La Guisiade

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Pierre Matthieu

After a dozen years of terror by Grendel, the Danes believe that they are finally safe and at peace. They retire to sleep in Heorot, confident that they will finally be safe from the monster. Until this point in the tale, Grendel has been mentioned as a solitary creature. The poem has not focused on his origin, other than to describe him as a descendant of Cain. Furthermore, the poem has highlighted his feelings of alienation and solitude, leading one to the conclusion that he is alone in the world. However, Grendel is not alone in the world; his mother not only lives, but is aware that her son has died, and comes to Heorot intent upon revenge.

The character of Grendel’s mother is unique to the poem. In many ways, she is the most fully realized of any of the poem’s female characters, but in other ways she is completely marginalized. For example, she is never named in the poem, simply referred to as Grendel’s mother. However, as many mothers realize, this may be sufficient to describe her role. While she is a monster just like her son, in many respects she is an archetypal mother. Someone has hurt her son, and she will go to great lengths to avenge him.

Grendel’s mother travels up from the swamp and comes to the hall. She has come for her son’s claw, which she is able to retrieve. She has also come for revenge. This motivation is one of the most human emotions, and if it was difficult to conceive of Grendel as a one-dimensional villain, it is even more difficult to view his mother as a total villain. Furthermore, Grendel’s mother lacks his extra strength. She is willing to confront an entire hall full of warriors in order to avenge her son’s death, showing the depth of her maternal devotion. There is no real reason why the warriors would be unable to defeat this unarmed monster’s mother, but they do not harm her. In fact, she is able to take one of the warriors hostage as she leaves the hall.

What is interesting is that Beowulf does not simply follow after Grendel’s mother and attempt to defeat her. This seems at odds with his role as a hero, but it is important to understand that Beowulf has no official role in Denmark. He is there at Hrothgar’s request; going after Grendel’s mother without consulting Hrothgar would have been outside of Beowulf’s permitted role in Denmark and a sign of disrespect to Hrothgar. Of course, when the warriors consult with Hrothgar, he agrees that Grendel’s mother must be defeated. Beowulf agrees to go after Grendel’s mother. During their conversation, Hrothgar tells Beowulf that there has been a rumor that there are actually two monsters, one of whom is a female. Why he was not told this information before confronting Grendel is never explained in the poem. However, Hrothgar does think that he can lead Beowulf and his men to Grendel’s mother’s lair.

The confrontation with Grendel’s mother is somewhat different from the confrontation with Grendel. First, while Hrothgar was not present during the confrontation with Grendel, he actually leads Beowulf and his warriors to the lake where Grendel’s mother lives. He does this even though Grendel’s mother’s footprints lead to the lake, so that his guidance is unnecessary. The lake is a very frightening place, which contrasts even more starkly with Heorot once it has been restored as a place of light. It also serves as a reminder of Beowulf’s prior adventures; he is a very adept swimmer and has significant experience with fighting water monsters. Therefore, while the aquatic monsters in the lake may be very intimidating to the other warriors, they are not as intimidating for Beowulf, who has proven himself against sea monsters in the past.

While Beowulf was determined to defeat Grendel unarmed, he shows no similar determination in fighting Grendel’s mother. Rather than approaching her unarmed, he puts on his armor and takes his weapons as he prepares to go into the lake to find Grendel’s mother. Whether his preparation is to help him with the monsters he is bound to encounter or in preparation for his battle with Grendel’s mother, the degree of preparation suggests a conflict that will be more difficult than his battle against Grendel. In fact, the poet makes it clear that Grendel’s mother is in her element in the lake. She has ruled the area for 100 years, so that the fighting will be on her territory, and on her terms. He will need something more than his extraordinary strength to defeat this foe. This helps highlight the escalating nature of Beowulf’s three major challenges. The battle against Grendel’s mother also provides an opportunity for another symbolic union between the Geats and the Danes; Unferth presents Beowulf with his sword, Hrunting. As he did before his battle with Grendel, Beowulf tells Hrothgar how he wants his body handled in the event that he dies during the confrontation.

