Notes on Beowulf Themes

Gareth Hinds
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Beowulf Topic Tracking: Men and Monsters

Who is human, who is a monster, who has superhuman abilities? Where does the line blur between monster/human? This is related to the lineage of Cain and Abel, and is not directly related to good and evil. It regards physical strength and supernatural ability/tendencies.

Men and Monsters 1: Grendel is considered a monster:

"Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend/Grendel who haunted the moors, the wild/Marshes, and made his home in a hell./Not hell but hell on earth. He was spawned in that slime/Of Cain, murderous creatures banished/ By God, punished forever for the crime/ Of Abel's death." pg. 26, lines 101-108

Men and Monsters 2: Beowulf is human but also has the strength, "grip," of thirty men. He is also super-human, and is some ways, almost a monster, but in a different sense than Grendel:

"They have seen my strength for themselves,/ Have watched me rise from the darkness of war,/ Dripping with my enemies' blood. I drove/ Five great giants into chains, chased/ All of that race from the earth. I swam/ In the blackness of night, hunting monsters/ Out of the ocean, and killing them one/ By one; death was my errand and the fate/ They had earned. Now Grendel and I are called/ Together, and I've come." pg. 36, lines 417-426

Beowulf's strength, his primal desire for blood and violence, and his tales of killing do not seem that different to Grendel's massacres at Herot. Beowulf makes himself the equal of Grendel, and presents this parallel by declaring they are 'called together.'

Men and Monsters 3: Beowulf's power in fighting monsters is considered supernatural, but sometimes he needs the assistance of his sword or mail (he is still human and not immortal). Describing his battle with a sea-monster in his youth he says,

"my mail shirt, these shining bits of metal/ Woven across my breast, saved me/ From death. A monster seized me, drew me/ Swiftly toward the bottom, swimming with its claws/ Tight in my flesh. But fate let me/ Find its heart with my sword, hack myself/ Free; I fought that beast's last battle,/ Left it floating lifeless in the sea." pg. 40, lines 551-558

Beowulf's tells this tale the night before he will face the monster, Grendel. Recounted in the mead-hall, it is foreshadowing of his battle with Grendel, and of his future success.

Men and Monsters 4: Beowulf does not need any weapons to fight the monster Grendel. This elevates him above other humans, and further reveals monstrous qualities; Grendel does not need weapons to fight either. Beowulf, unlike Grendel, and like a human warrior, places his faith in God.

"Grendel is no braver, no stronger/ Than I am! I could kill him with my sword; I shall not,/ Easy as it would be. This fiend is a bold/ And famous fighter, but his claws and teeth.../Beating at my sword blade, would be helpless. I will meet him/ With my hands empty-unless his heart/ Fails him, seeing a soldier waiting/ Weaponless, unafraid. Let God in His wisdom/ Extend His hand where He wills, reward/ Whom he chooses!" pg. 44, lines 677-687

Men and Monsters 5: Grendel is immune to man-made weaponry, and he has bewitched all blades. He cannot be wounded or cut through the human standard of power, and is defeated only by Beowulf, who faces him without a sword.

Men and Monsters 6: "not even the sharpest of swords could have cut/ It [Grendel's hand] through, broken it off the monster's/ Arm and ended its life, as Beowulf/ Had done armed only with his bare hands." pg. 54, lines 987-990

Men and Monsters 7: "She'd brooded on her loss, misery had brewed/ In her heart, that female horror, Grendel's/ Mother, living in the murky cold lake/ Assigned her since Cain had killed his only/ Brother, slain his father's son/ With an angry sword." pg. 63, lines 1258-1263

Grendel's mother is a supreme monster, a "female horror" left from the days of Cain and Abel. She thirsts to avenge her son's death by Beowulf's hand, revenge repaid from the original biblical murder. Grendel is a descendent of the sub-human Cain, and Beowulf, a descendent of Abel. A cycle of revenge killings has been perpetuated. Within this plot, a blood-feud between the Geats and the Danes has finally (in Section 3) ended, and replaced by peace and friendship (the two sides united in fighting Grendel). There is foreshadowing that more blood will be shed and that the cycle of revenge will continue.

Timeline

MONSTER kills HUMAN
Cain kills Abel
|
MONSTER kills HUMAN
Grendel kills Danes in Herot
|
HUMAN kills MONSTER
Beowulf kills Grendel
|
MONSTER kills HUMAN
Grendel's mother kills Esher
|
HUMAN kills MONSTER
Beowulf kills Grendel's mother
|
HUMAN and MONSTER kill each other
Beowulf and Dragon kill each other

Men and Monsters 8: Beowulf is more than just human. He is able to sink through the waves of a lake, down to its bottom, and fight for hours without breathing. Also, Grendel's mother cannot harm him through his miraculous armor. The armor, with its rings, is a symbol of the joined friendship and peace between the Geats and Danes. Beowulf is able to fight Grendel's mother and win because of his monstrous strength, but also because he has the protection of his comrades' armor, and the support (and strength) of the two tribes' bond.

Men and Monsters 9: "His pouch hung/ At his side, a huge bag sewn/ From a dragon's skin, worked with a devil's/ Skill." pg. 88, lines 2085-2087

Grendel's pouch was made of dragon's skin, and was said to have been "worked with a devil's skill."

Men and Monsters 10: Monsters, including the dragon, Grendel's mother, and Grendel, can only attack and eat men in their mead-halls at night. Related to light and dark imagery, their power is derived from evil, and functions in the dark. In contrast, all heroes and warriors leave to fight the monsters in daylight, when the Lord reigns.

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