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Medieval monsters live on today

Female monsters in medieval literature find new forms in modern movies, literature, comic books and music. Undergraduate student Rukma Sen is curious why those themes have such staying power.

portrait of Rukma SenRukma Sen began her fascination with female monsters in medieval literature during a class on Beowulf, which describes the Swedish warrior Beowulf, who battles the monster Grendel and eventually takes on both Grendel's mother and a dragon.

In the course, taught by her mentor Elaine Treharne, the Roberta Bowman Denning Professor of English, Sen began thinking about the way medieval monsters, which are rife in literature of the time, live on today in movies, literature, comic books and music.

"There are all these really weird, interesting medieval stories with dragons and snakes and monsters and people fighting them," said Sen, who is studying these monsters and their current incarnations as part of an undergraduate Hume Humanities Honors Fellowship through the Stanford Humanities Center.

Kurt Hickman

"I got interested in the idea of the monstrous feminine, which is different from a female monster," said Sen, who is majoring in English with a minor in philosophy. "A female monster is just a monster that happens to be female. The monstrous female locates the monstrosity in the femininity."

She finds those same themes showing up throughout medieval literature and in modern stories, including recent movies where Scarlett Johansson and Angelina Jolie play characters whose monstrosity lies in being sexually attractive and seductive women in Under the Skin and Beowulf, respectively.

"The big question motivating my thesis is: Why, consistently over the years, is feminine embodiment so terrifying?" Sen said. She is also interested in the monster mother, how the fear of a woman's sexual prowess extends into fear of women's reproductive capacity.

Over the summer Sen traveled to Exeter, England, to see medieval manuscripts, then spent time in the British Library looking at a facsimile copy of its Beowulf manuscript.

"I got to be in physical contact with this book that I am writing so much about," Sen said. "It contains so much history and so many lives of so many people who have touched it."

For medievalists, seeing the manuscript is critical to understanding it. The size, illustrations, binding and blemishes all say something about the book's origins and intended use, which in turn indicate who the readers might have been. "The first thing you unlearn is don't look at text first, which is hard to do because they are interesting texts," she said. "It's like being a detective."

Sen said that working closely with Treharne gave her exposure to people she would never have met without taking on a thesis project as an undergraduate. "These people have opened up the idea of academia as a possibility," she said, but added that the analytic skills she developed would be valuable in many professions.

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