls became full of armour and jewels and carvings and cups, and the toy market of Dale was the wonder of the North. Undoubtedly, that was what brought the dragon” (23).

Although the greedy wyrm “serpent” (891) that Sigemund kills is not described as particularly destructive, the avaricious Beowulf-dragon becomes belligerent once its wealth is disturbed by an anonymous thief, who steals its dryncfæt deore “precious drinking-cup” (2254). The narrator explains that after the wyrm (2287) is robbed of his prized chalice, he ravages the countryside causing widespread destruction.

Manuscript image of Beowulf, British Library, Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f.184r.

Beowulf, 2312-27
Ða se gæst ongan   gledum spiwan,
beorht hofu bærnan;   bryneleoma stod
eldum on andan.   No ðær aht cwices
lað lyftfloga   læfan wolde.
Wæs þæs wyrmes wig   wide gesyne,
nearofages nið   nean ond feorran,
hu se guðsceaða   Geata leode
hatode ond hynde;   hord eft gesceat,
dryhtsele dyrnne,   ær dæges hwile.
Hæfde landwara   lige befangen,
bæle ond bronde.   Beorges getruwode,
wiges ond wealles.   Him seo wen geleah.
Þa wæs Biowulfe   broga gecyðed
snude to soðe,   þæt his sylfes ham,
bolda selest,   brynewylmum mealt,
gifstol Geata.
“Then the spirit began to spew flames, burning the bright buildings. The burning-light [i.e. dragon] remained in anger toward all humans. The loathsome air-flier wanted to leave nothing alive there. The war of the serpent, the enmity of the narrow-hostile one, was widely seen, near and far—how the war-harmer hated and humiliated the Geatish people. It shot back to its hoard, its secret lordly-hall, a while before daybreak. The land-citizens had been surrounded by fire, by flame and brand. It trusted in its barrow, war and wall. The expectation for him was deceived. Then was the terror known to Beowulf, quickly to truth, that his own home, the best of houses, melted in burning-waves, the gift-throne of the Geats.”

In Tolkien’s Hobbit, widespread devastation occurs when Smaug first plunders the wealth from the dwarves, unlike in Beowulf, where the hoarders are long-dead (2236-70). Pollution seems to accompany Smaug, and in Thorin’s retelling of the dwarves’ exile from Erebor, he describes how “A fog fell on Dale, and in the fog the dragon came on them” (23). Smaug again causes calamity when his hoard is disturbed, and Bilbo—like the Beowulf-thief—steals a treasured cup from the dragon. Bilbo accidentally directs Smaug’s attention toward Lake-town, and when the dragon attacks, he arrives with “shadows of dense black” (249) that engulfs the city.

Smaug attacking Lake-town, Rankin and Bass’ ‘The Hobbit’ (1977).

Although both dragons lay waste to the surrounding region, Smaug’s pollution of Middle-Earth expands well beyond the scope of his medieval predecessor. Indeed, as a result of Smaug, the environment has been poisoned, and a once lush and thriving place had withered as a result of excessive smoke and heat.

I would argue that for Tolkien—whose environmentalism is no secret—Smaug represents a more contemporary form of dragonomics with special attention toward the ways in which greed drives war and industry, which pollutes the land and skies. The smog episodes in London throughout the 19th and 20th centuries–which culminated in the “Great Smog” of 1952 that killed 4,000 peoplemay not be part of the philological jest of the dragon’s name (since Tolkien describes the etymology of Smaug as derived from the past tense smaug of the proto-Germanic smugan “to squeeze through a hole” in his 1938 Observer letter); nevertheless, Smaug becomes a representation of the dragonomics more closely associated with industrialization, which promised wealth but delivered also ecological catastrophe. Tolkien emphasizes that “his hot breath shriveled the grass” (219) and “The dragon had withered all the pleasant green” (229).

London during the Great Smog of 1952, Associated Newspapers /REX.

Smaug is characteristically avaricious, and Thorin describes him as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm called Smaug” (23).” Tolkien refers to Smaug’s environmental impact as “The Desolation of the Dragon” (203, 255), and the author imagines an earlier, greener and more plentiful time before the dragon made his mark:

“There was little grass, and before long there was neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished” (203).

