Grendel and Goliath: Monstrous Superability and Disability in the Old English Corpus
The Beowulf poet describes Grendel as “wiht unhælo,” a phrase scholars typically understand to characterize him as a “creature of evil.” Elsewhere within the corpus, however, the noun unhælu and its more common adjective unhal are almost invariably used in reference to impairment and disease, which means that the standard scholarly interpretation of “wiht unhælo” is at odds with the standard usage of unhælu in Old English. Consequently, the Beowulf poet’s association of Grendel with unhælu demands careful investigation, especially since he is not the only monster who bears this association. Ælfric’s Homily for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary explicitly characterizes Goliath’s gigantic stature as unhal. Reading unhal more literally as impaired/diseased affects our understanding of monstrosity and impairment in the Anglo-Saxon period. While the chapter establishes a spectrum of corporeal normalcy/deviancy in which impaired/diseased bodies fall short of the norm and monstrous bodies exceed it, within narratives, these non-normative bodies’ positions on this spectrum are not fixed, and their movement along it suggests their different relationships to normalcy.