The oldest plot of all could be the one where a monster torments everybody until someone steps from the crowd, faces up to the monster in an unfair fight and slays it.
Anonymous painting of St George with his dragon from the British Library, end 14th century.
The Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia is thought to be the oldest written story we have, possibly around 4,000 years old: our first great work of literature. For today we’ll leave academics to wrestle with exactly how old various versions of it are – let’s head straight for the meat of the story.
Gilgamesh is king of Uruk (about 30 km east of Samawah in modern Iraq) and, lucky guy, he’s two-thirds god and one-third man. He is too proud to listen to the gods though and enjoys his power a bit too much, especially ‘droit de seigneur’ or a lord’s right to sleep with every new bride on her wedding night before her husband gets a look in. Gilgamesh’s people call to the gods for help.
In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens showed droit de seigneur inflaming French peasants to Revolution in 1789. (There’s an interesting post about jus primae noctis or ‘right of first night’ here.) The Sumerian gods’ solution is not a guillotine in the centre of town; they send a primitive ‘wild man’ called Enkidu to live alongside Gilgamesh as his equal and bring him into line. As soon as Enkidu finds out that Gilgamesh is about to interfere in another wedding night, he sets off to teach Gilgamesh some manners and the two of them wind up in a fight. Neither wins. Instead they become friends.
What an extraordinary fight scene: the toff, bent on what he thinks is his right, against the wild man brought up among animals, who knows better. What style of fighting do they each have? How does the dialogue pan out? Have a go at writing it – fight scenes are about character and dialogue much more than violence. The characters, time, context and outcome are up to you.
Gilgamesh cannot go on as he did. He needs to make a heroic name for himself somehow and hits on the idea of slaying a rude and horrible monster in the Cedar Forest called Humbaba. Enkidu hates the idea of more violence but has to follow. With the help of the gods – all very exciting – they win and bring the monster’s head home in triumph.
In Tablet Six the friends wind up tangling with Gugalanna next, the Bull of Heaven, through no fault of their own. They win and save the city, without divine help this time, and everyone is celebrating. But Enkidu foretells his own death, seen as some sort of payment to the gods for all this slaughter, and Gilgamesh is bereft.
Tablet Nine sees Gilgamesh living in the wild, dressed in animal skins as Enkidu was before they met, sharply aware of his own mortality in the loss of his friend. The only cure for his grief, he thinks, is to know the secret of eternal life so he sets off on an epic quest, involving gods and many miles of dangerous terrain, until eventually Gilgamesh has his great insight. He learns that to fight human death is pointless – our happiness lies in relishing each fleeting moment of life. Our greatest joys – sharing food with loved ones, walking hand in hand with a cherished child, enjoying sensual love with a beloved – all derive from our mortality.
The poem is too long and eventful to cover all of it here. Have fun with your research if it appeals to you. Enough to say that Gilgamesh, a demi-god but all too human, slays monsters alongside his dear friend and learns humility on his way to winning the most precious wisdom of all, the richness of life.
Incidentally, a literary Indiana Jones hovers on the edge of our story by the humble name of George Smith. He’s an Englishman who rediscovered The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1872. As far as I know, no-one has written his story yet.
How many fairy stories can you think of where a monster is killed to resolve the story? Little Red Riding Hood? Jack and the Beanstalk? Hansel and Gretel? Any others? Choose one and write it in the high, heroic style of an ancient epic poem, just for fun. Or write it set in today’s world if you’d rather. See where it takes you.
Let’s move now to Europe around a thousand years later and the story of Beowulf. Though written in Old English, our hero Beowulf (who happens to be Swedish) is helping out Hrothgar, king of the Danes, by slaying a monster called Grendel and its vengeful mother. This wonderful epic poem dates from anywhere between 700 and 1000 AD (again we’ll leave tussles about the precise date to the academics) but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the poem was recognised as a major work of European literature. Until then, it had been the preserve of academic historians (though there is no evidence of a historical Beowulf) looking to study Scandinavian kings and place geographical boundaries. Then in the 1920s an Oxford don, none other than JRR Tolkien, had a look and the story took hold of him. He realised that here was a beautifully constructed story written with balance and passion. It was not an historical document like the Domesday Book or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was a poem.
