Human-like Beasts or Bestial Humans?
The Slippery Monsters of Beowulf
Michael A. Slusser
Much has been written on the roles, uses, functions, perceptions, descriptions, and underlying motivations and sources of the "monsters" presented in Beowulf. Much of the discussion centres on particular words, grammatical peculia rities, and social and historical influences on the presentation of the monstrous adversaries of Beowulf that may be difficult for the beginner in Old English. I intend only to give a brief overview of the variety of information available and the broad c ategories into which these discussions fall.
Essentially, there are three "monsters" in Beowulf: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. For many years, these "fantastic" elements were seen largely as deviations from the real meat of the text, the historical sign ificance of the poem (Tolkien 52). In his seminal article "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," J. R. R. Tolkien argues that the monsters are the centre of the poem, and their inclusion was neither accidental nor poorly chosen (Tolki en 52). His paper shaped the way nearly all subsequent critics viewed the monsters in the poem—that is, poetically and literarily, rather than as historical indicators.
From this point, it is perhaps most useful to discuss each monster separately:
Grendel is the first monster that Beowulf fights, and has by far received the most critical attention. Briefly, Grendel menaces the Hall of Heorot, its master king Hrothgar, and his men. Grendel stalks the moors, and nightly attacks the hall, devouring Hrothgar’s men—none can stop him. Hrothgar calls upon Beowulf to combat the monster. Beowulf arrives, and when the weapons of his men are ineffective against Grendel’s hide, he wrestles the monster unarmed, managing to rip his arm off entirel y. Grendel limps away, and is later dispatched by Beowulf.
Grendel is important to the text in many ways. His battle with Beowulf is the most richly detailed and explicated event in the narrative. Much criticism now focuses on Grendel’s exact nature: is he a bestial giant, a demonic spirit, or an outcas t warrior? Critics Stephen Bandy traces Grendel’s heritage through "the line of Cain" described in the poem, and points out the tradition in the Middle Ages to figure the progeny of the Genesis outcast as monsters and giants. Genesis 4:4 tells clearly that those descended of the first fratricide became monstrous, and later Germanic myth linked them clearly with the monsters and giants who inhabited their pagan tales (Bandy 236). While he relies on Augustine and others to show that Grendel ind eed has a human soul and must therefore be held accountable for his crimes, Bandy clearly is favouring Grendel’s status as a huge ogre, as the iconography of such great sin would suggest (240).
Many commentators now classify Grendel as at least partly a man, and some advocate that he may be entirely human, a social outcast from the order of "thegn" and lord. Thalia Feldman also uses Cain as the basis for Grendel’s lineage, but reli es heavily upon his human nature. She carefully traces the meanings of words often used to support Grendel’s monstrosity and shows that they in fact may be more indicative of brutish men than monsters. For example, the term fifelcynis often gloss ed as "monster," and there is little to dispute this in the body of Old English literature, as this is the only appearance of fiflto be found. However, Old Norse used in Icelandic and Scandanavian sagas suggest rather that fifl is closer in meaning to "fool," and is used to indicate the uneducated or brutish (Feldman 74). When looking at such terms as < I>eotenas, she states that it is more properly tied to the verb etan, and may indicate a cannibal more than a giant (Feldman 76). These would seem to indicate that Grendel is wild, ignorant, and socially repugnant, but not a true "monster." Katherine O’Keefe also relies on philological study. She takes up the use of words such as aglæca (either "monster, fiend" or "hero" in some glo sses; O’Keefe suggests "formidable [one]," as does Elliot Dobbie) and hilderinc ("warrior"), which are applied both to Grendel and others in the text—most notably Beowulf himself (484-85). The implication would seem to be that either both Grendel and our hero are monstrous, or both are human—or possibly some combination of the two. In any case, they must share some traits, which link them more than commentators who wish to make Grendel entirely alien would indicate.
