The trouble with Beowulf humanizing Grendel’s mother

The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation

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 tells of Grendel’s mother’s late night visit.

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The Original Old English

“‘Swa we þær inne ondlangne dæg
niode naman, oððæt niht becwom
oðer to yldum. þa wæs eft hraðe
gearo gyrnwræce Grendeles modor,
siðode sorhfull; sunu deað fornam,
wighete Wedra. Wif unhyre
hyre bearn gewræc, beorn acwealde
ellenlice; þær wæs æschere,
frodan fyrnwitan, feorh uðgenge.
Noðer hy hine ne moston, syððan mergen cwom,
deaðwerigne, Denia leode,
bronde forbærnan, ne on bæl hladan
leofne mannan; hio þæt lic ætbær
feondes fæðmum under firgenstream.'”
(Beowulf ll.2115-2128)

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My Translation

“‘So we took pleasure in that place
all the day long until another night came upon men.
Late within that dark Grendel’s mother appeared,
ready for revenge for the injury she suffered;
she made a journey full of grief. Death had carried off her son,
death egged on by grim faced Geats. That monstrous woman
avenged her son, schemed to boldly steal a hall dweller for her loss.
There on the floor was Aeschere for the taking,
the wise old counsellor departed from this life at her touch.
But, when the morning came, none could
burn up the dead of the Danish people by fire,
nor could that dear man be lain upon a pyre —
she bore the body in her fiend’s embrace to her home beneath her mountain stream.'”

(Beowulf ll.2115-2128)

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A Quick Interpretation

Whoever the Beowulf poet or poets were one thing is clear. They cared a whole lot more about Grendel’s mother than Beowulf does.

The poet took pains to build her up as this malevolent force that was smaller and perhaps more timid than Grendel but far more fierce and intelligent. Here, though, she just appears.

This retelling makes it very tempting to think that Beowulf simply doesn’t need to explain Grendel’s mother to Hygelac. Beowulf definitely doesn’t need to explain her to the poem’s audience. After all, there’s no need for Beowulf to try to swirl some mystery around her, since that mystery is already solved.

But why would he not need to explain what she is to Hygelac? As we’ll find out next week, it’s because Beowulf’s exploits have already been heard of.

But I think there could be more to it.

As someone who was apparently monstrous himself, Hygelac could no doubt understand a mother’s sympathy for her monstrous child and her seeking revenge for him. I think that’s why Beowulf goes directly to the more human elements of her character.

But Beowulf almost skips over the monstrous elements of Grendel’s mother entirely.

I mean, his description of Grendel’s mother makes her out to just be a mother seeking revenge. Aside from living “beneath her mountain stream” (“under firgenstream” (l.2128)), there’s nothing here that suggests that she’s a monster. Instead, she sounds like she’s just a mother driven to murder by the death of her child. Which is troubling because Beowulf does kind of kill her in the end. Even if, as we’ll see, he shortens that part of his story to just a few lines and skips over a lot of the grisly details of their fight.

But, what do you think is going on with Beowulf’s description of Grendel’s mother? Is she too humanized? Is Beowulf making this easier for Hygelac? Or for himself?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Next week, Beowulf shares a very condensed version of his fight with Grendel’s mother.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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One thought on “The trouble with Beowulf humanizing Grendel’s mother

  1. Pingback: Beowulf the storyteller’s idea of a great celebration | A Blogger's Beowulf

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