The Importance of Monsters

Inside each story, fictional or true, is a world. And spending my childhood, adolescence, and now young adulthood within stories, I’ve learned that the more I get to know a story, the more I grow aware of the world in which stories are born: our own. The stories that pulled me closest to the world came from unexpected places, came from stories of antagonists and monsters because “[p]erhaps all the dragons in our lives” poet Rainer Maria Rilke penned,“are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.(1)

At about eight-years-old —in the rustic campground where I saw the northern lights before I could remember and learned to ride a bicycle and hand-grind coffee— I sat in a fold up camp-chair listening to my dad recount a rendition of the myth of Perseus and Medusa. As I listened, I realized I didn’t care about the hero, I was enchanted by the beheaded monster. I wondered who she was, what made her, and what being turned to stone by her gaze might feel like.

From then on, whenever I listened to or read mythology, I felt as if I were existing in a space between history and the present, fascinated by the stories that inspired the authors who inspired authors who inspired authors who wrote the stories I read and loved. Then, at 15, I dove headfirst into a course on Classical Mythology, there I re-encountered Medusa and this time, I didn’t find her “best known”(2) myth, I found Medusa’s story.

Young Medusa,
follower of Minerva (3),
was raped by Neptune.
For this,
Minerva punished Medusa
and her sisters
by turning them
into the Gorgons.

Her Neptune saw, and with such beauties fir’d,
Resolv’d to compass, what his soul desir’d.
In chaste Minerva’s fane, he, lustful, stay’d,
And seiz’d, and rifled the young, blushing maid.
—Ovid, the Metamorphoses (4)

Those Gorgons who captured my excitement and fascination as I sat in a camp-chair, those snake haired women who later startled loose my outrage as I found reflections of Medusa’s story in the culture around me (5).

In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Frankenstein’s Monster— made of corpses and thrust into life without choice–challenges his maker to “Hear my tale,”(6). With narrative, a brutal creature becomes a childlike figure full of sorrow and anger at finding a world afraid of him. His delight and despair carved away at my perception of “monster”, leaving an admirable hero in their wake.

Perhaps this is why Frankenstein is such an unsettling story and because by sharing the monster’s perspective Shelly, who conceptualized the story at 18 (7), created a “counter-hero [who] possesses the hero’s superior power of action without possessing his or her adherence to the dominant culture” Maureen Fries theorizes, “[w]hile the hero proper transcends and yet respects the norms of the patriarchy, the counter hero violates them in some way.(8) And there may be nothing as terrifying as realizing the norms in which we live are faulty or harmful or simply inaccurate.

Yet, if we dare to enter a monster’s story—their histories and lives and vulnerabilities—we may have the courage to look a Gorgon the face and find that we haven’t turned into stone but are, “looking into one face and seeing, behind it, another, face after face after face.(9) We may find story after story after story weaving together our experiences—our fears and mistakes and hopes— until a dragon becomes a princess; until we have the courage to reflect on and question the cultures surrounding us so that we may incubate stories that learn to capture the beautiful and challenging complexity of our world.

Endnotes and Resources*:

1. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to A Young Poet “Letter Eight”. 1904. Edition published by Merchant Books, 2012. Page 63.
2. Glennon, Madeleine. “Medusa in Ancient Greek Art” The Metropolitan Museum. 2017. Accessed January 2020.
3. Minerva is the Roman name for the Greek Goddess Athena, similarly Neptune is the Roman name for the Greek God Poseidon. I chose to use the Roman variants as they appeared in Ovid’s passage.
4. Ovid. “Metamorphoses”. First published in 8 AD. Translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al. Accessed on MIT’s The Internet Classic’s Archive, January 2020.
5. Solnit, Rebecca. “Rebecca Solnit on the #MeToo Backlash”. 2018. Lit Hub. Acessed January 2020.
6. Shelly, Mary Wollstonecraft. “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus”. 1869. Sever, Francis, & Company. Page 65.
8. Sampson, Fiona. “Frankenstein at 200 – why hasn’t Mary Shelley been given the respect she deserves?” 2018. The Guardian.
9. Fries, Maureen. “Female Heroes, Heroines, and Counter Heroes: Images of Women in Arthurian Tradition.” Popular Arthurian Traditions. Edited by Sally K. Solcum. 1992. As quoted in Women Who Fly. By Serenity Young. Oxford University Press. 2018. Page 5.
10. Lepore, Jill. “These Truths: A History of the United States”. Norton. 2018. Page xx.


People, Works, Terms Mentioned:
Rainer Maria Rilke / Medusa / Classical Mythology / Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly / Jill Lepore

*All references and resources have been thoroughly researched prior to use.