As usual, Grendel plods through the darkness, heading toward Heorot for his nightly slaughter. He grips the hall door and rips it away. As he enters, his eyes fall upon the warriors sleeping. Little does he know that Beowulf is watching. Grendel reaches for and completely swallows one of the warriors. Next the monster reaches for Beowulf, who is ready for him. Beowulf seizes the vicious claw and holds on to it. Grendel is at first confused, then fearful as he tries to pull away. Still Beowulf hangs on tight. Grendel’s wrenching and bellowing brings the Danes out of their slumber and nearly breaks Heorot. Grendel desperately wants to be free and go home, but Beowulf keeps him in place. All the warriors don’t know how to help. Grendel is in such agony that he finally rips from Beowulf’s grasp and runs away, leaving a bloody trail and his arm behind.
Beowulf, meanwhile, “held to his promise.” As the sun rises, the people gaze at the severed arm and rejoice that the terror with Grendel is finally over. Some men follow Grendel’s bloody tracks to the moors, where the water bubbles over with blood as “the tomb of the dammed.”
On the way back to the hall, Hrothgar’s minstrel sings a story of Beowulf’s heroic deed. He also sings a story of other Danish legends. He sings of Sigemund, the hero who, with his friend Fitela, defeated a dragon and gained its treasure. He also sings of Good King Heremod, who became corrupt and evil.
The Beowulf poet is fond of a good pun. Here he leaps on the chance to show off his different ways to work “holding” puns into this section. Grendel and Beowulf do more reaching, gripping, tearing with hands, and seizing in this portion of the poem than any other portion. All the references fall before the battle between Beowulf and Grendelso we may appreciate the way Beowulf “held to his promise” by ripping the monster’s arm off.
Grendel’s march and arrival at Heorot create a great sense of dramatic tension in the poem. First the poet sets the scene in dank darkness, then turns to the peaceful, slumbering warriors (except for one who remains awake). Grendel trods through the moors and darkness for ten tense lines, then suddenly bursts into full attack mode. The viewpoint shifts to Beowulf, who simply watches. During the battle, there is a great seesawing of viewpoint, from terrified Grendel to determined Beowulf to waiting warriors. The changing viewpoint allows us to savor the suspense of the moment and see the scene in different ways.
The symbolic light and darkness also figure heavily into the scene. The evil Grendel ambles over the dark moors in the dead of night; Beowulf waits by the lights in the hall. Dark Grendel gazes at the glinting gold on the hall. The battle that began in darkness is completed in the dawning of day. The tension between light (symbolizing good) and dark (symbolizing evil) returns again and again in the poem.
Some have wondered why Beowulf didn’t run to action immediately when the monster enters. Why would he let two of his men meet such a terrible fate? Beowulf sees them as a necessary sacrifice. Again he uses the sense of a true warrior to act. Instead of rushing into battle blindly, Beowulf chooses to stand back and get a better idea of the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.
The scop sings as the men return to Heorot. Here the scop acts as a historian and places Beowulf into his song-annals as a man like the heroes of old. He uses the story of Sigemund as a teaching tool for Beowulf, who has the courage to defeat a dragon. Sigemund’s story also serves as foreshadowing for Beowulf’s future. Eventually Beowulf will come to fight a dragon, with only one thane by his side. The story of Heremod serves as a lesson to Beowulf, teaching him how not to rule a kingdom.