I would argue that Smaug’s pollution changes the climate of Middle-Earth, affecting the land and the skies, but also the rivers and woods (such as the poisoned river and forests encountered in Mirkwood), and even the Elf-king’s woodland realm and the human merchant city of Lake-town. A conversation between Bilbo and Balin emphasizes Smaug’s lingering effect. Bilbo wagers that ‘The dragon is still alive—or I imagine so from the smoke’ (204), but Balin is worried about the lasting pollution of Smaug, and so the dwarf objects. Balin explains how Smaug “might be gone away some time … and still I expect smokes and steams would come out of the gates: all the halls within must be filled with his foul reek” (204). Bilbo discovers the truth of the dwarf’s words, for even when Smaug is not at home, “the worm-stench was heavy in the place, and the taste of vapour was on his tongue” (235).

Smog in Lianyungang, China (2013), Chinafotopress/Getty Images.

I offer this interpretation of Tolkien’s dragon, because I would suggest that Smaug may be productively read as a representation of climate change, in the sense that the dragon is a force of smoke and heat which destroys ecosystems and disrupts the environment in much deeper and more long-lasting ways. Indeed, Tolkien reiterates the ecological cost of Smaug’s presence, and he describes how “his hot breath shriveled the grass” (219) and “The dragon had withered all the pleasant green” (229).

Since the president’s declaration of a national emergency with regard to the alleged immigration crisis on the southern border of the United States, many have already begun to discuss the potential for a future president to declare a national emergency in order to act on climate change more comprehensively, if necessary. We are already imagining our environmental crisis as the monster it threatens to be.

Cal Fire firefighter in Igo, CA (2018), Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee via AP.

At the center of our modern struggles with dragonomics, I would argue, the problem of avarice endures. It is greed, especially from the fossil fuel lobby and the major energy companies (many linked to nations themselves), which have stalled and prevented developments in renewable energies in order to reduce our carbon footprint. And greed continues to obstruct human efforts to act upon the issue, both globally and as individual nations, as the looming dragon grows ever bigger and more ominous.

Dragonomics is not simply about making money, it is about plundering it and more importantly hoarding it. I have already referenced how greed motivates Smaug’s plunder, and I will turn now to Tolkien’s description of dragon-hoarding:

“Dragons steal gold and jewels…and they guard their plunder as long as they live….and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the market value” (23).

‘Smaug,’ Sam Kieser (2012).

The socially detrimental result of hoarding obscene wealth marks the very pinnacle of greed in the Hobbit, which Tolkien describes specifically as “dragon-sickness” (305).  I would argue that hoarding is also a major motivating force when it comes to our environmental crisis, especially with regard to our delayed and incoherent responses to the issues climate change presents. This is especially true with regard to the oil companies and related special interests linked to fossil fuels, which in their attempts to consolidate and retain their wealth and virtual monopoly on energy, have awoken a terrible dragon, one that will dwarf Smaug and will require heroism—not only from those in leadership positions, but also from the people. Indeed, when it comes to the crisis of global pollution and climate change, Bilbo’s sentiments ring truer to me than ever: “‘This whole place still stinks of dragon….and it makes me sick’” (267).

Thorin’s final words to Bilbo, Rankin and Bass’ ‘The Hobbit’ (1977).

Still, it is Thorin’s famous deathbed realization that speaks most directly to today’s crisis, if the goal is to work together globally in order to combat our collective environmental crisis. The moment calls for a collective change of attitude, particularly from those who maintain that profits and economics necessarily trump ecological concerns. As even the miserly dwarf-king, formerly seduced by “the bewitchment of the hoard” (240), must admit at the end of his life: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world” (290).

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

Editions and Translations:

Tolkien, J. R. R. 1937. The Hobbit, or, There and back again. George Allen & Unwin.
Pages correspond to:
Tolkien, J. R. R. 1937. The Hobbit, or, There and back again (Mass Market Edition). HarperCollins Publishers. 2012.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2000.

Klaeber’s Beowulf (Fourth Edition), ed. R.D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, John D. Niles. University of Toronto Press. 2008.

Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. Evergreen Ash: Ecology and Catastrophe in Old Norse Myth and Literature. University of Virginia Press. 2019.

Bates, Robin. “Dragon Billionaires Assaulting America.” Better Living Through Beowulf. September 19, 2012.

Cooke, William. “Who Cursed Whom, and When? The Cursing of the Hoard and Beowulf’s Fate.” Medium Aevum 76.2 (2007): 207-224.

