Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Beowulf-Monsters Commentary

Beowulf Commentary Melissa Alles

There seem to be many strange creatures roamingthe unfortunate lands described in Beowulf, but the threethat Beowulf decides to eradicate have a definite penchant fordestructive acts toward humans. They each have their own reasonsfor their evil deeds. The dragon wreaks havoc because his treasuresare stolen, Grendel’s mother is seeking revenge for the mutilationand death of her son, and Grendel eats people because the inhabitantsof Heorot sounded like they were having too much fun in theirgreat hall. People accept bloodshed and strife as part of lifeunless it comes from an outside source. They see warfare againstother humans as politically necessary and often glorious, butif any non-humans try to take part in the action, they deem thishorrific and unnatural.

I find the methods used to fight the two semi-humanmonsters very interesting. Beowulf decides to fight Grendel withoutarms. As Grendel does not use weapons to bite people in halfand lap their blood, it will bring the hero greater honor to slaythe foe with his bare hands; this is partly because it would bedishonorable to kill an unarmed man, no matter how dangerous orevil he might be, and partly because Beowulf’s vanity will notallow him to miss an opportunity for even greater glory, evenif it means his death and disaster for the innocent people heprofesses to defend. But Beowulf proves his incredible prowessand manhood by ripping poor Grendel’s arm off and leaving himto run off and die. One can hardly be surprised by this inhumanetreatment of an inhuman monster, however, when one considers thatour gallant hero pretended to be asleep long enough for Grendelto eat one of the men in the hall, rather than intercepting the”hell-being” the moment he entered. Nonetheless, everyonerejoices and Beowulf receives such honor as they believe he deserves.

Shortly after, Grendel’s mother comes alongto avenge her son’s partial dismemberment. She is described aspossessing the form of a woman; as her son is described as havingthe form of a man but larger than any man known and no such comparisonis used in her description, it is possible that she is no largerthan a regular woman. Regardless, she is shown an ineffectualavenger, managing to drag off her son’s arm and killing only oneman before fleeing the scene (remember Grendel had taken thirtymen on his first foray to Heorot). Once again, Beowulf agreesto destroy the accursed offender. Rather than waiting for herto return to the hall, he decides to seek her out. He does notsimply go armed, but rather in full battle dress; the extraordinaryattributes of the pieces he wears are described in detail. Thisgear will stop anything; it ought to be able to stop a mean-spiritedfemale. She drags him to her lair, where he is out of the waterand now has freedom of movement. However, he still does not farewell in the battle. His blade proves useless, so he decides totrust in his strength and grabs her by the hair in a classic gestureof male dominance. After throwing her to the ground, he cannoteven maintain that advantage because she pulls him down and sitson top of him, stabbing at his armor with her knife. For somereason she lets him stand up, at which point he grabs one of herown blades and deals her a lethal blow to, and through, the neck.

It would be feasible to argue that Beowulfundertook to slay Grendel’s mother in full battle dress becausethere were “water-monsters” in the water, and thereforehe needed defense against them. He had faced the terrible monsterfish of the sea before and his mail had saved his life then, soperhaps caution was the driving force. However, it is likelythere was a deeper motive. Grendel’s mother had interrupted thepeople’s celebration of Beowulf’s might. Rather than waitingfor her to return to the hall to further her revenge, he soughther out. He regarded her as an annoyance to be dealt with swiftly; then he might return to what was really important (i.e., revelingin his own glory). Beowulf’s ambition is based solely on gloryand the attainment of said glory. He recognizes that there isno honor to be claimed by killing a woman. Grendel’s mother holdsno value as a foe because of her sex. He wears his armor partlybecause he knows this act will do nothing for the legendary statushe is attempting to create; none would deem it a great feat tokill a woman, no matter what wicked things she had done or howvile her physical presence. His other motive is this: if he shouldfail and himself be slain, all his previous glories will be tarnishedby the manner in which he met his end and no longer would he beknown as the mightiest man who ever lived. If he had been killedfighting Grendel with his bare hands, his legacy would be evenmore magnificent because of the way he died. However, were heto be killed fighting Grendel’s mother, people would forever shaketheir heads in wonder, trying to imagine how a man of his mightcould show himself so feeble as to be slain by a monster’s weaklingmother.

Medieval Monsters