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Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother.
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“He saw then in her armoury a sword blessed by victory,
a sword of giants’ craft from elder days, strong of edge,
ready for a warrior’s glory; that was the best of weapons,
but it was more than any other man
would have strength to bear into the dance of battle,
superb and splendid, the handiwork of giants.
He seized that belted hilt, the Scylding warrior,
he was fierce and fatally grim, when he drew that ring-patterned sword
she had no hope of further life, he angrily struck her,
so that the sword caught slickly at the base of her neck,
it shattered her vertabra; the sword passed through
her entire, doomed body; she crumpled to the floor,
the sword sweating blood, the man rejoicing in his work.”
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Grendel’s Mother Beaten, But Where did She even come From?
And Beowulf has done it. He has killed Grendel’s mother. She wasn’t exactly “unseam’d from the nave to the chops” as the Sergeant says of Macbeth’s deed when talking with King Duncan in Macbeth (I.ii.22), but it still sounds like he split her with his enormous sword. How else could a threatened masculinity assert itself, right?
But what I wonder about while reading this passage is what sort of operation Grendel’s mother had in her underwater hall. I mean, Not only does she pull a dagger on Beowulf, but she has an entire armoury of some kind.
As more and more is built up around her, it’s sounding less and less like Grendel’s mother is some sort of animalistic monster and more like she’s the remnant of some sort of human culture. Or, at the least, she’s someone who was cast into exile and wound up living in a cave that had been lived in before.
So maybe Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary were onto something when they added an affair between Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother to the story of the 2007 Beowulf movie. But, instead of being a seductive water witch, Grendel’s mother was actually a member of Hrothgar’s hall.
Perhaps she was one who had given birth to a son with some sort of disability and, instead of just leaving him out on the rocks to die (if exposure was a thing the Norse did with babies who didn’t look “right”), she stole away into the night with him, found the cave, and became fierce and monstrous as she faced down all of the natural terrors that the community would otherwise have protected her and her child from.
Actually, looking at the timeline that the book gives us, Hrothgar ruled through 12 years of Grendel’s terror (ll.147-149). He also ruled for some time before that, enough time for Heorot to be built under his watch. whereas Grendel’s mother had ruled her depths for either 50 years or, as Seamus Heaney has it: “a hundred seasons,” which would work out to 25 years (ll.1498).
Now, it might be a bit of a stretch that Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother knocked boots if she’s been ruling for 50 years while he’s maybe been ruling for 20. But, if Grendel’s mother has only been ruling for 25, then, perhaps Grendel is Hrothgar’s son. So maybe she was an early mistress of the prince or even the young king Hrothgar and had to be kept quiet to allow for a more politically convenient marriage to come along.
Or, maybe there’s a bit of Anglo-Saxon history getting into the story here and Grendel’s mother was a Roman woman with a strange child that was cast out. After all, because they had better forging techniques, the Anglo-Saxons often considered Roman swords magical, mythically crafted weapons.
Unfortunately, though, all we can make of the Grendel’s mother’s background is based on assumptions.
But that’s also fortunate. As a poem Beowulf has a lot of gaps in its background information, and because of these gaps it can be talked about and used as a lens through which we can look at our own time almost endlessly.
So what do you think Grendel’s mother was doing with an armoury? Was she just a monster who happened upon an old previously inhabited cave? Or was she somebody exiled from Daneland who put everything around her together herself?
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A Warrior’s Two Faces
After the fact, a warrior who happens to bear a “eald-sweord”1 that he believes to be “sig-eadig”2 in the “beadu-lac”3 is likely to feel quite high and mighty. He’ll probably talk of the “weorð-mynd”4 he won while his grip was upon the “fetel-hilt”5.
But in the moment, through the “beadu-lac”3, that same warrior with the “hring-mæl”6 is a different person. He’s a “heoro-grim”7 swinging precisely and delivering death as limbs are severed and “ban-hring”8 are broken. His memory confers upon him “weorð-mynd”4 but his actions only make “flæsc-hama”9 after “flæsc-hama”9.
4weorð-mynd: honour, dignity, glory, mark of distinction. weorð (word, value, amount, price, purchase-money, ransom, worth, worthy, honoured, noble, honourable, of high rank, valued, dear, precious, fit, capable) + mynd (memory, remembrance, memorial, record, act of commemoration, thought, purpose, consciousness, mind, intellect)
6hring-mæl: sword with ring-like patterns. hring (ring, link of chain, fetter, festoon; anything circular, circle, circular group, border, horizon, rings of gold, corslet, circuit (of a year), cycle, course, orb, globe) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]
8ban-hring: vertebra, joint. ban (bone, tusk, the bone of a limb) + hring (ring, link of chain, fetter, festoon, anything circular, circle, circular group, border, horizon, rings of gold (as ornaments and as money), corslet, circuit of a year, cycle, course, orb, globe)
9flæsc-hama: body, carcase. flæsc (flesh, body (as opposed to soul), carnal nature, living creatures) + hama (covering, dress, garment, womb, puerperium, slough of a snake)
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Next week, Grendel comes back into the story.