Evans, Jonathan D. “A Semiotics and Traditional Lore: The Medieval Dragon Tradition.” Journal of Folklore Research 22 (1985): 85-112.

—. “‘As Rare as They Are Dire’: Old Norse Dragons, Beowulf and the Deutsche Mythologie”: 207-269. In The Shadow-Walkers: Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous, ed. Tom Shippey. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 2005.

Lawrence, William Witherle. “The Dragon and His Lair in Beowulf.” PMLA 33.4 (1918): 547-583.

Lee, Alvin A. Gold-hall and Earth-dragon: Beowulf as Metaphor. University of Toronto Press. 1998.

Lionarons, Joyce Tally. The Medieval Dragon: The Nature of the Beast in Germanic Literature. Hisarlik Press. 1998.

Park, Jisung and James Hacker. “The Derivation of Smaug: Dragons, Methane, and Climate Change.” Sense and Sustainability. January, 20, 2014.

Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues. Boydell and Brewer. 2000.

Shabala, Alex. “From Smaug to Smog: Historical carbon emissions due to dragons in Middle Earth.” Climate System Analysis Group. January 27, 2014.

Shippey, T.A. The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Mariner Books. 2003.

Silber, Patricia. “Gold and Its Significance in Beowulf.” Annuale Mediaevale 18 (1977): 5-19.

Guy of Warwick the Anglo-Norman Guthlac?

Prior to the twentieth century, Guy of Warwick ranked among the most popular heroes of the Anglophone world, even being placed at one point among the Nine Worthies. And it is not hard to imagine why, as there is something for everyone in his story, for he is shown to be a great warrior and a dragon-slayer who later becomes a pilgrim and, eventually, a hermit.

Guy of Warwick as a Knight. Introductory illustration to a copy of Le Rommant de Guy de Warwik et de Herolt d’Ardenne (an abridged continental French prose version). London, British Library, MS Royal 15. E. VI, ff. 227r-272r (15th Century)

Guy of Warwick Slays the Dragon, Saving the Lion. The Taymouth Hours, London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 14r (c. 1331)

The narrative was first written in Anglo-Norman shortly before 1204 A.D. (Weiss, “Gui de Warewic” 7). Attesting to the lengthy story’s success, nine manuscripts and seven fragments survive in Anglo-Norman. The earliest complete copy that we have in Middle English can be found in the Auchinleck Manuscript, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1, dated to c. 1330-1340. Two other, much later versions exist in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 107/176 (c. 1470s) and Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.2.38 (c. 1479-1484) (Wiggins, “The Manuscripts and Texts” 64). And there are an additional two sets of fragments in Middle English. One thing interesting about the layout of the text in the Auchinleck Manuscript is that it is separated into a sort of trilogy, consisting of what is known as the couplet Guy of Warwick, covering Guy’s early exploits (ff. 108r-146v), the stanzaic Guy of Warwick, recounting his later life events (ff. 146v-167r), and Reinbroun, which deals with the feats of Guy’s son (ff. 167r-175v). The Auchinleck Manuscript also includes a text called the Speculum Gy de Warewyke, a homiletic treatise that uses Guy’s narrative as a frame to discuss the sins and the importance of contrition and penance.

The entire Auchinleck Manuscript, as well as a treasure trove of information, is available online here: https://auchinleck.nls.uk/.

Guy’s cultural importance extended beyond England and France and also into the early modern period. A now lost Middle English version likely served as the basis for the fifteenth-century Irish Beathadh Sir Gyi o Bharbhuic, copied in Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 1298B, pp. 300-347. What is most remarkable about this version is that it incorporates material from the Speculum. It is furthermore no secret, for example, that Edmund Spenser’s Guyon from Book II of The Faerie Queene is modeled on Guy of Warwick, and we can also see reflections of Guy in the Redcrosse Knight of Book I (Cooper, “Romance after 1400” 718-719 and The English Romance in Time 92-99). In fact, as Helen Cooper demonstrates, the popularity of the Guy narrative continued unabated up through the Victorian era (“Romance after 1400” 704-706).

For more on the later life of the Guy of Warwick legend, see Dr. Siân Echard’s page: http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/GUY.HTM.

