The poem of Beowulf involves ambiguity between the portrayals of humans and monsters. It reveals the struggles of humanity finding a balance between predatorial and agonistic aggressions through conflicts which also indicate how the beast-like nature of man reflects human society. Throughout Beowulf, the monstrosity of the antagonists seem to share more relations with man’s humanity rather than diverge. The term “aglaeca” in the original poem derives from Anglo-Saxon origin, which allows ambiguity of whether the creatures are truly monsters or perverted forms of humans, also suggesting that the creatures may abide by a twisted form of humans’ social order. That in mind, Beowulf goes about defeating each creature with an understanding of how they strike their victims, figuring how to use his humanity as an advancement towards their predatorial aggressions.
The story of Beowulf creates a view of monsters that are part human and part animal, which introduces an unclear portrayal of the antagonists. A shift between the two characteristics occurs throughout the story amongst all the creatures Beowulf interacts with. An obvious indication takes place when Beowulf is trusted to be a lookout and Horothgar announces him as “a match for Grendel, a guard against monsters, special protection to the Danish prince”(667-668 Heaney). Seamus Heaney translates the original term “aglaeca” to “monster” in describing Grendel, but the origin of the word can also stand for “a fierce combatant” or “wretch” through old English. Now, the definition of “wretch” can mean “a banished person” or “an exile”, which may suggest the creature is a part of the Danish culture, not just a monstrous entity, but having human qualities and being capable of understanding society. Although, this concept quickly changes in the story as Grendel, does not simply kill, but physically eats one of Beowulf’s men. Therefore Grendel’s character shifts back to being a ferocious creature because “this is not a heroic contest between champions but a lion pouncing on a helpless deer (Parks 1). Revealing the predatory aggression Grendel expresses towards his prey, he obtains the animal qualities that Beowulf must then counteract against.
In order to resolve the ambivalence Grendel embodies, Beowulf must find a balance between predatorial and agonistic aggressions to defeat Grendel and the other creatures within the story. Grendel’s purely physical forces involve no weapons or armour in his attacks, while Beowulf as a human would normally utilize both during a battle against an opponent. The two showcase a difference in the predatory and agonistic approaches. Beowulf understands he cannot defeat Grendel while maintaining his human aggressions, so he must turn to more beastial approaches in order to fight Grendel as an equal opponent. Before Beowulf and his men went rest to wait for Grendel in the hall, Beowulf “began to remove his iron breastmail, took off the helmet and handed his attendant the patterned sword, a smith’s masterpiece, ordering him to keep the equipment guarded” (671-674). By removing his weapons and armour, Beowulf is leveling the playing field in order to ultimately defeat Grendel as an equal. Another difference in the two approaches is the initiation of battle. Humans in war expect their opponents and both surge towards each other to fight, on the other hand, Animals use the sneak attack aspect to catch their prey off guard. Beowulf silently watches as Grendel eats one of his men in order to obtain the predatorial approach to ambush Grendel, and gain an advantage in the fight. Now, when Beowulf comes across Grendel’s mother, this approach changes when she purposefully leads the men to her lair. Beowulf, with the presented opportunity “prepares to meet Grendel’s mother and acknowledges her space as one for battle” (Keane 165). The roles suddenly change as the predatorial aspects are converted back to agonistic, Beowulf then carries out to defeat Grendel’s mother in a humanistic approach with weapons and armour. Although, the conflict with Grendel’s mother also suggests there is more to the monsters than just ambiguous ferocious beings.
Looking further into the mother of Grendel, she is immediately set apart from the other creatures in the story. The mother first comes into the story soon after her son, Grendel, dies in the defeat against Beowulf. The Danes describe her arrival as “now this powerful other one arrives, this force for evil driven to avenge her kinsman’s death (1337-1340). Her quest for revenge is an action abnormal in monstrous behavior, suggesting she has a human desire for justice. Grendel’s mother seeks out her revenge by capturing Horothgar’s right hand man, which not very coincidently, was the hand that Beowulf had ripped off Grendel’s arm in their fight. The mother had motive and objectives in her tasks that set her different from just a beastial entity and her efforts are much more sophisticated compared to Grendel’s attacks. She continues this tactful mission by leading Beowulf and his men with a trail of body parts from the secretary’s corpse straight to her underwater lair. Once Beowulf arrives, “he is dragged to a place that again mixes the elements – a dry cave lit by a fiery light, but deep under water” (Elden 453). The description of inside the mother’s lair is not depicted as an eerie, unlivable space that monsters usually reside in, but a dry and well lit den that even has weapon artifacts hung on the walls and hoards of treasures. The mother’s lair seems to portray the home of a banished exile more than a monster. Grendel’s mother shows her comprehension of a familiar justice code, she lives within a lifestyle that is similar to the Danish culture, and she understands the social order within Danes and Geats. This suggests that the creatures do not oppose Danish society, but rather they participate in distorted ways, and that is why society consider them to be monstrous.
Overall, the ambiguity within the monsters of Beowulf depict the humanistic and monstrous characteristics that challenge Beowulf in his conflicts throughout the story. The aggressions of the creatures are misleading to be identified as purely animalistic physical forces when in reality, they share more relations with humanity to the point where they pervert the social culture.