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date: 27 February 2021


Abstract and Keywords

Beowulf is a narrative meditation in traditional Old English alliterative verse on the origins of violence in human affairs; it was included in the Nowell Codex, an ethnographic miscellany compiled around the year 1000 on the most exotic peoples in space and time known to the Anglo-Saxons. No one knows when, where, by whom, or for whom this poem was first composed during the previous half millennium, but it was likely preserved, copied, or created at the court of King Alfred in the 890s. The hero confronts three monsters who personify forces that tear apart human communities and bring them to ruin: Grendel, who displays the power of entrenched tribal chauvinism; his mother, who reveals the source of such hatred in wounded love of kind; and the dragon, who embodies a more generalized principle of negative eventuality—wyrd—which renders all human efforts, even those of the noble hero, compromised and ultimately self-defeating.

Keywords: Alfred, Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf, dragon, Grendel, hero, monsters, Nowell Codex, Old English, manuscript poetry, wyrd

The Poem and Its Manuscript1

Beowulf is a narrative meditation in Old English verse on the origins of violence in human affairs and the capacity of both political institutions and individual leaders to control it. The poet’s prognosis is not good. He tells the story of a young prince who travels from his homeland in southern Sweden to help the old Danish King Hrothgar confront a troll-like revenant named Grendel, who has been terrorizing the royal hall of Heorot at night for some twelve years. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands, ripping off his arm as the creature runs howling into the night. The next night Grendel’s mother, a smaller but equally dangerous monster, returns to take revenge. Beowulf then hunts down Grendel’s mother in her lair below the bottom of a haunted lake; he is almost overcome but resurfaces beyond hope with Grendel’s head as a trophy and the hilt of the ancient sword with which he dispatched the she-ogre. He then returns home to his uncle Hygelac, king of the Geats, and eventually assumes the throne himself, ruling his people peacefully for half a century before he, too, is suddenly confronted in old age by a menace from within his own kingdom. This time the menace is a dragon aroused by the theft of a single cup from its hoard. This “heathen gold” (line 2276b) is the accumulated wealth of a lost race, secreted a thousand years before by its last survivor. Beowulf seeks out this third monster, manages to kill it with the help of his young kinsman Wiglaf, but steps only paces away before succumbing himself. The dying king rejoices in his last moments of life over the treasure he has won for his people, but they fear the future without him. Three characters in the poem prophesy the imminent destruction of the Geats once their enemies learn of Beowulf’s death: Wiglaf (lines 2884–2890a), the messenger he sends back to the Geatish army (lines 2999–3027), and a Geatish woman who mourns by the old king’s funeral pyre, anticipating

  • cruel invasions,
  • many murderous slaughters, terror of troops,
  • humiliation [probably meaning rape], and enslavement. (lines 3153–3155a)

These eventualities were not far off the mark, the poet affirms in his understated style: The Geatish messenger “did not much lie / in his words or the deeds” he predicted (lines 3029b-3030a). But the Beowulf poet never tells us exactly what happened to his hero’s people in the end except to suggest that they are no more, obliterated long since by their enemies or driven into exile, victims of what we would nowadays call genocide or ethnic cleansing. The poem ends with the burial of Beowulf’s ashes in a mound overlooking the sea, along with rest of the dragon’s hoard. “There it still lies,” the poet remarks, “just as useless to men as it was before” (line 3168).

The 3,182 verses of Beowulf are in a form of highly allusive alliterative poetry that appears wherever Germanic languages have first been recorded in writing, beginning around 400 ce with the runic inscription on a gold horn from Gallehus, Denmark, suggesting that this oral tradition had developed in prehistoric times among various speakers of Common Germanic on the Continent. The poem was copied by two anonymous scribes into its single surviving manuscript—the Nowell Codex of London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv—in some southern English monastery around the year 1000. No one knows when, where, by whom, or for whom this poem was originally composed during the previous half millennium, whether it reflects ancient legendary traditions brought to the former Roman diocese of Britannia by immigrants from northwestern Germany and Jutland during the fifth and sixth centuries or later literary art inspired by biblical, classical, or possibly even Scandinavian models, these last introduced to Britain by Danish Vikings during the ninth century. Serious scholars have proposed virtually every period and kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England, from the transmarine migration across the North Sea—before the Anglo-Saxons had even converted to Christianity or learned to read and write the Latin alphabet—through the middle of the eleventh century, that is, after the time most experts in paleography would date the copying of the Nowell Codex. None of these suggestions has ever won scholarly consensus or even a plurality of agreement, although fashions for earlier or later dating have come and gone. We have a better date for the creation of the Homeric poems on the Aegean island of Chios, ca. 700 bce, than we do for Beowulf in Britain over 1,200 years later.

Nor do we know how many copies of the poem lie between the archetype or first written version of Beowulf and the manuscript in which it has been preserved in the late West Saxon dialect of its last copying. Anglo-Saxon scribes routinely but inconsistently updated the language of their exemplar—the text of the poem from which they were copying—so that whenever we have two texts of a vernacular poem to compare, we can see that many of the lines have been altered or adapted in some way. But scribes often simply made mistakes as well—some obvious, others less clearly so. Much of Beowulf scholarship is devoted to determining and construing the words of the text the Cotton Vitellius scribes had before them. Some scholars are conservative when it comes to prioritizing the extant words and letters that appear in the surviving codex; others are more comfortable with emending that text on paleographic, philological, or even metrical and thematic grounds to offer what they believe to be a more plausible version. Either way, the Cotton Vitellius scribes’ mistakes and misprisions, especially their repeated misreadings of particular letters in their exemplar, suggest that this prior version had been reproduced in a scribal hand unfamiliar to them, probably Anglo-Saxon set miniscule, which had gone out of use about a century or so earlier.2 In addition, this copy of the poem from sometime before ca. 900, apparently in the early West Saxon dialect of Old English, must have contained a number of linguistic and metrical archaisms shared by much earlier times and places in Anglo-Saxon England. These may be verbal fossils of a version first written down in seventh- or eighth-century Northumbria, Mercia, or East Anglia or, conversely, they may simply represent an older-fashioned koiné or regionally hybrid poetic language that continued to be cultivated for this elevated register of traditional verse in the courts and monasteries of a later period. One third of the surviving corpus of Old English poetry is of this secular heroic sort, but it shares many features of imagery and specialized diction with another third, which is mainly hagiographical in content, and also with a final third that, like parts of Beowulf itself, retells stories from the Bible in a way dramatized by Bede’s reported miracle of the seventh-century Northumbrian herdsman who was inspired to compose the first known poem in the English language, Cædmon’s Hymn, on God’s creation of middangeard “the middle enclosure, the world of human habitation” at the beginning of time.3