So what, you might be asking, is this blockbuster story all about? Well, the narrative tells of Guy, a steward’s son, who falls in love with Felice, the Earl of Warwick’s daughter, and is compelled to climb the social ladder through heroic acts in order to prove himself. Guy has many battles and adventures on the Continent, winning fame and admiration abroad. While in Constantinople, he rescues a lion from a dragon. He also makes a bosom companion in the person of Terri of Worms. On his way back to England, Guy slays the villainous Otun, Duke of Pavia, but he also gets caught up in a confrontation in which he rashly kills the son of Count Florentine. Before returning home to Warwick, Guy helps King Athelstan by slaying a dragon that is ravaging Northumberland. He then marries Felice and fathers a child, Reinbroun. The trajectory is not unlike other romans d’aventure. But once he has fulfilled all of his desires, Guy is suddenly overcome by deep inner turmoil while gazing at the stars one evening, realizing that, as yet, God has had no place in his life. With this, he vows to dedicate himself to holy pursuits and become a pilgrim, expiating by means of his body, as he says, those sins committed by his body, namely the lives of others destroyed and lost through his reckless longing for glory. Upon departing, he gives Felice his sword, and Felice, in turn, gives him a ring to remember her by. (They halve the ring in later versions.) Their parting is a tearful one. In his subsequent travels, Guy, always incognito, makes his way to the Holy Land, aiding and rescuing others, Christian and “Saracen” alike, in many martial exploits. He assists the Saracen King Triamour by vanquishing the giant Amoraunt and, in the process, helps the Christian Earl Jonas and his sons. He also eventually saves his friend Terri by defeating Berard, the likewise treacherous nephew of Otun. Though comparatively little space is given to Felice, she devotes herself to serving her community in Warwickshire through charitable deeds. When Guy makes his final return to England, he aids King Athelstan again, this time preventing a Danish invasion by defeating the giant Colbrond and thus becoming the savior of England. However, he retreats unnoticed to the woods outside of his estate in Warwick. Guy’s desire is to receive religious instruction from another hermit and to live out the rest of his days in contemplation. Guy eventually learns from the Archangel Michael that he has a week left to live (he will die on the eighth day), and so he sends word to Felice as well as his ring (or half-ring) for identification purposes. She comes to him on the point of death, and his soul is soon borne to Heaven by angels. A sweet fragrance issues forth from his body, which (in all versions of the text) is said to be so heavy that it cannot be removed from his hermitage. Felice herself dies soon afterwards. The two are buried together in the hermitage (at least at first) and are said to be reunited in Heaven. The narrative thus shifts from being something like a chanson de geste to something much more hagiographical.

The two halves of Guy’s life are clearly displayed in the Rous Roll, which depicts and gives a brief history of each significant family member (historically real or otherwise) of the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick.

Guy of Warwick in the Rous Roll. Pictured from left to right are Felice’s father, Felice and her son Reinbroun, Guy of Warwick as a knight with the lion, then Guy of Warwick as penitent pilgrim and vanquisher of Colbrond, then the adult Reinbroun. London, British Library, MS Additional 48976, f. 3ar (c. 1483)

Guy’s later life is also the likely subject of two misericords in English cathedrals.

Misericord Showing Guy Fighting Colbrond (S03) (c. 1350-1360), Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England

Misericord with Felice Giving Alms to the Hermit Guy (SH-16) (c. 1330s), Wells Cathedral, Wells, England

A number of literary antecedents to the figure of Guy have been posited. Many scholars, like Judith Weiss, point to the twelfth-century Le Moniage Guillaume (part of the William of Orange cycle) whose main character, Guillaume d’Orange (otherwise known as Guillaume au Court Nez), is a warrior who battles “Saracens” and later becomes a monk and then hermit, fearful for the state of his soul after having killed so many people (“The Exploitation” 44-46). As Angus Kennedy points out, it is also not uncommon in Arthurian romances, for example, for hermit-saints to have previously been members of the chivalric class (72). Both verse and prose French romances alike show a host of knights who choose to retreat from the world and end their days as hermits: the protagonist of Escanor; Perceval in Manessier’s Continuation and in the Queste del Saint Graal; at least thirteen knights in the Perlesvaus; Mordrain and Nascien, King Urien, Girflet, Bors and Hector, and even Lancelot in the Vulgate Cycle; Guiron and his ancestors in Palamède; and Pergamon in Perceforest (74-75). References to aristocratic hermits exist in many other texts, particularly Arthurian, but these hermits, as they are presented, are not entirely separated from the world. In fact, they very often still play a role in their societies (think of all of the other hermits in the Queste del Saint Graal) (77-78).

