The Ironic Juxtaposition Between Beowulf – The “Hero” Of Poem- And Grendel The “Monster”
When faced with the question whether humans and monsters in Beowulf are opposed, I believe that humans are just as monstrous as the monsters and the monsters are more humane than humans at points in the poem. This essay will address: the ironic juxtaposition between Beowulf – the “hero” of poem- and Grendel the “monster” who attacks seemingly for no reason at all, the human female character that lack any individuality or choice, are constantly leading their male superiors towards doom in contrast to female monsters who’s loyalties are clear –when Grendel mother comes to attack to avenge her son’s death. I will analyse the three main battles which take place in the poem and draw my conclusion from evidence provided.
Prior to Grendel and Beowulf’s battle, we are introduced to the character of Grendel who is described as this unknown quality, shadowy figure who has glowing eyes with a “grim light”(II.727) , we see his existence as isolated and depressing as he seen constantly attacking Hrothgar’s meadhall. He upholds the general stereotype which follows monsters in medieval literature as a vengeful, aimless, beast. Grendel persists to attack the Hall every night for twelve years, killing its inhabitants and making the exceptional mead-hall dysfunctional. Beowulf hears of these attacks and leaves the Geats to destroy Grendel. Beowulf and his men are welcomed by Hrothgar. Grendel’s daily ritual is his sole source of contentment as he attacks the hall his “rage boils over” and his “glee was demonic”, the use of demonic suggest that maybe Grendel isn’t truly in control of his emotions or even of himself. During Grendel’s attack of the hall, Beowulf’s men are ambushed but Beowulf watches from afar as he stalks Grendel engulfing one his men. If Grendel can be excused for monstrous behaviour as result of his primitive animalistic instinct then what can be said for Beowulf who exhibits similar attributes-watching his comrade eaten alive heavily implies that like Grendel – Beowulf shows little respect human life and suggest that he has only taken up this role to raise in status . Despite that a utilitarian’s view point Beowulf approach can be justified as it would potentially lead to many people being saved – but can use of one person to save other ever be justified in any case. From the description we are given of Grendel’s large figure we assume that Beowulf is foolish to think that he has the slightest chance against the Herculean-Grendel – whom is yet still protected by a magical charm which protects him from harm’s way. Nonetheless, Beowulf successfully attacks Grendel – who begins to realise he’s been faced with his match : ‘he ne mette middangeardes, / eorþan sceata on elran men / mundgripe maran’ [‘he had not met in the world, in any corner of the earth, a greater handgrip in another man’], (ll. 751–53) . Another aspect of Beowulf’s savage nature is shown when he dismantles Grendel’s arm to the point where he’s left motionless for death to take him.
The next idea we are faced with in the poem is the general opposition of human and monster females in the poem which was written in the medieval era, the audience of the poem expect all female to be presented as peace weavers however, the “monstrous” female we come to know as Grendel’s mother is anything but. When placed in the situation where she’s faced with her son’s corpse she decides to what many people would do in her situation and seeks to avenge her son’s death. Many may argue that her thirst for vengeance is unjust; on the other hand it can be seen as the most human-like gesture in which any monster does in the poem. “The hell-dam was in panic.” connote her hesitation with the action she about to do which may suggest that unlike her son and Beowulf she’s not used to resorting to violence to sort out her issue nor is she comfortable with said violence, but does it in a way which she deems is the most loving and maternal thing she can do to honour her son. With the human female, the previous passages illustrate the objectification of females within medieval society; women are seen as chess pieces in the game which their male relatives are playing – they have little say and were often used to tie two conflicting families together.
For example, during the celebration of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, a poet retells the story of Hildeburth and Finn, Hildeburth is married off to a Frisian prince named Finn to settle a peace agreement between the two nations. However, after a period of peace conflict breaks out once more resulting in the death of both Hildeburth’s son and her brother which eventually lead to mourning period in where they had a joint funeral – an uneasy truce followed, the Danes were left restless and attack again on the pretences of vengeance which results in the murder of Hildeburth’s husband and Hildeburth being brought back with them against her will. Her tale is seen as a victory for the Danes despite it being brought on by blood-spill and death. We are shown a once strong woman- lose her agency and become less and less in control of her life. The question we begin to ask ourselves here is what separates us from monsters and who’s to say that we’re not monsters in our own way, because what type of people would kill a person’s entire family without thinking out about the consequences of how it would affect them? In the case of Wealtheow though it’s a different story we see a strong elegant queen who, to all intents care’s about her people which can be inferred from the word “golden’ (II.1162) which suggests her regency and duty to her people, however her sincerity is overshadowed by the idea that her husband and nephew ‘still trusted each other’ (II.1164) which foreshadows the idea that there will come a point where they don’t. The later betrayal of her nephew which was preceded by his ascension on to the throne that Wealtheow encouraged, suggesting that it would better for their family and the land, pushing aside her husband’s proposition of bringing Beowulf to the throne emphasises the idea that she was solely fuelled by her egocentricity that later proves to her decision to be her downfall in form of the murder her children. These human females are shown to be helpless and lead their male counterparts- although not directly- towards their death. Whereas Grendel’s mother, the only female monster we are shown completely differs from said character, as she answers to no male and acts on instinct rather than selfish impulses; which demonstrates that she has more control than Hildeburth and Wealtheow proving that she is more humane than them by purely acting on her maternal intuition rather than allowing herself to be overshadowed by a male. All three of the female characters are join together by through the idea of them all being mothers and the loss of their children, the only differences being that one of them is “monster”.
