Grendel’s mother teased, monstrous and criminal words (ll.1251-1268)

The Slow Reveal of Grendel’s Mother
Lady Monsters, Criminals, and Festive Bedtime Stories

Grendel's mother menaces a pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton — Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain,

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The poet lingers on Grendel as he starts to introduce the next threat: Grendel’s mother.

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“Sank they then to sleep. One man paid a dear price
for that evening’s rest, as they went to it as they would
in the gold hall before Grendel occupied it,
ruled with terror, until his end came,
death after such dire crimes. They then became manifest,
those deeds of the widely known man, that avenger then yet
lived after that hateful one, for a long time,
while he wallowed in war wounds. Grendel’s mother,
that hag, the one with a woman’s misery in mind,
who was made to inhabit fearsome waters,
who lives in cold streams, after Cain became
the slayer by the sword of his own brother,
kin by the same father; he fled as an outlaw for that,
marked with murder, fled from the joy of companionship,
occupied the wilderness. Thence was born
that terrible fate; that was hateful Grendel,
the savage outcast, then at Heorot he found
a watchful man waiting for war.”
(Beowulf ll.1251-1268)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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The Slow Reveal of Grendel’s Mother

This passage is quite a bit longer than previous weeks’. I think the poet lengthens things here to draw out the suspense. Though he might go a little too far, teasing us with talk of Grendel’s mother only to fall back to recounting Grendel’s visits to Heorot and the night that he found Beowulf there, “waiting for war” (“wer wiges bidan” (l.1268)).

I mean, this is now the third time or so that we’ve heard tell of Beowulf’s beating Grendel. The first time being when we witnessed it through the poet’s interpretation, then through Beowulf’s retelling of the story, and now, again, we have the poet giving us a précis. What makes this regular retelling strange is that there’s at least one more: when Beowulf tells the tale again (with some embellishments) to his liege lord Hygelac.

What really confounds me here, though, isn’t that the story of Grendel’s being told yet again just a few hundred lines after he was mortally wounded (which comes on lines 814-818, and which Beowulf retells on lines 960 to 979), but that the poet feels the need to refresh us on who Grendel was while he also introduces a new character: Grendel’s mother.

And that in particular bugs me because we get so little detail about Grendel’s mother. She seems to be a dweller in the fen as her son was, but then where’s she been since the Danes built Heorot and moved in? Was Grendel sneaking out to wreak havoc by simply telling her he was “going out for a bit”? Why wasn’t she there with him?

Her absence from Grendel’s raids really makes me wonder if Grendel’s mother wasn’t somehow summoned up by his defeat. Unless she just got back from some very important business on the far side of the fen to find her son lying dead and so lashes out as she does.

But then, is she sophisticated or as beastly as Grendel himself? More modern depictions vary from the seductress of Beowulf the Musical Epic and Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of her in Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf of 2007 to the hag in Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel (2005).

But I suppose that’s what makes Grendel’s mother such a mysterious figure. The poet tells us that she “inhabits fearsome waters” (“wæteregesan wunian” (l.1260)), and that she has a “woman’s misery in mind,” (“yrmþe gemunde” (l.1259)), both of which are supposed to tell us what she’s all about. Though the latter is far less than helpful.

Is this “woman’s misery” the grief that a mother feels for the death of her son? Or is it the sort of superhuman vengeance a woman wronged can direct towards the one who wronged her?

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Lady Monsters, Criminals, and Festive Bedtime Stories

During a “man-dream” many stories would be told. And, no, those stories wouldn’t necessarily end with “and it was all a dream!” That’s because “dream” in Old English means: “joy,” “gladness,” “delight,” “ecstasy,” “mirth,” “rejoicing,” “melody,” “music,” “song,” or “singing.” Combine that with “man” (“one,” “people,” “they”), and you wind up with “man-dream” (“revelry, festivity”).

Then, as now, stories told during such a festive atmosphere, would vary from the heroic (the bread and butter of Beowulf and his poet) to the comical or frightening. A frightening story (or perhaps a heroic one if the ending’s different) might just involve an “aglæc-wif.”

This “aglæc-wif” would be a fresh twist on an old classic (and maybe extra chilling because of it), since “aglæc-wif” means “female monster.” As a compounding of “aglæc” (“wretch,” “monster,” “demon,” or “fierce enemy”) and “wif” (“woman,” “female,” or “lady”; or, as a suffix, “-wif” could mean “fate,” “fortune,” or “a disease of the eye.”), this meaning is pretty clear. Though why the sex or gender of a monster should matter, is a bit of a mystery to me. Whatever the impact, the way that the poet is slowly introducing Grendel’s mother, it seems like this kind of female monster was “wid-cuþ” among storytellers and listeners of the age.

