Beowulf Distracts The Audience Through Grendel’s Mother Treatment

When one considers the criticism of Beowulf, from the beginnings to more recent writings the early lack of interest in Grendel’s mother is very apparent. In 1936 J. R. R. Tolkien dismissed her as a secondary figure to her son. Major feminist criticism also seemed to avoid her until the 1980s when Jane Chance focused on the female monster, discussing the structural unity of Beowulf. Though the episode concerning Grendel’s mother is shorter than that of her son, the issues that the poet raises in these lines seems infinitely more complicated and encompassing than the obvious sense of good and evil communicated in the struggle between Beowulf and Grendel.  

Grendel, the blood thirsty, murderous progeny of Cain commits crimes unprovoked and indiscriminately. He is undeniably evil, and the poet certainly goes to great lengths to describe him as a grotesque and fearsome being. Grendel is the ‘feond on helle’ (Beowulf 101), ‘grimma’ (102) and ‘wonsaeli’ (105). The poet is never at a loss for new words to describe Grendel’s wickedness and his ugly visage. The situation is straightforward; the beast is evil and deserves to die.   Murder must be avenged, swiftly and without mercy. The simplicity of this judgement and the killing of evil Grendel resides fresh in the readers mind as they are confronted with the next monster, a being without a name, referred to through a connection of kinship, Grendles modor (1282). Jane Chance points out in her essay that; Grendel’s Mother is…described in human and social terms. She is specifically called a wif unhyre ‘a monstrous woman’ and an ides aglaecwif ‘ a lady monster-woman’. Ides elsewhere in Beowulf denotes ‘lady’ and connotes either a queen or a woman of high social rank…In addition, as if the poet wished to stress her maternal role, she is characterised usually as Grendel’s modor or kinswoman, the former a word almost exclusively reserved for her, although other mothers appear in the poem. It seems clear from these epithets that Grendel’s Mother inverts the Germanic roles of mother and queen, or lady (Chance 249).

 

Already contradictory, the poet gives her an element of status, but also makes her out to be an inversion of the ideal. As such, a woman acting in a manner unsuitable for her sex, in an active rather than a passive role, ought to be forced back into her rightful place. A woman should not avenge her sons and enact blood-revenge. Beowulf’s adventure into the lady-monster’s abode should thus be a simple one, he must kill her and in doing so restore the Germanic social ideal.   Yet the Beowulf poet refuses to make Beowulf’s triumph easy. It is not gained without considerable effort, and it does not sit easy in the minds of readers. Grendel’s Mother, is of course not acting unprovoked, as her son did. She is seeking out vengeance for her son’s death. The only reason she is not justified in doing so is that she is a woman. As a woman, she is meant to passively accept her son’s death and leave the matter of revenge to her male kin. Yet, how can she possibly do this when Beowulf has killed her only male relative? The poet never mentions brothers or a father or a husband on whom she may rely upon to uphold her safety and honour. Thus, she has no choice but to assume male responsibility (Chance 252).

 

Here, Grendel’s Mother is a mixture of many things, she is a grieving mother, a monster and a retainer.   It cannot be denied that she, in at least two of these faces, is entitled to an allotment of sympathy. She does, as Chance points out, resemble a human mother; Like Hildeburh she is guiltless and galgmod ‘gloomy-minded’; her journey to Heorot must be sorrowful for she ‘remembered her misery’. However, a woman’s primary loyalty as peace-pledge was served for her husband, not her son, according to the Danish history of Saxo Grammaticus. Perhaps for this reason Grendel’s mother is presented as husbandless and son-obsessed- to suggest to an Anglo-Saxon audience the dangers inherent in woman’s function as fridusibb ‘pledge of peace’ (Chance 252). If this is indeed the case, the poet is certainly guilty of using Grendel’s mother to disconcert his audience, rather than to represent an embodiment of evil. A grieving woman may be very dangerous in this sense, but she cannot easily be regarded as evil. In her aggressive masculine attempt at blood revenge, the poet makes her out to be more pathetic than terrifying. Highlighting her feminine attributes more than anything else, he has her seize a single man, not directly involved in the killing of her son, who she hastily carries back to her lair in fear of being confronted by others; ‘héo wæs on ofste wolde út þanon/ féore beorgan’ (Beowulf 1292:93).    