The two Cotton Vitellius scribes copied Beowulf into a manuscript collection comprising another Old English poem about the ancient Hebrew heroine Judith and three prose texts translated from Latin into the vernacular: The Passion of St. Christopher, The Wonders of the East, and The Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle. In 1953 Kenneth Sisam called this collection a liber de diversis monstris, anglice, or “book of various monsters, in English,”4 even though two of the texts—The Passion of St. Christopher and Judith—lack any explicit reference to physical monstrosity per se. The saint is a very large man, however, apparently “twelve fathoms” tall from the equivalent length of the iron bench to which his persecutors bind him (lines 9–10).5 In the Latin source from which this partially incomplete text has been adapted, St. Christopher is said to live among the man-eating cynocephali of Samos and is himself “dog-headed,” though human and true-believing in his heart.6 Judith beheads a drunken sexual predator, the Assyrian general Holofernes, who, though human in outward form, is a monster on the inside, described as “the devil’s spawn” (line 61b) and “the hideous assailant” (line 75a), the same kind of language used to describe the giant cannibal Grendel in Beowulf.7

The miscellany in which Beowulf has been preserved could thus be called more accurately a liber de diversis populis, anglice, or “book of various peoples in English,” a compilation of sensational ethnographic exotica on the most distant peoples in space and time known to the Anglo-Saxons, many of whom were familiar from earlier Greco-Roman accounts of such races: giants, cannibals, dog-headed men, and other Homodubii, as they are called in The Wonders of the East, †æt beoƒ twi-men “that is, maybe-people” (line 32), living among water-monsters, fiery-eyed beasts, poisonous serpents, dragons, and other strange creatures at the extremities of the known world.8 Beowulf itself begins in geardagum—“in the old days” (line 1b)—of the ancient North and tells of even earlier times and peoples stretching all the way back to the primal murder of Genesis 4 to explain the division of the human race into warring tribes, one of which, the monstrous descendents of Cain, were banished by God to the waste places of the earth, literally “marginalized” from the rest of humanity for their ancestor’s sin. And it is the song sung by Hrothgar’s scop, or “bard,” in Heorot about God’s creation of divine order in the world—“a bright fair field surrounded by water” (line 93)—reminiscent of Cædmon’s Hymn, that so infuriates Grendel, who has been driven out with all his kind into the “land of the monster-race” (line 104b), in his case, the fens and moors, the “wolf-slopes” and “windy headlands” (line 1358), that edge the northern ocean.

Beowulf thus offers an Anglo-Saxon supplement to biblical and classical accounts of the beginnings of human life on earth and the various peoples who have occupied its northern reaches. The poem is similarly concerned to describe the subsequent course of human events there in moral and spiritual terms, though deeply inflected by the world view and value system with which many of these old legends had been imbued during their previous retellings in pagan times. Especially significant in this regard is the influence of wyrd, a general principle of negative eventuality or cosmic entropy, sometimes translated neutrally as “fate” but more often connoting a less happy sense of “(bad) luck” or even “doom.” The term is an old one, with cognates in Old High German, Old Saxon, and Old Norse, apparently the nominalized past participle of a verb that appears in Old English as weorƒan, “to happen, come about, turn out.” Wyrd is both what has “happened” in the past and a predictable “result” or inevitable “outcome” in the future that can be fled or resisted but never permanently escaped. We can have no real doubt that the poet of Beowulf was a baptized Roman Catholic Christian, probably literate in English if not in Latin as well, quite possibly in religious orders, but so familiar with the pre-Christian tradition of vernacular poetry that he could comfortably replicate its oral artistry and elegiac themes to invoke a whole world of antique northern legendry. In fact, he does so in an even more expansive and ambitious way than appears in the shorter heroic lays he gives to poet characters in his poem, probably a more accurate reflection of the scope of such traditional narratives in actual performance. These are the formal songs of the Fight at Finnsburg performed by a royal scop in Heorot (lines 1063–1159a) and a more extemporaneous celebration of Beowulf’s slaying of Grendel by one of Hrothgar’s retainers on horseback:

  • At times a thegn of the king,
  • a man laden with song, mindful of lays,
  • he who remembered a vast multitude of
  • old stories, found fresh words
  • bound truly together; thoughtfully the man began
  • to recount the adventure of Beowulf
  • and deftly to weave an apt tale,
  • varying his expressions. (lines 867b-874a)

If Beowulf is the product of such oral-formulaic composition in public performance, its written form must be the result of a special dictation over several sittings, perhaps the “self-dictation” by a poet who could read and write, instead of the direct transcription of a single event. Yet the complex plotting and self-conscious craftsmanship of this much longer poem—its piquing internal parallelisms and neatly calculated word chimes over many hundreds of lines, its command of both Christian learning and native lore, its restless and incomplete reflection on the meaning of the events it dramatizes—suggest that the poet of Beowulf, at his desk,was rather imagining an oral performance.