Why does this matter to us? Because historians had dismissed the monsters in the story as irrelevant; nobody knew better than Tolkien (a survivor of the Battle of the Somme, busy writing The Lord of the Rings) that the monsters were central to a magnificent Slaying the Monsters tale.
He made his point unforgettably in his 1936 Oxford lecture The Monsters and the Critics and Beowulf has been vital to Western literature ever since.
What was Beowulf’s story?
- The poem starts by establishing Beowulf among his own people, the Geats in southern Sweden.
- We join the Danes where King Hrothgar is having a marvellous new mead-hall built. But a monster has been ravaging the area for years, stealing and eating the young people each night.
- Beowulf sets off to help with 14 of his warriors.
- A moment of realism: as soon as he arrives, he has to explain himself to the locals or they’ll kill him.
- He’s allowed to go to the mead-hall and explain himself again.
- Up go the stakes as locals swap horror stories about the appalling monster, Grendel. Everything they have tried has failed.
- Everyone agrees that single combat between Grendel and this fresh-faced Dane called Beowulf would be a good thing. Beowulf and his warriors stay in the mead-hall overnight …
- I love this moment: Beowulf takes off his armour because the monster would have no skill against it and he must fight a fair fight!
- Grendel slips in and eats his first warrior, even the hands and feet.
- It’s time for the Big Fight we’ve been waiting for.
- Beowulf and his warriors win and nail the monster’s severed arm and claw to the wall as a trophy.
- It’s time to relax and have a party.
- Who’s that knocking at the door? In fact, who’s knocking her way straight in? Grendel’s mother has come for revenge.
- Beowulf has to follow her to her lair at the bottom of a swamp to fight her. No concessions this time, he keeps his armour but her toxic blood melts his sword.
- After a colossal fight, Beowulf and his lads win and head back to the mead-hall in triumph, laden with the monster mother’s treasure.
- After big celebrations, Beowulf and his Geats go home where Beowulf becomes king of his own tribe for fifty years.
- Here is the story’s second part that Tolkien believed balanced the first part so beautifully: a dragon sweeps the land, Beowulf fights it in single combat but this time he’s an old man and is mortally wounded in the tussle. I can’t help wondering if this later dragon could be an image for plague or another illness, fought with heroic courage by a king so loved that to say he died in bed would be unfitting.
What Tolkien saw was that Beowulf’s story fits our basic plot arc beautifully:
Situation of appalling danger – call to heroism – inciting incident – series of mounting difficulties – crises/ battles rising to the final battle – resolution – the new future.
What else does this plot remind us of?
Theseus and Perseus? David and Goliath? Tristan and the Moorholt? Can you think of any others? It’s no coincidence that The Slaying the Monster plot has thrived in human imagination since our most ancient cultures; the more dangerous life is, the more communities cling to these stories. We are always free to play with classic structures in any way we like but it’s useful to see how this most ancients of plots has served storytellers for at least four thousand years.
Since the 19th century, it has enjoyed developing all kinds of subtleties in what feels like an almost complete takeover of the fiction world. Dracula by Bram Stoker brings us one of the most hideous monsters but one who can be beguiling and almost sympathetic. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley pulls off the extraordinary trick of rendering her monster both hideously cruel and a victim of circumstances beyond his control. In RL Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, we have the beginnings of examination of the monster within us.
Like Beowulf, Sherlock Holmes and Watson travel to track down monsters/murderers and remove dangers to society. Parallels between Jack the Ripper and Stevenson’s Mr Hyde did not escape readers.
Many war stories (where the bad guys never bother us again), James Bond, Westerns, superheroes and sci-fi – yes, Star Wars too – all share this Slaying the Monster template including, most common of all, thrillers. Which just goes to show how flexible and useful it is, how much potential there is for you to play with.
Is it only men who slay monsters? Of course not. From warriors like the Iceni Queen Boudicca who fought the Romans and Jeanne d’Arc to Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Erin Brockovich and the #metoo movement, women have courageously spoken truth to power on all kinds of battlefields. In fiction they range through Katniss Everdene (The Hunger Games) through Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs, Lucy in Narnia, Mathilda and the Trunchbull and of course Wonderwoman.
A Gender in Fiction study published its results recently, showing that women were more fairly represented in novels in the 19th century than they are now. There are so many heroine stories waiting to be written and plenty of people of all kinds waiting to read them.
Whatever you write – happy writing.