 

The great act of vengeance is vague and cowardly. We cannot forget that the monster is shaped as a human woman, and poses less of a physical threat than her man-shaped son. ‘Waes se gryre laessa/ efne swa micle swa bid maegpa craeft/ wiggryre wifes be waepnedmen’ (Beowulf 1282:84). Martin Puhvel discusses the discrepancy between the reader’s introduction to Grendel’s mother against her second appearance. Since she is described as inferior at the outset, and since her act of vengeance is somewhat pathetic, the difficulty Beowulf faces in defeating her must be questioned.   Though having Grendel’s mother flee back to the fens can certainly be seen as a dramatic device used by the author to create tension and suspense is understandable, but the eventual difficult battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother seems to have other more meaningful significance; Some critics have suggested that the poet’s moral sensibility, his ‘sense of fairness’ is a significant factor.

 

According to this train of reasoning, while Grendel is a ruthless, unprovoked aggressor, his mother, again, acts in accordance with the standard Germanic code of blood-revenge; furthermore, her own domain is invaded; for these reasons a measure of sympathy on the author’s part is due to her and hence Beowulf’s revenge on revenge is made out to be a difficult and hazardous undertaking (Puhvel 83). Though Puhvel goes on to credit a more mythological interpretation instead, it seems reasonable to consider these points in more detail. The poet goes between describing Grendel’s mother in feminine terms and describing her in aggressive masculine terms. The audience is already much confused about how they are meant to feel about the lady-monster. Beowulf is now tracking her down in order to avenge her dubious crime, and in doing so, he invades her home, her sacred hall.

 

The societal importance of the hall and home cannot be understated at this point. It is a focal point of life, where lord and retainer reside, where the lord gives out gifts and treasure in exchange for the loyalty of his thanes, and where women act as peace-weavers, holding the alliances together. The hall is not a place of war, but a place of peace.   In this instance Beowulf becomes the perpetrator, committing a crime that has previously been committed by Grendel himself; bringing blood and violence into sacred space.

 

Chance believes that the second encounter with Grendel’s mother sees her gaining yet another facet. She is no longer grieving mother, or avenging retainer. Instead she has become the lord of her own hall; The merewif as queen or guardian protects her “battle-hall,” the cave-like lair, from the visiting hero like the regal dragon guarding his ring-hall, and like King Beowulf his kingdom, in the last section of the poem…As a tribeless queen or lady she rudely receives her “hall-guest” Beowulf by “embracing” him and then “repaying him” for his valor not with treasure but with “grim grips”…Indeed, the parody of the hall-ceremony of treasure-giving is complete with a “scop” (Beowulf’s sword, acting as bard) sings a fierce “war-song” off the side of her head (Chance 253).  

 

The poet has now masculinized the monster, she is lord of the hall, Beowulf is the intruder. In this position, though her space has been invaded, the reader may expect that Grendel’s mother must take responsibility for her violent action, and have less sympathy for her. She becomes exceedingly active, a lord protecting her domain; ‘Bær þá séo brimwylf     þá héo tó botme cóm/ hringa þengel tó hofe sínum’ (Beowulf 1506:07).   She holds power over Beowulf, and it is almost as if the two have become equals. The poet then has them grapple for dominance. At this point the poet undermines the monster’s masculinity, introducing an unnerving sexual element to the battle. Chance asserts that this is not in fact a common element found in Anglo-Saxon literature. Indeed the poet’s inclusion of erotic imagery may serve to disconcert his audience by posing the threat of female, heathen power found in the depths of a woman’s sexuality. (Chance 254:55)

We may even consider the female monster’s battle hall to be a watery womb, representing the mystery of women’s sexuality and regenerative power. This is the place where Beowulf may emerge reborn in heroic glory, or die.   This is not a mere case of good and evil, but a very complex issue questioning the morality of the Anglo-Saxons’ ancestors and forcing them to consider their Christianity, and the ways in which their faith could come under attack by the very forces of nature. Chance writes that; after his (Beowulf’s) sword fails him…he “grasped her by the shoulder,” hurling her to the ground…Then, as “reward” for his valor, this lady “repaid” him with treasure of her grimman grapum ‘fierce graspings’, forcing him to stumble and fall, after which she climbs, rather ludicrously, on top of her ‘hall-guest’, intent on stabbing him and thereby (again) avenging her only offspring (Chance 253:4).