The third and final of the monsters appears during Beowulf’s fiftieth year on the throne, when a dragon attack his land, he’s now eighty and is no longer the young warrior his once before however he decides to face the dragon himself. Unlike Grendel, we are sure of the dragon’s reason for attacking which was a fugitive stealing a gold flagon from him. Despite his old age Beowulf insists on fighting the dragon himself – along with eleven of his warrior. He seeks out his sword Naegling, that later proves no match for the monster Again we’re presented with Beowulf stalking another creature. Beowulf attempts to fight the dragon – armour at the ready – except he realises he’s not as strong as the dragon, “The blade flashed and slashed yet the blow/ Was far less powerful than the hard pressed king/ Need at the moment” (II.2578-80), he begins to struggle. A thane named Wiglaf see’s the king in distress and rushes to his aid. With Wiglaf aid, Beowulf slays the dragon – “He lunged at the enemy /…. sword sank into its belly” they “destroy the foe” but Beowulf is badly injured and has lost a lot of which eventually leads to death. When Beowulf is faced with Grendel is his equal in strength ,whilst the dragon is more powerful than him as it takes more than one person to kill him, which suggest that he’s far from human as he only attacks to retrieve his belongings –implies a sense of honour that the dragon possess . In the poem we can argue that the true hero is Wiglaf who “displayed his inborn bravery and strength”, Wiglaf isn’t one of the warriors chosen by the king despite this he still helps the king rid of the dragon. In this battle we see the ignorance of human , if the fugitive didn’t steal then there would’ve have been no battle , but we are also shown a truly selfless- Wiglaf – human in poem where it seems that they’re presented as equally or even more so as evil as the monsters.
Beowulf as a poem shows that we should redefine the meaning of what we perceive as monsters and that we shouldn’t look at any conflict as a success, as it usually in end the pain of one party or both. In the case of Beowulf and Grendel, we see a Beowulf- a high-strung hero and Grendel a bloodthirsty monster who attacks for no reason, but as we are given the image of Beowulf watching Grendel engulf one of his comrades we begin to see that Beowulf is just as monstrous as the monster which terrorise the town. With the females in the poem, the human female character that lack any individuality or choice, are constantly leading their male superiors towards doom in contrast to female monsters who’s loyalties are clear –when Grendel mother comes to attack to avenge her son’s death. Hildeburth is objectified by her male relatives and is used as a pawn to wage peace with their opposition. However their plan back fires leading to the death of her husband, son and brother, she’s unwillingly take from her people and “returned” back to her land.
Wealtheow is presented as selfish as she encourages her husband to make her nephew next in line to throne rather than having Beowulf succeed her husband leading her nephew to the brutally murder her two son. The final battle presents the ignorance of human beings, if the fugitive didn’t steal then there would’ve have been no battle. Nonetheless we are also shown a truly selfless- Wiglaf – human in poem where it seems that they’re presented as equally or even more so as evil as the monsters. He provides his king with aid and enters a battle where many noble would fear to enter. in my opinion I believe that monsters and humans aren’t entirely opposed, however in points of the poem humans posses monstrous attributes and vice versa, if we take a closer look at this allegorical poem the message of the poem is clear –good always over powers evil and vengeance shouldn’t be sought after as it ends in shed blood. Loyalty is important trait – it’s evidently shown through the persona Wiglaf and through the maternal vengeance of Grendel’s mother. In the poem we come to wonder if Beowulf’s reputation is more important to him than his heroic acts, even when it came to battle Beowulf- despite his old age insisted on fighting the dragon himself. The concluding words of the poem, declare that Beowulf was “most eager for fame’ (3182) . To draw a conclusion, all the humans seemingly betray one another in the poem and we see a strong familial bond between Grendel and his mother than the human character, the dragon shows reasonable motives – retrieving his belongings back.
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