Grendel’s Mother Eats Man, Woman Inherits the Epic: Why Women Should Continue Teaching Beowulf

At a conference I attended earlier this month, a woman medievalist suggested we stop teaching Beowulf. It was during a session on privilege and position in medievalist pedagogy that the presenter proposed we remove Beowulf from our syllabi and replace it with Judith. She prefaced her proposal with a powerful anecdote: in preparation for reading Judith, she warned her students about encountering sexual violence in the poem. She was particularly concerned about one of her students whom she knew had been victimized, but rather than being triggered, the student said that she had felt empowered by the narrative, that Judith’s heroism helped her see her own strength as a survivor.

Judith displays Holofernes’s severed head upon her sword in this depiction from the Nuremberg Chronicle, first published in 1493. The Old English poem, however, dates to approximately 1000 CE; Judith appears after Beowulf in the Nowell Codex, one of four major manuscripts containing Old English literature.

By substituting texts focused on male figures with those centering women’s experience, the presenter argued, we would not only be disrupting a predominantly male medieval canon but also be teaching texts that resonate more with the women in our classes. I agree that Judith deserves a place in our reading lists. But the idea that we should sacrifice Beowulf pains me because it was in the pages of Beowulf that I found myself and decided who I wanted to become.

There are many markers from my adolescence that might have signaled my proclivity for medieval studies. I grew up reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and watching Disney’s Sword in the Stone on repeat. I hoarded anything related to Arthurian legend and collected all the British folklore I could get my hands on. Although my literary preferences tended toward medievalism, my interests were rooted in Medieval England, rather than fantasy. But it wasn’t until I read Beowulf in one of my undergraduate courses that I realized how much I loved medieval literature and wanted to make my way in academia.

I’m a medievalist because I read Beowulf—because it gripped me and pulled me in and has never let me go. So the thought of removing it from my syllabus is, frankly, unfathomable because I remember the way it whispered to me in a language at once ancient and familiar and how it made my heartbeat feel like the echo of drums carried across so much water.

Dated to the late tenth or early eleventh century, Beowulf is the longest epic poem written in Old English. It tells the story of the warrior Beowulf in 3,182 alliterative lines and recounts his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon responsible for his demise. The poem survives in a single manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, part of the bound volume Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, which is housed at the British Library in London and opened here to display the poem’s first page.

Setting Beowulf aside to center women with other Medieval English texts implies not only that its female characters are unworthy subjects of study but also that the poem does not or cannot resonate with women. Discarding Beowulf would, I think, do us all a disservice.

The women of Beowulf have long been relegated to the margins, a critical tradition that corroborates the misperception of the poem as both about and for men. Women medievalists, too, have been underrepresented in the adjacent scholarship. Indeed, Beowulf studies suffers from a gender problem in a way that scholarship on other iconic medieval texts does not. Women publish proportionately less on Beowulf than they do on many other texts in the Old English corpus, a disparity that does not appear to correlate with women’s limited representation in the narrative. Even The Battle of Maldon, which includes no female characters whatsoever, generates more published work by women than Beowulf does, relatively speaking. The same is true for The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Dream of the Rood. Women are eclipsed by men in the production of published editions and translations of the poem, as well as in their contributions to critical anthologies. I suspect that our skewed scholarly representation does not reflect a lack of interest in the poem but, rather, the extent to which we are welcomed to engage with it. 

For example, Meghan Purvis, whose stunning translation was published in 2013, did not initially feel that a translation of Beowulf was a project she should undertake. In the preface to her translation, she writes, “I was in my third year of university when the professor of my History of the English Language class stood up at the front of the lecture hall and recited the opening of English’s first epic poem. The hair on the back of my neck stood up…It was because the class was taught by Professor Jennifer Bryan, and it was the first time I’d heard Old English spoken by a woman.” Purvis acknowledges that “[t]here were, of course, women already working with Old English,” but it was the experience of hearing the language of Beowulf voiced by a woman that invited her to consider that “Beowulf was a story [she] could tell.”

Meghan Purvis’s Beowulf (London: Penned in the Margins, 2013) was awarded the Stephen Spender Prize for literary translation and recommended by the Poetry Book Society. With its unique format and unprecedented exploration of gender, Purvis’s translation departs from the traditionally conservative approach to the poem’s translation. Listen to her read her award-winning poem “The Collar,”

Like Purvis, I have also felt that Beowulf was not within my reach—as a non-traditional student who came to the story late and the language even later and as a female scholar who is keenly aware not only of the vastness of Beowulf studies but also of the academic landscape’s predominantly male and often hostile terrain. So while my singular love for the poem most certainly influences my desire to teach it, I will continue to include Beowulf in future courses because I want other women to feel welcome to find themselves in its pages.

