Scene Analysis:Beowulf Fights Grendel's Mother


In the Howe translation of Beowulf, the scene depicted on pg. 26-29 deals with the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. After Grendel’s mother attacks the hall as revenge against her son’s death, Beowulf announces that he will go after the monster. He feels that his promise to rid King Hrothgar of his problems has not been fully fulfilled. Before going off to battle, he makes a statement similar to a modern will and testament. He worries not about what may happen to him ands asks that his loyal men be taken care of if he doesn’t make it back. Also, he asks that the sword, Hrunting, lent to him by Unferth, be returned to its owner upon his death. Finally, he asks that all his treasures be sent back to his homeland so that his king may know of the kindness and generosity bestowed upon him during his time there.

Then, Beowulf plunges into the mere to meet his next adversary in battle. Beowulf swims down deep for about a half-day’s time. When he is about to reach the lake floor, Grendel’s mother senses his advance. Then, Grendel's mother lungs for him in the water and tries to tear at his flesh through his mail shirt. However, her claws cannot seem to penetrate. She pulls him further down into the water. During the journey, many other savage sea monsters attack him.

Beowulf lands in a hall that is not touched by the water. Grendel’s mother tries to bite at him again but it doesn’t work. Beowulf whips out his sword and tries to strike Grendel's mother on the head. However, the blade that had been so victorious in battle failed him. He abandons the sword and tries to attack her with his bare hands. They battle furiously, throwing each other to the ground. It is at this point that Beowulf notices an unusual sword by the wall of the cave. It is heavy and greatly adorned. He gabs the “work of giants”, and with one swipe of the sword, he cuts Grendel’s mother in half.

Victorious he moves as if to start backed to the surface of the lake. But then he notices a light and follows it to Grendel’s body. Angrily, he raises Hrunting up and decapitates Grendel’s already lifeless body. Instantly, the metal of the sword melted, leaving only the hilt of precious gold and jewels.

Up above, some of the King’s men watch for him to return. Yet, at the sight of the bubbling lake of blood, they fear that the worst has happened and head back to the hall. Beowulf’s men remain, anxiously awaiting the return of their leader.

Beowulf then gathers up Hrunting, the sword hilt and Grendel’s head. And returns to the surface after a day of battle under water. His men rejoice at his safe return. They help Beowulf out of his armor. Four men stick Grendel’s head on a post and carry it between them. The sight disgusted and revolts the people of the hall.


The action of the scene reveals some of the personality traits of the characters. Beowulf, as the hero and protagonist of the play, seems to represent the quintessential warrior in this section of the poem. As a typical Anglo-Saxon warrior, Beowulf leaves all to fate and looks forward to his battle with Grendel’s mother. He shows his loyalty and camaraderie with his soldiers by asking Hrothgar’s assurance that they are taken care off in case of his death. His strength is clearly depicted in his battle scene with the monster. Beowulf’s ability to do thinks that ordinary men couldn’t (such as swim underwater for hours without air, carrying pounds of heavy weight while swimming upstream) shows that he is a superhero. He even dares to take on Grendel’s mother without weapons. With all of his great attributes, Beowulf comes out of this scene a hero and companion of good.

Also, Unferth is greatly characterized here, though indirectly. In previous scenes, Unferth is characterized as being a brother-slayer. In Anglo-Saxon society, there was nothing as abysmal as killing your own brother. Yet, he has a position of honor in Hrothgar’s court. He is also power-hungry and jealous of Beowulf’s claim to rid the people of the monsters. In this scene, the mention of Beowulf using Unferth’s sword shows his cowardice. Instead of being a warrior and fight for his people, he stands in the shadows and lets a foreigner (Beowulf) do the work for him.

Important Quotes

Many of the quotations present in this passage are vital to the understanding of the poem, as well as Anglo-Saxon society in general. In his speech at the beginning of the section, Beowulf settles his affairs. As well, he asks that Hrothgar take care of his men, requesting that he “ be guardian of my young retainers, my companions, if battle should take me.”(Howe, pg.26) This quote is representative of the familial bond between the warriors of that time. Through the comitatus, the warriors pledged their allegiance to the king till the very end. They were with each other, by each other’s side, at all times, most especially in battle. Therefore, they knew each other and probably loved each other more than their own blood relatives. Also, this passage exemplifies how a warrior goes into battle. Anglo-Saxon warriors tended not to worry about their future because they believed it was out of their hands. This is exactly how Beowulf presents himself here.

Another key passage is during the battle underwater between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf. After Hrunting fails to pierce the monster, Beowulf drops the sword and tries again with his own hands. The scop or poet uses the explanation that “so ought a man do when he thinks to get long lasting praise in battle.”(Howe, pg.27) This passage expresses the desire for fame and immortality. To be remembered, warriors had to the extraordinary. Only those brave and courageous men would have their adventures chronicled by the oral historians, or the scops. In the verse, their deeds lived on for centuries.

Finally, Beowulf decapitation of dead Grendel is symbolic of the policy of wergild. Wergild was the agreement to pay retribution for any wrongdoing perpetrated against another clan. This scene may be Beowulf’s way of taking revenge against Grendel for not paying wergild. Also, this may have been Beowulf’s way of insuring that the monster was truly dead.

Religious Themes and Ideas

Beowulf may be a tale of adventure and camaraderie; however, it also has various religious ideas or beliefs that are intertwined in the story. Though written during a pagan time, there are several Christian references in the poem. For example, as Beowulf is being dragged under and attacked by Grendel’s mother, the narrator mentions that not only did his mail shirt protect him, but also “Holy God, who brought about victory in war.”(Howe, pg. 27) The monk who transcribed the manuscripts, however, may have included these references. It may have also been the wish of the scop at the time to try and convert his audience to Christianity. Also, the entire scene while Beowulf is underwater could be compared to the crucifixion of Jesus. Just as Jesus’ actions saved us from sin, Beowulf’s actions cleanse and save Hrothgar’s people from this terrible evil.

Beowulf the King

Created By Judith Mathieu,
Nancy Azcona,

Last Modified: March 21, 2004