Source: Unsplash by Patrick Tomasso
In the canon of Old English literature, Beowulf looms large as both a poem and a character. He appears as the ultimate Anglo-Saxon hero, a fierce warrior and generous king. However, “[o]n the basis of his size and sheer physical power, Beowulf is indubitably a monster” (Flight, p.211). His feats on the battlefield – particularly against Grendel and Grendel’s Mother – set him apart from other characters in the poem.
However, Beowulf is still lauded as a hero. His adherence to heroic masculinity – characterised, in Bremmer’s opinion, by “generosity, loyalty, fairness in conduct, and ambition for fame” (Bremmer, p.87) – renders his monstrosity palatable. Who cares about his brutality towards his enemies when he acts as a gift-giver to his allies?
Meanwhile, Grendel’s Mother’s attempted adherence to heroic monsters heightens her monstrosity. Although she acts with appropriate violence whilst avenging her son, she lacks the allies that make Beowulf a hero.
Beowulf’s monstrosity is perhaps most evident during his fight with Grendel. He announces that “I count myself | as dangerous any day as Grendel | […] unarmed he shall face me” (Heaney, ll.677-84). In one stroke, he compares himself to the inhuman Grendel and rejects the use of man-made weapons. Great focus is placed on swords throughout the poem as a symbol of masculine-human-warrior culture; in refusing a sword, Beowulf distances himself from humanity itself.
This is only furthered as Beowulf defeats Grendel by ripping off his arm. In Heaney’s translation, Grendel’s “[s]inews split | and the bone-lappings burst” (Heaney, ll.816-17). The gruesome imagery and depiction of strength make it clear that Beowulf is stronger and perhaps more violent than an ordinary man; he is “more powerful than Grendel” and favours a “technique not dissimilar to his fen-dwelling adversary” (Flight, p.207). Beowulf is perhaps closer to the monster than to other men.
Despite this, the audience is prepared to believe in Beowulf’s humanity because he conforms to expected masculine behaviours elsewhere. Whilst he may eschew weaponry in this instance, he fulfils the Old English expectation of gift-giving, a method of cementing the loyalty between retainer and lord which O’Keeffe identifies as the ‘touchstone’ of heroic culture through the exchange of wealth.
As the poem comes to an end and Beowulf faces death at the hands of a dragon, his retainer Wiglaf is moved to help him by the memory of “the bountiful gifts bestowed on him” by Beowulf (Heaney, l.2606). Though his aid cannot save Beowulf, Wiglaf buys him enough to kill the dragon and earn its treasure, which is then bequeathed to the Geatish people in the ultimate gift-giving exercise. Beowulf’s conformity to this gift-giving culture provides him with connections that prevent the audience from seeing Beowulf as truly monstrous.
In contrast, Grendel’s Mother’s connections to humanity are twisted and fail to redeem her in the eyes of the audience. Her hall – reminiscent of Hrothgar’s Heorot, the centre of civilisation – is without retainers or gifts. Instead, it comprises an “armoury” (Heaney, l.1558) and Grendel’s Mother herself fights with a “broad whetted knife” (Heaney, l.1546). In this moment, she arguably displays the tenets of masculinity and heroism better than Beowulf himself; she seeks her vengeance in human terms, rather than through brute strength. However, the poem quickly reminds us of her monstrosity; she is a “swamp thing” (Heaney, l.1518), not a warrior.
Grendel’s Mother’s monstrosity comes primarily from her isolation. By embracing masculine warriorhood and violence, she rejects the feminine peace-weaving role that would have placed her at the heart of social life. Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s wife, is the archetype; she enters the poem after Beowulf’s antagonistic exchange with Unferth and, “[a]dorned in her gold” (Heaney, l.614), passes a cup around the mead-hall according to rank, reinforcing hierarchy and encouraging friendship. She is the facilitator of socialisation and keeper of the peace. When Grendel’s Mother chooses to disrupt this peace, she dismisses the role provided for her in Anglo-Saxon civilisation and thus dismisses civilisation and humanity itself.
Thus we see two characters who conform to the Anglo-Saxon ideal of a masculine warrior; however, one is ultimately heroic and one ultimately monstrous. Beowulf is redeemed by his masculinity as it leads him to form connections as a lord. Grendel’s Mother is damned by her masculinity as it prevents her from forming connections as a peace-weaver.
Bremmer Jr., Rolf H., ‘Old English Heroic Literature’ in Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature, ed. David Johnson and Elaine Treharne, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Flight, Tim, Basilisks and Beowulf: Monsters in the Anglo-Saxon World, (London: Reaktion Books, 2021)
Heaney, Seamus, Beowulf: A Verse Translation, ed. Daniel Donoghue, (New York: Norton, 2019)
O’Keeffe, Katherine O’Brien, ‘Heroic Values and Christian Ethics’ in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)