We do not need to stop teaching Beowulf. We do, however, need to think about teaching it in ways designed to destroy the stigmas surrounding women’s interest in the text and any misconstrued ideas about gendered accessibility. Instead of eliminating Beowulf and other similarly male-centric Old English texts from our literature courses, let’s actively reflect upon how we teach these texts and revise traditional pedagogical practices that inherently center men in the canon and in our classrooms. Let’s teach the Old English Judith alongside Beowulf; The Wife’s Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer in tandem with and not simply supplemental to The Wanderer and The Seafarer.

Two female-voiced laments, Wulf and Eadwacer (MS 3501, pictured here) and The Wife’s Lament, survive solely in the Exeter Book, dated to the tenth century and housed at Exeter Cathedral Library. Like the Nowell Codex, the Exeter Book is one of the four major codices containing Old English literature; the other two are known as the Vercelli Book and the Junius Manuscript.

When teaching Beowulf, let’s incorporate translations by women—whether more conservative or more creative depending upon our individual preferences. For my part, I am particularly fond of Meghan Purvis’s translation, which multiplies women’s voices, underscores their position in relation to violence, and renders Grendel’s mother visible in a way that highlights both her ferocity and her femaleness, as exemplified in this excerpt:  

Grendel was torn apart, and she came looking for the meat

of her son, hanging from hooks in the ceiling.
Her home was a death-house, was becoming Grendel’s tomb;
the hell-dam came – and was she less frightening


for being a woman? – hardly. The men in the dark room
screamed out that “he” was here, too caught in pain
and fear to see the claw at the end of an arm smooth


and hairless, sharp teeth in a softer jaw.

Furthermore, maybe we focus on Grendel’s mother and the fear she evokes through her fury and her fighting skills. Maybe we review a variety of translations with our students, analyzing how and why representations of Grendel’s mother vary so greatly—from woman to monster, a mere-wyf, a “monstrous hellbride,”[1] and even Angelina Jolie.[2] Then we also teach Judith. Maybe together, she and Grendel’s mother can swallow up any remaining misconceptions about women’s proximity to the Old English heroic poetry.


[1] See Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf (W. W. Norton and Company, 2000).

[2] See Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis (2007).



Emily McLemore
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

Marauders in the US Capitol: Alt-right Viking Wannabes & Weaponized Medievalism

Vikings are a very hot topic right now; there’s no question. Within the thriving genre of medievalism, Vikings have recently proven an especially sexy and profitable subject for contemporary pseudo-historical fiction, particularly in television series like the History Channel’s Vikings (2013) and Netflix’s The Last Kingdom (2015). Both these series are fundamentally anachronistic and closer in many ways to medieval fantasy than an accurate historical representation of the early medieval period known as the Viking Age (793–1066 CE). Inaccuracies are, of course, not unique to medievalism involving Vikings, and historical liberties are more abundant in historical fiction set in ancient and medieval times.

Bjǫrn “Ironsides” son of Ragnarr Loðbrók from the final season of the History Channel’s Vikings (2019).

Still, these television shows are very popular and therefore highly influential. Even the anachronisms and inaccuracies in popular medievalism provide effective conversation starters when teaching the subject by offering both a hook into the material and a chance to separate fact from fiction. But in today’s world, by far the most important reason for medievalists to know the trends in popular medievalism and engage with this media directly is white nationalism. As scholars of the period, we must be aware of information, misinformation and disinformation that is being widely disseminated if we are to have any hope of using our voices to help debunk, nuance and contextualize shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom with a watchful eye toward white supremacist interpretations and appropriations.

King Haraldr “Fairhair” leads his army in the final season of History Channel’s Vikings (2019).

Many medievalists of color have sounded the alarm—again and again—warning that this monster lurked in the shadows. Over five years ago, Sierra Lomuto stressed how “When white nationalists turn to the Middle Ages to find a heritage for whiteness—to seek validation for their claims of white supremacy—and they do not find resistance from the scholars of that past; when this quest is celebrated and given space within our academic community, our complacency becomes complicity” (2016).