Meanwhile, scholars such as Fidel Fajardo-Acosta explore Grendel’s reasons for savaging Heorot—the Danes’ moral failings—and suggest that Grendel is only present as a kind of spiritual punishment. Fajardo-Acosta points out lines 175-183 in Beowulf, where the author decries the heathen ways of the Danes and their lack of devotion to the one true God. Of these he says, "Therefore, according to the Beowulf poet, the presence and ravages of Grendel among the Danes appear to be a phenomenon directly related to the behaviour and character of the Danes the mselves" (206). To these sins are added those of drunkenness, brutality, and—in the person of Unferth—fratricide (Fajardo-Acosta 207). The other attributes of Grendel—his prodigious strength, the difficulty the trained warriors among the Danes have in slaying or capturing him (though clearly Hrothgar knows where he lairs), his appearance when the Danes are at their lowest moral points—seem to indicate that his function is a moral one (Fajardo-Acosta 209).
Receiving no name of her own, Grendel’s mother figures least in the mass of critical interpretation, largely due to the shortness and awkwardness of the passages describing her encounter with Beowulf, in which essentially the hero follows Grendel’s bloody trail to her lair at the bottom of a lake, engages her in battle, and kills her. Descriptions of her are sparse. Most analysis centres around her nature, and the problematic terms used to describe her: aglæcwif (with the same problems as aglæca, above), and ides (which literally is "woman," but which is normally only used in Old English to describe ladies of nobility) (Taylor 15; Temple 10). Keith Taylor argues that the use of these terms is deliberately oppositional, so that we are forced to recognize not only that Grendel’s mother is formidable, but also has an inherent nobility (17). If Grendel is descended from the line of Cain, then his mother must be a part of that lineage—his status, therefore, is in some ways dependent on hers. And if Grendel is a kind of biblical judgement on the Danes, then there must be some honour of some sort associated with his progenitor. Mary Kay Temple, on the other hand, claims that the use of ides is meant ironically, through conjuring images of other more worthy ladies (14).
The last third or so of the Beowulf narrative describes a much older Beowulf, now a chieftan in his own right, fighting against a dragon that is ravaging the lands of his people. Beowulf is eventually killed by the dragon, though not before giving it a mortal blow which allows his subordinate, Wulfstan, to finish the beast off. As might be imagined, a good deal of critical effort is spent arguing whether or not the dragon is simply another monster in a pagan tale or the embodiment of evil in a Christian allegory. If the other monsters have been the descendents of Cain, then the tale is in some ways building to this confrontation with the symbol of ultimate sin, the serpent. An interesting side discussion is carried on regarding the nature of the dragon as possibly human: Peter Braeger and others argue that the language leaves open the possibility that the dragon may once have been human, transformed to a monstrous shape (327). Throughout the poem, Beowulf has been wrestling—both literally and figuratively—with evil, and here he faces it in its purest form. The simultaneous deaths of both he and his foe are cited by many as evidence of the poet’s linking of evil with the very act of being human. The "problem of evil" cannot be overcome, because it is a problem rooted in our nature, and it is possible that this interplay between the humanness and monstrosity of Beowulf’s opponents continues to elucidate this dilemma without offering much in the way of resolving it.
For Further Reading
Bandy, Stephen C. "Cain, Grendel, and the Giants of Beowulf." Papers on Language and Literature 9 (1973): 235-49.
Interesting discussion of "giant" iconography.
Braeger, Peter. "Connotations of (Earm)Sceapen: Beowulf II. 2228-2229 and the Shape-Shifting Dragon." Essays in Literature. 13 (1986): 327-30.
A very short paper focussing on this particular word’s usage.
Fajardo-Acosta, Fidel. "Intemperance, Fratricide, and the Elusiveness of Grendel. English Studies 73 (1992): 205-10. An interesting treatment of the theme of "Grendel as moral punisher."
Feldman, Thalia. "Grendel and Cain’s Descendants." Literary Onomastics Studies 8
Very well researched article, giving new light to the human-monster debate about Grendel.
O’Keefe, Katherine. "Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human." Texas Studies in Literature 23 (1981): 484-94.
More narrow in focus than Feldman’s article, this is still a useful discussion of the topic.
Taylor, Keith P. "The Inherent Nobility of Grendel’s Mother." English Language Notes
31 (1994): 13-25.
A good examination of wordplay and paradoxical language in the poem.
Temple, Mary Kay. "Grendel’s Lady Mother." English Language Notes 23 (1986): 10-15.
A short paper, this argument examines the way ides has been used in literature and what that means in the context of Beowulf.
Tolkien, J.R.R. "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95. Rpt. in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1963. 51-103.
