Puzzling out the meaning of monsters in Beowulf, comparing the hero with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon.
It’s no overstatement to say that Beowulf is – today – one of the most important surviving works of medieval literature. It is by far the longest Old English poem and – at just over 3,000 lines – preserves about one tenth of surviving English verse from before the Norman Conquest. But it’s also very much a mystery. There isn’t a lot we know about who composed it, or why, or even when. There is only one surviving copy from the whole of the medieval period – the manuscript now known as British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV.
Beowulf is an Old English epic poem which survives in a single precious manuscript. / British Library, Public Domain
For a long time, academics didn’t really know what to make of Beowulf. An early criticism was that it ‘puts the irrelevancies in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges’. By ‘irrelevancies’, Ker means the three monster fights that make up most of the action. Most critics today would disagree: the monsters now hold a ‘central importance … crucial to the very structure of the poem’. After all, Beowulf is – at its heart – the story of a heroic man who kills three monsters and then dies. So, to understand this ancient poem, we need first to understand its monsters.
Getting to Grips with Grendel
First up is Grendel: in many ways an unknown quantity. He’s a shadowy figure (literally, a ‘mearcstapa’, [‘border-stepper’], (l. 103)), whose eyes glow with a ‘leoht unfæger’ [‘grim light’], (l. 727). He’s descended from Cain, the fratricidal son of Adam and Eve, whose murder of his own brother sees him cast out by God and fated to wander the world in exile (Genesis 4. 1–16). This gives the impression that Grendel is human, or at least humanoid, and we’re told that he goes on ‘weres wæstmum’ [‘in the shape of a man’], (l. 1352). But he’s much larger than that: it takes four warriors simply to lift his head (l. 1637). He lives in a gloomy underwater lair somewhere beyond the ‘myrcan mor’ [‘dark moor’], (ll. 1402–41). He eats his victims – bones and all – and fights without weapons or armour in frenzied attacks that leave dozens dead in his wake (ll. 120–25, 730–44). These details emerge in fits and starts over the course of the poem: always suggestive, never specific. In the best traditions of horror narratives, the more that’s left to the imagination the better.
A parallel for the Grendels: illustration of a humanoid cannibal from The Marvels of the East in the Nowell Codex, which also contains the Beowulf manuscript. / British Library, Public Domain
Grendel attacks the Danes night after night for years, until Beowulf comes to their aid in an epic encounter that literally shakes the Danish hall to its foundations (ll. 744–835). Grendel’s final incursion into Heorot begins with a bloody assault on one of Beowulf’s sleeping warriors:
[Grendel] slat unwearnum,
bat banlocan, blod edrum dranc,
synsnædum swealh; sona hæfde
unlyfigendes eal gefeormod,
fet ond folma (ll. 741–45)
Grendel tore without hesitation,
bit the bone-locks, drank the blood of the veins,
swallowed sinful bites; soon he had
entirely consumed the unliving one,
down to his feet and hands.
Emboldened, Grendel reaches for his next victim – only to find himself grappling with Beowulf himself. The monster soon realises he’s bitten off more than he can chew: ‘he ne mette middangeardes, / eorþan sceata on elran men / mundgripe maran’ [‘he had not met in the world, in any corner of the earth, a greater handgrip in another man’], (ll. 751–53). In a stark reversal, the monster who began the evening feasting on human flesh now finds that his own ‘seonowe onsprungon, / burston banlocan’ [‘sinews snapped, bone-locks burst’], (ll. 817–18). Grendel flees, but Beowulf never relinquishes his grip. Once the dust has settled, our hero is left holding the monster’s ‘hond … earm ond eaxle … Grendles grape’ [‘hand … arm and shoulder … Grendel’s grasp’], (ll. 834–36).
Meeting Grendel’s Mother
Beowulf emerges from this first fight a bona fide hero. But we’re only a third of the way into the poem, and Grendel was only the start of Beowulf’s monstrous troubles. The very night after Grendel limps back to his lair, minus one arm, to die in peace, the Danes are attacked again (ll. 1279–99).This time it’s Grendel’s mother, looking for vengeance. Her appearance is similar to Grendel’s, except ‘idese onlicnes’ [‘in the likeness of a woman’], (l. 1351), but her attack differs in some significant ways. Rather than wholesale destruction, she kills just one Dane before fleeing home with her son’s severed arm. The man she chooses is Æschere, Hrothgar’s closest advisor, in a tit-for-tat killing that’s meant to match the loss of her only son (ll. 1304–09). It’s a point the poet drives home with a grim pun – just as Beowulf took Grendel’s ‘earm ond eaxle’ [‘arm and shoulder’], (l. 835), now Grendel’s mother has taken Hrothgar’s ‘eaxlgestealla’ [‘shoulder companion’], (l. 1326).
