Wondering what makes Grendel’s mother special, compound words to put to work in the afterlife (ll.1269-1278)

What’s the Defining Trait of Grendel’s Mother?
Important Compounds for a Visit to Death’s Dwelling

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837

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The poet wraps his retelling of when Grendel met Beowulf and gets to the monster’s mother.

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“There that man seized the monster;
nevertheless he was mindful of his great might,
an ample allotment of strength, that which God granted him,
and he trusted in the Ruler’s favour,
comfort and support; through that he overcame the fiend,
laid the hell beast low. Then he humiliated went,
deprived of joy and seeking the dwelling of death,
thus went the enemy of men. And his mother would yet
come, gluttonous and gloomy in mind,
on her joyless journey, all to avenge the death of her son.”
(Beowulf ll.1269-1278)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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What’s the Defining Trait of Grendel’s Mother?

Here we see the third retelling of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel come to an end. Blech. After hearing about it twice in under 500 lines you’d think the poet would be sick of telling it, right?

Well, maybe. But each time that it’s been retold so far, the story of Grendel being beaten is told with a distinct purpose.

The first time, when the poet gives us the play-by-play, the fight is purely an action sequence and a display of the incredible strength that both combatants are using.

When Beowulf retells the fight, he does so to recount fresh glory and to bolster his reputation through boasting. Here, the poet retells it as a way of giving us information about Grendel’s mother. He does this by starting and ending the story with a mention of her, and he uses this story to show us what’s motivating her attack.

So Grendel fought Heorot because he was the kin of Cain and the noise of the joyous partying inside disturbed him. But Grendel’s mother is fighting for vengeance.

Even so, information about just what makes Grendel’s mother a threat is still scant.

Grendel’s reputation as a terrible monster who was immune to weapons was established well before Beowulf encountered him. But, so far all we know of Grendel’s mother is that she’s been pushed to vengeance because of her son’s death, otherwise we know nothing about her specifically. Really, the one thing the poet’s been emphasizing is that she has a “woman’s misery” (” yrmþe gemunde” (l.1259)) in mind and comes in off the moors “gloomy in mind” (“galgmod” (l.1277)). So Grendel’s mother’s major characteristic appears to be that she’s a woman. What’s up with that?

So far the only other women that have been mentioned are mothers and sisters, women defined by their familial roles and civil duty. Of these women we saw Hildeburh weeping over her dead brother and son (ll.1076-1080), and throughout the “Heorot freed?” part of the poem we see Wealhtheow ruling with her son’s protection and advancement in mind. Those are the only named women so far, and they’ve been ladies of the court. We really know nothing about other women in this world. Though, if Hildeburh and Wealhtheow are ladies of the court, and behave in a way that’s civil within the patriarchal society of the poem, what’s that say about Grendel’s mother?

It definitely suggests that she’s a savage by comparison, but that goes without saying right? She’s some sort of wild creature living on the fen, so of course she’ll be savage. Though, the poet’s emphasizing her living amongst wild things does mark her as an outsider. This also doesn’t come as any surprise. But, really, how can you be surprised when you’ve been told so little?

Why do you think it’s such a big deal that Grendel’s mother is a woman? Is this a point in the poem that’s just plain misogynistic? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Important Compounds for a Visit to Death’s Dwelling

This week’s small tale told with the passage’s compound words is pretty straightforward. So I’ll get right to it.

At one time or another, we all come to the “deaþ-wic,” or “dwelling of death.” This strangely fun euphemism for death comes to us from the combination of “deaþ” (“death,” “dying,” or “cause of death”) and “wic,” (“dwelling place,” “lodging,” “habitation,” “house,” “mansion,” “village,” “town,” “entrenchments,” “camp,” “castle,” “fotress,” “street,” “lane,” “bay,” or “creek”) making the literal translation stand up pretty well. Actually, I can’t help but wonder if the definitions of “wic” are so broad because death can be found “living” just about anywhere.

Anyway, once we’ve been welcomed in it’s possible that we’ll meet a “helle-gast” or two. As you might’ve guessed, this wouldn’t be the best of meetings, since a “helle-gast” is literally a “spirit of hell.” This straight-to-the-point compound sees “helle” (“hell”) and “gæst” (“breath,” “soul,” “spirit,” “life,” “good or bad spirit,” “angel,” “demon,” “Holy Ghost,” “man,” or “human being”) combined into something that’s unmistakable. Just as unmistakable as the fact that meeting a “helle-gast” would probably make you “galg-mod.”

At least, I imagine meeting a “spirit of hell” would make you “sad,” “gloomy,” or “angry.”

The compound “galg-mod” itself is made up of “galg” (“gallows,” “cross,” or “melancholy”) and “mod” (“heart,” “mind,” “spirit,” “mood,” “temper,” “courage,” “arrogance,” “pride,” “power,” or “violence”). The mix of “melancholy” and almost any of the definitions of “mod” (which I’d broadly define as “spirit” in both the ethereal sense and the will power sense) is pretty clear, but I quite like the reference to Christ in the definition of the word as “cross.” Despite the definition of “galg” as “gallows” I can’t help but feel that “galg” is weirdly uplifting, likely because it tempts me to try to translate “galg-mod” as “gallows humour.”

Though, if instead of a “helle-gast” you met the “an-walda” when Death ushered you through its dwelling, you’d likely be filled with straight up humour (maybe, depending on how many harps and angels are involved, it could be a kind of super syrupy “vanilla” humour, though). After all, “an-walda” is one of many Old English terms for “god,” though it’s usually translated simply as “Ruler.”

I think we all know where it’s coming from, though.

Especially if you look at the meanings of “an” (“one”) and “walda” (“might,” “power,” “possession,” “control,” “command,” “dominion,” “bridle,” “protection,” “subjection,” “groin,” or “pudenda”). It could be a bit of Christianization, but there’s definitely one deity here who’s trying to come out on top – in both the poet’s and Beowulf’s estimation.

But why not go with this “an-walda”? I mean, if it’s the thing that’s giving Beowulf his strength, then it’s an entity that’s quite “gim-fæst.” That is to say, it’s quite “liberal” or “ample” in its gift giving. Which makes sense since “gim” is a form of “ginn,” a word meaning “spacious,” “wide,” or “ample” and “fæst” which means “fast,” “fixed,” “firm,” “secure,” “constant,” “steadfast,” “stiff,” “heavy,” “dense,” “obstinate,” “bound,” “costive,” “enclosed,” “closed,” “watertight,” “strong,” “fortified.”

Why do you think that Old English has more than one word for god (Anwalda, Metod, Drihten, etc.)?

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Next week, Grendel’s mother arrives in Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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3 thoughts on “Wondering what makes Grendel’s mother special, compound words to put to work in the afterlife (ll.1269-1278)

  1. Like Sycorax, Caliban’s mother, she is a hag… ugly, malformed(huge beyond what is normal) and has given birth to a monstrous son, apparently reared to evil. Seems to suggest an unnatural sort of mother.


  2. She definitely seems like an unnatural mother. But is that the major reason why she’s a villain in the poem? Do you think there’s a sense that she’s the reason why Grendel was so bent on terrorizing Heorot?


  3. Pingback: Grendel’s mother teased, monstrous and criminal words (ll.1251-1268) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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