Beowulf is a heroic epic chronicling the life of one brave warrior and the battles he faces. Yet, strangely enough, the battle he is most famous for was, in all likelihood, against the easiest opponent he ever faced. Grendel is always portrayed as some despicable fiend who relishes killing and would love nothing more than to spend his whole life slaughtering innocent people. If, however, the text is read carefully, it is pretty apparent that Grendel is a classic tortured soul who has been handed such rage and pain by external forces, such as God and his mother.
There is a large amount of textual evidence that suggests that God had a large hand in the creation of Grendel “He was spawned in that slime/ Conceived by a pair of those monsters born of Cain/ murderous creatures banished by God.” (Line 19-22). So in just the first few lines of the poem, it is stated that Grendel is an offspring of one of God’s flawed creations. He has been banished forever for the sins of his forefather, which is hardly fair treatment from God. It is also stated that the fiends are in constant opposition to the Lord, “A brood forever opposing the Lord’s will.” (28-29). So Grendel is born into a world of hatred and suffering, cruel and unjust treatment that he has done nothing to deserve.
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Skipping ahead in the poem, there is another instance of God’s interference “Bearing God’s hatred/ Grendel came, hoping to kill” (286-287). This is a statement that explains everything that is going on within Grendel. He is “bearing God’s hatred” (286), a compelling statement with powerful implications. It seems the author would have us believe that Grendel is some conduit for God to pour his rage into. This leads to the question, who is Grendel’s father? All that is said is that he was a monster, and there is nothing more monstrous than making your child suffer so that you don’t have to.
Could this so-called God be Grendel’s father? While there is very little textual support for this claim, the implications are powerful. So now it can be said that Grendel is ultimately not responsible for his crimes; God was using him to syphon off his own human emotions. God was not the only external force that turned Grendel into a monster; his mother is a murderous monster. So it is fair to say that Grendel’s mind was shaped and warped by his mother’s teachings. It is true that children very often follow in the footsteps of their parents. Look at some examples from the present day. The children of actors often grow up to be actors; the children of soldiers often grow up to join the military.
Things haven’t changed. It’s just the way the world turns, and unfortunately, Grendel was born into a terrible ‘Profession.’ So the real question to ask is, without God’s rage, would Grendel still have attack Herot? It’s impossible to know for sure, but using clues from the text, it seems like, no, he would not. When Grendel first journeys down to Herot, he is simply going to see what the Danes do after they drink. “Grendel/ Went up to Herot, wondering what the warriors/ Would did in that hall when their drinking was done.” (30-32). The poem states right there that he went with nothing but curiosity in his heart, that unfortunately would soon change “The monster’s/ thoughts were as quick as his greed or his claws:/ He slipped through the door and there in silence/ Snatched up thirty men, smashed them/ Unknowing in their beds and ran out with their bodies” (34-38).
The text states that he was filled with greed, but whose greed was it? His or perhaps God’s? Many of the questions posed above can’t be answered, but they bring up some interesting points and show a new way of looking at the classic tale. Perhaps the monster should be pitied instead of hate. If God is pouring his negative human emotions into him, Grendel can do naught about it. Grendel is, in reality, “The wickedness of God”.
- Beowulf. Trans. Burton Raffel. The British Tradition. Boston: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.