Grendel's Heroic Mother
Grendel, to be sure, was a boy only a mother could love. Even if, as Paul Taylor unnervingly suggests, he had an appreciation for barbaric art and perhaps knew how to read and write, no one would ever suggest that his virtues outweighed his vices. He came to a bad end. Had Grendel followed his mother's example, however, staying home at night and only venturing out reluctantly to avenge the death of a kinsman, what would prevent us from seeing his behavior as heroic? To get to the point, why don't we count his mother among the great Germanic heroines?
The easy answer, of course, is that Grendel's mother was a monster, poor stock for heroism. Yet the Beowulf poet consistently presents her in human terms, as well. For example, he first identifies Grendles modor in an ambivalent way, as ides, aglæcwif (“woman, monster-wife” 1260-61), the eerie asyndeton alerting us to her dual nature.1
Moreover, despite our natural tendency to translate modor in this seemingly bestial context as “dam” or “bitch,” Hrothgar carefully tells Beowulf (and us) that she appeared to be a woman:
Ic þæt londbuend, leode mine,
selerædende secgan hyrde
þæt hie gesawon swylce twegen
micle mearcstapan moras healdan,
ellorgæstas. Ðæra oðer wæs,
þæs þe hie gewislicost gewitan meahton,
(“About that I heard land-dwellers, my people, hall-counselors tell, that they had seen two such ones, mighty mark-steppers holding the moors, alien spirits. Of those the second one was, as far as they might most certainly ascertain, the likeness of a woman” 1347-53.) Against these eye-witness accounts, we do have later references to her as a brimwylf (“sea-shewolf” 1508, 1601), but we must take this epithet as a kenning if we are to form a coherent picture of her.2 She carries a knife, after all, and knows how to use it.
Her human roots go back to Cain (1260-68), who as the first murderer was exiled by God and became the progenitor of all monsters:
þanon untydras ealle onwocon,
eotenas 7 ylfe 7 orcneas,
swylce gi[ga](ntas),3 þa wið Gode wunnon
(“From him evil-progeny entirely awoke, etens, and elves, and evil spirits, likewise giants, who grappled with God for a long time” 111-114.) Putting aside for the moment her monstrous pedigree and the ugly fact that she gave birth to Grendel, let us play the feondes lahwita (“devil's advocate”) to see what she has going for her as a Germanic heroine, apart, that is, from her micle proportions.
An advocate might well begin by observing that she has no previous criminal record. Unlike her delinquent son, she appears to have accepted the mode and manner of heroic society with all of its outward trappings. She has held court in ælwihta eard, “the land of monsters,” for hund missera (1500-1502), the same fifty years Hrothgar has ruled over Heorot. Her retainers, wrymcynnes fela (“many a race of serpents” 1427), are ineffective in their light skirmishes with Beowulf,4 but then neither Hrothgar's nor Beowulf's thanes are in a position to cast stones at them. These monsters, at any rate, are loyal to Grendel's mother, who resides below in a great hall. There, keeping pace with Hrothgar, she is surrounded by maðmæhta...monige, “many treasures” (1615), the most impressive of which is an ancient sword, described (like Hunferth's sword Hrunting) as an ealde lafe (1490, 1690), or heirloom:
ealdsweord eotenisc ecgum þyhtig,
wigena weorðmynd, þæt wæpna cyst,
buton hit wæs mare ðonne ænig mon oðer
to beadulace ætberan meahte,
god 7 geatolic, giganta geweorc.
(“a win-blessed blade, an ancient gigantic sword, with edges strong, for warriors worthy, that choicest of weapons, except it was larger than any other man [than Beowulf] into battle-play might bear, good and finely wrought, the work of giants” 1559-64.) On its hilt is written the ancient history of her race:
ealde lafe; on ðæm wæs or (wri)ten
fyrngewinnes, syðþan flod ofs(loh),
gifen geotende, giganta cyn.