20th-century illustration depicting Beowulf holding Grendel’s severed head, following the death of Grendel’s mother. / British Library, Public Domain
Duelling with Dragons
The final of the three monsters enters the poem late in Beowulf’s life. No longer a young warrior out to make a name for himself, our hero is now an aged king when he is called on to defend his people from a fire-breathing dragon (ll. 2550–2705). This is the most conventional of the monsters Beowulf encounters – we all know a dragon when we see one – yet it’s also the most challenging. Beowulf does his duty, kitted out with weapons and armour that even he seems to know will do him no good:
wisse he gearwe
þæt him holtwudu helpan ne meahte,
lind wið lige. Sceolde lændaga
æþeling ærgod ende gebidan,
worulde lifes, ond se wyrm somod. (ll. 2339–43)
[he clearly understood
that the forest-wood could not help him,
the wooden shield against the flames. The foremost prince
would have to endure the end of his transitory days,
his life in the world, and the dragon with him.]
Miniature of a red dragon, from Peraldus’s Theological Miscellany: This illustration of a red fire-breathing dragon – from a much later manuscript, dated c. 1250–1300 – conforms to our expectations of what a dragon should look like, and how it should behave. / British Library, Public Domain
Aided by a young warrior called Wiglaf, Beowulf is able to strike a mortal blow right through ‘wyrm on middan’ [‘the belly of the dragon’], (l. 2705). But, true to the prophetic lines above, Beowulf is himself grievously wounded. As his injuries ‘swelan ond swellan’ [‘fester and boil’], (l. 2713), Beowulf is keenly aware ‘þæt he dæghwila gedrogen hæfde / eorðan wynne’ [‘that he had passed his share of days, his earthly joys’], (ll. 2725–27). He dies gazing on ‘enta geweorc’ [‘the works of giants’], (l. 2717) – the mound in which the dragon lived – beside the corpse of this final monstrous foe (ll. 2794–2820).
Illustration of a snake from The Marvels of the East. In Beowulf the ‘draca’ [dragon] is also described as a ‘wyrm’ [serpent]. / British Library, Public Domain
Moral and Figurative Threats: Greed, Vengeance, Isolation
Although the three monsters allow Beowulf to prove his heroism in battle, that’s not their only purpose in the poem. The dragon is a literal threat to the safety of Beowulf’s people, but in the way it behaves it represents a moral danger, too. Earlier in the poem, Hrothgar makes a lengthy speech warning against the dangers of greed (ll. 1709–57), and he rewards Beowulf lavishly with gifts and weapons in return for killing the Grendels (ll. 1019–55, 1866–99). This, the poet tells us, is what a good leader does (ll. 20–21). But the dragon, in contrast, doesn’t behave like this at all. The havoc it wreaks on an entire kingdom is instigated by the theft of a single gold cup from its hoard (ll. 2293–2310). Greed is a real concern in Beowulf: reflecting heroic Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies, the poem’s human characters live and die by the generosity of their rulers. In standing against the dragon, Beowulf also stands against the greed it embodies.
We can see a similar moral aspect to the first two monsters. Grendel’s mother attacks for one very simple reason: revenge. In a society that’s heavily defined by loyalty and family ties, vengeance poses problems, fuelling violence, destruction and instability. We get a telling snapshot of a family torn apart by vengeance in the ‘Finnsburg Episode’ (ll. 1070–1158). Here, the Danish princess Hildeburh marries Finn, a Frisian king, in an attempt to create peace between two hostile nations. But all does not go to plan. Old wounds reopen, fighting resumes between the now in-laws, and by the end of the story Hildeburh’s brother, son and husband are all dead. It’s exactly this sort of destruction that Grendel’s mother threatens when she attacks the Danes in her own quest for vengeance just a few lines later. Is vengeance ever justified? And where does it end?
This brings us back to Grendel. Earlier on I referred to Grendel as an unknown quantity, and that’s the exact threat he poses. You’ll notice that families and familial ties are a recurring theme throughout this poem. The whole story starts with an extended prologue that runs through four generations of Hrothgar’s family tree before we get anywhere near the action (ll. 1–85). All through the poem, characters are identified not by their names, but by their relationship to others. This ability to place oneself – and be placed – in a family and tribe is central to the social interactions of the poem, mirroring the culture of its Scandinavian setting. Grendel, though, is unplaceable. We know that he’s descended from Cain (l. 106), and we also know that he has a mother, although we never learn her name. Beyond that, everything is a mystery: ‘no hie fæder cunnon’ [‘they know of no father’], (l. 1355). Grendel is an outsider who lives apart, out in the wilderness, without family or friends to vouch for him. The threat he represents to the human world of the poem is simply that he has no legitimate stake in it.