After putting on his armor and taking Hrunting, Beowulf dives into the lake to go after Grendel’s mother. Near the bottom of the lake, Grendel’s mother grabs Beowulf. She holds him tightly with her claws, which prevents Beowulf from being able to use his arms to draw Hrunting. She takes him to her cave, which is under the water, but not submerged in water; it is dry and lit by flames. There appears to be a suggestion that the flames lighting Grendel’s mother’s cave are from Hell, though the poet does not explicitly state their origin. Given that Grendel and his mother are both related to Cain, who stood in opposition to God, the idea that they would be in league with the Devil or otherwise associated with Hell would have been in conformity with the influence of Christianity on Anglo-Saxon mythology.

Beowulf is able to try to fight her, but he soon discovers that Grendel’s mother appears to be impervious to weapons. Furthermore, he is unable to get the type of grip on her that he was able to get on Grendel. Instead, though he manages to knock her over, she springs back up and draws a knife to use on Beowulf. His armor becomes very useful because she cannot pierce it with the knife. However, Beowulf still is not able to win and realizes that he is going to need another weapon. Grendel’s mother has a giant’s sword hanging on the wall. The weapon is huge and difficult for Beowulf to wield, but he manages to lift it, delivering a fatal blow to her spine.

The mysterious appearance of the giant’s sword is one of the ways that God is said to intervene in the story of Beowulf. The sword is shining with a mysterious light. While it is possible that Grendel’s mother would keep a weapon, having one that is capable of killing her in her home and within easy reach of an assailant simply does not seem logical. Therefore, one must wonder why the sword was in the cave. Was it a symbol of God’s intervention on Beowulf’s behalf? If so, why would God favor Beowulf? After all, Grendel’s mother is not acting from the same motivations as Grendel; she is not carelessly victimizing and killing people. Instead, she is motivated by a very human desire to avenge her son’s death. To understand why God would favor Beowulf, who seeks fame and fortune, rather than favoring Grendel’s mother, one must understand the code of comitatus, which encouraged seeking fame, and the emerging Christian cultural norms, which would have considered Grendel’s mother a negative force simply because of her genealogical relationship with Cain.

When Grendel’s mother dies, a light appears in the cave, revealing Grendel’s body. This light is characterized differently than the light that has otherwise lit up the cave. Is this light, which only appears after Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother, a light from God or Heaven? It certainly appears to favor Beowulf, revealing the body of his defeated foe. Beowulf cuts Grendel’s head off of his corpse to take it to present to Hrothgar as a trophy. This would have been considered an acceptable practice and not some type of desecration of a corpse. First, Grendel is not a human being, so, despite him being human-like, he would not merit the same consideration as a human foe. Moreover, the pagan rules that would govern the treatment of a corpse were different from Christian rules.

When Beowulf uses the giant’s sword to sever Grendel’s head from his body, the sword melts, leaving only the hilt. Now the weapon is a manageable size. Beowulf carries the hilt and Grendel’s head to the surface. However, the battle took a long time, and unlike the battle in Heorot, no sounds made it clear that the fighting continued. The only sign of the battle was a churning foam of blood at the top of the lake, which made it seem as if Beowulf must be losing the battle. The Danes, including Hrothgar, gave up on Beowulf and returned to Heorot. However, Beowulf’s Geats did not lose confidence in him; they are waiting for him when he surfaces from the lake. Even if they had felt that Beowulf would not triumph in the battle, they would have waited for him until it would have been impossible for him to have survived; their code required that level of commitment. The Geats help Beowulf back to Heorot. In another demonstration of Beowulf’s tremendous strength, while it would have taken four of his warriors to carry Grendel’s head back to Heorot, Beowulf was able to do it by himself.