In the wake of the riotous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, where some alt-right protesters donned crusader and Viking garb, scholars such as Dorothy Kim, Mary Rambaran-Olm and others have repeatedly warned the field of the dangerous appropriations of the medieval by white supremacists. Immediately following Charlottesville, Kim insightfully cautioned her fellow medievalists that “The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students” (2017). More recently, Rambaran-Olm has pointed out that “far-right identitarian groups [are] seeking to prove their superior ancestry by portraying the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in ways that both promote English identity and national sociopolitical progress” (2019).

James Alex Fields Jr., who has been convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing an anti-racist protester in Charlottesville VA, is pictured in the group (second from the left, wearing dark glasses), holding a round shield with white supremacist symbolism. Photo credit: Lidia Jean Kott (August 12th, 2017).

Moreover, alt-right activists have postured as pseudo-medievalists in order to further these white supremacist narratives and misappropriations of the Middle Ages. For example, Milo Yiannopoulos is known for his ad hominem article “The Middle Rages” that targets numerous medievalists of color. Still somehow, the “jousting” between medievalists of color and the alt-right was not enough to shake many white medievalists into action, despite the very real threat posed by white supremacist weaponization of the medieval.

Since the Nazi appropriation and sacralization of the “Germanic” in the service of white supremacy, medieval literature—especially Scandinavian myth and legend—has been rhetorically mobilized as an imagined “pure white” era in Northern Europe prior to encountering and intermingling with nonwhite peoples, despite clear historical evidence of multi-cultural trade interactions between ancient and medieval peoples. This ideology has infiltrated the neopagan religion known as “Odinism,” which varies widely and spans the political spectrum, but harbors a perverse, neo-Nazi strain (sometimes called Wotansvolk meaning “Odin’s Folk”) that has long haunted the movement.

Oðinn wandering after the battle from first season of History Channel’s Vikings (2013).

Odinism—named for the chief Scandinavian god of war, Odin—refers to modern New Age interpretations of indigenous religion in pre-Christian Scandinavian, and The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that “A neo-Pagan religion drawing on images of fiercely proud, boar-hunting Norsemen and their white-skinned Aryan womenfolk is increasingly taking root among Skinheads, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists across the nation” more than twenty years ago. More recently, “Anglo-Saxon” neopaganism, sometimes called “Heathenry” to further ground their practice in the language of the culture they idolize, has grown and frequently provides a haven for white supremacist rhetoric.

Jacob Anthony Chansley, a.k.a. Jake Angeli, the “Q Shaman,” was one of several protesters to storm the US Capitol. Photo credit: Win McNamee, Getty Images (January 6th, 2021).

The alt-right has mobilized medievalism toward nefarious ends, fashioning harmful narratives of white supremacy, which have been rhetorically weaponized by domestic terrorists such as the “Q Shaman” also known as Jake Angeli, but whose real name is Jacob Anthony Chansley. As a QAnon promoter and influencer, Chansley is described as a pseudo-celebrity at alt-right rallies, flashing his tattoos, including three prominent Norse symbols: Thor’s Hammer [Mjǫllnir], the Valknut and the World Tree [Yggdrasil]. All three were proudly displayed as he sat in Vice President Mike Pence‘s seat in the Senate, after the Pence was forced to retreat from the angry mob calling for his head.

The pro-Trump mob breeched security, and demonstrators entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 electoral vote certification. Photo credit: Saul Loeb (AFP), Getty Images (January 6th, 2021).

Moreover, Chansley’s horned helmet represents a continuation of the Victorian anachronistic introduction of horned helms on Vikings and Valkyries, drawn from classical depictions of Roman Victories. Chansley’s flag-spear may be intended as a reference to Odin’s spear, Gungnir, which further points to white nationalist medievalism. In the case of his horned helmet, Chansley’s ignorance is on full display, as his caricature more closely resembles the ahistorical symbol of the Minnesota Vikings’ football team than anything remotely resembling what a medieval Viking might have looked like. Chansley joined with other pro-Trump supporters to form a violent mob which stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th, 2021.

A man shouts and brandishes his shield as pro-Trump mob gathers in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. Photo credit: Leah Millis, Reuters (January 6th, 2021).