Unfortunately his poem seems to have flopped in its own day, if not with its immediate patrons at least with ensuing generations of Anglo-Saxon readers.9 Except for the two Cotton Vitellius scribes, we have no known audience or readership of Beowulf whose political interests, social identity, religious profession, or historical circumstances might help us to parse more precisely the poet’s likely intentions. Tom Shippey places the composition of Beowulf in the time of Eddius Stephanus, a Northumbrian Latin author who knew all about the Merovingian Franks mentioned in the poem and wrote his Life of Wilfrid at Ripon, North Yorkshire, in the second decade of the eighth century.10 Shippey thus reasserts a once dominant view that Beowulf should be dated to the “age of Bede” (ca. 673–735) in Northumbria. He traces the historical setting of the poem, based on a reference to Hygelac’s raid in the sixth-century History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, to authentic oral memories of the reign of King Theudebert I, who died in 548, suggesting that “for Scandinavia in the Age of Migrations [Beowulf] could be the nearest thing to a contemporary document that we possess,” one that supplements but never seriously contradicts the bits of information we can gather from Frankish or Anglo-Saxon sources written in Latin.11 R. D. Fulk would concur with this earlier dating on the basis of the conservative prosody of the poem, putting it on metrical and linguistic grounds to before the year 750, if composed south of the Humber, or before 850, if in the pre-Viking kingdom of Northumbria.12 John D. Niles and Marijane Osborn believe the poet may have modeled Heorot on the large tenth-century halls recently excavated at Lejre at the head of Roskilde Fjord on the island of Zealand, a site traditionally associated with the Skjöldungar, the legendary Scylding kings of Denmark.13 And Roberta Frank sees the influence of Norse skaldic poetry on Beowulf, plus a certain archaizing reinvention of the pre-Christian past extrapolated by the poet from his knowledge of contemporary pagan Vikings.14 Kevin Kiernan puts the poem well into the eleventh century from the condition of its manuscript, which he believes consists of two originally separate poems joined together by a scribe or scribes around the year 1016, the advent of the rule in England of King Cnut of Denmark.15

For my part, I suspect that the poem may have passed in some form through the court of King Alfred at Winchester in the later ninth century, since we know of only two Anglo-Saxons by name who were interested in the kind of old ethnic lore contained in Beowulf: (1) King Alfred, who traced his paternal ancestry back to the Danish king Scyld Scefing celebrated in the opening lines of the poem,16 and (2) his mother Osburh, who was a Jutish princess from the Isle of Wight, a people rationalized as Scandinavian Geats in the Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, preserved in a manuscript contemporary with the end of Alfred’s reign in 899.17 According to the king’s Welsh bishop Asser, Osburh promised to give a book of vernacular poetry to whomever of her sons could first learn its contents.18 Alfred won. We would love to know what was in that book, of course, quite possibly some stirring tales that Osburh wished her West Saxon boys to know about their putative maternal forebears, the heroic predecessors of the “Geatish” kings of Wight. It may even have contained a version of Beowulf itself or of some similar verse legends about the ancient Geatish royals—Hrethel, Herebeald, Hæthcyn, Hygelac, Heardred—that went into its composition to be combined there with traditions of the early Danish kings brought to England by Scaldingi earlier in the ninth century, that is, Vikings who claimed Scylding heritage,19 some of whom settled the Danelaw after 878 under King Alfred’s new godson Guthrum, king of the East Angles.

Later in life, Alfred assembled a team of scholars to translate into English those Latin works he felt most important for his people to know, very likely including some or all of the ethnographic works included in the Nowell Codex with a verse rendering of the Old Testament book of Judith, the namesake of the king’s Frankish stepmother and sister-in-law, Queen Judith of Flanders. King Alfred’s court at Winchester in the 890s was a veritable hotbed of dynastic speculation and learned inquiry. It is there and then that I believe we should look for the immediate manuscript precursor of a poem that memorializes Geats and Danes in their northern homelands. Whenever Beowulf was first composed in Anglo-Saxon England—in whatever kingdom and in whatever form—this inquisitive monarch would have found it of compelling personal interest. He had motive, means, and opportunity to sponsor the preservation, perhaps even the original composition, of a poem honoring the two ancestral peoples from whom he was proud to descend on both his mother’s and his father’s sides.20

But we cannot know for sure. All we know is that a version of the poem in Alfred’s early West Saxon dialect of Old English from sometime before the year of his death in 899 seems to have found its way into a nearby southern English monastery during the following century. There Beowulf lay buried in its obscure codex for more than five hundred years, unread and soon virtually unreadable, until King Henry VIII nationalized the monasteries in the sixteenth century, after which it emerged among antiquarian book collectors before coming within inches of being destroyed by fire in 1731. It is scorched and crumbling around its edges, from which at least 2,000 letters have been lost since the end of the eighteenth century. The text of this damaged poem would itself seem to exemplify the fate it depicts for all human achievements.


