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Beowulf's Monsters

Grendel, his mother, and the dragon in the oldest of the great long poems




W.W. Norton & Co.
Study Guide The story of Beowulf and his monsters is a long and complicated record of terror, blood, glory, and death. The setting draws us to a place and time that's foreign to our understanding. It was a time when hardy warrior tribes fought against one another, when change and death were inevitable, when all that really mattered was not if you died by how and when...

But, this race of warriors must also have their hero, someone who will represent all that is right and good in the society (loyalty, generosity, and strength in arms), who can rid society of evil, supernatural forces.

In this case, the evil, supernatural force is represented by Grendel: "The grim spirit was called Grendel, known as a rover of the borders, one who held the moors, fen and fastness. Unhappy creature, he lived for a time in the home of the monsters' race... "

With a monster on the loose, the hero Beowulf arrives on the scene. He fulfills all of the requirements for a hero.

Since Grendel "cares not for weapons," Beowulf also puts his sword aside, saying, "The one whom death takes can trust the Lord's judgment." So, with no weapon, Beowulf first encounters the monsters when he rids Hrothgar's hall (Heorot) of the murderous Grendel by ripping off his arm: "Glory in the battle was given to Beowulf. Grendel must flee from there, mortally sick, seek his joyless home in the fen-slopes. He knew the more surely that his life's end had come, the full number of days."

But, with Grendel's demise, another monster arises: "It came to be seen, wide-known to men, that after the bitter battle an avenger still lived for an evil space: Grendel's mother, woman, monster-wife, was mindful of her misery, she who had to dwell in the terrible water... " After her attack, which was "less terrible by just so much as is the strength of women," she flees, taking one of the men with her. Beowulf puts on his warrior dress and tracks her down. Finally, after diving down to her lair and struggling with her, Beowulf kills her with a god-forged sword.

Unfortunately, in the final battle, his strength and power fails. He's an old man and he may be really wishing for death. He's testing fate once again when he goes into this battle, hoping that his courage will give him the strength to succeed. He once said, "Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good." In this final battle, though, Beowulf is a doomed man.

He's no longer the young, eager man he was those many years ago, though he still boasts: "In my youth, I engaged in many wars. Old guardian of the people, I shall still seek battle, perform a deed of fame, if the evil-doer will come to me out of the earth-hall." After a terrible battle, in which Beowulf receives a mortal wound, he says his final words, "Fate has swept away all my kinsmen, earls in their strength, to destined death. I have to go after."

And, with those final words, Beowulf is gone. The people praise his noble and heroic deed, mourne his passing, and say he was the "mildest of men and the gentlest, kindest to his people, and most eager for fame."

Of course, his death was inevitable. It was just a matter of when and how. By fighting the dragon, he died a hero's death. And, that's probably the death he wanted.

[hr] The author of "Beowulf" is unknown. The work might have been composed by a poet working at court, or it could have been composed by a poet-monk. It is conjectured that the author was probably familiar with court life, a Christian who addressed himself to a royal audience. Scholars believe that the work could not have been composed before 521 AD because of the reference in the poem to the death of Hygelac. Many scholars conjecture that the work could not have been created later than 1000 AD, and was probably written somewhere around 750. The manuscript was written in the Wessex dialect.

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