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The Monsters in Beowulf Seem to be Metaphors

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Table of contents

  1. The human side of monsters
  2. Conclusion
  3. Primary Sources
  4. Secondary Sources

Monsters are a metaphor for fate and the destructive forces of nature.

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster . . . when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good, and Evil, 1886

Subsequent to the publication of J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Monsters and the Critics” scholars have found it easier to view Beowulf predominantly as a work of art rather than, for instance, as a repository of folklore or a guide to Germanic society. The restoration of literary prominence in Beowulf criticism allows scholars to surpass straightforward critical claims such as Walter W. Skeat’s determined classification of Grendel as a bear and of Grendel’s embrace as a bear-hug. “Further than this [Skeat argues] it is needless to enquire” (121). Hesitant of Skeat’s judgment, many scholars looking objectively at Grendel and the other monsters in Beowulf have started to realize that our reaction to them, as to the entire poem, does not need to be simplistic (BRONNEN). Consequently, it is easier to comprehend that the Beowulf poet shapes his story, as well as his characters, in such a way to implicitly make an ironic remark on the unstable heroic social structure his poem is based upon.

In recent years, a growing body of scholarly articles has explored the role of the monsters in Beowulf. Many scholars have established that the concept of monstrosity in Beowulf is a tool to expose the flaws of a heroic society (BRONNEN). Nevertheless, the majority of the scholarship has failed to recognize the importance of the human characteristics of the monsters. There is still a need to decide why the poet so closely associated the monstrous with the human. This thesis will build on previous analyses of the monsters in Beowulf by demonstrating that the Beowulf poet may have created in his monsters an external equivalent for the dark side of human nature and attempted to show that the shadow belongs to Beowulf himself (and by extension to other human characters in the poem).

Nora Chadwick remarks that in various folktale analogs to Beowulf (especially in Grettis Saga) there is an unusual likeness between the hero and his enemy, between the man and the monster. Chadwick questions whether “[i]t is possible that in origin Grendel and Grettir are identical, and that in the Norse story, the monster has been transferred into the hero – that a story, originally told from the monster’s point of view, has left traces on this strange and capricious, pitiful yet very sinister outlaw?” (193). This perception of a monstrous counterpart is a helpful way of clarifying some of the actions in multiple sagas. It furthermore indicates that we might find interesting parallels if we look for resemblance, rather than assuming basic differences, between Beowulf and his monsters.

For example, if Grendel is greater “ðonne ænig mon ōðer” (1560), Beowulf is separated in size from his retainers in a similar manner.[footnoteRef:1] The Danish coastguard says of Beowulf: [1: All references to Beowulf will be from Howell D. Chickering’s Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition.]

næfre ic māran geseah

eorla ofer eorþan ðonne is ēower sum,

secg on searwum. (247-9)

When Grendel first attacks Heorot he seizes thirty men. Beowulf is introduced as a man who has the strength of thirty men in his handgrip. The echo of the account of Grendel’s assault guides the reader to regard Beowulf as a worthy and equal opponent of the giant foe, however, it also persuades the reader to connect the two characters in our minds. This is also the case with both Beowulf’s and Grendel’s preference for hand-to-hand combat over the armored battle. Moreover, Beowulf, like Grendel, is in possession of a tremendous grip. Grendel’s mother to has “stolen common” (1502) and “grim man grāþum” (1542). In addition to the general likeness in size and strength, the poet distinctly identifies Beowulf’s state of mind with that of Grendel in their confrontation. Beowulf seems to work himself into a bad temper before the monster’s arrival so that he is as ready to fight as Grendel himself. Beowulf “wrāþum on andan / bad bolgenmōd beadwa geþinges” (708-9). Likewise, Grendel “golden wæs” at the entrance of the hall (723), and he is “yrremōd” (726) when he treads the “fāgne flōr” (725). As a result, the forthcoming meeting between the two begins to sound like the encounter of two monsters.

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The dragon opposing Beowulf in his final battle is the poem’s only significant non-humanoid monster. This exceptional beast poses a dilemma for the poem’s readers because in some ways Beowulf resembles the dragon even more than he resembles Grendel. Where the manlike monster and the hero were described by the same term, “āglǣca” used now of one, now of the other, the hero and the dragon are virtually merged by the plural form of the noun “āglǣcean” so that they struggle together as warriors or heroes and as monsters or wretches (2592). Harry Burger and H. Marshall Leicester feel that the correspondence between Beowulf and the dragon suggests that the latter may “in some manner be the double as well as the antithesis of the hero” (66).