Frecne (ge)ferdon; þæt wæs fremde þeod
ecean Dryh(tne). Him þæs endelean
þurh wæteres wylm Waldend sealde.
Swa wæs on ðæm scen(num) sciran goldes,
þurh runstafas rihte (ge)mearcod,
geseted 7 gesæd, hwam þæt sweo(rd) geworht
(“On that heirloom the origin was written of the first conflict, from when the flood killed, the pouring sea, the giants' progeny. Severely they suffered; that was an estranged race to the eternal Lord. To them for that [reason] an end reward through the water's welling the Wielder gave. Also there was on the sword-guards of shining gold, through runic letters rightly marked, set down and stated, for whom that sword [was] made” 1690-98.) Not a handsome history, but not one exclusive to monsters either.
It is at least subliminally heroic that, while Grendel scorns the use of weapons, his mother's strength is defined by them. The poet tells us,
Wæs se gryre læssa
efne swa micle, swa bið mægþa cræft
wiggryre wifes, bewæpned men,
þonne heoru bunden, hamere geþuren,
sweord swate fah swin ofer helme
ecgum (dyhttig) andweard scireð.
(“That gruesomeness was less [than Grendel's] even as much as will be the might of maidens, a woman's war-horror, to a man without weapons,5 when a bound blade, forged with a hammer, a blood-stained sword, strong in its edges, cuts straight through the swine-crest over the helmet ” 1284-89.) The distinction, if there is one, seems to be academic.
There is, however, a relevant distinction between Beowulf's nocturnal wrestling match with Grendel and his diurnal confrontation with Grendel's mother. Whereas he and Grendel had fought as fellow-aglæcan, trying to rip each other apart, she and Beowulf fight as fellow-warriors, both scoring their best points with conventional weapons. Thus, as he prepares to fight Grendel, Beowulf actually disarms:
ða he him of dyde isernbyrnan,
helm of hafelan, sealde his hyrsted sweord,
irena cyst, ombihtþegne,
7 gehealdan het hildegeatwe.
(“Then he himself doffed his iron-byrnie, the helmet from his head, handed his studded sword, choicest of irons, to his serving-thane, and ordered [him] to oversee the war-gear” 670-673.) At the same time he boasts that he will not kill Grendel with a sword, for the monster nat he þara goda, (“doesn't know about those advantages” 680). When he prepares to fight Grendel's mother, on the other hand, Beowulf elaborately arms himself.
Gyrede hine Beowulf
eorlgewædum, nalles for ealdre mearn;
scolde herebyrne hondum gebroden
sid 7 searofah sund cunnian,
seo ðe bancofan beorgan cuþe,
þæt him hildegrap hreþre ne mihte
eorres inwitfeng aldre gesceþðan.
Ac se hwita helm (h)afelan werede,
se þe meregrundas men(gan) scolde,
secan sundgebland since geweo(rðad),
befongen freawrasnum swa hine fyrndagum
worhte wæpna smið, wundrum teode,
besette swinlicum, þæt hine syðþan no
brond ne beadomecas bitan ne meahton.
(“Beowulf geared himself in warrior dress, not at all worried for his life; he had to with his hand-braided battle-byrnie, wide and well-adorned, search the sound, that [byrnie] which knew how to cover his bone-case, so that for him a hostile-grip might not [harm] his heart, the enraged one's evil grasp, [might not] harm his life. And the shining helmet guarded his head, which had to mix up the depths of the mere, to seek the surging waters adorned with treasure, encircled with splendid chains, as in olden days the weapons' smith wrought, wonderfully formed it, beset with boar-figures, so that never afterwards brands nor battle-swords might bite into him.” 1443-56) This time, special emphasis is placed on Beowulf's intention to use a sword:
Næs þæt þonne mætost mægenfultuma
þæt him on ðearfe lah ðyle Hroðgares.
Wæs þæm hæftmece Hrunting nama.
þæt wæs an foran ealdgestreona.