A very enjoyable discourse, and an important one. This is the paper that changed the nature of subsequent criticism. Perhaps a bit more informal than the modern scholar will be accustomed to, Tolkien’s research and analysis are nevertheless brilliant , and this is a refreshingly interesting dissertation. Covers much more than just the monsters in the poem—a good treatise on the nature of criticism of literature itself.
Further Reading Not Cited in the Text
Dobbie, Eliott Van Kirk, ed. Beowulf and Judith. New York: Columbia UP, 1953.
An important edition of the poem, this volume also contains a text of Judith, another Old English poem. Dobbie provides very extensive notes on precedents for his word glosses. This version is much cited by scholars.
Jack, George, ed. Beowulf: A Student Edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.
Not necessarily important in scholarly criticism, this volume features an extremely useful side-by-side glossary. Very helpful for the first-time reader.
Klaeber, Fr., ed. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburgh. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1922.
With Dobbie, one of the two most cited scholarly editions of the poem. Contains over a hundred pages of introduction discussing half a dozen important aspects of the poem, as well as copious textual notes. Also contains the text of The Fight at Fi nnsburgh.
Mitchell, Bruce. "’Until the Dragon Comes...’: Some Thoughts on Beowulf.Neophilologus 47 (1963): 126-38.
An interesting and readable treatise on the interplay of Christian and pagan elements in the poem.
Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-manuscript.
Cambridge, England; New York: Brewer, 1995.
One of the more modern works on this subject, Orchard "contextualize[s] the text’s monsters in the manuscripts." Very highly recommended.
As a fan of the original Star Trek, I can remember having fun counting up how many times the show tapped into the evil twin motif. There was the episode where Kirks psyche was split into two people, so that a nice but wishy-washy Kirk and a mean but decisive Kirk roamed the Enterprise; or the episode when Kirk and three others ended up in a parallel evil universe where evil Spock had an evil goatee; or the episode where Kirk and an evil woman scientist (whom he had jilted) switched bodies (straight out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon) . . . the list could continue. Nor has Star Trek been the only show to turn to the evil twin plot; it has become so familiar, such an overused and tired cliché in the modern storytelling medium of TV, that when a show resorts to an evil twin episode, we know its writers are pretty desperate.
When we consider the structure of Beowulf, especially the balanced contrast between Beowulf and the monsters he faces, we might be tempted to see the poem as an early evil twin story. And I think there is some truth in that reading, as I will outline in this essay: example after example points to an intentional highlighting of a Beowulf-monster association, a sort of apposition such as Fred Robinson has argued for in his Beowulf and the Appositive Style but more extended and pervasive. But what I also want to stress is how the poet went beyond what we may consider a cliché plot motif to a greater issue; even as I outline the extent of the evil twin connections between Beowulf and the three monstrous foes, I wish to explore why the poet made the connections. I believe that the poet was stressing the evil twin aspect to make a statement about human beings: how we have a monstrous side, how at times it is truly difficult to tell monster from human, and at times so much easier because the humans are so much more monstrous.
From the outset, it is obvious that the poet meant to create an immediate comparison between Beowulf and his foes, for they are described in parallel terms. Such is obvious in the case of Beowulf and Grendel. Theres the matter of numbers: Grendel can genam thritig thegna (he can seize thirty men at once; 122-23).1 According to Hrothgar, Beowulf has thritiges manna mægencræft on his mundgripe (the strength of thirty in his hand; 379-80), a point illustrated later when Beowulf swims off with thirty suits of armor from Hygelacs battle against the Franks, though of course Fred Robinson has disputed that feat in his Elements of the Marvellous in the Characterization of Beowulf: A Reconsideration of the Textual Evidence (84-85). Beowulf and Grendel are both known for their murderous progenitors: Beowulfs father, Ecgtheow, was on the run for killing Heatholaf of the Wulfings (and not paying wergild). Grendel descends from Cain, who is likewise on the run for his crime of killing another; that Cain killed his brother makes his crime more grievous, but the basic act is the same.
