The dangers Beowulf could be facing & how to earn devoted vassals (ll.1473-1481)

The Possible Dangers of Grendel’s Mother
How Liberal Lords Earn Devoted Vassals

Grendel's mother menaces the 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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Beowulf reminds Hrothgar of what he promised he would do for the Geat if he dies fighting Grendel’s mother.

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“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘Now think upon it, son of Half-Danes,
wise ruler, now I am ready for this journey,
gold-giving friend of men, that which we two had spoken on:
that if I while in your service shall
lose my life, that you would go forth afterwards
always in a father’s place for me.
That you would be a preserver of my retainers,
my companions, if battle shall take me.'”
(Beowulf ll.1473-1481)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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The Possible Dangers of Grendel’s Mother

The battle that Beowulf is heading off for is not the same as the one he had in Heorot. That’s what this passage is really all about.

In the lead up to the fight with Grendel we heard Beowulf boasting about past victories and the greatness of his strength. We heard confidence bordering on pride that’s tempered with the simple sentiment that fate or god will decide the outcome of the fight. In other words, going into the fight with Grendel, Beowulf felt that his strength and Grendel’s were probably equal. At least, I think that’s fair to say.

I mean, as you can see in this passage, Beowulf is making a much bigger deal out of diving into this lake and fighting Grendel’s mother.

There are a lot of assumptions that could be going into the sense of danger that Beowulf seems to be feeling here.

Grendel’s mother has lost a child, and all animals — including humans — fight tenaciously when the life of their young is in peril or has recently been lost.

Perhaps there’s an underlying assumption here that since this particular parent is a mother, Grendel’s mother’s rage will be tempered with the fury that only women can seem to muster. In particular I’m thinking of the difference that Patton Oswalt points out in Talking for Clapping when he says that when little boys are mad at each other they just punch each other until the dispute’s over, whereas when little girls are made at each other they try to destroy each other emotionally. No doubt all of these men are hesitant to approach a thing with woman’s form that’s doubly provoked in this sense (lost her child, and is its mother).

Also, since this poem would have been written down by Christian monks, perhaps there’re also some assumption about women as temptresses and being spiritually dangerous. I mean, the strictly Judeo-Christian religious tend to see danger for the soul in the form of women (possibly because those organized religions are primarily run by men). So I can’t even imagine the kind of spiritual danger such a religious person would see in the primal sexuality that something as wild as Grendel’s mother could command. In fact, the image at the top of this entry is a depiction of a scene that could easily be read in a very sexually charged way.

Of all of the assumptions and givens that could be roiling through Beowulf’s mind at this point though, the sharpest is probably that he does not have home field advantage in this fight.

Whether or not Beowulf believed his strength to truly equal Grendel’s, Hrothgar legally gave him Heorot for that night. Since it was temporally his, Beowulf probably fought all the fiercer to protect it. And, just as with animals and their young, animals are protective of their territory. So, since he’s about to dive into the Grendels’ realm, Beowulf is clearly at a disadvantage.

And that is where I think the biggest sense of danger comes from for the hero of this poem.

Of course, there’s also the simple escalation of the threat as is necessary in any multi-part story. So if Beowulf and Grendel were equals, he is now at a lower level, so to speak, than Grendel’s mother. And yet he has to face her all the same. So he’s reminding Hrothgar of his promises.

In short, Beowulf’s already strapped on his physical armour, and now in this passage he’s donning his emotional/psychological armour.

What danger do you think is Beowulf’s greatest concern at this point in the poem? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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How Liberal Lords Earn Devoted Vassals

For a protector1 who is a liberal lord2, vassals3 would go forth4 as if they and their liberal lord2 were companions5.


1mund-bora: protector, preserver, guardian, advocate. mund (hand, palm, (of the hand, as a measure), trust, security, protection, guardianship, protector, guardian, the king’s peace, fine for bread of the laws of protection or guardianship of the king’s peace; paid by bridegroom to bride’s father, bridegroom’s gift to bride) + bora (ruler)

2gold-wine: liberal prince, lord, king. gold (gold) + winn (toil, labour, trouble, hardship, profit, gain, conflict, strife, war)

3mago-þegnum: vassal, retainer, warrior, man, servant, minister. mago (male kinsman, son, descendant, young man, servant, man, warrior) + ðegn (servant, minister, retainer, vassal, follower, disciple, freeman, master (as opposed to slave), courtier, noble (official rather than hereditary), military attendant, warrior, hero)

4forð-gewitan: to go forth, pass, proceed, go by, depart, die. forð (forth, forwards, onwards, further, hence, thence, away, continually, still, continuously, henceforth, thenceforward, simultaneously) + witan (I.guard, keep, look after; II. impute or ascribe to, accuse, reproach, blame; III.depart, go, go out, leave off, pass away, die)

5hond-gesella: companion. hand (hand, side (in defining position), power, control, possession, charge, agency, person regarded as holder or receiver of something) + sellan (to give, furnish, supply, lend, surrender, give up, betray, entrust, deliver to, appoint, allot, lay by, hide, sell, promise)


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Next week, Beowulf continues to remind Hrothgar of his promises. And, he makes a new promise that shakes up what happened when everyone was drunk in Heorot.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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1 thought on “The dangers Beowulf could be facing & how to earn devoted vassals (ll.1473-1481)

  1. Pingback: Unferth’s trade with Beowulf, and the makings of a warrior’s fame (ll.1465-1472) | A Blogger's Beowulf

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