Ecg wæs iren, atertanum fah,
ahyrded heaþoswate. Næfre hit æt hilde ne swac
manna ængum, þara þe hit mid mundum bewand,
se ðe gryresiðas gegan dorste,
folcstede fara. Næs þæt forma sið
þæt hit ellenweorc æfnan scolde.
(“Nor was that then the lowliest of mighty aids that to him in need Hrothgar's spokesman [Hunferth] loaned out. The name for that hilted-sword was Hrunting. That was unique among ancient heirlooms. Its edge was iron, stained with venom stripes, hardened by battle-blood. It never failed in fights for any heroes, of those who with hands heaved it, who dared to go on grim ventures, to the folkstead of foes. That was not the first time that it a courageous work had to complete” 1457-66.) This time Beowulf assumes that his battle will be with conventional weapons. His last words before plunging into the the mere are ic me mid Hruntinge / dom gewyrce, oþðe mec deað nimeð, (“I myself with Hrunting / will win distinction or death will take me off” 1492-93).
Below in the hall, as soon as he gets his bearings, Beowulf draws the sword and strikes Grendel's mother on the head so hard that Hrunting agol / grædig guðleoð (“sang a fierce battle-song” 1523-24). Hrunting, for the first time ever (forma sið 1529), fails to leave the desired impression, and Beowulf throws it aside and prepares to subdue his hard-headed adversary in the same way he handled her son:
Gefeng þa be eaxle, nalas for fæhðe mearn,
Guð-Geata leod, Grendles modor.
Brægd þa beadwe heard, þa he gebolgen wæs,
feorhgeniðlan, þæt heo on flet gebeah.
(“Not mourning that feud at all, the prince of the War-Geats seized Grendel's mother by the shoulder; the brave one in battle rushed then, when he was enraged, his deadly life-foe so that she fell to the floor” 1539-42.) Grendel's mother, however, knew more of the manly arts than her lumbering son:
Heo him eft hraþe handlean forgeald
grimman grapum 7 him togeanes feng.
Oferwear[p] þa werigmod, wigena strengest,
feþecempa, þæt he on fylle wearð.
(“She quickly gave him a reward in turn with fierce holds, and clutched him close. Then flagging in spirit, the strongest of warriors and soldiers stumbled and found himself falling” 1543-46.) The real surprise comes, though, not with her aglæcisc skill in wrestling, but with her evident expertise in more warrior-like skills:
Ofsæt þa þone selegy(st), 7 hyre sea[x] geteah,
brad, brunecg. Wolde hire bearn wrecan,
angan eaferan. Him on eaxle læg
breostnet broden; þæt gebearh feore,
wið ord 7 wið ecge ingang forstod.
Hæfde ða forsiðod sunu Ecgþeowes,
und(er) gynne grund, Geata cempa,
nemne him heaðobyrne helpe gefremede,
herenet hearde. 7 halig God
(“She then straddled her hall-visitor and drew her broad, bright-edged knife. She wanted to avenge her son, her only offspring. For him on his shoulder lay a braided breast-net; that saved his life, against point and against edge it prevented entrance. The son of Ecgtheow, champion of the Geats, would have perished then beneath the spacious earth if his battle-corslet, his hardened war-net, had not performed its help. And Holy God brought about his victory in battle” 1547-56.) It is then that Beowulf sees the ealdsweord eotenisc among the war-gear in the hall and uses the giants' heirloom to decapitate both Grendel's mother and then Grendel's corpse (1559-92). Though no one will regret this outcome, one cannot help noticing that Grendel's mother, living and dying by the sword, was memorably heroic in defeat. For some reason we are meant to see her actions in a persistently “monstro-heroic” light.