Hrothgar relinquishes control of Heorot to each: unwillingly to Grendel, who has driven away the warriors so that now he Heorot eardode, sincfage sel sweartum nihtum (held Heorot, the richly adorned hall, by dark night; 166-67), and later willingly to Beowulf: Hafa nu ond geheald husa selest, gemyne mærtho, mægenellen cyth, waca with wrathum! (Have now and hold this best of houses, think on glory, show your mighty valor, watch for the foe!; 658-60) In preparation for their battle, Beowulf notes that since Grendel for his wonhydum wæpna ne recceth (434)that is, does not use weapon, armor, or shieldnor will he, thereby directly casting himself as Grendels equal or twin. Beowulf and Grendel also come from essentially single-parent families and have mothers who are never clearly named. Beowulf is known for his father Ecgtheow, and while he obviously has a mother, she is not deemed worthy of a name and has no place in the plot. Hrothgar does acknowledge and even praise her, but not for who she is but rather for whom she gave birth to:
This Geatish woman could be simply referred to as Beowulfs mother. Similarly, Grendel obviously had a biological father, but he is never named nor plays any part in the story. Yes, his distant father is Cain, but Grendels real father is unknown, and his mother is known not by her name but by her association with her son.
As with Beowulf and Grendel, there are also situational associations between Beowulf and Grendels mother. Grendels mother had held her lair for hund missera (1498)a hundred seasons, or fifty years, if we allow two seasons (summer and winter) to make a yearand of course Beowulf rules fiftig wintra (2209). As Beowulf took Grendels arm as a trophy, Grendels mother took Æscheres body as a trophy. She beheads Æschere, which Beowulf repays by beheading both her and Grendel. And when they fight, there is a sense that she and Beowulf are more evenly matched than Grendel and Beowulf, for Beowulf is in real jeopardy during his battle with her.
Even Beowulf and the dragon have some evil twin connections. Both have the number fifty associated with them; again, Beowulf ruled fifty years, and the dragon is fiftiges fotgemearces (fifty paces long; 3042). More significantly, both are lords who respond when their respective halls are violated. The dragon, after all, has been robbed and is understandably angry:
For his part, Beowulf has had his mead-hall burned and wants revenge:
To protect him from the dragons fire, Beowulf uses an iron shield, the metal reminding us of the dragons scales which likewise shield it from sword-blows. The two opponents are also most evenly matched in battle; of course Beowulf is over-matched as he cannot kill the dragon alone, but their twin nature comes out as they prove to be each others bane. The dragon, J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us, fits Beowulf perfectly: it is necessary that his final foe should not be some Swedish prince, or treacherous friend, but a dragon: a thing made by imagination for just such a purpose. Nowhere does a dragon come in so precisely where he should (128).
So we can readily note the descriptions, details, and situationssome obvious, some more subtlethat allow us to consider Beowulf and his three monstrous foes as evil twins. Yet there is another way the poet highlights the connection between man and monster: there are numerous examples of linguistic twinning, moments where the language itself blurs the line between man and monster. For example, both men and monsters have folman: hands or paws, depending upon the translators interpretation. Rinc (usually translated as warrior) is used in reference to human beings almost exclusively, but it is also applied to Grendel at line 720. We translate wer as man, but we can also note that Grendel is described as being on weres wæstmum (1352), that is, having the form of a wer, or man. Klaeber tells us to translate aglæca as wretch, monster, or fiend as in Licsar gebad atol æglæca (the horrid monster [Grendel] endured bodily pain; 815-16), except when it refers to a person, in which case it ought to be translated as warrior or hero, as in Hæfde aglæca elne gegongen (the hero [Sigemund] had succeeded with strength; 893). And actually, at line 2592 the word means both monster and hero at the same time, as the plural form aglæcean refers to both the dragon and Beowulf: Næs tha long to thon, thæt tha aglæcean hy eft gemetton (It was not long before the aglæcean again clashed).
The scene with the dragon brings up one of the most complex examples of the impact of such ambiguous language. The specific moment comes as Beowulf and the dragon size each other up before their melee begins:
The flexibility of the language allows us to have the masculine personal pronoun he refer to the winia bealdor, the person Beowulf; or the masculine personal pronoun he may refer to the closest masculine noun, in this case se wyrm, the dragon. Or maybe he refers to both Beowulf and the dragon, for both awaited in cunning.
