The light seen after Beowulf’s drug home, and encounters of the fishy kind (ll.1506-1517)

What is that Gleaming and Bright Light?
Encounters with Lake Monsters

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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Grendel’s mother drags Beowulf into her lair.

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“That she-wolf of the water bore him away, once they came to the bottom,
carried the ring mailed prince to her dwelling,
so that he was unable to weild his weapon,
though he had his fill of courage. A rushing horde of wondrous creatures
pressed upon him in those waters, many a sea-beast
tore with its tusks at his war-shirt,
gave a fierce pursuit. Than that prince perceived
that he was in some hostile hall,
where water harmed him not at all,
saw that the roof of the place held back the current,
the sudden pull of the waters:
there a gleaming light shone bright within.”
(Beowulf ll.1506-1517)

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Old English:


Modern English:


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What is that Gleaming and Bright Light?

Beowulf’s struggle with Grendel’s mother continues.

In this week’s passage he’s drug along the bottom of this mysterious lake as Grendel’s mother tears at him. But then, and it’s unclear if she’s still holding him at this point, a rush of sea creatures whiz by and tear at Beowulf. After travelling through a hole, Beowulf finds himself in a dry place. Given the description that there’s a roof overhead, my guess is that it’s a cave of some kind that extends under the lake.

I think of this place as kind of like a beaver’s den, at least in terms of how the entrance connects this dry place to the lake that Beowulf, and supposedly, Grendel’s mother have just left. Though there’s no mention of Grendel’s mother, and so it’s hard to say if she’s still clutching Beowulf in her claws or if she’s standing a little ways away, banking on his being dumbfounded by being rocketed through the entrance to her lair and attacked by a school of angry sea life.

And, after all of that action, the poet tells us that this cave was lit from within by some sort of gleaming, bright light (l.1517). Which raises a simple question for me: why?

We’ve just heard about a warrior jumping into a lake fully outfitted for war. He’s then grabbed by a humanoid sea monster, drug across a lake bottom, assaulted by a bunch of tusked sea creatures, and ultimately ends up in some sort of underwater cave. Is it necessary to tell us that the place is lit? I feel that if the last line of this section were taken out I’d be too caught up in the action and the weirdness of what’s come immediately before to worry about how Beowulf could see in the cave.

So why mention this light?

Well, I think in part it’s supposed to hearken back to the mention of Grendel’s eyes giving off a weird light (ll.726-727). They do this just before he sets upon the Geats he finds in the Heorot. So maybe that light is some important trait of Grendel and his mother, some sort of emblem of their kind.

Or, maybe there was a certain kind of light associated with monsters in the Anglo-Saxon imagination. Maybe there was a belief that light, for all of its heavenly aspects, also indicated the presence of the supernatural and a means of transportation between worlds for things like monsters and fairies and elves.

I mean, to this day, interdimensional portals are accompanied by flashes of light. Maybe that’s just a left over from an early film, or maybe there’s some old trope with long forgotten origins behind it. And maybe Beowulf is one of the works that uses this trope.

I find this line about the light as mysterious as the light itself, is what I’m getting at here. But what about you? Is this light a source of mystification for you, or is it just another part of the story? Why do you think the poet mentions it? Were people heckling him when he’d tell earlier versions of the story but not explain how Beowulf could see?

Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Encounters with Lake Monsters

I imagine that the “fær-gripe”1 of terror would clutch your heart quite tightly if you encountered a “sæ-deor”2 while in a hall. Especially if it was wielding its “hilde-tux”3, and seemed to be controlled by the “brim-wylf”4 who kept it in an aquarium in her hall.

Even if you were wearing your best “here-syrcan”5 you’d probably sustain a few wounds, and the hall you were in would come to be known as a “nið-sele”6. Even if otherwise you thought it was a pretty nice place, especially considering that it was a “hrof-sele”7 and keeping out the sun and rain were important to you. Being attacked by a “sæ-deor”2 kept in an aquarium would be just that upsetting.

1fær-gripe: sudden grip. fær (calamity, sudden danger, peril, sudden attack, terrible sight) + gripe (grip, grasp, seizure, attack)

2sæ-deor: sea monster. (sheet of water, sea, lake, pool) + deor (animal, beast, deer, reindeer)

3hilde-tux: tusk (as a weapon). hilde (war, combat) + tusc (grinder, canine tooth, tusk)

4brim-wylf: she wolf of the lake/sea. brim (surf, flood, wave, sea, ocean, water, sea-edge, shore) + wylf (she-wolf) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

5here-syrcan: corslet. here (predatory band, troop,army, host, multitude, battle, war, devastation) + syrc (sark, shirt, corslet, coat of mail)

6nið-sele: hall of conflict. nið (strife, enmity, attack, war, evil, hatred, spite, oppression, affliction, trouble, grief) + sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison)

7hrof-sele: roofed hall. hrof (roof, ceiling, summit, heaven, sky) + sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

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Next week, Beowulf takes a swing at Grendel’s mother.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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2 thoughts on “The light seen after Beowulf’s drug home, and encounters of the fishy kind (ll.1506-1517)

  1. Pingback: Courageous hope and a summary of the Finn and Hengest incident (ll.1600-1611) | A Blogger's Beowulf

  2. Pingback: Beowulf trespasses in Grendel waters, and over preparing for alien encounters | A Blogger's Beowulf

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