Yet, since the time Beowulf was first translated (badly, into Latin) in 1815 and then presented in a more reliable scholarly edition in 1832, the power of its language, the starkness of its imagery, the subtlety of its thought, and the poignancy of its sad, brave view of life have inspired as many scholarly studies, at least until recently, as the combined tragedies of Shakespeare. It is the first great poem in English and, after centuries of silence of its own, speaks for generations of mute speakers of that language. It is perhaps the single most expressive statement of the imaginative world of northern Europe during the centuries that followed the fall of Rome, at least among those barbarian nobles who formed the first ruling elites in postimperial lowland Britain. But even so, Beowulf raises as many questions as it answers, leaving its readers in bemused uncertainty about the poet’s purpose and final characterization of his hero, creating a vertigo of moral ambiguity that stands in sharp contrast to its hero’s own quick confidence and decisive action. It is remarkable that this long-forgotten and poorly understood poem should finally have come into its own only at the beginning of the twenty-first century, emerging from its cloistered manuscript in the nineteenth and from anthologies for students in the twentieth to find itself even more compelling to translators, poets, scholars, writers, filmmakers, graphic artists, musical composers, and other interpreters than at any other time of its existence on earth.21

In addition, the recent revolution of postmodern literary theory has opened up many new approaches to the interpretation of this old poem, transcending former debates about whether it is essentially a Christian work or a pagan one, whether it is the product of monastic literary culture or an ancient oral heritage, and whether its hero is to be seen as a doomed heathen warlord or a Christian role model, even a self-sacrificial figure of Christ. As we will see, current discussions of the meaning of Beowulf (or its conscientious lack thereof in certain deconstructive analyses) revive and reframe these scholarly controversies in ways that naturally reflect our own historical moment and cultural preoccupations. Many critics in recent years, for instance, have found sympathy not so much for the martial hero as for the monsters he kills, especially Grendel and his mother, who are felt to have been unfairly “Othered” or “abjectified” by the human characters in the poem,22 providing painful examples of the way we demonize those who are different from us, especially those whom we have conquered, colonized, enslaved, supplanted, or otherwise abused, never more so than in our rewriting of their histories from our own triumphalist perspective.

But for virtually all interpreters, the meaning of the monsters lies at the very heart of the Beowulf poet’s project. Their character and significance has continued to exercise scholars ever since J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous defense of them in his 1936 British Academy address, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” certainly the most provocative and influential reading of the poem to date.23 Tolkien had hoped to restore these creatures to their rightful place in our appreciation of the poem, to counter earlier dismissals of the monster fights as puerile fantasies that the poet had inappropriately placed in the center of his poem’s attention, relegating the more weighty matters of ancient northern history to its periphery. To the contrary, Tolkien argues, the monsters make the poem. Beowulf is not demeaned but dignified by the dire antagonists he must face: Grendel as a young hero at the beginning of his career, the dragon as an old king at its end. These monsters represent forces beyond all human understanding and control, powers inimical to human civilization and social order. They can be held off ane hwile (“for a while”) (line 1762a), as Hrothgar says in his reflections on his own life that he shares with Beowulf, but not forever, not even for very long, even by the most courageous and determined of heroes.

The structure of Beowulf is simpler, Tolkien suggests, than the three monster fights into which it is divided. It recounts the rise and fall of a noble life, interweaving the hero’s adventures with countless other half told tales of similar, though often much less edifying struggles between human individuals and groups. Some of these episodes are recounted at considerable length by the poet in his own voice or by characters within his poem, but more often they are simply adduced by the slimmest and most cryptic of allusions, so that we often have a hard time reconstructing the backstory that would clarify the point of the reference. And these obscurely glimpsed episodes of legendary history only ramify with increasing intensity during the final third of the poem, significantly retarding the climax of Beowulf’s encounter with the dragon. He himself falls into a memory-riddled funk moments before calling out the chthonic worm, brooding obsessively on the sad and morally confusing deaths of his royal kinsmen before him. The general function of these ancillary tales and their thematic thrust in particular instances continues to bedevil Beowulf scholars, but they are clearly intended to contextualize our understanding of the hero’s fights with the monsters. And these creatures themselves are described in such suggestive language and juxtaposed to human characters in such striking ways that we begin to suspect that the poet is using them not only to challenge his hero but also to reflect upon his own motivations and those of other human figures in the poem. The poet’s relentless apposition of monsters and humans makes us wonder whether his hero and the other good characters are somehow complicit in their own demise, driven and distracted by the very demons they had hoped to exorcize from their own society.


The poet of Beowulf at first presents Grendel as a kind of evil spirit: he is “a fiend in hell” (line 101a), a “grim ghost” (line 102a), “the enemy of mankind” (line 164b)—this last an epithet used to describe Satan in Old English biblical poems. Yet he names this character after a creature familiar from Anglo-Saxon folklore, a grendel, a marsh or boundary troll, whom the poet further rationalizes not as a fallen angel but as a mortal human renegade:

  • a terrible haunter of the borderlands, one who held the moors,
  • the fens and fastnesses; this unhappy man
  • inhabited the land of the monster-race for quite a while
  • after the Creator had condemned him
  • among the race of Cain—the eternal Lord
  • avenged that killing in which he slew Abel;
  • [Cain] had no joy in that feud, for the Maker banished him far
  • from mankind for his crime.
  • From him sprang all misbegotten creatures,
  • etins and elves and ogres,
  • and also the giants who strove against God
  • for a long time; he paid them their reward for that. (lines 103–114)

This last is an allusion to the great Flood of Genesis 6 from which the Beowulf poet imagines some of the wicked giants surviving amphibiously in their watery refuges.

But none of the human characters in the poem knows any of this. Grendel’s malice is inexplicable to them. Nor do they know what provokes his attack upon the newly built royal hall in which he spitefully joins Hrothgar’s thegns uninvited at their feast, killing and eating thirty of them instead. But we know, because the poet tells us: It was the sweet song of the scop singing of divine order in the world, plus the sound of mirth among former enemies to whom the tough but generous Scylding monarchs have brought peace and amity. The Beowulf poet’s sympathies are plainly royalist. Of Hrothgar’s great grandfather Scyld, his judgment is famously terse but emphatic: “That was a good king!” (line 11b). There is no trace of condolence for the various tribal chieftains who were crushed and despoiled by Scyld, or intimidated into submission, local warlords from whom the upstart king wrested their mead benches, symbols of the autonomy with which they had once feasted their own followers in their own mead halls. Even in pagan times the Christian God promotes broad national monarchy and the political stability it brings. He sends Scyld an heir precisely because “he had seen the wicked violence / they once suffered for so long without a king” (lines 14b‒16a).