If such tales were “widely known” (that is, wid-cuþ, literally a mix of “wid” (“wide,” “vast,” “broad,” or “long”) and “cuþ” (“known,” “plain,” “manifest,” “certain,” “well known,” “usual,” “noted,” “excellent,” “famous,” “intimate,” “familiar,” “friendly,” or “related”) to bring us here), then there’s very little mystery as to why the poet leaves so much about Grendel’s mother to his audiences’ imaginations. Though it is telling that she is referred to as a “wæter-egesan.”

As a “wæter-egesan,” perhaps she, or her kind in general, is specifically well-known as a “water terror,” that word’s translation. Just like its Modern English counterpart, this compound’s “wæter” means “water,” while “egesan” could mean “awe,” “fear,” “horror,” “peril,” “monstrous thing,” “monster,” or “horrible deed.” But put them together and you’ve got a quick way to refer to creatures strange and odd that hunt in the water.

Despite all of this vagueness around Grendel’s mother and how frustrating it might be, it’s not surprising that we know more about her than we do about Grendel’s father. After all, Beowulf comes from a cultural context in which the prevailing Christian idea of sin was that you bore the sins of your father.

So, as kin of Cain, Grendel is still marked by the sin of the first murderer. That’s what he gets as a paternal kinsmen of Cain, one of his “fæderen-mæge”; Grendel is Cain’s son, since of all murderers, the first ever would have a very hard time being redeemed.

That makes “fæderen-mæge” quite potent when referring to Grendel’s paternal lineage. Which makes sense, since, as a combination of “fæderen” (“father,” “male ancestor,” “the Father,” or “God”) and “mæge” (“male kinsmen,” “parent,” “son,” “brother,” “nephew,” “cousin,” “compatriot,” “female relation,” “wife,” “woman,” or “maiden”) the word means “paternal kinsmen.”

Because of Grendel’s particular paternal lineage, he is a “geosceaft-gasta,” or a “doomed spirit” This compound’s neat because it contains a compound itself since “geo-sceaft” is a combination of “geo” and “sceaft” (which I discuss here). It’s also quite straightforward since there’s no escaping that “geosceaft-gasta” means “doomed monster,” or “doomed person.” Which is pretty much perfect since “gasta” means “breath,” “soul,” “spirit,” “life,” “good or bad spirit,” “angel,” “demon,” “Holy Ghost,” “man,” or “human being.”

Such a creature could be described as a “heoru-wearh.”

A “heoru-wearh” is a “bloodthirsty wolf.” Though you wouldn’t necessarily get that sense from this compounding of heoru (sword) and wearg (“wolf,” “accursed one,” “outlaw,” “felon,” “criminal,” “wicked cursed,” or “wretched”). The word leaves me with more a sense of a someone in power (hence their possessing a sword) who is corrupt or criminal, someone who really can’t be trusted with that power since they’ll likely use it against the greater good — solely for their own gain.

A much simpler sort of criminal is contained in the word “ecg-banan.” This compound means “slayer with the sword” and comes from the mix of “ecg” (“edge,” “point,” “weapon,” “sword,” or “battle axe”) and “banan” (“killer,” “slayer,” “murderer,” “the devil,” or “murderess”). So it’s much less metaphorical than “heoru-wearh.” Though either of these beings could cause you “guþ-cear.”

“Guþ-cear” refers to “war-trouble.” As a compound of “guþ” (“combat,” “battle,” or “war”) and “cearu” (“care,” “concern,” “anxiety,” or “sorrow”) that makes good sense. “War-care” is a great way to say “wound” since it’s something you’re likely pretty concerned about in the midst of war, and well afterwards you might still make a fuss about it. Though hopefully not enough of a fuss (whether fresh or long since healed) to let yourself and others enjoy a nice “æfen-ræst.”

This word means “evening rest,” thanks to the combination of “æfen” (“even,” “evening,” or “eventide”) and “ræst” (“rest,” “quiet,” “repose,” “sleep,” “resting-place,” “bed,” “couch,” or “grave”).

Yes, a good “evening rest” after all the tales during a “man-dream” could indeed help refresh you after receiving some “gudth-cear.” Though, with “ræst”‘s meaning (quite similar to our own modern euphemism) “the grave,” your “gudth-cear” could also send you to a lengthy “æfen-ræst” indeed.

Why do you think gender gets specified in the compound “aglæc-wif”?

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Next week the poet spills more about Grendel’s mother.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “Grendel’s mother teased, monstrous and criminal words (ll.1251-1268)

  1. Pingback: A theory on Anglo-Saxon soldiers’ motives, a primer on compound word combat (ll.1242-1250) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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