Human-like Beasts or Bestial Humans?

The Slippery Monsters of Beowulf

Michael A. Slusser

Copyright 2000

Much has been written on the roles, uses, functions, perceptions, descriptions, and underlying motivations and sources of the "monsters" presented in Beowulf. Much of the discussion centres on particular words, grammatical peculia rities, and social and historical influences on the presentation of the monstrous adversaries of Beowulf that may be difficult for the beginner in Old English. I intend only to give a brief overview of the variety of information available and the broad c ategories into which these discussions fall.

Essentially, there are three "monsters" in Beowulf: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. For many years, these "fantastic" elements were seen largely as deviations from the real meat of the text, the historical sign ificance of the poem (Tolkien 52). In his seminal article "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," J. R. R. Tolkien argues that the monsters are the centre of the poem, and their inclusion was neither accidental nor poorly chosen (Tolki en 52). His paper shaped the way nearly all subsequent critics viewed the monsters in the poem—that is, poetically and literarily, rather than as historical indicators.

From this point, it is perhaps most useful to discuss each monster separately:


Grendel is the first monster that Beowulf fights, and has by far received the most critical attention. Briefly, Grendel menaces the Hall of Heorot, its master king Hrothgar, and his men. Grendel stalks the moors, and nightly attacks the hall, devouring Hrothgar’s men—none can stop him. Hrothgar calls upon Beowulf to combat the monster. Beowulf arrives, and when the weapons of his men are ineffective against Grendel’s hide, he wrestles the monster unarmed, managing to rip his arm off entirel y. Grendel limps away, and is later dispatched by Beowulf.

Grendel is important to the text in many ways. His battle with Beowulf is the most richly detailed and explicated event in the narrative. Much criticism now focuses on Grendel’s exact nature: is he a bestial giant, a demonic spirit, or an outcas t warrior? Critics Stephen Bandy traces Grendel’s heritage through "the line of Cain" described in the poem, and points out the tradition in the Middle Ages to figure the progeny of the Genesis outcast as monsters and giants. Genesis 4:4 tells clearly that those descended of the first fratricide became monstrous, and later Germanic myth linked them clearly with the monsters and giants who inhabited their pagan tales (Bandy 236). While he relies on Augustine and others to show that Grendel ind eed has a human soul and must therefore be held accountable for his crimes, Bandy clearly is favouring Grendel’s status as a huge ogre, as the iconography of such great sin would suggest (240).

Many commentators now classify Grendel as at least partly a man, and some advocate that he may be entirely human, a social outcast from the order of "thegn" and lord. Thalia Feldman also uses Cain as the basis for Grendel’s lineage, but reli es heavily upon his human nature. She carefully traces the meanings of words often used to support Grendel’s monstrosity and shows that they in fact may be more indicative of brutish men than monsters. For example, the term fifelcynis often gloss ed as "monster," and there is little to dispute this in the body of Old English literature, as this is the only appearance of fiflto be found. However, Old Norse used in Icelandic and Scandanavian sagas suggest rather that fifl is closer in meaning to "fool," and is used to indicate the uneducated or brutish (Feldman 74). When looking at such terms as < I>eotenas, she states that it is more properly tied to the verb etan, and may indicate a cannibal more than a giant (Feldman 76). These would seem to indicate that Grendel is wild, ignorant, and socially repugnant, but not a true "monster." Katherine O’Keefe also relies on philological study. She takes up the use of words such as aglæca (either "monster, fiend" or "hero" in some glo sses; O’Keefe suggests "formidable [one]," as does Elliot Dobbie) and hilderinc ("warrior"), which are applied both to Grendel and others in the text—most notably Beowulf himself (484-85). The implication would seem to be that either both Grendel and our hero are monstrous, or both are human—or possibly some combination of the two. In any case, they must share some traits, which link them more than commentators who wish to make Grendel entirely alien would indicate.

Meanwhile, scholars such as Fidel Fajardo-Acosta explore Grendel’s reasons for savaging Heorot—the Danes’ moral failings—and suggest that Grendel is only present as a kind of spiritual punishment. Fajardo-Acosta points out lines 175-183 in Beowulf, where the author decries the heathen ways of the Danes and their lack of devotion to the one true God. Of these he says, "Therefore, according to the Beowulf poet, the presence and ravages of Grendel among the Danes appear to be a phenomenon directly related to the behaviour and character of the Danes the mselves" (206). To these sins are added those of drunkenness, brutality, and—in the person of Unferth—fratricide (Fajardo-Acosta 207). The other attributes of Grendel—his prodigious strength, the difficulty the trained warriors among the Danes have in slaying or capturing him (though clearly Hrothgar knows where he lairs), his appearance when the Danes are at their lowest moral points—seem to indicate that his function is a moral one (Fajardo-Acosta 209).