But it was not to last. The moment Hrothgar finishes building Heorot, the poet alludes to its imminent destruction—not by monsters, but by humans:

  • The hall towered tall,
  • high and horn-gabled; it was waiting for waves of battle,
  • the flame of hatred; nor would it be too long before
  • sword-hate between father- and son-in-law
  • had to awaken from murderous strife. (lines 81b‒85)

We learn the details later. Heorot will be burned to the ground by Ingeld, future husband of Hrothgar’s daughter Freawaru, tribal king of the Heathobards in northern Germany, with whom the great king Hrothgar hopes to make peace through this marriage alliance despite the fact that the Danes themselves have killed Ingeld’s father Froda in the process of building their empire. Hrothgar hopes that Ingeld will be seduced to forget his grief and humiliation with this advantageous match, but he will not succeed. Beowulf is made shrewdly to foresee the failure of the good king’s plans when he reports back to his uncle Hygelac in Geatland. He can just imagine the barely suppressed resentment of the Heathobard warriors as they observe their family heirlooms dangling from their enemies’ sword belts. It will not take much to reignite Ingeld’s animosity, the hero surmises, “even though the bride be good” (line 2031b). With a narrative trick he uses time and again, the Beowulf poet scarcely finishes building the royal hall in our minds’ eyes before he erases it forever in the most aggressive and totalizing way.25 It will be consumed by the fire of renewed hostility between intimately related folk before it is even rescued from its earlier haunting by an enemy inspired by similar ethnic animosity. Grendel wants no sibb, no “peace” or “kinship,” “with anyone of the Danish host, / would not relax his mortal hatred, negotiate a settlement” (lines 154b‒156). Grendel foreshadows in monstrous caricature the angry spirit that will well up in the breast of the all too predictable human king.

The poet uses flame as a symbol of hatred and its power to destroy. Fire burns everywhere in this dark poem. It burns on the water of the monsters’ mere, “a hateful marvel” (line 1365b). It flashes in Grendel’s eyes—“an unlovely gleam, most like a flame” (line 727). It burns uncle and nephew lying side by side on their pyre in the Finnsburg lay (lines 1107–1124) after the Frisian king Finn has plotted vengeance against his brother-in-law Hnæf for nearly two decades under the pretense of a happy marriage to the Danish princess Hildeburh. It is no wonder the Beowulf poet makes Grendel a direct descendent of Cain, the perpetrator, he implies, of the real original sin of mankind,26 a view shared by other Old English poets. That of Maxims I says:

  • Feuding came to mankind from the instant earth
  • swallowed Abel’s blood. That was no one-day deed of strife.
  • From it the drops of malice splashed far and wide,
  • great evil among men and hate-stirred strife
  • among many peoples. Cain slew his own brother,
  • but did not keep killing to himself. From then on it was seen
  • that everywhere constant strife destroyed men. (lines 192–198a)27

Or the poet of Genesis A, using a different image:

  • From that stem afterwards,
  • ever longer the stronger, grew hateful and furious fruit.
  • The shoots of violence spread far and wide
  • among the tribes of men. The branches of evil,
  • hard and sharp, pricked the sons of men.
  • They still do. From that broad blade every injury
  • began to blossom. Not without cause can we weep
  • over this story, this slaughter-grim result [wyrd]. (lines 988b‒997a)28

Grendel embodies our violent human heritage in its most hideous, characteristic, and predictable form; his cannibalism incarnates a system of human interaction that incessantly devours the lives of men.

Grendel’s Mother29

Paul Acker has observed an interesting irony about Tolkien’s classic defense of the monsters of Beowulf, especially with regard to Grendel’s mother—that is, he completely ignores her.30 Tolkien apparently did not respond to this character with the same critical approval he gave the other two monsters. He did not find the hero similarly enhanced by his encounter with her. Why not? Why did Tolkien not recognize in Grendel’s mother a menace of comparable significance to that which he found in Grendel and the dragon? Is she a mere redundancy, a storyteller’s trick, used to scare the audience with a sudden new threat once they think the real danger has passed?

I would suggest that Grendel’s mother’s reiteration of her son’s violence is part of the poet’s point, reflecting his further thoughts on the irrepressibility of the violence these monsters represent and its ultimate origin. The attack by Grendel’s mother is surprising in several ways, partly in her character as a female but also as the mother of her monstrous son. Who would have thought that man-eating fen trolls had fretful moms waiting for them back in their lairs? And the poet slyly remarks that it was only a girl monster who came to Heorot that second night, one whose threat was weaker than her son’s to the extent that “a woman’s strength” and “a female’s fighting power” is less than that

  • of an armed man
  • when forged sword, beaten by hammers,
  • the blood-stained blade with its mighty edges,
  • cleaves boar-crests on helmets. (lines 1282b–1287)

Well, a woman’s strength and fighting power do not sound too terribly dangerous compared with that kind of hard, weaponized masculine force.