 

Beowulf’s triumph over Grendel’s mother establishes Germanic moral and social ideals. She has been stripped of her masculine facade after being penetrated by the phallic sword.   Thus as feminine, passive and defeated an element of sympathy for the lady-monster re-enters the poem to remain in the mind of the reader until Beowulf’s death at the hands of the final monster he battles; the dragon, a creature that, like Grendel’s mother, has its own lair intruded.   Although so far it has been easy to see how the poet disconcerts his audience through the character of Grendel’s mother, it is also possible to see the sea-wolf as an embodiment of evil just the same as her monstrous son. She has been linked by critics to the figure of Eve, a temptress and antithesis of the Virgin (cite). And yet, Eve is redeemable through Christ and can thus gain Christian sympathy. Perhaps the lady-monster of Beowulf could better be linked to the figure of Lillith, a tempting unredeemable demon of biblical lore.  

 

Her succubus-like struggle with Beowulf and the sexual imagery in the scene may paint her as unforgivable. Furthermore, Herbert G. Wright points out in ‘Good and Evil; Light and Darkness; Joy and Sorrow in Beowulf’ that; Grendel’s mother also belongs to the race of giants and that as a result of this origin she too bears the curse imposed on the progeny of Cain; indeed, in the genealogical table she is one step nearer to Cain. (Wright 1). Though Wright goes on to assert that she is not condemned nearly as much as Grendel, we must consider the significance of her death, the means by which Beowulf succeeds in killing her. First he attacks her with Hrunting the sword, and this proving useless[1] he attempts to overpower her with strength alone, as he defeated her son.[2] This also failing, he notices a sword among the treasures in the cave, and it is only with this sword that he succeeds in killing his foe.  

 

In his essay ‘The Necessity of Evil in Beowulf’ James W. Earl discusses the significance of the mysterious sword;   On the sword itself is pictured the image of God’s judgment upon the race of giants. These, of course, are the giants of Genesis 6.4, the “giants in the earth in those days,” who so angered God that He flooded the earth. They are commonly understood to be the descendants of Cain, and therefore the not-too-distant cousins of Grendel and his mother. The engraved sword actually announces itself, then, as a sword of divine judgment upon the race of Cain, and thus announces its own role in the poem, after its purpose has been accomplished in the death of Grendel and his mother (Earl 84). This suggests that Grendel’s mother is no different that her son, and that the poet, by having Grendel’s mother killed by a sword of divine judgment presents her as yet another embodiment of evil. However, one might also consider the fact that Grendel’s mother may represent here another ‘geomuru Ides’, a woman who is a victim of male machinations.

 

We are told of no other crimes committed by the female monster prior to her attempt at revenge, and as such she was merely born cursed through no fault of her own, only that her male ancestor Cain was a murderer, and that the male God enacted a form of blood-revenge for his crime by cursing and banishing Cain. Thus, the poet draws comparisons between Grendel’s Mother and suffering Hildeburh of the Finnsburh fragment, succeeding in complicating the readers’ view of Grendel’s Mother. In conclusion it seems reasonable to agree with the view that the Beowulf poet’s treatment of Grendel’s mother serves to disconcert the audience rather than to present them with an embodiment of evil. She is a character of many contradictory faces, ready to unsettle and unbalance Beowulf himself as well as readers of the Anglo Saxon era and even the modern. She is a wronged and grieving mother, a terrifying sea wolf, a cursed descendent of the first murderer, lord of a murky battle hall, and a powerful, sexual creature. She cannot be easily classified, or boxed neatly under the title of evil, rather she is perhaps the most complicated and realistic representation of the female in the poem, though she is a hideous, mythological monster.                     

 

[1] ‘ðá se gist onfand/ þæt se beadoléoma bítan nolde/ aldre sceþðan ac séo ecg geswác / ðéodne æt þearfe’ (Beowulf 1522:1525).

[2] ‘strenge getrúwode/ mundgripe mægenes’ (Beowulf 1533:34).