Of course, it must be emphasized that this insurrection was perpetrated specifically by a pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” MAGA mob, there in support of the president’s blatantly false and dangerous claims that there was election-altering voter fraud during the recent 2020 presidential election (which he soundly lost to Democratic rival Joe Biden). This mob, incited by the president, sought to disrupt the lawful process outlined in the US Constitution by any means necessary in order to overturn a free and fair election.

Donald Trump’s boasting, belligerence and greed does link him with warrior ethics which sustain predatory economies and the Viking activities of marauding, feuding and plundering. The ironic Twitter account, “Beowulf Trump” (discontinued after Trump’s election in 2016), highlights this rhetorical connection by comparing the president’s macho posturing and self-aggrandizing campaign promises to hyperbolic boasts and egoistic attitudes in Beowulf. There were indeed marauders in the Capitol Building on January 6th, and alongside Trump’s red hats, outfitted in army camouflage and waving Trump or Confederate flags, were alt-right Viking wannabes.

This week, the academy has been quick to respond. Alfred Thomas compared the storming of the US Capitol Building to the Peasants Revolt of 1381, although Miriam Müller has disputed this analogy, prompting Thomas to further clarify his argument. Ken Mondschein considered Rudy Giuliani’s terrifying invocation of “trial by combat” in order to spur the MAGA mob into action, and Giuliani later likened his use of the phrase to its function in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011), which he inaccurately described as “that very famous documentary about fictitious medieval England.” Matthew Gabriele reflected on the role of medievalism in the seditious attack at the Capitol Building, pointing out that like at Charlottesville, in addition to Viking-oriented medievalism, rioters also sported crusader symbolism to signal their white nationalism. Helen Young responded to the incident by offering an explanation of why white supremacists often embrace medieval symbolism, noting that “the association of European Middle Ages and white identities reflect modern racism more than medieval realities.” She emphasizes that “Medievalist symbols have been linked to white European identities for centuries. Their use by violent extremists mean that this connection can not be denied, ignored or thought of as a neutral choice.”

Man who joined the pro-Trump mob wearing the Templar Cross of European crusaders. Photo credit: Samuel Corum, Getty Images (January 6th, 2021).

On January 13th, the Medieval Academy of America issued a direct response to the insurrection acknowledging the “presence of pseudo-medieval symbols and costumes among the rioters in the Capitol” and recognizing “our discipline’s complicity in the racist narratives of the past, and our responsibility to advocate unequivocally for anti-racism both in our policies as an organization, and in our teaching and scholarship as individuals.” More white medievalists need to be willing to stare this beast in the face and recognize that it is our problem too. It is my view that we should not idly concede medieval studies to the likes of white supremacists. We must respond. Failing to do so—for far too long—makes us complicit. We need to actively reject white supremacy. We must correct and denounce the alt-right’s misappropriations of the medieval both publicly and in the classroom by identifying these dangerous narratives as white nationalist propaganda.

If what we all witnessed last week is any indication of the widespread public ignorance we as scholars are up against, we surely have our work cut out for us. As medievalists, we must heed well the warnings of our colleagues of color and more forcefully and ubiquitously address the problematic phenomenon of white nationalist weaponizing of the medieval. Let me add my voice to those within the academy who are calling attention to this dire issue: the recent use of medieval symbolism during the insurrection at the US Capital is but the latest in a horrific trend that cannot be ignored in the field and must be loudly condemned as nonfactual and nonsensical white supremacist rhetoric in the guise of medievalism.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

Baker, Peter. “Anglo-Saxon Studies After Charlottesville: Reflections of a University of Virginia Professor.” Medievalists of Color (2018).

Barnes, Sophia. “Capitol Rioter Seen in Horned Hat, Carrying Spear Arrested: US Attorney.” 4 Washington (2021).

Chazan, Robert. “The Arc of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages.” The Public Medievalist (2017).

Cole, Richard. “Make Ásgarðr Great Again!Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2017).

Connelly, Eileen AJ. “Jake Angeli, Capitol rioter in horned helmet, arrested by Feds.” New York Post (2021)

Dockray-Miller, Mary. “Old English Has a Serious Image Problem.” JSTOR Daily (2017).

Elliott, Andrew B.R. “A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages.” The Public Medievalist (2017).

Elliott, Josh K. “Horn-helmed QAnon rioter among far-right ‘stars’ in U.S. Capitol attack.” Global News (2021).

Fahey, Richard. “Internet Trolls: Monsters Haunting the World Wide Web.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2020).

—. “Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2018).