Beowulf does not seem upset or angry that Hrothgar and his men left the mead and returned to Heorot. Instead, he is boastful and proud of his accomplishments. He describes his fierce battle with Grendel’s mother. However, he makes a cocky statement that could prove impossible for him to guarantee when he tells Hrothgar that Heorot is now safe. He made a similar assumption after killing Grendel, but Heorot was still vulnerable to Grendel’s mother. This provides Hrothgar with an instructive moment for Beowulf. Hrothgar describes his own early successes and how that led to 50 years of peaceful rule. He seems to suggest that the years without conflict made him complacent, which placed him at risk. Not only did the peace and prosperity lead him to build Heorot, but he no longer had warriors capable of defeating Grendel. This has taught Hrothgar a lesson; just as he, alone, was not responsible for Grendel and the 12 years of terror he brought to Heorot, he has realized that he was not solely responsible for the safety and security of his land in the years before Grendel. Likewise, though he certainly acknowledges that Beowulf has played a critical role in defeating Grendel and Grendel’s mother, Hrothgar credits God with the victory.

In fact, when Beowulf presents Hrothgar with the two trophies, Grendel’s head and the golden hilt of the giant’s sword, this causes Hrothgar to speculate about the monsters and why they have come to be in opposition to Hrothgar, who did nothing to Grendel to elicit his ire. He references the great flood, which killed the giants. For Christians in the Middle Ages, the story of the flood was not an allegory for cleansing, but a true-life story about God punishing the wicked. Judeo-Christian tradition frequently alluded to races that were not described in the Bible, including giants who were said to have descended from either Cain or Adam’s first wife, Lilith. Therefore, this giant’s sword would have been an actual weapon, but the one who was meant to wield it is no longer on the earth.

Hrothgar’s life story and his reflections on the extinction of the giants clearly foreshadow the problems that Beowulf will encounter in his own old age. Though not much detail about Hrothgar’s early life is revealed, he makes it clear that, like Beowulf, he was once a fierce warrior. His reputation helped keep Heorot safe and allowed his people to prosper. However, as he aged, he no longer had the physical abilities to bolster his reputation. As a result, his people were vulnerable until God intervened and brought him Beowulf to defeat the monsters.

In his cautionary tale to Beowulf, Hrothgar describes the king Heremod. Heremod was not generous and kind to his people, and actually preyed upon his own people. Though this would have been a sin under Christian morality, it was also a grave offense under the code of comitatus. Heremod was also extremely proud and boastful, and his life was an unhappy one because he failed to rule wisely.

This is not to suggest that Hrothgar is somehow unappreciative of Beowulf’s efforts. On the contrary, he feels that Beowulf has done him a tremendous service and makes a significant effort to reward him for those efforts. Moreover, Beowulf seems to respect Hrothgar’s input and advice, listening attentively to the king as he seems to lecture him. This exchange between Hrothgar and Beowulf reveals something else about the heroic Germanic tradition; there was some expectation that the heroes would receive compensation for their efforts. Hrothgar upholds his implied part of the bargain, bestowing a number of expensive gifts on Beowulf before Beowulf and his warriors leave for Geatland.

The parting scene between Beowulf and Hrothgar is very touching, and the reader is reminded that Beowulf is a young man whose father has apparently been dead for some time. Though he has an uncle who has served as a role model for him, Beowulf appreciates the helpful advice and guidance that Hrothgar, a man whom he deeply admires, can provide to him. While Beowulf may have looked down upon some of Hrothgar’s men, like Unferth, for failing to kill Grendel or Grendel’s mother, he recognizes that Hrothgar is not a bad king because he was unable to defeat the monster. Instead, he was a good king and a formerly great warrior who grew older and became vulnerable. Beowulf will experience something similar when he is in his old age and a dragon threatens Geatland. Likewise, Hrothgar, whose own son was unable to provide him with the type of help that Beowulf could provide, appreciates Beowulf. He describes him as a fine man and suggests that Beowulf would make a fine ruler one day, if he were ever called upon to lead his men. Beowulf is not in direct line for the Geatish throne, so he does not anticipate ever becoming king, but Hrothgar’s words will prove prophetic.

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