But the poet is only teasing us. Grendel may have burst headlong into Heorot “like a man,” but his mother proves to be the far wilier and more formidable opponent. She is difficult for Beowulf even to find among the many hazards at the bottom of her mere; she is slippery, quick, and clever as she reverses his grip on her shoulder (or hair), flips him under her, and draws her long knife. She almost gets him, too, and would certainly have done for Beowulf if Almighty God himself had not intervened at that very moment in one of the most explicit intrusions of divine agency in the entire poem:

  • Then the son of Ecgtheow would have perished
  • under the broad earth, the champion of the Geats,
  • if his war-shirt had not given him help,
  • the hard battle-net—and holy God.
  • The wise Lord, ruler of the heavens,
  • gave him victory in battle; he decided it rightly,
  • easily, when [Beowulf] stood up again. (lines 1550–1556)

In addition, when we compare her motivation to Grendel’s indiscriminate rapacity or the dragon’s blind possessiveness, Grendel’s mother is the most intelligent and rational of the three monsters in Beowulf. She leaves her lair for one very specific reason: to avenge her son. Her behavior has both intellectual clarity and a certain moral rigor: She scrupulously exacts a life for a life, according to the strict rules of the old lex talionis (Exodus 21: 24). Andy Orchard suggests that we should see her as the “wronged” party in this exchange,31 and Alfred Bammesberger agrees that Grendel’s mother is “legally entitled to avenge” Grendel because a foreign stranger, to whom her people have never done any harm, has just killed her only son.32 At the very least, the poet has given this monster a moral and emotional claim upon our sympathies that provokes one of the poem’s most potently ambivalent moments, since a mother’s outraged love for her mutilated child is a feeling that everyone in the audience of Beowulf—Anglo-Saxon, modern, or postmodern—can be expected immediately to recognize and understand. We know exactly how this mother—any mother—would feel. So the introduction of Grendel’s mother creates a point of intimate but repellent contact between the monsters of the poem and the humans of its audience that the poet contrives to confuse or complicate our perception of the evil these creatures are supposed to represent and their apparent Otherness from our own conscious values. Grendel’s mother is not an utterly alien Other.

And the logic of the revenge imperative she illustrates is also obvious, a principle of retaliation known to scholars of feud (perhaps a bit euphemistically) as “self-help justice,” a pattern of axiomatic reciprocity between rival groups—both positive and negative—whose conventional protocols function as a kind of organic constitution in stateless societies or those with weakly institutionalized law enforcement.33 The system is supposed to minimize violence by channeling it through a limited number of expendable actors who must follow the rules of the feud, thus promoting a broader political balance and cohesion between competing clans or factions. However, the poet of Beowulf has already shown that any deterrent, equalizing, or cohesive purpose to a system of mutual exchange had long since broken down in Denmark. There is no “peace in the feud” between humans and monsters, since Grendel evinces no fear at all of retaliation from the Danes as a restraint upon his behavior and rejoices in the one-sided violence he is able to inflict on them. In fact, the Beowulf poet troubles to show us that even when a thoroughly just vengeance is taken upon this tihtbysig “crime-laden” man, a hardened criminal or repeat offender, violence does not settle the matter at all but simply provokes an immediate retaliation on the part of the perpetrator’s aggrieved kin.

Grendel’s mother drags off Æschere, Hrothgar’s oldest and most beloved retainer, the one surviving thegn who, as a young man, used to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with his lord as they defended each other’s heads in battle (lines 1325–1328a). His loss is specially and bitterly mourned, even after all the other deaths suffered by the Danes. The poet invents the vicious beheading of this character at the hands of Grendel’s mother in order to create a particular thematic opportunity. It gives him a chance to lament, in his own voice, the system of reciprocal violence that Grendel’s mother incarnates in her actions and intent: “that was not a good exchange / that on both sides they had to pay with the lives of their loved ones” (lines 1304b–1306a), he says, with remarkable compunction for the feelings of a deadly she troll. But this way, he suggests, both sides will always lose those they love the most.

The Beowulf poet uses Grendel’s mother to imagine with greater emotional clarity and intellectual precision the source of such self-consuming violence between groups. It is primordial love, he realizes, that is the bottomless wellspring of human hatred. We hate so hard because we love so much and so protectively those whom we see as moral appendages of own persons, a mother especially, since her physical connection to her offspring is so obvious and tangible. Families are the same. We are sprung from their bodies, bone of their bone, flesh of their flesh. Wounded love of kind is thus the indefatigable engine of violence in human affairs. C. R. Hallpike, writing of the hill clans of Papua New Guinea, concludes that certain patterns of familial affection and group identity simply make “a high level of conflict both permanent and inescapable.”34 The Beowulf poet agrees: He uses the image of a perfectly natural but monstrous mother’s love to convey the power and predictability of the impulse for revenge, the inevitability of the violence it constantly engenders. And rather than leave us merely appalled at this conclusion, within seventy lines the poet troubles to associate his own noble hero with this very same reaction: “Do not mourn, old man,” Beowulf reassures the grieving Hrothgar: “it is better for a man / to avenge his friend than to mourn much” (lines 1384b–1385). We best express our love not through sorrow but through more violence. Let’s kill one of theirs, we’ll feel better. And the old king leaps for joy, thanking God, when he learns of his young friend’s determination (lines 1397–1398).

This embrace of the revenge imperative by the good people in the poem is no temporary or adventitious association, adduced at this particular point simply to motivate Beowulf’s next adventure. Even on the last day of his life on earth, when as an old king, the hero pauses to reflect before entering the path down to the dragon’s barrow, he rejoices not in having killed Grendel and his mother for Hrothgar. What Beowulf is most proud of is that his beloved uncle Hygelac had never needed to seek among other peoples a warrior worse than him to fight their enemies. He remained loyal to the end and personally succeeded in avenging the king’s death on that battlefield in Frisia by crushing the life out of his Frankish counterpart, the human champion Dæghrefn, with his own bare hands (lines 2501–2508). This gloating memory is what gives Beowulf the final gumption to call out the dragon a few moments later. And we might recall that the Geats’ attack upon the Franks, in which Hygelac was killed, is said three times by the poet to have been an unprovoked plundering raid, structurally analogous, one might say, to Grendel’s random depredation of Danes: “Wyrd took him / when for pride [Hygelac] asked for trouble, for a fight among the Frisians” (lines 1205b–1207a; cf. 2490–2508a, and 2910b–2921). This observation puts our hero in a position precisely parallel to that of Grendel’s mother, in that he avenges the slaying of a close kinsman who has already put himself in the wrong by killing first. The Franks, like the Danes, were just trying to defend themselves from a wanton aggressor, only to suffer further loss of life at the hands of their attacker’s aggrieved kin: Beowulf in this case, Grendel’s mother in the other.