—. “Monstrous Ethiopians? Racial Attitudes and Exoticism in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East’.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2017).

—. “Woden and Oðinn: Mythic Figures of the NorthMedieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2015).

Franke, Daniel. “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft: A Response.” Perspectives on History (2017).

Gabriele, Matthew. “Vikings, Crusaders, Confederates: Misunderstood Historical Imagery at the January 6 Capitol Insurrection.” Perspectives on History (2021).

—, and Mary Rambaran-Olm. “The Middle Ages Have Been Misused by the Far Right. Here’s Why It’s So Important to Get Medieval History Right.” Time (2019). 

—. “Islamophobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all.” The Washington Post (2017). 

Goodman, Lawrence. “Jousting With the Alt-Right.” Brandeis Magazine (2019).

Greenspan, Rachel E., and Haven Orecchio-Egresitz. “A well-known QAnon influencer dubbed the ‘Q Shaman’ has been arrested after playing a highly visible role in the Capitol siege.” Business Insider (2021). 

Heng, Geraldine. “Why the Hate? The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, and Race, Racism, and Premodern Critical Race Studies Today.”  In the Middle  (2020). 

—. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Höfig, Verena. “Vinland and white nationalism.” In From Iceland to the Americas: Vinland and historical imagination, ed. Tim William Machan and Jón Karl Helgason. Manchester University Press, 2020.

Hsy, Jonathan. “Antiracist Medievalisms: Lessons from Chinese Exclusion.” In the Middle  (2018). 

Kim, Dorothy. “The Question of Race in Beowulf.” JSTOR Daily (2019). 

—. “White Supremacists have Weaponized an Imaginary Viking Past. It’s Time to Reclaim the Real History.” Time (2019). 

—. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (2017).

—. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (2016). 

Knight, Ellen. “The Capitol Riot and the Crusades: Why the Far Right Is Obsessed With Medieval History.” Teen Vogue (2021).

Lee, ArLuther. “Protester in Viking headdress ID’d as Trump supporter, not Antifa.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (2021).

Little, Becky. “How Hate Groups are Hijacking Medieval Symbols While Ignoring the Facts Behind Them.” History.com (2018). 

Livingstone, Josephine. “Racism, Medievalism, and the White Supremacists of Charlottesville.” The New Republic (2017)

Lomuto, Sierra. “Public Medievalism and the Rigor of Anti-Racist Critique.” In the Middle (2019). 

—. “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle (2016).

Luginbill, Sarah. “White Supremacy and Medieval History: A Brief Overview.” Erstwile: A History Blog (2020). 

Mas, Liselotte. “Auschwitz, QAnon, Viking tattoos: the white supremacist symbols sported by rioters who stormed the Capitol.” The Observers (2021).

Mills, Ryan. “The ‘Q Shaman’ on Why He Stormed the Capitol Dressed as a Viking.” National Review (2021).

Mondschein, Kenneth. “Trial by Combat: Medieval and Modern.”Medievalist.net (2021).

Müller, Miriam. “Revolting Peasants, Neo-Nazis, and their Commentators.” Medievally Speaking (2021).

Narayanan, Tirumular. “Frazetta’s “Death Dealer” and the Question of White Nationalist Iconography at Fort Hood.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2020).

Olusoga, David. “Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it.” The Guardian (2017).

Perry, David. “How to Fight 8chan Medievalism – and Why We Must.” Pacific Standard. (2019).

—. “What to Do When Nazis are Obsessed with Your Field.” Pacific Standard. September 6, 2017. 

—. “White supremacists love Vikings. But they’ve got history all wrong.” The Washington Post. (2017). 

Rambaran-Olm, Mary. “Misnaming the Medieval: Rejecting “Anglo-Saxon” Studies.” History Workshop (2019).

—. “Anglo-Saxon Studies [Early English Studies], Academia and White Supremacy.” Medium (2018).

Reed, Sam. “Here’s the Story Behind Those Viking Helmets at the Capitol.” In Style (2021).

Romey, Kristin. “Decoding the hate symbols seen at the Capitol insurrection.” National Geographic (2021).

Schuessler, Jennifer. “Medieval Scholars Joust With White Nationalists. And One Another.The New York Times (2019).

Steinbuch, Yaron. “Shirtless man in horned helmet at Capitol protest identified as QAnon backer.New York Post (2021).