To my mind, however, there is an as yet unnoticed parallel with the late-eighth-century Old English lives of St. Guthlac in that invaluable repository of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501). (For some images, go here. The lives are based, at least in part, on the Latin Vita sancti Guthlaci (between 730 and 749 A.D.) written by a man named Felix, likely a monk, about whom next to nothing is known. Guthlac, though, was born around 673 A.D. into a royal Mercian family and had a military career before becoming a monk at Repton Abbey and then two years later a hermit in the Lincolnshire fens at what is now Crowland (Croyland in the Middle Ages). He died there in 714, and a shrine was erected to commemorate him. Around this eventually grew Crowland Abbey and around this the town (Bradley 248-249).

Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire

Quatrefoil Portraying Scenes from St. Guthlac’s Life, Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire

In the Exeter Book’s Guthlac A (ff. 32v-44v), the saint is said to be attacked by demons who try to tempt him into abandoning his hermitage by making him feel guilty for leaving his family. They also seek to make him feel lonely, to crave human company. Guthlac ultimately resists, but we have here the same tensions that we see exhibited in later works like the legend of St. Alexis and Guy’s narrative. The events that are most reminiscent of Guy’s story, however, are those found in Guthlac B (ff. 44v-52v). Guthlac has a servant who attends to him, much as Guy the hermit does as well, and it is to this person that Guthlac makes a prediction, told to him by an angel, that he has eight days left to live (ll. 1034b-1038a). Shortly before his death, Guthlac has the servant boy prepare to seek out his most cherished virgin sister, “wuldres wynmaeg,” to tell her that he has kept apart from her for so long so that he could attain an eternal life, free from imperfections, with her in Heaven (l. 1345a; ll. 1175a-1196a). Guthlac dies before his sister, who is to bury him in his hermitage, comes; sweet odor issues forth (ll. 1271b-1273a); and his soul is borne to Heaven by angels (ll. 1305a-1306a). We see the same knowledge of impending death delivered by an angelic presence in Gui de Warewic and later versions, many of the very same details regarding Guy’s death, and the sister’s role is easily replaced by the wife’s—which also acts to make familial tensions that much greater. So then, is Guy meant to be a saint? That, dear reader, is a question for another post…or a book.

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Bibliography (Cited and/or Suggested):

N.B. This list is not exhaustive.

Primary Sources (with introductions, notes, and commentary) 

Boeve de Haumtone and Gui de Warewic: Two Anglo-Norman Romances. Trans. Judith Weiss. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2008. 97-243.

Cambridge University Library MS Ff.2.38. Ed. Frances McSparran and P. R. Robinson. London: Scolar Press, 1979.

Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac. Ed. and Trans. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

Gui de Warewic: Roman du XIIIe Siècle. Ed. Alfred Ewert. 2 vols. Paris: Champion, 1932-1933.

“Guthlac A.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Everyman, 1982. 248-268.

“Guthlac A.” The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. vol 3. Ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. 49-72.

“Guthlac B.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Everyman, 1982. 269-283.

“Guthlac B.” The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. vol 3. Ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. 72-88. 

Speculum Gy de Warewyke. Ed. Georgiana Lea Morrill. Early English Text Society. e.s. vol. 75. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1898.

Stanzaic Guy of Warwick. Ed. Alison Wiggins. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. 

The Auchinleck Manuscript: National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS. 19.2.1. Ed. Derek Pearsall and I. C. Cunningham. London: Scolar Press, 1977. 

The Guthlac Poems of the Exeter Book. Ed. Jane Roberts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

“The Irish Lives of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton.” Ed. and Trans. F. N. Robinson. Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 6 (1908): 9-338.

The Romance of Guy of Warwick. Edited from the Auchinleck MS. in the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh, and from MS. 107 in Caius College, Cambridge. Ed. Julius Zupitza. Early English Text Society. e.s. vols. 42, 49, 59. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1883, 1887, 1891.

The Romance of Guy of Warwick. The Second or 15th-Century Version. Edited from the Paper MS. Ff.2.38 in the University Library, Cambridge. Ed. Julius Zupitza. Early English Text Society. e.s. vols. 25-26. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1875-1876.

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