Guthlac Roll: Like Beowulf, the story of the life of St Guthlac presents an isolated landscape as a site of danger and monstrosity. After a religious conversion, Guthlac lived in solitude in the Lincolnshire fens where he experienced a series of battles with ferocious demons. / British Library, Public Domain
That’s one way of reading Beowulf and the monsters at its centre: the monsters are both physical threats to the poem’s humans, and figurative ones as well. They literally kill people – and sometimes eat them – but they also embody the behaviours that threaten to undermine the social fabric that holds human communities together. Peace is fragile in the world of Beowulf, and it can be easily overturned by greed, or feuding or social isolation.
Monsters and Heroes
If we push this reading further, though, things get more complicated. The opposition between human and monster is far murkier than we might think, especially when it comes to our hero. The first monster Beowulf fights is Grendel, the epitome of isolation and social exclusion. But Beowulf, too, is somewhat isolated. Like Grendel, he arrives in Denmark as an outsider, without warning and ‘ne … leafnesword’ [‘without permission’], (ll. 237–47). Like Grendel, he has a muddied family history – raised by his uncle after his father was banished as a trouble-maker responsible for causing ‘fæhðe mæste’ [‘the greatest feud’], (ll. 459–72). Like Grendel, he fights without weapons or armour (‘wit on niht sculon / secge ofersittan’, [‘we both will forgo swords this night’], (ll. 677–87)), and he holds his own in a match with a monster capable of killing 30 men single-handed.
If Grendel’s isolation marks him as a monster, we should find the parallels in Beowulf’s character more than a little disturbing. And these parallels only get stronger as the poem progresses. Grendel’s mother may be motivated by vengeance, but Beowulf’s response to her attack is indistinguishable: ‘selre bið æghwæm / þæt he his freond wrece þonne he fela murne’ [‘it is better for everyone to avenge friends than to mourn greatly’], (ll. 1384–85). The eagerness with which Beowulf urges vengeance contrasts starkly with Hrothgar’s more muted grief, and even with the poet’s own reservations. We’ve already seen, in the Finnsburg section described above, how futile such feuds can be. Finally, as he lies mortally wounded beside the dragon’s corpse, Beowulf’s last wish is to see the riches that the dragon greedily defended (ll. 2743–51). He dies gazing at what is now his very own treasure hoard (ll. 2794–2801).
These parallels between monsters and heroes are not lost on the poet. There’s an Old English word that’s used a number of times in the poem to describe Grendel: ‘aglæca’ (ll. 159, 425, 433 and more).The same term is later used of Grendel’s mother (l. 1259) and the dragon (ll. 2520, 2534, and more). But here’s the thing: it’s also used to describe Beowulf (ll. 1512, 2592). How should we translate a word that somehow encapsulates both the best and the worst of characters? As Andy Orchard puts it:
Whatever the precise connotation of the term, the fact that the poet employs the word to designate not only monsters but monster-slayers clearly underlines the linked contrasts between the world of monsters and men which run through the poem. (p. 33)
The point is not that humans are the real monsters of Beowulf, nor that monsters are the true heroes. Rather, it’s that the same qualities can be found in both – for better or worse. Beowulf’s supreme strength brings his character uncomfortably close to Grendel’s, but it also makes him the only one capable of standing up to the monster. Without Beowulf, the Danes don’t have a hope. Beowulf’s physical prowess makes him an asset to his own people too. After a disastrous raid in Sweden, in which King Hygelac is killed, Beowulf returns home with the armour of 30 slain warriors in his bare hands (ll. 2354–66). This is the same number of victims Grendel carried off in his first raid on Heorot, many years earlier (l. 122).
Beowulf returns to his people as a welcome hero. What does he look like to the Swedes? We’re left to wonder. In the murky world of Beowulf – where humans and monsters act from the same motives, in the same ways and are described using the very same words – the line between hero and villain comes down to a matter of perspective: one person’s Beowulf is another’s Grendel.
- Ker, W P, The Dark Ages (London: Blackwood, 1904), p.253
- Orchard, Andy, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript (Cambridge: D S Brewer, 1985), p.28
- Jack, George, Beowulf: A Student Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)