Sturtevant, Paul B. “Leaving “Medieval” Charlottesville.” The Public Medievalist (2017).

Symes, Carol. “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft.” Perspectives on History (2017).

Thomas, Alfred. “1381, 2021, And All That.” Medievally Speaking (2021).

—. “Politics in a Time of Pandemic: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Storming of the Capitol by Trump Supporters in Historical Perspective.” Medievally Speaking (2021).

Vinje, Judith Gabriel. “Viking symbols “stolen” by racists.” The Norwegian American (2017). 

Whitaker, Cord J. “Game of Thrones’ Peasants are a Problem of White Supremacy – and It’s Victims, too.” In the Middle (2019). 

Young, Helen. “Why the far-right and white supremecists have embraced the Middle Ages and their symbols.” The Conversation (2021).

—. “White Supremacists love the Middle Ages.” In the Middle (2017). 

—. “Re-making The Real Middle Ages (TM).” In the Middle (2014).

Medieval Trolls: Monsters from Scandinavian Myth and Legend

Scott Gustafson, ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ (2020).

Trolls have a deep and murky literary history. Trolls haunt protagonists in Old Norse-Icelandic sagas. Trolls snatch gruff billygoats crossing bridges in grim fairy tales. In modern novels, trolls capture (and intend to eat) wandering dwarves and hobbits, and trolls sulk about in wizard’s dungeons, leaving a terrible stench wherever they go. Let us not forget, of course, trolls are also fluorescent-haired dolls with gems for bellybuttons.

Trolls dolls created by Thomas Dam in 1959, image of treasure trolls from ‘Troll Dolls’ (2009).

Acknowledging exceptions like the popular dolls (which were recently adapted into DreamWorks Animation movies and a television series), trolls in the modern imagination are generally represented as resembling a giant, but less human and more monstrous. Trolls are often racialized, depicted as pale, grey or green-skinned and regarded as ugly, with dim intelligence and a tendency towards evil.

Gustaf Tenggren’s book cover for his ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ (1923).

This stereotypical representation of trolls features in cult classic films such as Troll directed by John Carl Buechler (1986), Troll 2 directed by Claudio Fragasso and originally called Goblins (1990), and more recently Trollhunter (Trolljegeren) directed by André Øvredal (2010).

Troll from Claudio Fragasso’s ‘Troll 2’  (1990).

These modern representations of trolls are based on medieval literary models, especially swamp-dwelling giant-like monsters, similar to the Old Norse-Icelandic þurs “giant” which also appears in Old English literature [þyrs]. In the Old English poem Beowulf, the Grendelkin have traditionally been identified as trolls by modern critics, and Grendel is himself described as a þyrs “swamp giant” by Beowulf (426). We learn from the Old English Maxims II that a þyrs is a lurking swamp creature: þyrs sceal on fenne gewunian/ ana innan lande “a giant shall dwell in a fen, alone within the land” (42-43).

Grendl (Phil Deguara) in James Dormer’s ‘Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands’ (2016).

This description aligns directly with descriptions of Grendel, who sinnihte heold/ mistige moras “ruled the misty marshes in the perpetual night” (161-62) as angenga “a lone-wanderer” (449). Indeed the monster is characterized as a þyrs when the narrator first names him: Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,/ mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold,/ fen ond fæsten; fifelcynnes eard “The grim ghast was called Grendel, the famous mark-stepper, he who ruled the marshes, the fens and strongholds, the realm of monsterkind” (102-04).

The Stone Trolls: William, Tom and Bert (performed by Peter Hambleton, Mark Hadlow & William Kircher) in the Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit: And Unexpected Journey’ (2012).

The Grendelkin are named giants elsewhere in Beowulf, marked with Old English terms such as eoten (112, 761, 1558, 1679), a relative cognate with the Old Norse jǫtunn [Icelandic jötunn] “giant” (commonly featured in Old Norse-Icelandic poetry and sagas), and the anglicized gigant “giant” (113, 1562, 1690), derived from the Latin gigans “giant” (notably used in the Latin Vulgate Bible (Genesis 6:4, Numbers 13:30–33, Deuteronomy 3:11, 2 Samuel 21:19). Despite the more than one hundred varying descriptions of Grendel and his mother, these Beowulf-monsters are undoubtedly giant in stature.

John Bauer, “The Princess and the Troll Sons’ (1915).

