When condition affects more than value – Interpreting Beowulf

by Liz on April 25, 2014 · Rare Poetry


The oldest surviving epic poem of Old English, the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature, is also a great example of how a manuscript’s condition affected the impression it had on writers and scholars through the centuries. Beowulf, like most Old English poems, has no title in the unique manuscript in which it survives in the British Library but modern scholars agree in naming it after the hero whose life is its subject [1]. The tumultuous poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines survives today in the manuscript known as the Nowell Codex.

An anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet wrote it sometime between the 8th and the early 11th century and made no impression on writers and scholars while its condition was good in the first seven centuries of its existence. It was subsequently badly damaged by a fire that swept through Ashburnham House in London on 23 October 1731. While not left quite unintelligible, from injuries due to scorching and burning, each succeeding scholar who transcribed the manuscript was limited by the rapid deterioration and the validity of his own readings and translations. Even the translator of the first complete edition, scholar of early Germanic history, Grimus Johnssen Thorkelin, who took two transcripts of it in 1786, failed to interpret some of the simplest events of the story. [2]

Though Beowulf was written so long ago, it has inspired the minds and imaginations of many modern authors, and has, therefore lived on through other literary works which it has influenced. Gerald Manley Hopkins is one such author, as well as the renowned J. R. R. Tolkien, who drew much of the magical and mystical content of The Hobbit (1937) from the occurrences in Beowulf. Beowulf has also continued to live on through the ages, because it promotes excellent character qualities such as bravery, family loyalty, and selflessness in the form of the warrior Beowulf. Conversely, the poem also exposes grave character flaws such as greed, selfishness, pride, and stubbornness, as found in the poem’s villains and in Beowulf as well. Perhaps the mysterious writer of Beowulf sought to produce an epic and stirring poem, while also skillfully interweaving life lessons and values along with the vibrant threads of action and suspense.

However nefarious and insidious the three villains of the story may seem, each one possesses emotions which are extremely human, sensitive, and heartbreaking, which in turn spur them on in their violent attacks against the human clans. It is for this reason that it is believed that the villains, a bloodthirsty monster named Grendel, the revengeful mother of Grendel, and a greedy fire breathing dragon, have been simply misunderstood.

In celebration of the upcoming Mother’s Day holiday, I would like to take the opportunity to present the emotional aspect of mother-child bonding as interpreted through a closer look at the villain Grendel and his mother:

        The demonic monster Grendel harbors the extremely saddening and human emotion of rejection and hurt, which he quickly transfers to anger and fierce behavior. Grendel takes great sport in springing on the Danes after their feasting hour, and killing and eating as many of the warriors as he can, thus causing great sorrow and fear among the Danes. As unforgivable as this atrocious behavior is, Grendel’s reason for these murderous rampages stems from a very sensitive cause: he is not accepted or included among the Danes, simply because he is different than they in manners and appearance.

“Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a poet…” (85-90)

It saddens Grendel greatly to see and hear the Dane clan gleefully take part in food and fellowship while cruelly keeping him on the outskirts of their joy. Is it truly fair to exclude him from their group simply because he is not quite human? These mournful feelings in Grendel erupt in anger, jealousy, and an unrestrained thirst for revenge, and he reasons within himself that if the clan will not include him, then they are not fit to live.
Grendel’s physical appearance is quite disturbing, which does explain partly why the Danes would not include him. The poem describes Grendel as possessing claws, which must have been horrific for the Danes to view.

“Venturing closer
his talon was raised to attack Beowulf
where he lay on the bed; he was bearing in
with open claw when the alert hero’s
comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly.” (744-748)

The elementary lesson that it is not fair to judge an individual mainly on the content of his appearance seems to be something the Danes have not had the privilege of learning. The reader
observes just how hurtful this mindset can be, as in the case of the lonely and castoff Grendel who turns vicious in his acute hurt at being left out.
Grendel’s mother experiences the very mortal feelings of grief, anger and an innate thirst for avengement. She is like any other human mother, in that she very deeply loves her son, and will unflinchingly fight for his safety and revenge, should the need arise. As Grendel’s mother, she has most likely seen him through every up and down in his life, and she shares in his pain over not being included among the human clans. When Grendel decides to lash out against the humans for the cruel way that they are treating him, nobody understands his reasons or his heart quite like his mother. One can only imagine how horrific the night that Grendel is killed is for his mother, as she anxiously awaits her son’s return from his customary attack on the humans. As the hours steadily tick by with no return appearance of her beloved son, Grendel’s mother most likely feels the unavoidable terror, disbelief, adrenaline, and pain that any mother feels when she knows deep down in the pit of her soul that her child has been killed and is no longer with her on this earth. It should come as no surprise that Grendel’s mother determinedly sets out to settle the scores with the murderous humans, who have robbed her of her greatest joy in life, and who have stripped her to her very core in their annihilation of her baby boy. Even the human king Hrothgar understands that Grendel’s mother’s response is only natural:

“…she has taken up the feud
because of last night, when you killed Grendel,
wrestled and racked him in ruinous combat…” (1333-35)

        Grendels’ mother deals with her pain and sorrow over the unjust loss of her son in the only way that she knows how. Because of the incomprehensible pain and anguish that the
humans have filled her with by killing her own flesh and blood, she quickly turns lethal and furious as she goes to avenge the death of her son, as any other human mother would.
Perhaps the saddest thing to note about Grendel’s mother is the fact that after killing only one human man, she brokenly reclaims the arm of her son, which the human warrior, Beowulf has so cruelly disjointed from Grendel’s body. The Danes have barbarically displayed the arm with great pride over their accomplishment, but Grendel’s mother needs it in her possession, as she cannot bear to see her child without the hand which she has once held.

“She had snatched their
Grendel’s bloodied hand.” (1302-4)

Throughout Grendel’s childhood, his hand had most likely been held numerous times by his mother, as he sought comfort over childhood fears such as the dark, common illnesses caught from his monster friends, and the various perils and struggles which everyone, human or monster, experiences, during the often painful road towards adulthood. These feelings which Grendel endured are also extremely parallel to the feelings felt by humans, which further supports the point that Grendel truly is not so very different than they. It would not be surprising if Grendel’s mother held her son’s arm close to her heart after reaching their home, and wept bitterly over the fact that the arm of her son confirmed her very worst fear: her son was dead.
Grendel’s mother must feel very little use to continuing on in life, now that her son is gone. The fact that this is also a very human feeling to experience, is made brazenly true in a quote which the human warrior Beowulf describes:

“Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
that his child is gone; he has no interest
in living on…” (2450-52)

Life and any joy that it may have granted Grendel’s mother has now become a monotonous and mournful plodding of days, since the humans have struck her to her very soul with the murder of her son.


[1] Robinson, Fred C (2001), The Cambridge Companion to Beowulf, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 143

[2] Project Gutenberg’s The Translations of Beowulf- A critical Biography, by Chauncey Brewster Tinker. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25942/25942-h/25942-h.htm#trans_thorkelin

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Partner, rare book dealer. Sekkes Consultants.

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