More important than her acquisition of the accoutrements of heroic society, more important than her ability to fight like an epic hero, Grendel's mother accepted and adhered to the heroic ethic of the blood-feud, the main difference between Grendel's feckless feud with the noise at Heorot and his mother's purposeful one exacting retribution for the death of her son. In heroic terms, her single attack on Heorot had the best of motives, vengeance for the death of her kinsman Grendel -- “she wanted to avenge her son, her only offspring.” The poet specifically calls her a wrecend (an “avenger” 1258) and with surprising sensitivity even explains that she is gifre 7 galgmod (“ravenous and despondent” 1279) because she gegan wolde /sorhfulne sið sunu þeod wrecan (“wanted to make a sorrowful trip to take common vengeance for her son” 1279-80). A feondes lahwita would be indeed remiss not to emphasize such authorial support for viewing his client as a law-abiding citizen.
Corroborative support comes from other unlikely sources. We are not allowed to forget that Grendel's mother is involved in a classic fæhð with Hrothgar. Even he recognizes that her attack is triggered by the customary terms of the world he inhabits. Thus Hrothgar readily acknowledges that Æschere died as the result of a blood-feud, and complains to Beowulf that
“Heo þa fæhðe wræc
þe þu gystran niht Gren(d)el cwealdest
...wolde hyre mæg wrecan,
ge feor hafað fæhðe gestæled...”
(“She avenged that fæhð in which you killed Grendel last night....She intended to avenge her son, and in fact has far advanced the fæhð....” 1335-42.) Delegating duties in kingly fashion, Hrothgar offers to compensate Beowulf for taking on the consequences of this feud:
“Ic þe þa fæhðe feo leanige,
ealdgestreonum, swa ic ær dyde
wund[un]golde, gyf þu on weg cymest.”
(“I will repay you for the fæhð with riches, as I have done before, with ancient treasures, wound gold, if you return victorious” 1382-84.) Beowulf, for his part, fully accepts the heroic code of the blood-feud. Like Grendel (lines 136-137), he too nalas for fæhðe mearn, “didn't mourn about the fæhð at all” (1539), and even comforts Hrothgar with the heroic adage, “Selre bið æghwæm /þæt he his freond wrece þonne he fela murne” (“It is better for everyone that a man avenge his loved one than mourn too much” 1386-87). If we admire both Hrothgar's and Beowulf's heroic resolution in this respect, why don't we admire Grendel's mother for enacting it the night before? Because she is a monster? At first glance it may seem particularly monstrous that she singles out as a victim Hrothgar's favorite thane and then leaves his head, as a trophy, floating in the mere. But Hrothgar used her boy's arm as a trophy in his hall, and because she retrieved it Beowulf returned from the mere with Grendel's severed head as a gruesome replacement. Her grief seems as real as Hrothgar's, and her response, swift life-for-life vengeance, is (mutatis mutandis) as heroic as Beowulf's.
Our client has, in fact, both legal and textual precedent for her attack on Heorot. The climax of the celebrations for Beowulf's victory over Grendel is the scop's telling of Finnsburh (1062-1159). Beowulf might have fairly regarded this tale as somewhat irrelevant, and indeed Beowulf scholars tend to see it as episodic or digressive, but quintessentially heroic. Yet the trouble at Finnsburh provides, in many ways, the prototype for Grendel's mother's attack on Heorot. Hildeburh and Hengest, bereaved mother and avenger, together foreshadow the behavior of the ides, aglæcwif.
As David Williams says, “The cause of the enmity that the tale depicts is not given, but it was probably well known to the poet's audience. This much, however, is clear: it was in some way attributable to the 'eotens,'”6 whom the poet early identifies with the evil progeny of Cain (111-114), that large amorphous clan to which Grendel and his mother belong. By the time the etens appear in the Finnsburh story, we also know that Beowulf yðde eotena cyn (“destroyed a race of etens” 420), was sent to Hrothgar by God as an eotenweard (“a guard against etens” 664-667), and fulfilled his mission when he killed the eoten Grendel (760). The same scop who tells the tale of Finnsburh has already told the tale of Sigemund, who in an illustrious career had ealfela eotena cynnes / sweordum gesæged (“slain with swords a great many races of etens” 882-883).
