It is true that Grendel is monstrous. He is not only a deadly enemy to Hrothgar and Herot, but to the Geats in general. Grendel seems to take his only pleasure from assaulting Herot and destroying the warriors inside. He is a bane to all those that live under Hrothgar’s rule. They hate him. He is called the “enemy of mankind” (29) and rightly so. However, because of Grendel’s actions, they cannot see the other part of Grendel that makes him do the evil he does. Grendel, like the Angels before and the Geats soon after, is symbolic of displaced races/peoples and not simply a mindless monster. When Adam and Eve had children, they had two boys. Their names were Cain and Able. When Cain killed Able, God “banished him far from mankind” (29). From Cain came trolls, elves, monsters, and giants. Grendel is a descendant of Cain, so he shares Cain’s banishment. Cain may have been the first displaced person after Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden. Grendel shares his ancestor’s sentence. He is displaced not only from whatever land or wealth he would have if he were “human” but he is also displaced form God. It is this displacement that causes Grendel to destroy. Since he cannot “approach the throne” (28) like other people, he chooses to try to destroy the throne, because he has “no love for him (God)” (28). This is the main reason Grendel is symbolic of displaced peoples. After all, he is a direct descendent of the very first displaced people, Adam and Eve. However, unlike Adam and Eve, Grendel is doomed to an eternity of banishment from God’s light because of Cain’s sin against his brother. That is why Grendel kills, because he cannot be in the light, because he is at war with God. Grendel is not only banished from God’s light, but from the light in general. Throughout the text, references are made to Grendel as “the walker in darkness” (36), and “the dark-death shadow” (29). This kind of imagery further shows how displaced Grendel has become. The text refers to him as a “creature deprived of joy” (36). The text also refers to Grendel’s dwelling as “his joyless home” (37). It is no wonder Grendel was considered so monstrous. Like other displaced peoples, he has nowhere that is a refuge to him, because he has been removed from his home, or in Grendel’s case, the love of the Lord.
Beowulf is Oral-Formulaic
Early versions of Beowulf were necessarily oral because the scops were unlettered. All versions of this classic poem were built of phrases or “formulas” repeated from generation to generation among scops. These formulas were a common source for all early poetry, from which all poets drew the language used in their extemporaneous poetic creations.
Francis Magoun, in his “Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry,” states: “An oral poem until written down has not and cannot have a fixed text, a concept difficult for lettered persons” (Magoun 84). With each telling of the oral poem there is some variation from the previous telling. Consider from the poem when Hrothgar was honoring Beowulf for his victory over Grendel; the king had his scop, to the background of a harp, chant poetic verses relating the famous Finnsburh Episode:
There was tumult and song, melodious noise,
in front of Healfdene’s battle commander;
the harp was plucked, good verses chanted
when Hrothgar’s scop in his place o…
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…uage in Beowulf is formulas (88-89).
Thus it is seen that early versions of Beowulf were necessarily oral, because of the unletteredness of the scops, and necessarily formulaic because of the scope or immensity of the non-memorized poetic creations.
Collins, Roger and McClure, Judith, editors. Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; The Greater Chronicle; Bede’s Letter to Egbert. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Magoun, Frances P. “Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited by Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.