Kin of Cain is Kin of
In the epic poem of
Beowulf the noble king Hrothgar suffers many a blow from Grendel, the
marauding hell-hound. For twelve long and gruesome years, Hrothgar's prized
feast hall, Heorot, stands empty. But Beowulf's arrival changes all that for
he single-and- bare- handedly rids Heorot of unwelcome Grendel's vicious ravenous
assaults. Beowulf then kills Grendel's mother as well, as retribution for
Aeschere's death, thereby completely eliminating the Danes' monster infestation.
It is plain as day that Grendel and his mother are the villains, and Beowulf
and the Danes the heroes of the poem, for the latter are noble warriors, while
Grendel and his mother are monsters, not to mention the kin of Cain. However
if we look beneath the noble titles of the Danes and the monstrous hell-like
appearance of Grendel and his mother, we might find some very shocking similarities.
referred to as kin of Cain, a title that is synonymous with "brother-slayer."
He has been banished from the light and is forced to live in oblivion and
darkness for a treacherous deed committed by his ancestor Cain:
In misery among the banished monsters,
Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. (Beowulf, 104-107)
Like an angry envious child acting on a whim, he continues Cain's legacy and haunts the Danes' feasting hall.
the Danes are not without fault. They too have Cain's fratricidal gene in
their blood. The warrior code that is so ardently followed and revered by
the Danes requires a warrior to avenge blood with blood. Evidence of jealousy,
the same element that leads Cain and Grendel to murder, is spotted in the
highest ranks of the Danes:
From where he crouched at the king's feet,
Unferth, a son of Ecglaf's, spoke
Contrary words. Beowulf's coming,
His sea-braving, made him sick with envy… (Beowulf, 499-502)
Not only do we see the basic element that leads to murder or fratricide in the Danes, but also we are actually informed of gruesome acts of violence committed by the high-ranking Unferth when Beowulf reprimands him:
You killed your own kith and kin,
So for all your cleverness and quick tongue,
You will suffer damnation in the depth of hell. (Beowulf, 587-589)
Although the Danes are honorable loyal warriors, they too have those monstrous elements personified by Grendel within them. The fact that Unferth, the jealous "brother-slayer," is tolerated by the Danes, not to mention his crouching at the king's feet, alarms and even disgusts us (Beowulf, 499).
is defeated and his torn arm is hung on a wall as a trophy, his mother wreaks
havoc in Heorot. She attacks the hall at night, reclaiming possession of her
dead son's arm, and avenging his blood by snatching the king's most revered
and loved friend, Aeschere. She does not attack Heorot out of jealousy like
Grendel, but rather she attacks to redress a wrong. Grendel's mother is certainly
aware of the risk she is taking by appearing at Heorot for she has witnessed
her son's suffering when he returns home writhing to his death. But, nevertheless,
she is steadfast, and as if following an honor code of some sort, she attacks
to avenge her son's death:
But now his mother
had sallied forth on a savage journey,
grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge. (Beowulf,1275-1277)
The despised she-demon's actions may even be called heroic or honorable. Her actions resemble those of her Danish contemporaries whom her son Grendel terrorizes for so long. The maxim "It is always better to / avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning..."(Beowulf, 1384-5) is not only followed by the Danes and Geats but by the hideous yet somewhat venerable mother of Grendel, too.
Not only do Grendel's mother's actions strike us as somewhat honorable, but the poet even uses an analogy to reveal this hidden quality of the misbegotten spirit. Out of the multitude of analogies and metaphors that the poet has at his disposal, he decides to compare the hideous creature, according to S. Heanes' translation of the original Beowulf text, to an Amazon, an honorable female warrior:
Her onslaught was less
only by as much as an amazon warrior's
strength is less than an armed man's
when the hefted sword, its hammered end and gleaming blade slathered in blood,
razes the sturdy boar-ridge off a helmet. (Beowulf,1282-7)
Although she is described as a monstrous hell-bride in many instances, after all she is the villain of the poem, in this instance she takes on the role of a warrior that avenges the blood of kin that has been spilled in a feud.
When we begin reading Beowulf, we instinctively categorize the warriors in the shining mail shirts as heroes and the hideous monsters as the villains. Everything seems clear. But, upon further examination of the text, we find new insight and meaning. Suddenly the lucid distinction between the heroes and the monsters becomes murky, and their characteristics seem to overlap. We find ourselves in a position of trying to distinguish between wine and blood from a distance. If one carefully reviews the text, it is evident that the heroes and the monsters have more in common than we might have thought, and the one certain conclusion that we come to is "not all that glistens is gold."