We should not be surprised, then, when Hildeburh attributes her losses to the same evil progeny:
Ne huru Hildeburh herian þorfte
eotena treowe. Unsynnum wearð
beloren leofum æt þam hildplegan,
bearnum 7 broðrum.
(“Nor indeed did Hildeburh need to hail the good faith of etens. Guiltlessly she was deprived of dear ones at that war-play, of sons and brothers” 1070-73.) Like Grendel's mother, Hildeburh
meotodsceaft bemearn, (sy)þðan morgen com.
Ða heo under swegle (ge)seon meahte
(“mourned her decree of fate, after morning came. Then she beneath the skies she might see the killing of kinsmen.” 1076-78) It even appears that Hildeburh's son died in the same terrible way as Grendel, losing his arm in battle. When Hildeburh gives orders for her son to be cremated with her brother, at any rate, she also orders 7 on bæl don / earme on eaxle (“to place [him] too on that pyre with the arm on the shoulder” 1113-16).7 In short, although it is viewed in an explicitly heroic context, Hildeburh's plight is the same as Grendel's mother's.
Hengest serves a complementary role by showing how heroes respond to the killing of kinsmen. Finn, to end the slaughter of Frisians and Half-Danes caused by the etens, at first persuades Hengest to form an alliance “against the etens” (wið eotena bearn 1086-87). Finn's terms for peace with the Half-Danes are extraordinary. Hengest and his men are given half-custody of Finn's hall in return for helping protect it, and are promised equal treatment with the Frisians in the daily allotment of treasure (1084-93). These extremely generous terms, however, do not placate Hengest, who ultimately aligns himself instead with the etens:
gist of geardum. He to gyrnwræce
swiðor þohte þonne to sælade,
gif he tor(nge)mot þurhteon mihte,
þæt he eote(na) bearn inne gemunde.
Swa he ne fo(r)wyrnde woroldrædenne,
þonne him Hunlafing, hildeleoman,
billa sele(st) on bearm dyde.
(“The exile [Hengest] was eager to go, the guest from these lands. He thought more keenly about revenge for injury than about his sea-journey, if he might bring about a hostile-clash, keeping in mind the etens' offspring. Thus he did not reject the world's customary terms when he himself put on [or placed on his lap] Hunlafing, the battle-bright best of swords.” 1136-43)8 Hengest cannot abide by Finn's revolutionary alternative to “the world's customary terms.” Faced with the potent custom of the blood-feud, he gets ready to avenge Hnaef's death with Hunlafing, þæs wæron mid eoten(um) ecge cuðe (“whose edges were well known among the etens” 1144). He and his Half-Danes kill Finn, sack his hall, and abduct his queen. As Beowulf would say, “It is better for everyone that a man avenge his loved one than mourn too much.”
By putting aside her monstrous pedigree and the ugly fact that she gave birth to Grendel, a devil's advocate can find plenty of evidence for defending Grendel's mother as a heroic figure. Because she is a monster, however, her case turns out to be an indictment of the kind of heroism she represents. Her strength, like Hengest's, is the power of a sword against a defenseless man. She is a blood-feud, the consequences of the first murder, just as Grendel is the mindless envy of Cain, the first murderer. After she avenges her kinsman by killing Æschere, the poet views the results of the blood-feud without reference to good guys and bad guys, heroes and monsters: “Ne wæs þæt gewrixle til,” he tells us, “þæt hie on ba healfa bicgan scoldon /freonda feorum.” (“That was not a good exchange, since they had to pay on both sides with the lives of loved ones.” 1306-08)
In retrospect, Hengest's actions are not heroic, but monstrous. He is like Grendel, who Sibbe ne wolde ... feorhbealo feorran, fea þingian (“did not want peace ... did not want to remove the life-bale, settle for riches” 154-156). The ealdsweord eotonisc Beowulf finds in the monster's hall reminds us of his sword Hunlafing,9 “well known among the etens,” and so incorporates Hengest's act of vengeance in the ugly history of ancient strife begun by Cain, recorded on the eotonisc sword, and forever perpetuated by Cain's descendents.
