Fight with Grendel's Mother!!

Version: 2 (Christina Bauer)

        One of the big themes of Beowulf is that fighting between humans is one of the more destructive forces on Earth. Even in the world of Beowulf, in which monsters attack people, the warfare of the humans will ultimately lead to the destruction of Hrothgar’s mead hall, heorot. The section of Beowulf that depicts Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother illustrates the harmlessness of the threat monsters pose to people compared to the threat people pose to themselves. Grendel’s mother’s attack on Heorot is justified. When she attacks the warriors, Grendel’s mother takes revenge for Grendel’s death. She follows the Anglo-Saxon code that says surviving family members of murder victims should take revenge for their family members’ deaths (Bennett 173). The rationality in Grendel’s mother’s attack offsets the often senseless violence of the humans’ attacks against members of their own tribes.

        Beowulf’s narrator is sure to mention that the threat Grendel’s mother poses to the Scyldings is justified. Even in the scene in which she kills a warrior, Aeschere, the speaker says of Grendel’s mother’s entrance, “the horror was less/ by as much as a maiden’s strength, a woman’s warfare, is less than an armed man’s” (Liuzza 1282-1284). The narrator says here that the terror of being confronted by Grendel’s mother is not as bad as being confronted by Grendel because “a woman’s warfare” is not as dangerous as a man’s. It is clear that Grendel’s mother is fierce by the way she snatches Aeschere “in her clutches” and kills him and later by the way she fights Beowulf. However, in some ways, she is less dangerous than “an armed man” because she is clearly depicted as a grieving mother rather than as a bloodthirsty warrior. The story says that Grendel’s mother is on a “sorrowful journey to avenge her son’s death” when she attacks Aeschere (Liuzza 1278). Her violence is fair and predictable; she kills a man because one of the men kills her son. Grendel’s mother’s violence is dissimilar from the violence that stems from bitter feuds between and within human families that go unmanaged for long periods of time and are foreshadowed to destroy Heorot (Liuzza 81-85).

        It is clear from the Anglo-Saxon revenge code that Grendel’s mother does what is expected of her within Anglo-Saxon society when she loses her son. Carol Clover writes that in the Anglo-Saxon period, “in the feud situation, women’s….words are the equivalent of men’s deeds; it is as incumbent on a woman to urge vengeance as it is…on a man to take it” (Bennett 173). Clover points out that human women in the Anglo-Saxon period had a role in the justice system that was based on vengeance; they told men to take revenge for dead loved ones. As a monster, Grendel’s mother gets to participate in the world of men’s actions although she is female. Helen Bennett writes, “absent from the field of action, women surround the action with their words” (173). Human women could not partake in the physical action of getting revenge, so they partook in the revenge system verbally. Grendel’s mother goes a step further than the human women and actually seeks her revenge. When she kills an Anglo-Saxon man, she partakes in a system that the Anglo-Saxons, male and female, use to attain justice. Grendel’s mother, like any angry Anglo-Saxon relative of a murdered person, kills a member of the party that killed her family member.

            Because Grendel’s mother’s attack on the Scyldings is righteous, we can better see in comparison the senselessness in the Scyldings’ acts of violence against family members. We are told that war between in-laws will destroy Heorot by fire eventually. Beowulf’s speaker states of Heorot:

The hall towered high and horn-gabled – it awaited hostile fires, the surges of war; the time was not yet near that the sword-hate of sworn in-laws should arise after ruthless violence. (Liuzza 81-85)

            “Ruthless violence” will cause war between in-laws in Hrothgar’s tribe and during that war Heorot will be burned down. Killing a family member was the most frowned-upon action a warrior could take in the Anglo-Saxon period as Beowulf illustrates. To the known brother-slayer, Unferth, Beowulf says, “you became your brother’s killer,/ your next of kin; for that you needs must suffer/ punishment in hell” (Liuzza 587-589). We know that fratricide was an offense that the Anglo-Saxons thought worthy of the worst punishment from the way the idea of brother slaying is treated in Beowulf here. Beowulf tells Unferth that Unfurth should be punished eternally for killing his own family member. Since Grendel’s mother dies after taking revenge for Grendel’s death, it is difficult to sympathize with the Scyldings, who destroy their village because of interfamily squabbles. Though she is a monster, Grendel’s mother is shown to have more love for her family than the humans do theirs. The Scyldings’ self-destruction appears to be more odious next to Grendel’s mother’s act of legitimized vengeance than the Scyldings’ violence does on its own.

            The section of Beowulf that describes the fight with Grendel’s mother helps to cast the Scyldings’ destructive fratricide as the most dangerous violence in the poem. Grendel’s mother’s violence is predictable and fair; it adheres to Anglo-Saxon expectations that family members of murdered people should seek revenge for the deceased. That Hrothgar’s people eventually kill their own family members is the violence that does the most damage, is the least controlled, and makes the least sense. Grendel’s mother’s attack is in perfect keeping with the Anglo-Saxon warrior code; the humans’ murders of their own family members are not.