e In the old English epic, Beowulf, a pattern is begun of making monsters out to be outsiders, witnessed through the descriptions, attitudes, and actions of the fiend Grendel and his horrific Mother. In this and many other stories throughout ancient times, the antagonistic monsters have been the focus for the problems within society, causing any number of woes for the people. However, although the troubles the monsters cause occur within Human society, the monsters themselves, especially within Beowulf, are quite often distanced and set apart in numerous ways from the peoples whom they plague, including physically, mentally, emotionally, symbolically, and oftentimes ideologically as well. There exists, however, a paradoxical symbolism within the epic’s framework concerning this beast and his mother in which they serve as examples of the negative aspects of the Germanic society in which the story originated. Therefore, while they are still placed outside of the boundaries of Human civilization, they are, at the same time, a part of it as they represent the evils of the culture whose imagination spawned them.
From the moment he appears in the story, Grendel is an outcast in every conceivable manner. He is described as a monster, a powerful demon (ln. 86), and a fiend out of hell (ln.100). His form, although vaguely humanoid, is hideous and deformed with fiery eyes where “flame, more then light, flared from” (ln. 727). Grendel has swift, hard, and “open claws” (ln. 747), and enormous teeth that snatch the life out of his victims, which are numerous. This “shadow stalker, stealthy and swift” (ln. 703) doesnt stop at killing, but also eats of the flesh and drinks the blood of his prey. “He bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood/and gorged on him in lumps” (ln741-742). Not only is Grendel set apart from humanity by his grotesque appearance and monstrous actions, but by his bestial mindset which renders him “malignant by nature” (ln.137). His mind is filled with an omnipresent rage and bloodlust which seem to permeate his every thought, being “flushed up and inflamed from the raids” (ln. 124) and “his rage boiled overever maddening for blood” (ln. 723-724). At the same time he lacks all the decencies and compassion which one would believe crucial to defining humanity itself, being described as “insensible to pain/ and human sorrow” (ln.119-120). Yet another vital way in which this creature is alienated from the society is through his ancestral ties. He is a descendant of Cain, having been,”…spawned in that slime, conceived of Cain/ murderous creatures banished By God…” (106-107), and therefore, by definition, is an outcast of society, doomed to roam in the shadows, always from the outside looking in. His whole existence, coming from one of the original sins, is grounded in the moral perversion to hate good simply because it is good. “Because the Almighty had made him anathema/and out of the curse of his (Cain’s) exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantomswho strove with God time and time again until he gave them his reward” (ln. 110-114). Unlike the rest of humanity, Grendel is an enemy of God and can therefore not know God’s great love. As it states of Grendel, “he was the Lord’s outcast” (ln. 169) he was ever “God-cursed” (ln. 121).
In addition, Grendel’s Mother, like her damned progeny if not even more so, is portrayed as alien to all which is familiar and decent in the world of man. Since she is also a spawn of the line of Cain, “she had been forced down into fearful wasters/the cold depths, after Cain had killed his father’s son” (ln. 1260-1262), she shares his dark roots and abandonment from the light of both God and humanity, as well as his vicious nature. She, however, is not even given a name or a proper description, an identifier of any kind by which to know her. She remains an amorphous phantom, “that female horror/monstrous hell-bride” (ln.1259-1260), a shape outside of human comprehension. Furthermore, whereas Grendel lived just on the outskirts of civilization in the fens, his mother dwelled in a land of almost surrealistic horror, estranged from anything recognizable as even remotely natural, a cold murky lake in a desolate landscape which is populated by strange beasts and “where the water burns” (ln.1366). For Grendel’s Mother, even the natural laws of Human reproduction and love hold no sway, for Grendel is fatherless and has been created abnormally by his mother alone.
Despite all of their apparent separation from the Human race, however, Grendel and his Mother serve as a deeper metaphor for the evils of the very society which they plague. Below the surface, the two beasts actually have several important factors in common with the people, both in the text and in the actual Germanic society as it is known by historians. First, in Grendel’s actions and ever-present blood rage, one finds a symbol for the ever-present violence of mankind, his rage and wrath, which raged particularly strong during the Medieval and pre-Medieval ages as evidenced in the tale by the many stories of death, murder, and war which are shared by both the narration and partakers of the feasts of Heorot . Grendel therefore, although hulking, brutish, and bestial, carries the general shape of a humanoid, of man. Although he comes “greedily loping” (ln. 711) from the moors, he also strides on two legs into Heorot where he fights Beowulf. Though he is almost always monstrous and full of killing intent, he also experiences very human emotions and sensations which serve to heighten his connection to the human culture and illustrate his position as a symbol of its violent dark half, much in the same way that Hyde served as the dark representation of the cultured Jeckyll. He is usually angry, finds enjoyment in what he does, experiences fear near the instant of his defeat, and, perhaps most of all, he endures a blinding jealousy of the Danes, their happiness, and their love and connection to the God who has exiled him from his ways. “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 skilled poet telling with mastery of man’s beginnings” (ln. 87-91). This indicates that behind his jealousy and rage was the urge to be accepted into both the joy of the society of men and into the grace of God, for it is these things of which he envious. These longings, for cultural and religious acceptance, were echoed by the people of the time, and were the backbone of the society, causing, by chance and purpose the great amounts of violence and war which were prevalent in Germanic society. Perhaps most important of all is the fact that Grendel is defeated in battle as a result of a human trait, hubris. Since he is so proud and sure of his magical protection from weapons, as well as his own strength, he continues to battle without protection or aid of fighting implements and thus believes himself to be invincible. Thus Beowulf, reading this human in Grendel, is able to defeat the fiend with the one trait which the monster shares with this champion of humanity: great brute strength. This is yet one more connection, since both the best of humans and the worst of monsters have their most powerful aspects in common. Grendel’s Mother serves as a symbol of the Germanic society’s and people’s policies of never-ending vengeance and brutal repercussion which resulted in numerous feuds between different peoples and families. Her ties to humanity spring from her representation of one of mankind’s most cherished of figures, the Mother. It is her apparent caring and perhaps even love for her son, hatred of those who have slain him, and a desire for revenge, all human traits, which personify her behavior. Taking it a step further, one finds ironically that her actions of vengeance upon Hrothgar’s aide, Aeschere, not only aren’t considered evil by the Germanic society as historians and the text are understood, but are looked upon as morally just and right in her cause. Therefore, even a monster is able to abide by the tenets of the human system, showing, through symbolism, its inherent weakness and faults.
And so, as one can see from analyzing the two antagonists from Beowulf, monsters can be both outside threats to the societies which they torment, and inner representations of those society’s evils or faults. Whether these failings are physical, metaphysical, behavioral, ideological, or theological in nature depends on the monster in question, as many such beasts have existed throughout the annals of written and spoken literature in many shapes and forms. However, just as there are always monsters which plague society, there are also great heroes which arise to conquer them and their foul deeds. Following the symbolic example set by Beowulf, one can come to understand that, as civilization perseveres, its demons, or faults, can be overcome and defeated, leading to a better world and society in the days to come.