Why the monster Grendel has no place in activism today

I was at the anti-fracking protest at Balcombe in the UK when another activist said austerity is "a beast bigger than all of us". Then I started to see monsters everywhere. 

The Beowulf complex - dehumanising our political opponents as "beasts" and "monsters" -  has no place in modern day activism. Credit: Shutterstock. 

Beowulf and Grendel, David and Goliath, minnows and monsters – the struggle between the powerless and the powerful is a longstanding metaphor for social activism. It’s often used as motivation for the underdog, but can also be very disempowering.

Combating the ‘Beowulf Complex’ – the use of words that reinforce the power of the already powerful and disempower those who challenge them - should be top priority for any social movement.

In August 2013, I joined the ‘Reclaim the Power’ camp in Balcombe in the United Kingdom. At the time, the quiet village was the frontline of British resistance to fracking. A company called Cuadrilla planned to drill for shale gas there and hundreds of activists arrived to demonstrate against fracking and the UK’s fossil fuel dependency.

Near the drilling site, the activist network No Dash for Gas had set up a temporary community in solidarity against corporations, government and their reliance on gas. It was a friendly, peaceful space for campaigners of all ages to meet, participate in training activities and protest together. The camp was a lively hub of discussion, debate and workshops; from legal ‘know your rights’ training to media skills, activists gathered in tents to develop new skills to facilitate change.

It was during a workshop on the UK government cuts that something strange hit me. One activist stated the need for solidarity across different campaign groups, saying, "This beast [austerity] is bigger than all of us".

The image of a beast was powerful, but why was ‘austerity’ referred to as an abstract entity, rather than as the decisions of a handful of people? Where did the word ‘beast’ come from in the first place? Was ‘it’ really bigger than us?

The picture of a beast overshadowing a community reminded me of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon poem written around the 10th century. At its simplest, the plot is as follows: the people of Heorot are living in fear, unable to defeat a murderous monster named Grendel who has attacked members of the village. Then, a warrior named Beowulf arrives and slays both the beast and its vengeful mother. Consequently, peace is restored and Beowulf becomes King.

Beowulf's plot adheres to a narrative structure dubbed 'Overcoming the Monster' by Christopher Booker. It is found in David and Goliath, the James Bond films and other tales: as a formula for a good story, it is widely used.

So what has Balcombe got to do with Beowulf? Austerity is the result of manmade economic choices, yet the word ‘beast’ gives it an intimidating identity of its own.

This is problematic for three reasons. Firstly, it positions the public and activists in an unfavourable position in comparison. Secondly, it cuts humans out of the picture entirely. Finally, given these factors of disempowerment and inhuman threat; it risks leaving people intimidated, unable to conceive of a solution and waiting for a saviour, instead of taking active steps to facilitate social justice.

I left Balcombe feeling energised, but, once I had noticed, I started to hear about beasts everywhere. Not always literally, but in the semiotic sense of what ‘beast’ represents: a strong, uncontrollable and inhuman being capable of destruction.

Business correspondents talked about supermarkets and retailers like Amazon or Apple as ‘giants’; at a feminist discussion in London on economy, patriarchy and prostitution, one woman described the combination of these factors as "a complex machine"; GM corporation Monsanto is frequently referred to as a ‘monster’; oil company Shell has been called a ‘Goliath’; US politicians used the political strategy of ‘Starving the Beast, designed to limit government spending; in his book ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’, John Perkins describes the CIA as ‘Jackals’; influential organisations such as the United Nations are commonly called ‘systems’. Although ‘system’ does not create a storybook image like ‘monster’, it is similarly inhuman, faceless and unstoppable. Such words form the ‘Beowulf Complex’ or ‘beast discourse’.

This discourse shapes the way activists position themselves. A discourse is a set of words that are repeatedly associated with certain meanings; it informs the way events are perceived. For example, the right wing press creates discourses when they frequently link words together to evoke images in reader’s minds. ‘Immigration’ is associated with ‘crime’ so often that the two terms become synonymous after a while. In numerous Daily Mail articles on immigration the word ‘criminal’, or ‘gang’ is present. Within this context it's not long until crime is the first thing Mail readers think of when they hear ‘immigration’.

Words matter. Changing the words we use may not alter anything physically, but it re-positions us psychologically. I know that ‘Beast’ and similar words are a moral insult; they highlight the callousness of high profile decision-makers. However, such words detach social problems from their human origins.

Humans provoke these issues, but we forget to identify them. Structural discrimination is not the product of an autonomous machine, beast or giant. Humans uphold it; mainly white middle-aged, middle-class males. Their dominance is bolstered by fear-invoking words that present them as too big and powerful for others to influence or challenge.

A final point that the Beowulf Complex raises is: are people waiting for a Beowulf to save the day? In social movements we don’t need to look for a single leader or hero. Why wait to be led by others, or watch others do the hard work? Everyone can lead; the collective is heroic. The collective, really, is our best chance at fixing things.

Challenging power is daunting enough, but when we dehumanise our adversaries, are we subconsciously reliving the Beowulf narrative? Company names like Cuadrilla and Gazprom make it seem feasible, especially as they are corporations set out to profit from environmental devastation. No activist truly thinks they are fighting mythological monsters: behind the brands, banks, bureaucracy, corporations and computers are humans. We know this, but the language that we use can reinforce existing power imbalances and make change seem more difficult than it already is.

Occupy’s 99% slogan is powerful because it places things in perspective. It was, and is, empowering. So let’s match the rest of our language to that sentiment. Humans, rather than beasts, construct inequalities such as the gender pay gap. Their power is strengthened by their facelessness: behind the logos and bureaucracy, the 1% are distanced from the day-to-day reality and voices of the public, and the public are shielded from their human identities.

Activists are the amongst the most courageous people I know, and although they’d probably be capable of slaying mythical beasts if it came to it, I’ve seen numerous friends burn out when motivation slips and disempowerment seeps in. Changing language is a small, personal transformation that may boost the power of social movements; it may convince more of the general public to actively organise for the world they want to live in.

If activists want to change the narrative and move on from a centuries-old story, we must shake off Grendel’s grip. 

About the author

Janey Stephenson is a campaigner and filmmaker who is interested in feminism, gender, social justice and human rights. She is passionate about ending violence against women and tweets at @vegetarianjelly.