In this battle, as in the fight between Beowulf and Grendel, the hero and the dragon both have hearts swollen with rage: the monster “golden wes” (2220) and the hero “torne golden” (2401). The dragon is also as emotionally attuned to Beowulf as Grendel was. Just as Grendel knew fear at the instant of Beowulf's touch, so the hero and the dragon know as soon as their battle begins that they threaten each other with destruction: in a reciprocity that also points to a doubles relationship, each instinctively feels the horror of the other “ǣghwæðrum wæs / bealo-hycgendra brōga fram ōðrum” (2564-65).

The hero and the dragon are doubles not only because they have the same capacity for destruction but also because they battle to keep the same treasure (much as the hero and Grendel fought to rule the same hall). The dragon is characterized as the keeper of the gold treasure-“gold-māðmas” (2414) and Beowulf is identified as the gold friend of the Geats “gold-wine Gēata” (2419). The dragon devotes and, ultimately, sacrifices its life to guard the heathen gold (2276), while Beowulf promises to give up his life, if need be, in order to obtain that same gold (2536).

The human side of monsters

There would be little point in regarding Beowulf as one of Grendel’s kin (in a broad sense) if Grendel, his mother, and to a lesser extent the dragon was not endowed with a matching human side. In fact, one can make a very good case for humanity at least for Grendel. The fact that Grendel shares human characteristics with Beowulf makes him a believable symbolic alter-ego for the hero. Tolkien mentioned that Grendel is both an exile (41-2) and several critics have built upon the suggestion to place the monster in the context of Anglo-Saxon exile poetry. But though some have acknowledged the use of human terms to describe Grendel and his mother, and their placement in human situations, the idea is usually played down or explained away in favor of the conception of both as monsters or devils. O. F. Emerson, for example, remarks that Grendel is wonsæli wer, that his appearance is on weres wæstmum, that he is called feasceaft Guma, ring, and so on, but he prefers to see the reference to wonsæli wer in the passage dealing with Cain (105-110) as applying to that unworthy and not to Grendel. An d he canvasses most of the epithets describing Grendel and his mother to show that they are generally “called by such names as would be applicable to a monster of evil birth, or a devil” (874). In the main one has to agree with him, since far the greater number of references to Grendel relate him to the monstrous or devilish: fēond, fēond on helle, fēond machines, with unhælo, ellorgæst, manscaða and so on. But the fact that the monsters primarily are evil spirits does not mean that their human attributes need to be forgotten. There are many words and situations in Beowulf that Emerson naturally ignored since he was only dealing with the devilish side of Grendel's kin.

For Joseph Baird, Grendel’s humanity derives from his status as exile: “Grendel . . . is not only with unhælo, gods and soca, but also thane or guardian of the hall (healðegnes here, 142; rēðe rewards, applied to both Grendel and Beowulf, 770). He has the form of a man (on weres wæstmum, 1352), except that he is larger ðonne ænig mon ōðer. He is wonsǣli wer (105), rinc (720), deprived of joys (dr~am(um) bed~l-ed, 721, 1275), compelled to tread the exile paths (wræclāstas træd, 1352). This last theme of the exile is deeply embedded in the poet’s conception of Grendel: he is . . . exiled from God: he is here a treader of exile paths, and in lines 154-62 he is conceived as an outlaw who refuses to settle the feud with compensation . . . .” (378)

One of the fairly significant redirections of Beowulf's criticism may be the growing admission (always with qualifications) that it could be possible to feel for Grendel and his mother. Herbert Wright approaches the possibility cautiously: “The mere mention of Grendel’s exile, a word that always stirred the heart of an Old English poet, is enough to call forth the epithets farmscape (1351) and wonsǣlī (105), terms which betoken a momentary commiseration even for the heorowearh hetelīc (1267)” (2). Frank Bessai provides a further basis for some sort of sympathy for Grendel by explaining the monster’s strained relationship with Hrothgar’s comitatus. He feels that deprivation from the joys of the comitatus “motivates the hostility of the monster against the race of men: he is driven to destroy what he cannot share. Hence Grendel’s attacks on Hrothgar’s men are made in Heorot, after scenes of fellowship; he does not strike at the straggler, in the way a wolf harries a flock, but at the heart of the troop” (142). It is what Grendel has in common with any Anglo-Saxon, the threat of potential exile and consequent rejection from the comitatus, that moves Baird to state, probably as strong as it can be stated, why he thinks the reader’s response to Grendel is and would always have been a complicated one: “The theme of man-exile, in agreement with the enemy of God images, would likely bring up associations of repulsion and hatred, for the outlaw was often a dangerous, desperate man who had committed some violent act. But it also, incongruously perhaps, called up the emotions of pity and fear. The mere mention of Grendel as a man-exile would have engaged emotions contradictory to those aroused by Grendel. The exile theme . . . , embodies a host of emotional overtones and suggestions which carry over from one context to another.”

