Beowulf is a famous epic poem that was created between the end of the 7th and the first part of the 8th century. At that time, the Anglo-Saxons were already experiencing the emergence of feudal ties (Heaney 1). The poem, however, is characterized by an epic archaization and depicts reality from a specific point of view. The world of Beowulf is the world of kings and warriors, monsters, heroes, and battles. Monstrosity plays an important role in the poem since monsters are the antagonists of the hero and personify the crushing forces of nature, as well as the universal evil that must be overcome.
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The appearance of images of beasts in Old English folklore can be associated with the era of matriarchy when a person had not yet separated himself from the natural world. The fight against the monster is a classic plot of the victory of the light forces of the era of patriarchy over the outgoing values. One of the brightest plots of this kind is Beowulf, in which the victory over Grendel’s mother marks the triumph of the male over the female and the human over the animal (Heaney 89). The idea of the need to destroy the beast and the reasons for the human horror caused by it are clearly expressed in the poem.
Monsters in Beowulf also represent the crushing forces of the stormy North Sea. Grendel is one of the main antagonists of the hero, shown as a bloodthirsty monster who kills only for his pleasure and does not feel any doubts or remorse. He lived in the swamps and only occasionally left his shelter under cover of night (Heaney 9). This is probably why no one knew or heard about him. Since Heorot was built, Grendel started leaving his swamps more often. Climbing the hill, he was looking at the brightly lit palace for a long time and was filled with anger. He could not stand the light, and the wonderful music coming from the hall annoyed him even more, and he began to attack people.
A gloomy play on words runs throughout Grendel’s description in the poem. In Old English, the words “guest” and “ghost” were etymologically connected and sounded similar. Grendel is often called a “gæst,” which can mean both a cursed spirit and an uninvited guest (Heaney 123). This monster represents not only the evil forces but is a more complex image. An ancient curse lies on him; he is described as a devil and a “pagan” who is condemned to hellish torments. He is also called “Cain’s clan,” which means that he personifies a sin (Heaney 9). The formation of the idea of a medieval devil at the time when Beowulf was being created was far from complete. In Grendel’s interpretation, which is not devoid of contradictions, it is possible to find an interesting intermediate moment in this evolution.
Beasts, especially Grendel, are of fundamental importance to the underlying themes of the poem, giving it a sublime tone and high seriousness. Thus, the key to the understanding of the artistic fusion point that gave rise to the poem is the references to Cain (Heaney 9). They are taken for clear signs of the confusion reigning in the heads of the early Anglo-Saxons. In the understanding of evil, pagan and Christian ideas were intertwined. Monsters were seen as the enemies of gods and personified the evil forces while remaining mortal inhabitants of the material world and its integral part. It was believed that during a heroic siege and final defeat, people and gods would fight on the same side. However, after the beginning of Christianity, heroes continued to fight evil instead of gods.
Besides the spiritual part, Grendel remains a monster of flesh and blood whose main trait is hostility to the human race. He is related to demons and after death, he will be ranked among the genus of evil spirits. However, during the struggle with Beowulf, he is not the embodiment of evil that destroys the soul. So it would be fair to say that the epic poem emphasizes the physical side more than the spiritual. Grendel captured by Beowulf does not fall into the underworld. He must be physically killed with courage, and therefore he is a real analog of a dragon.
The poem also refers to the motives of gigantism, monstrosity, and the associated moral connotations. Fear of monsters and the need to destroy them were characteristic of the early medieval period. Therefore, Danes and Geats found gigantism the most frightening about the monster. Grendel is larger than any man and, possessing the appropriate strength, can carry fifteen people to his lair at a time (Heaney 109). Grendel is quite unambiguously defined as a human by the words “guma,” “haeleða,” “rinc,” and “wer,” but he also has the characteristics of a beast. The hand that Beowulf rips off him during the fight in Heorot looks like a beast’s paw with claws sharp as steel.
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Grendel is also described as a giant werewolf who attacks people at night, sneaking up on them in the fog, and who is driven by a thirst for life and envy of the living. He is close to the image of a walking dead that appears in the Scandinavian sagas. The dwellings of the dead, according to popular belief, were under the rocks, and Grendel’s cave was also located under the stones. The swamp itself, in which Grendel lives, is associated with the dwelling of the deceased (Heaney 11). The waters glow with an ominous fire, reminiscent of the lights that supposedly glow above the burial mounds. Thus, Grendel’s swamp acquires an additional association with the dwelling of the dead. It is surrounded by mountains and enclosed in a narrow gorge where the sun rays rarely penetrate.
The medieval epic poem Beowulf is universal in its functions since the fabulous is not separated from the real in it. It gives a complete and comprehensive picture of the world and teaches humans distinguish good from evil. It serves as a source of a wide variety of information through which readers can learn about the life and religious views of the people of the Middle Ages. In Beowulf, the theme of the struggle between good and evil, represented by the fight between the hero and the monster, plays an important role. Grendel is the main antagonist who is raised by the author to the ancestor of Cain and represents all evil in the world. Grendel is a complex image that is described as a spawn of the devil, a godless spirit, and a crushing force that must be defeated.
Heaney, Seamus, ed. Beowulf. Faber & Faber, 2009.