What is interesting here is that the poet has demonized in Grendel’s mother the same attitude he honors in his hero. And there are other moments in the poem where we feel the same thrill of revenge. I am thinking in particular of the relief created by the scop of the Finnsburg lay when, after that awful winter in Frisia where the Danish leader has been forced to swear allegiance to his lord’s slayer Finn, Hunlaf’s son finally puts the sword into Hengest’s lap. A satisfying moment of revenge—when Dæghrefn’s ribs crack in Beowulf’s bear hug or his windpipe collapses in the hero’s great grip—is a memory the old king cherishes to his dying day. This murderous pang of grief turned joy in the moment of revenge is the still point in the turning world of Beowulf, a satisfaction shared both by the Geatish prince and by Grendel’s mother.

But do we need go so far as to conclude that Beowulf himself becomes a monster by killing monsters, that he musters such force of inhuman rage and vengefulness, of arrogance and “us-ism,” that he takes on the character of the enemies he overcomes rather than the human beings he tries to protect?35 Beowulf is not a monster, the poet reminds us. He is a really nice man. When he dies, the Geats mourn him from the bottom of their hearts:

  • They said he was of kings in the world
  • the mildest of men and the most courteous,
  • kindest to his people and most eager for their regard. (lines 3180–3182)

Much f this esteem comes from the fact that Beowulf never killed a kinsman, a blessing for which he thanks God (lines 2739b–2743a) and a rarity among Germanic princes, historical or legendary. But neither did Beowulf let his kinsmen lie unavenged, even when they were stupidly, wickedly, disastrously in the wrong. Beowulf does not become a monster by killing monsters: The monsters of Beowulf become human by killing humans. It’s what we do. It comes naturally to us, especially when someone harms our loved ones.

The Dragon36

It may feel better to avenge one’s friend than to mourn much, but it does not bring him back (in the old cliché), nor does it seem to make things much better for anyone in the long run. Even the vengeance Beowulf takes upon the dragon for burning down his hall is just as self-destructive as the dragon’s own retaliation for the violation of its “hall” in the earth. They both get their revenge, of course, but lose their lives in the process. Like Grendel’s mother, Beowulf enjoys a momentary triumph, but blood is pulsing from the bite-wound in his neck, poison working in his breast, his face scorched by flames and caustic venom. Our damaged and disfigured hero is now something of a monster himself, exulting (almost pathetically) in the wealth he has won for his people, not realizing that it is worthless to them without him. Swedes and Franks and other enemies will all remember the many injuries Geats have done them in the past, including some big ones by Beowulf himself. This is not at all a good exchange, that on all sides everyone ends up paying with the lives of their loved ones, the hero of the poem just like everybody else.

Unlike Grendel and his mother, however, the dragon is not a humanoid monster. It is supercultural and therefore ultimately insuperable, 37 an earthly analogue of the great world serpent that the god Thor will kill on the last day, stepping, just like Beowulf, only paces away to his own death. Both god and hero try to defend their people from this existential threat, but their own great strength redounds upon them: It is the shock of Thor’s hammer blow that blasts all human life from earth, not the Midgard serpent.38 Beowulf only breaks his good sword on the dragon’s hard skull, his final “victory,” leaving his people more vulnerable to their enemies than before. These are not ironies for the Beowulf poet. They are simply wyrd—the way things have always “turned out”—for all heroes, all monsters, all creatures on earth. “Wyrd has swept away / all of my kinsmen to their predestined end,” the hero says: “I must follow them” (lines 2814b-2816). Despite his many references to the Christian God, then, whose presence is so palpable in the earlier parts of his poem, the poet of Beowulf chooses to end his story the old-fashioned way, a choice that may help explain why his work never achieved the kind of cultural authority in Christian Anglo-Saxon England enjoyed by other epics of comparable depth and artistry, which express for their societies a clearer sense of divine purpose, national mission, dynastic legitimacy, or folk character. Instead, Beowulf slipped away into the corners of English literary culture, quietly awaiting its revival in our own post-Christian, postmodern, less confident age.


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(1) The standard edition is Klaeber’s Beowulf” and the “Fight at Finnsburg, 4th ed., by R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008). For a version of this edition with prose translation, plus the texts and translations of other works included in the same codex and a related fragment, see The Beowulf” Manuscript: The Complete Texts and “The Fight at Finnsburg,” ed. and trans. R. D. Fulk (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Translations of poetry are my own, but I have been guided by Fulk in rendering key words and phrases in Judith and the prose texts of the Nowell Codex, as noted below.

(2) Michael Lapidge, “The Archetype of Beowulf,” Anglo-Saxon England 29 (2000): 5–41; qualified by Craig R. Davis in “An Ethnic Dating of Beowulf,” Anglo-Saxon England 35 (2006): 111–129, at p. 112.

(3) Cædmon’s Hymn, in Three Northumbrian Poems, rev. ed. A. H. Smith (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1978), line 7a.

(4) Studies in the History of Old English Literature (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1953), p. 96. Cf. Craig R. Davis, “The Geats of Beowulf,” in The Dating of “Beowulf”: A Reassessment, ed. Leonard Neidorf (Cambridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, forthcoming 2014), from which the following comments have been adapted.