It seems that if we are not overwhelmed by the imagery of monsters and devils which partly defines Grendel there is ample encouragement to regard him as a man. He is in power, healðegn, and even perhaps more. But always he is wonsæli, farmscape, dreamed bedæled, geofenced (975, 1368) just like any other āngenga 165, 449) or exile of his time. Not only this, though. In 2084 we hear Grendel described as mægnes rōf, a term we might sooner expect to find characterizing Beowulf. In 986, also, in the passage describing his armored nails, Grendel is called hindering. And 1004 ff. connects, or at least compares, him with humanity in describing him as one of the sāwlberend. Perhaps his dual character is indicated by the image in 962 fēond on frætewum which combines the devil or monster (though, more generally, enemy) with the fully armed human.


Admitting the primacy of the monstrous, repugnant aspect of Grendel and the other monsters, then, more might be made of their human associations, and of the heathen, monstrous side of human beings in Beowulf. There is little danger of seeing Grendel as the hero of Beowulf, but I believe there is a need to decide why the poet so closely associated the monstrous with the human. The Beowulf poet may have created in his monsters an external equivalent for the dark side of human nature and attempted to show that the shadow belongs to Beowulf himself (and to other human characters in the poem) by associating him in some respects with the monsters

To appreciate the complexity of Beowulf one should probably resist an oversimplified interpretation suggested by the statement that Grendel wiO right wan (144), and by the fact that when Beowulf defeats the monsters God has appeared on right gescOd/yOelice (1555-56). In view of what happens to Beowulf and the peace and order he brought to the Danes and the Geats, it is possible to view Beowulf's temporary success ironically. And the universal irony of the individual's building for and depending on a future that does not exist for him personally (hence the elegiac laments at the end of Beowulf) is reinforced and explained by the fact that, when a man acts, it is in defiance of his own inner weakness. The Beowulf poet seems to say, through his association of man and monster, that there are good reasons for the kind of dissolution that occurs at the end of the poem, that they may be traced to darkness in the human mind, and that Beowulf himself contains this shadow, as much as he also exemplifies heroism.

To strengthen his impression of a collapsing society, the poet has placed the hero of the story in a symbolically complicated situation. Beowulf, is in part, a story of the decline and fall of a society. But since Beowulf is the symbolic embodiment of his followers, hie fēond hear / ðurh ānes cræft really ofercōmon / selves might (698-99), the story of dissolution is his story, and its tragedy is his. To show what human characteristics foster the tragedy, the poet symbolically shows the limitations of his hero by associating him physically and psychologically with the monsters in the poem. In addition, he widens the range of his symbolism by giving his monsters complementary human attitudes and characteristics. The effect is to illuminate, even perhaps explain, the broader disintegration of a society in terms of the human limitations of its heroic embodiment in Beowulf. That is to say, the success of the dark, chaotic forces in the poem may be partially explicable in human terms if Beowulf symbolically contains the human germ of failure within himself, a possibility that would supplement the usual explanation that the downfall of the Geats is engineered by fate. To show how this downfall has its symbolic explanation in Beowulf, the microcosmic center of the poem, is to discuss the basic symbolic irony arising from the close identification of man and monster, the primitive and the civilized in Beowulf

Primary Sources

  1. Beowulf. Translated by Howell D. Chickering Jr. New York: Anchor Books, 1977. Print.

Secondary Sources

  1. Berger Jr, Harry, and H. Marshall Leicester Jr. “Social Structure as Doom: The limits of Heroism in Beowulf.” Old English Studies in Honour of John C. Pope (1974): 37-79. Print.
  2. Chadwick, Nora K. “The Monsters and Beowulf.” The Anglo-Saxons (1959): 171-203. Print.
  3. Skeat, Walter W. “On the Signification of the Monster Grendel in the Poem of Beowulf; with a Discussion of Lines 2076-2100.” The Journal of Philology 15.29 (1886): 120. Print.
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