In the medieval tradition, the troll [Old Norse trǫll, Icelandic tröll, Middle High German trolle]  is a creature from Scandinavian myth and legend which features prominently in eddiac poetry and saga literature. Grettis saga, one of the sagas which most famously contains trolls, including both the þurs (two references) and trǫll (twelve references). There are multiple references to trolls as nocturnal predators (ch. 16 & 33) and a general menace (ch. 57 & 64). After Grettir encounters and outwits a þurs “giant” called Þorir (ch. 61-62), he later turns his attention toward slaying a family of trolls (ch. 64-66). In Grettis saga, the trǫllkona mikil “great troll-woman” (also simply called trǫll) attacks the hall first prompting Grettir to hunt her down in her cave (ch. 65).

John Vernon Lord, ‘Grettir’s Fight with the She-Troll’ from the ‘Grettir’s Saga’ in Icelandic Sagas v.2, The Folio Society (2002).

It is only when Grettir ventures deeper into their troll-den that he encounters a jǫtunn, who is of course her troll companion, but never explicitly named such (ch. 66). The giant-troll family that Grettir slays looms largest in the modern imagination. However, even here the categorical ambiguity between jǫtunn and trǫll highlights something fundamental about trolls in the Old Norse-Icelandic saga tradition. The range of monstrous creatures to which trǫll can apply is vast, and Sandra Alvarez notes that trǫll “could also be used to describe troublesome people, animals and even giants” in her blog “Trolls in the Middle Ages.” In Grettis saga, the term trǫll refers to the cave-dwelling monsters threatening the hall of Sandhaug and the human society within (ch. 64), but Grettir himself is earlier mistaken for a trǫll (ch. 33).

Troll (Michael Q. Schmidt) in the Dungeon in Chris Columbus’s ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001).

Moreover, in addition to trǫll referring to giant, the term can also indicate a witch, sorcerer, conjurer or any magic-user. Two Old Norse-Icelandic words for witchcraft, trǫlldómr and trǫllskap attest to the longstanding association between trǫll and magic. Moreover, in Hrólfs saga kraka the cowardly Hǫttr describes a flying monster, something akin to a dragon, as mesta trǫll “greatest troll” (ch. 35), and this creature terrorizes Hrólfr’s realm until Bǫðvar Bjarki slays the beast. Considering the semantic range for trǫll, the term appears to broadly refer to creatures monstrous, magical or both in the Old Norse-Icelandic literature.

Jared KrichevskyI, ‘I, Frankenstein designs,’ the Aaron Sims Company (2014).

Trolls can be giants. Trolls can be dragons. Trolls can be witches and warlocks. Above all, trolls are monsters. Despite this semantic ambiguity, each iteration of trǫll in Old Norse-Icelandic sagas emphasizes one major commonality—the wonder and monstrosity associated with anything or anyone deemed a troll in the extant literature from medieval Scandinavia.

Giant Troll called Isak Heartstone, created by Thomas Dambo. Photo by Jenise Jensen, Breckenridge Creative Arts (2018).

Return in a few weeks for further discussion of the evolution of trǫll in modern English, specifically in the context of the online monsters commonly known as internet trolls.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English (2020)
University of Notre Dame

Texts & Translations

Byock, Jesse. Grettir’s Saga. Oxford University Press (2009).

. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. Penguins Classics (1999).

Grimm, Jakob, and Wilhelm Grimm. Grimm’s Household Tales, translation by Margaret Hunt (1884).

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. W. W. Norton & Company (2001).

Hostetter, Aaron K. Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project. Rutgers University (2007).

Kiernan, Kevin. The Electronic Beowulf. University of Kentucky (2015).

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Allen & Unwin (1937).

Treharne, Elaine, and Jean Abbot. Beowulf By All. Stanford University (2016).

Þórðarson, Sveinbjörn. Icelandic Saga Database (2007).

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury (1997).


Further Reading

Alvarez, Sandra. Trolls in the Middle Ages.” Medievalist.net (2015).

Fahey, Richard. “Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (2018).

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

Fjalldal, Magnús. “Beowulf and the Old Norse Two-Troll Analogues.” Neophilologus 97 (2013): 541–553.

Jakobsson, Ármann. The Troll Inside You: Paranormal Activity in the Medieval North. Punctum Books (2017).

Lindow, John. Trolls: An Unnatural History. Reaktion Books (2015).

Shippey, Thomas A. The Shadow-Walkers : Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous. Brepols (2005).