The threat Grendel’s mother poses, more war words (ll.1279-1291)

Grendel’s Mother’s Real Threat?
Of War-Terror and Armed Men

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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Grendel’s mother arrives at Heorot, and even though the poet pretends like they don’t, everyone freaks out.

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“It came then to Heorot, where the ring-Danes
within that hall slept. There would soon be
a reversal among the warriors when
in came Grendel’s mother. The terror she inspired
was only lessened slightly, as a woman warrior’s might
may be against the great strength of an armed man
when with ornamented sword, hammer forged,
blade bloody and raised over the boar helm,
the sharp edge shears the opponent.
Then in the hall were swords drawn,
blades pulled over benches, many a broad shield
held firm in hand; but they paid no mind to helmets,
or the battle shirt, when terror returned to the hall.”
(Beowulf ll.1279-1291)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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Grendel’s Mother’s Real Threat?

All right, I can’t let the mention of warrior women slip by me here. What’s up with the reference to warrior women in line 1283?

It sounds like the assumption is that these women warriors would be unarmed. Or is it that they’d be armed but couldn’t handle their weapon as well as men? Or is it that these woman warriors seldom used swords whereas men were used to swinging their sharpened metal sticks around and so anyone else using them was a joke?

But why is there even this assumption? Is it that a man with a sword is a natural fighter because he’s a man? Or is it that “sword” refers to what a man has between his legs, and so a woman would indeed be “unarmed”?

Yes, this part of this week’s passage really bothers me.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of “wig-gryre wifes” as “amazon [sic] warrior’s” makes it clearer, but even the Amazonian women were armed and expert in the use of their weapon of choice. But if the poet is referring to Amazons here (quite possible, given their popularity in Greek and Roman mythology, not to mention women like Boudicca who may have been a little closer to the poet’s experience if he was Germanic or Celtic), then it just sounds like he’s making the assumption that women just aren’t as skilled when it comes to fighting as men are. Well, maybe slicing through someone’s head to a palm below the neck is more spectacular than just getting hit with an arrow in the heart, but both are going to kill you.

Though that kind of thinking does make a little sense for a poet. Spectacle is a pretty important part of Beowulf after all. Though subtlety also comes in, too. I guess that part of the poet’s world was a kind of misogyny. Maybe that’s just how it is with such old writings.

Or, maybe this passage is evidence that women didn’t “know their place” back then and were trying to fight despite whatever assumption they were running up against.

As a poet who must’ve had some renown or at least patronage in some form (no matter how advance we become, writing poetry – epic poetry especially – takes time, and the human body needs nourishment during that time, and nourishment doesn’t come free), maybe this is just a reflection of the poet’s patron’s view of things. It wouldn’t be the first time certain people were propped up while others were knocked down in a long poem because of the poet’s own interests (see Dante’s Divine Comedy for a great example of this).

Though, if men are really that powerful, shouldn’t they then be able to fend off a woman even if she’s a warrior or even if she’s armed?

Maybe there is a sexual tinge to this, and perhaps that’s the true terror that Grendel’s mother brings. She’s not just another Grendel – some sort of monstrous creature bent on killing for fun or sport – but she’s an example of what all of the women in the poem so far aren’t: untamed and fierce in the face of men.

It’s a broad assumption to make, but do you think that the Beowulf poet was a misogynist?

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Of War-Terror and Armed Men

Based on this passage, it sounds like a “waepned-men” is only a “wig-gryre” when he’s armed. That might sound redundant, since “waepned” sounds liked “weaponed” which sounds like it means “armed.”

Not so.

Apparently “waepned-men” means nothing more than “male” or “man.” That’s because the word “waepned” means “male” or “male person” and “men” means “person (male or female)”, “man,” “mankind,” “brave man,” “hero,” “vassal,” “servant,” “the rune for ‘m,'” or “one.” So that is actually the only redundancy here.

Though if you have enough armed “waepned-men” of the same type together, that sort of redundancy could inspire “wig-gryre” or “war-terror.” This word comes from the combination of “wig” (“strife,” “contest,” “war,” “battle,” “valour,” “military force,” or “army”) and “gryre” (“horror,” “terror,” “fierceness,” “violence,” or “horrible thing”), which seems like it should just refer to war in general. The idea of “war-terror” itself sounds like a broken record since the two are so closely linked.

Just as “heard-ecg” and “sid-rand” are closely linked.

These words, after all, refer to a “sword” and “broad shield,” respectively. The first, “heard-ecg” is a little literal, since “heard” means “hard,” “harsh,” “severe,” “stern,” “cruel (things and persons),” “strong,” “intense,” “vigorous,” “violent,” “hardy,” “bold,” “resistant,” or “hard object” while “ecg” means “edge,” “point,” “weapon,” “sword,” or “battle axe”. Putting them together makes “sword” just as easily as putting forged steel and leather wrappings together would.

Likewise, a “sid-rand” could draw its strength from the simple yet powerful connection that exists between its parts. After all, the word “sid” means “ample,” “wide,” “broad,” “large,” or “vast” and “rand” means “border,” “edge,” “boss of shield,” “rim of shield,” “shield,” or “buckler.” So it’s pretty clear what the deal is there.

Actually, now that I think of it, a lot of Old English words for war and its implements are pretty tightly constructed. Not too surprising coming from a culture mad for war and fighting, though they also had enough people willing to war with words to create things like Beowulf.

What do you think of the word “war-terror” (“wig-gryre”)? Is it just a synonym for war, or do you think the Anglo-Saxons thought that some wars were not at all terrible or terrifying?

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The poet briefly turns to Grendel’s mother’s perspective in next week’s passage.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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2 thoughts on “The threat Grendel’s mother poses, more war words (ll.1279-1291)

  1. Pingback: Wondering what makes Grendel’s mother special, compound words to put to work in the afterlife (ll.1269-1278) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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