Beowulf Commentary

Melissa Alles

There seem to be many strange creatures roaming the unfortunate lands described in Beowulf, but the three that Beowulf decides to eradicate have a definite penchant for destructive acts toward humans. They each have their own reasons for their evil deeds. The dragon wreaks havoc because his treasures are stolen, Grendel's mother is seeking revenge for the mutilation and death of her son, and Grendel eats people because the inhabitants of Heorot sounded like they were having too much fun in their great hall. People accept bloodshed and strife as part of life unless it comes from an outside source. They see warfare against other humans as politically necessary and often glorious, but if any non-humans try to take part in the action, they deem this horrific and unnatural.

I find the methods used to fight the two semi-human monsters very interesting. Beowulf decides to fight Grendel without arms. As Grendel does not use weapons to bite people in half and lap their blood, it will bring the hero greater honor to slay the foe with his bare hands; this is partly because it would be dishonorable to kill an unarmed man, no matter how dangerous or evil he might be, and partly because Beowulf's vanity will not allow him to miss an opportunity for even greater glory, even if it means his death and disaster for the innocent people he professes to defend. But Beowulf proves his incredible prowess and manhood by ripping poor Grendel's arm off and leaving him to run off and die. One can hardly be surprised by this inhumane treatment of an inhuman monster, however, when one considers that our gallant hero pretended to be asleep long enough for Grendel to eat one of the men in the hall, rather than intercepting the "hell-being" the moment he entered. Nonetheless, everyone rejoices and Beowulf receives such honor as they believe he deserves.

Shortly after, Grendel's mother comes along to avenge her son's partial dismemberment. She is described as possessing the form of a woman; as her son is described as having the form of a man but larger than any man known and no such comparison is used in her description, it is possible that she is no larger than a regular woman. Regardless, she is shown an ineffectual avenger, managing to drag off her son's arm and killing only one man before fleeing the scene (remember Grendel had taken thirty men on his first foray to Heorot). Once again, Beowulf agrees to destroy the accursed offender. Rather than waiting for her to return to the hall, he decides to seek her out. He does not simply go armed, but rather in full battle dress; the extraordinary attributes of the pieces he wears are described in detail. This gear will stop anything; it ought to be able to stop a mean-spirited female. She drags him to her lair, where he is out of the water and now has freedom of movement. However, he still does not fare well in the battle. His blade proves useless, so he decides to trust in his strength and grabs her by the hair in a classic gesture of male dominance. After throwing her to the ground, he cannot even maintain that advantage because she pulls him down and sits on top of him, stabbing at his armor with her knife. For some reason she lets him stand up, at which point he grabs one of her own blades and deals her a lethal blow to, and through, the neck.

It would be feasible to argue that Beowulf undertook to slay Grendel's mother in full battle dress because there were "water-monsters" in the water, and therefore he needed defense against them. He had faced the terrible monster fish of the sea before and his mail had saved his life then, so perhaps caution was the driving force. However, it is likely there was a deeper motive. Grendel's mother had interrupted the people's celebration of Beowulf's might. Rather than waiting for her to return to the hall to further her revenge, he sought her out. He regarded her as an annoyance to be dealt with swiftly; then he might return to what was really important (i.e., reveling in his own glory). Beowulf's ambition is based solely on glory and the attainment of said glory. He recognizes that there is no honor to be claimed by killing a woman. Grendel's mother holds no value as a foe because of her sex. He wears his armor partly because he knows this act will do nothing for the legendary status he is attempting to create; none would deem it a great feat to kill a woman, no matter what wicked things she had done or how vile her physical presence. His other motive is this: if he should fail and himself be slain, all his previous glories will be tarnished by the manner in which he met his end and no longer would he be known as the mightiest man who ever lived. If he had been killed fighting Grendel with his bare hands, his legacy would be even more magnificent because of the way he died. However, were he to be killed fighting Grendel's mother, people would forever shake their heads in wonder, trying to imagine how a man of his might could show himself so feeble as to be slain by a monster's weakling mother.

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