I think the poet was intentionally exploiting the grammatical flexibility and ambiguity of his language to underscore subtly the point that at times we cannot distinguish between man and monster. Such blurring has been the case throughout the poem, for in each of the three battles, it becomes clear that it takes a monster to kill a monster. Only Beowulf with his monstrous strength can kill Grendel, and I have the sense that Beowulfs men strike ineffectively at Grendel not just because of his enchanted skin but also in part because Beowulf and the monster are wrestling so tightly that it is difficult to tell one from the other. The poem reads that they strike thær hie meahton swa (where they might do so; 797) suggesting that they had few chances at a clear shot. In his fight with Grendels mother, Beowulf must arm himself with a giants sword, the ealdsweord eotenisc (1558), choosing the weapon of a monster to kill a monster. Moreover, Beowulfs men confuse the blood of Grendel and his mother with the blood of Beowulf, assuming that the vast quantity of blood that gushed to the surface of the mere was the heros. And finally, Beowulf and the dragon, linguistically equated, cancel each other out, neither surviving the battle; again, as Tolkien noted, Beowulf and the dragon truly fit each other, as Beowulfs death by anything less than a monster would be anti-climactic. Beowulfs dying wish is to see the treasure, to claim it in a way as his own just as the dragon had done before, and the gold indeed is transferred from the mound of the dragon to that of Beowulf.
So what is the point of equating man and monster, of making them evil twins? I think that ultimately the poet draws such strong associations to highlight not how threatening and dangerous the monsters are, but rather how threatening and dangerous human beings are, or at least can be. For all their monstrous naturethe strength, appetite, and terror of the Grendelkin and the flames and poison of the dragonthe monsters are in the end ineffective. They are defeated. The greater, more threatening force in the poem is people. Grendel can terrorize Heorot and Hrothgar but he does not destroy the hall nor kill Hrothgar and his kin: Heorot awaits destruction in lathan liges, the hateful flames that will come in the feud between Hrothgar and his son-in-law Ingeld of the Heatho-Bards (81-85). And Hrothulf, Hrothgars trusted but treacherous kinsman, will seize the throne from his cousin, Hrothgars son. Grendels mother, as monstrous as she is, is only acting out the approved social code of revenge, a code reaffirmed in the lay of Hildeburh, told the very night Grendels mother attacks. And while Grendels mother is hunted down for seeking revenge for the death of her son, Hildeburh is stripped of all right to such revenge for the death of her son, brother, and husband. The dragon, for all his destructive abilities and justifiable anger at being robbed, does not destroy the Geats; rather the Franks, Frisians, and Swedes will obliterate the Geats, as the messenger prophesizes at the end of the poem and apparently has come to pass, for we still have Franks, Frisians, and Swedes, but no Geats.
I have often considered how the Beowulf-poet tended to say both/and instead of either/or, for example how the poem speaks positively about both pagan qualities (courage and loyalty to ones lord) and Judeo-Christian theology (the need to trust God, not heathen idols). I think that with the twinning of Beowulf and the monsters, we have another example of both/and. The poet did not place Beowulf and the human beings clearly on one side and Grendel and the dragon on another; we cannot read the poem and say that people are either heroes or monsters, for as the poem reminds us, we human beings can be heroic and we can be monstrous at the same time. The real monstersthe ones completely beyond our power and controlare the people. We can get our heads or hands around the simple monsters; we can appreciate the direct nature of Grendels evil or of the dragons greed and anger. But the desire of men to kill each other, openly and treacherously, and a social system that encourages such destruction is more frightening, a point I believe the Beowulf-poet wanted to make. He gave us monsters with whom we can identify: which is to say that we are they.2
1All citations are from Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, edited, with introduction, bibliography, notes, glossary, and appendices by Fr. Klaeber, 3rd ed. (Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1950). Line numbers will be noted in the text. The translations are my own. Return
2A version of this essay was read at the 2005 meeting of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association at the SEMA at SAMLA session. Return
Klaeber, Fr. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 3rd ed. Lexington: D. C. Heath and Co., 1950.
Robinson, Fred C. Beowulf and the Appositive Style. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1985.
-----. Elements of the Marvellous in the Characterization of Beowulf: A Reconsideration of the Textual Evidence. Beowulf: Basic Readings. Ed. Peter S. Baker. Basic Readings in Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Garland, 1995. 79-96.
Tolkien, J. R. R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95. Rpt. In Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Ed. Daniel Donoghue. New York: Norton, 2002. 103-30.
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