After the first murder, God punished Cain not by killing him but by sending him into exile:
þone cwealm gewræc,
ece Drihten, þæs þe he Abel slog.
Ne gefeah he þære fæhðe, ac He hine feor forwræc,
Metod for þy mane mancynne fram
(“The eternal Lord avenged that murder by which [Cain] killed Abel. He did not rejoice in that feud, for the Measurer banished him from mankind for that crime.” 107-110) It was left for Cain's monstrous progeny, heroic exiles like Grendel's mother, to commemorate and perpetuate the first murder in the ritual of the blood-feud. Her advocates may be confident that she will enjoy the company of heroes at domes daeg.
King Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, is troubled by the rampages of a demon named Grendel. Every night, Grendel attacks King Hrothgar's wealthy mead-hall, Heorot, killing Danish warriors and sometimes even eating them.
Hrothgar was a great warrior in his time, but now he's an old king and can't seem to protect his people. Fortunately, a young Geat warrior named Beowulf travels to Heorot Hall from his own lands overseas to lend a helping hand—literally.
After explaining that he owes Hrothgar a favor because Hrothgar helped out his father, Beowulf offers to fight Grendel himself. King Hrothgar gratefully accepts his offer. The next time Grendel attacks Heorot Hall, Beowulf is waiting for him. Choosing to fight Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, Beowulf wrestles the demon into submission and eventually tears off his arm at the shoulder. Mortally wounded, Grendel flees into the wilderness and dies. Beowulf, Hrothgar, and their followers throw a wild party to celebrate. Hrothgar also gives Beowulf many presents and treasures to reward him for his heroic defeat of the demon.
Unfortunately, Grendel has an overprotective mother who decides to avenge her son. While all the warriors are sleeping off the party, she attacks Heorot Hall. But when the warriors wake up, she panics and flees back to her lair, a cave underneath a nearby lake.
Beowulf, his Geatish warriors, and some of Hrothgar's Danish warriors track her there. Beowulf dives into the lake and finds the cave, where he takes on Grendel's mother in another one-on-one battle. Seizing a nearby sword from Grendel's mother's stash of treasure, he slays her, even though her poisonous demon blood melts the blade. When Beowulf returns to the surface, carrying the sword hilt and Grendel's severed head, the Danish warriors have given him up for dead, but his own Geatish followers are still waiting patiently. When everyone sees that Beowulf has survived this second challenge, there's even more partying and gift-giving.
Finally, the Geats take their leave of the Danes; Beowulf says goodbye to King Hrothgar and sails back to Geatland, where he is a lord in the court of King Hygelac. Eventually, Hygelac and all his relatives are killed in different blood-feuds, and Beowulf becomes the King of the Geats. Beowulf reigns as king for fifty years, protecting the Geats from all the other tribes around them, especially the Swedes. He is an honorable and heroic warrior-king, rewarding his loyal thanes (warrior lords) and taking care of his people.
But one day, Beowulf finally meets his match: a dragon, woken by a thief stealing a goblet, begins attacking the Geats, burning villages and slaughtering people. Beowulf takes a group of eleven trusty warriors, plus the thief who knows where the dragon's lair is, to the barrow for a final showdown with the monster. When they see the dragon, all but one of the warriors flee in terror. Only one man, Wiglaf, remains at Beowulf's side. With Wiglaf's help and encouragement, Beowulf is able to defeat the dragon, but he is mortally wounded in the process.
After Beowulf's death, the Geats build an enormous funeral pyre for him, heaped with treasures. Once the pyre has burned down, they spend ten days building an enormous barrow (a large mound of earth filled with treasure) as a monument to their lost king.