Grendel and Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf

An illustration of Grendel's mother by J.R. Sk...

An illustration of Grendel’s mother by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf (1908) described as a “water witch” trying to stab Beowulf. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider the characters of Grendel and his mother.  Neither one of them are simply “monsters” and nothing more.  Grendel’s postion as an outcast and his feelings of loneliness, isolation and resentment make him very human indeed.  (If you’ve ever read Frankenstein, you will immediately see a strong resemblance between Grendel and the creature in Mary Shelley’s great novel.  Grendel and the creature also share in common the fact that they are the only ones of their kind.)  Grendel’s mother reacts in exactly the same way that any human mother would react when her children are threatened or harmed.  All of this makes for a good discussion topic.

As the main antagonists in the story, Grendel and his mother embody evil. Their demonization is attributed to Christianity and their old ancestor Cain. God “took vengeance” on Cain by casting him out of his kingdom for killing Abel (108). “Far from mankind God drove him [Grendel] out for his deed shame! From Cain came down all kinds misbegotten – orges and elves and evil shades – as also the Giants, who joined in long wars with God. He gave them their reward” (109 – 113). As descendants of Cain, Grendel and his mother are portrayed as formidable monsters and antagonists. Even though Grendel’s mother is a woman, she is presented as a “mortal foe” who Beawulf “was not sorry to be fighting” (1537-1538), and therefore an equal to a man. Unlike Grendel, Grendel’s mother is more humanized as an antagonist. Her anger is attributed to what Beowulf has done to her son. “She was down on this guest of hers and had drawn her knife, broad, burnished of edge; for her boy was to be avenged, her only son” (1545 –1546). Therefore, Grendel’s mother is presented as an antagonist who reacts in exactly the same way that any human mother would react when her child is threatened or harmed.

Anonymous.  Beowulf: A Verse Translation.  Translated by Michael Alexander.  New York: Penguin Books, 2003.  Print.

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