THE MONSTERS OF BEOWULF
We don’t hear much in the way of a physical description, and this is because it’s what Grendel represents that is the horror for the original audience. His name is associated etymologically with “ground” or “bottom,” but more importantly, consider the following:
- He is a “lone-walker” — not part of a comitatus.
- He kills — well, that’s fine — but at night?
- He uses no weapon in battle — while all other warriors practically have names for theirs.
- He has no father — while everyone else introduces himself as “son of” someone.
- The poet says, rather oddly, that he won’t settle the feud — so he doesn’t offer or accept wergild, or he can’t approach the gift-seat.
- The poet says, rather oddly, that he can’t boast — everyone else is expected to.
- He is described repeatedly in terms of deprivation and negatives.
In the fight between Grendel and Beowulf, confusing pronouns as to who is gripping whose arm suggest a döppleganger effect — a doubling. These two are two sides of the same coin, and the coin is “warrior.” In other words, Grendel represents everything a warrior should not be, or functions as the cumulative opposite of all Anglo-Saxon warrior virtues.
We hear some material after the battle with Grendel that introduces the female perspective in roundabout ways, including Hrothgar’s insistence that if Beowulf has a living mother, imagine how proud she’d be. We also hear, in a tangential story (the Finnsburg lai), about a grieving woman whose offspring have been murdered. So Grendel’s mother’s perspective is alluded to very obliquely. She snatches not skads of drunken warriors, but Hrothgar’s favorite; so however arbitary that seems to have been in terms of her attack, she is functioning essentially in a blood-feud. Beowulf becomes the invader into her hall just as Grendel was in Heorot. Women in Anglo-Saxon culture are “peace-weavers” (because one can convince oneself that arranged marriages will prompt feuds to simmer down) and “cup-bearers” (because they fetch more booze for the men). That’s it. Grendel’s mother is the opposite of what that culture values in women.
We keep hearing a term of 50 years mentioned: especially in reference to Beowulf’s kingship and to the time the dragon has guarded its hoard. Beowulf is now the king — the “ring-giver” who ideally distributes booty captured in battle to his thanes in accordance with their deserts. Good kings are ring-givers and bad kings (again we hear tangentially of a couple) are miserly. The dragon functions then as the opposite of a good king because it guards the trreasure but can do nothing with it. It represents malice, destruction, and greed — the dark side of kingship. So it’s another döppleganger situation in effect. Both the dragon and Beowulf die in this final battle, and the last images are those of waste and desolation.
When Beowulf is defending his reputation from Unferth’s accusations in front of Hrothgar and the rest, he mentions having to fend off “niceras” — sea-monsters. My Chaucerian and Medievalist college professor, Thomas J. Garbaty said in 1984 about these things: “Nicoras. What are they? I don’t know. They’re sea-monsters; they’re bad. You gotta kill them.”