(5) The Passion of Saint Christopher, in The “Beowulf” Manuscript, ed. and trans. Fulk, pp. 1–13.

(6) An Old English Martyrology, ed. and trans. George Herzfeld, Early English Text Society o.s. 116 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trübner, 1900), pp. 67–69.

(7) Judith, in The “Beowulf” Manuscript, ed. and trans. Fulk, pp. 297–323.

(8) The Wonders of the East, in The “Beowulf” Manuscript, ed. and trans. Fulk, pp. 15–31. Cf. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, ed. Robert B. Strassler, trans. Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Random House, 2007).

(9) Craig R. Davis, “Redundant Ethnogenesis in Beowulf,” The Heroic Age 5 (2001). Available at:

(10) “The Merov(ich)ingian Again: damnatio memoriae and the usus scholarum,” in Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge, ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), vol. 1, pp. 389–406.

(11) Afterword in “Beowulf” and Lejre, ed. John D. Niles and Marijane Osborn (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2007): 469–79, at p. 470.

(12) A History of Old English Meter (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), pp. 348–392. Cf. “Dates, Origins, Influences, Genre,” in the Introduction to Klaeber’s “Beowulf”, pp. clxii‒clxxxviii, at clxv‒clxvii.

(14) “Skaldic Verse and the Date of Beowulf,” in The Dating of ‘Beowulf’, ed. Colin Chase (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981): 123–139, and “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History,” in Beowulf, ed. Harold Bloom (rpt. New York: Chelsea House, 1987): 51–61.

(15) “Beowulf” and the “Beowulf” Manuscript, rev. ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996). Cf. his Electronic ‘Beowulf’ 3.0 (London: British Library, 2011), DVD.

(16) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, rev. trans. ed. Dorothy Whitelock, et al. (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), sub anno 855 (for 857).

(17) Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave and R. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), bk. 1, chap. 15, and bk. 4, chap. 16; The Old English Version of Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” ed. T. Miller, 2 vols. (London: Early English Text Society, 1959–1963), vol. I, bk. 1, chap. 12; and vol. II, bk. 4, chap. 18.

(18) Asser’s “Life of King Alfred,” ed. W. H. Stevenson (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1904), chap. 23.

(19) Historia de Sancto Cuthberto: A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of his Patrimony, ed. Ted Johnson South (Woodbridge/Rochester: D. S. Brewer, 2002), chaps. 7 and 11.

(21) For instance, four film versions have appeared in recent years: Graham Baker’s Beowulf (1999), John McTiernan and Michael Crichton’s 13th Warrior (1999), Sturla Gunnarson’s Beowulf and Grendel (2005), and Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf (2007). In addition, poet Seamus Heaney first published his acclaimed and controversial rendering in 1999 (London: Faber and Faber), which has subsequently appeared in different editions by Norton in New York, plus many other translations and adaptations of the poem in several languages and various media.

(22) For instance, Renée R. Trilling, “Beyond Abjection: The Problem with Grendel’s Mother Again,” Parergon 24.1 (2007): 1–20.

(24) Cf. my earlier study, “The Exorcism of Grendel,” chap. 5 of ‘Beowulf’ and the Demise of Germanic Legend in England (New York: Garland, 1996).

(25) Cf. Helen T. Bennett, “The Postmodern Hall in Beowulf: Endings Embedded in Beginnings,” The Heroic Age 12 (2009). Available at:

(26) Edward B. Irving, Jr., Rereading ‘Beowulf’ (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), p. 138. Cf. H. J. Hodges, “Cain’s Fratricide: Original Violence as ‘Original Sin’ in Beowulf,” Medieval and Early Modern English Studies 15.1 (2007): 31–56.

(27) George Philip Krapp and Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, eds., The Exeter Book (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), p. 163.

(28) George Philip Krapp, ed., The Junius Manuscript (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931), p. 32.

(29) The following comments are adapted from my recent essay, “A Mother from Hell: Love and Vengeance in Beowulf,” in Vox Germanica: Essays in Germanic Languages and Literature in Honor of James E. Cathey, ed. Stephen J. Harris, Michael Moynihan, and Sherrill Harbison (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2012): 187–198.

(30) “Horror and the Maternal in Beowulf,” PMLA 21 (2006): 702–716.

(31) A Critical Companion to “Beowulf” (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2003), p. 187.

(32) “Old English cuƒe folme in Beowulf, Line 1303A,” Neophilologus 89.4 (2005): 625–627, at p. 626.

(33) Cf. Jacob Black-Michaud, Cohesive Force: Feud in the Mediterranean and the Middle East (New York: St. Martin’s, 1975); Christopher Boehm, Blood Revenge: The Anthropology of Feuding in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987); Max Gluckman, “Peace in the Feud,” Past and Present 8 (1955): 1–14, and his Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Society (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1965).

(34) Bloodshed and Vengeance in the Papuan Mountains: The Generation of Conflict in Tauade Society (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. vii.

(35) For instance, Manish Sharma, “Metalepsis and Monstrosity: The Boundaries of Narrative Structure in Beowulf,” Studies in Philology 102.3 (2005): 247–279; and Susan M. Kim, “‘As I Once Did with Grendel’: Boasting and Nostalgia in Beowulf,” Modern Philology 103.1 (2005): 4–27.

(36) Cf. “Wyrd and the World-Serpent,” chap. 7 of my Beowulf” and the Demise (1996).

(38) Völuspá, ed. Sigurƒur Nordal, trans. B. S. Benedikz and John McKinnell (Durham, NC: Durham and St. Andrews Medieval Texts, 1980), stanza 56.

(39) This list includes studies chosen for their contribution to the present essay and continuing promise for future study of the poem.