Grendel’s Mother

Receiving no name of her own, Grendel’s mother figures least in the mass of critical interpretation, largely due to the shortness and awkwardness of the passages describing her encounter with Beowulf, in which essentially the hero follows Grendel’s bloody trail to her lair at the bottom of a lake, engages her in battle, and kills her. Descriptions of her are sparse. Most analysis centres around her nature, and the problematic terms used to describe her: aglæcwif (with the same problems as aglæca, above), and ides (which literally is "woman," but which is normally only used in Old English to describe ladies of nobility) (Taylor 15; Temple 10). Keith Taylor argues that the use of these terms is deliberately oppositional, so that we are forced to recognize not only that Grendel’s mother is formidable, but also has an inherent nobility (17). If Grendel is descended from the line of Cain, then his mother must be a part of that lineage—his status, therefore, is in some ways dependent on hers. And if Grendel is a kind of biblical judgement on the Danes, then there must be some honour of some sort associated with his progenitor. Mary Kay Temple, on the other hand, claims that the use of ides is meant ironically, through conjuring images of other more worthy ladies (14).


The Dragon

The last third or so of the Beowulf narrative describes a much older Beowulf, now a chieftan in his own right, fighting against a dragon that is ravaging the lands of his people. Beowulf is eventually killed by the dragon, though not before giving it a mortal blow which allows his subordinate, Wulfstan, to finish the beast off. As might be imagined, a good deal of critical effort is spent arguing whether or not the dragon is simply another monster in a pagan tale or the embodiment of evil in a Christian allegory. If the other monsters have been the descendents of Cain, then the tale is in some ways building to this confrontation with the symbol of ultimate sin, the serpent. An interesting side discussion is carried on regarding the nature of the dragon as possibly human: Peter Braeger and others argue that the language leaves open the possibility that the dragon may once have been human, transformed to a monstrous shape (327). Throughout the poem, Beowulf has been wrestling—both literally and figuratively—with evil, and here he faces it in its purest form. The simultaneous deaths of both he and his foe are cited by many as evidence of the poet’s linking of evil with the very act of being human. The "problem of evil" cannot be overcome, because it is a problem rooted in our nature, and it is possible that this interplay between the humanness and monstrosity of Beowulf’s opponents continues to elucidate this dilemma without offering much in the way of resolving it.

For Further Reading

Bandy, Stephen C. "Cain, Grendel, and the Giants of Beowulf." Papers on Language and Literature 9 (1973): 235-49.

Interesting discussion of "giant" iconography.

Braeger, Peter. "Connotations of (Earm)Sceapen: Beowulf II. 2228-2229 and the Shape-Shifting Dragon." Essays in Literature. 13 (1986): 327-30.

A very short paper focussing on this particular word’s usage.

Fajardo-Acosta, Fidel. "Intemperance, Fratricide, and the Elusiveness of Grendel. English Studies 73 (1992): 205-10. An interesting treatment of the theme of "Grendel as moral punisher."

Feldman, Thalia. "Grendel and Cain’s Descendants." Literary Onomastics Studies 8

(1981): 71-87.

Very well researched article, giving new light to the human-monster debate about Grendel.

O’Keefe, Katherine. "Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human." Texas Studies in Literature 23 (1981): 484-94.

More narrow in focus than Feldman’s article, this is still a useful discussion of the topic.

Taylor, Keith P. "The Inherent Nobility of Grendel’s Mother." English Language Notes

31 (1994): 13-25.

A good examination of wordplay and paradoxical language in the poem.

Temple, Mary Kay. "Grendel’s Lady Mother." English Language Notes 23 (1986): 10-15.

A short paper, this argument examines the way ides has been used in literature and what that means in the context of Beowulf.

Tolkien, J.R.R. "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95. Rpt. in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1963. 51-103.

A very enjoyable discourse, and an important one. This is the paper that changed the nature of subsequent criticism. Perhaps a bit more informal than the modern scholar will be accustomed to, Tolkien’s research and analysis are nevertheless brilliant , and this is a refreshingly interesting dissertation. Covers much more than just the monsters in the poem—a good treatise on the nature of criticism of literature itself.

Further Reading Not Cited in the Text

Dobbie, Eliott Van Kirk, ed. Beowulf and Judith. New York: Columbia UP, 1953.

An important edition of the poem, this volume also contains a text of Judith, another Old English poem. Dobbie provides very extensive notes on precedents for his word glosses. This version is much cited by scholars.

Jack, George, ed. Beowulf: A Student Edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

Not necessarily important in scholarly criticism, this volume features an extremely useful side-by-side glossary. Very helpful for the first-time reader.

Klaeber, Fr., ed. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburgh. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1922.

With Dobbie, one of the two most cited scholarly editions of the poem. Contains over a hundred pages of introduction discussing half a dozen important aspects of the poem, as well as copious textual notes. Also contains the text of The Fight at Fi nnsburgh.

Mitchell, Bruce. "’Until the Dragon Comes...’: Some Thoughts on Beowulf.Neophilologus 47 (1963): 126-38.

An interesting and readable treatise on the interplay of Christian and pagan elements in the poem.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-manuscript.

Cambridge, England; New York: Brewer, 1995.

One of the more modern works on this subject, Orchard "contextualize[s] the text’s monsters in the manuscripts." Very highly recommended.