On the translation side of this blog, I’m currently working through Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother. Out of the three monsters, she somehow seems the one most shrouded in darkness.
For starters, we never really get a good description of her. We’re only told on lines 1349-1351 that she has a woman’s likeness. Beowulf encounters her in the depths of a strange lake, and fights her in an underwater cave. And, although she’s a monster, some sort of creature like Grendel, she pulls out a dagger at one point in their fight and tries to stab Beowulf.
So she’s definitely mysterious, but entirely monstrous? That’s left quite unclear.
Especially if you focus in on her motivation for attacking Heorot and killing Æschere.
Grendel’s mother only kicks into action once she learns that her son has been killed. So she’s plainly motivated by revenge and the sort of anguished sorrow that only a parent who loses a child can really know.
This mysterious figure whose motivations are not only clear but also relatable has inspired comics fan and writer Michael Hale to identify a new trope.
Writing for Comicosity, Hale jumps from Grendel’s mother’s motivation to the presence of other female characters stepping up when their children are in danger. He calls this trope the “Ripley Twist,” based on Ripley’s fighting the alien at the end of Aliens to protect her ward Newt. You can read Michael’s full article here.
Finding the connection that Hale makes with Beowulf reminds me of how relevant the poem remains. As he points out in his first sentence, the poem isn’t too well known anymore. And, sometimes it seems like people groan and bemoan its existence in favour of things wittier and more polite (Victorian lit, I’m looking at you).
And why not?
In Victorian literature the gruesome brutality of human nature is tucked away in things like My Secret Life.
Beowulf, on the other hand, makes no excuses for the brutality of life. Its brutality is much more physical and visceral, but that makes its violence a potent analogy to the to the social, psychological, and emotional brutality that people experience today.
As brutal as it can be, Beowulf is something that allows us to look back at ourselves in a very different context. That people like Hale can bring ideas like the “Ripley Twist” out of it, then I’d say Beowulf‘s definitely worth reading. Who knows what you’ll find within its wordhoard?
What’s your favourite era of stories and why?