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grendelbeo Who is the Monster – Beowulf or Grendel?

Who is the Monster – Beowulf or Grendel? My first impression of Beowulf was that of an enigmatic, somewhat esoteric work, a necessary evil on the way to reading the more important works. After a closer reading of the much-celebrated epic, I had a revelation. And what a revelation: Beowulf is wonderful! Perhaps it was the translation, or it might have been the basic substance of the work itself, but I found myself devouring the poem. I discovered two specific areas of appeal: 1) The fundamental attraction of the archetypical super-hero and 2) the more contemporary trend in modern culture to attempt to recapture the experience of this particular era via popular fiction and film. The ideal of the hero is a concept so completely integrated into the human psyche as to be virtually built-in. From Homer’s Ulysses to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, we as a race of beings are fixated on the individual who makes things happen, who gets things done, preferably with a healthy dose of bravado. Perhaps this is attributable to an innate sense of vulnerability in each of us, that unsettling little voice which whispers to us that, despite all our efforts, we have overlooked some crucial factor which will lead to our ultimate demise. The hero has no such insecurities: he is invincible! It is interesting to note that not only has the hero figure continued to thrive in the collective human consciousness, but, in our own western culture, the Beowulf-prototype has come full circle: there is a whole genre of fantasy novels which center on one form or another of the Anglo-Saxon warrior tradition, as well as a veritable plethora of movies. Fleet upon fleet of ring-prowed ships sail ever-onward on the seas of our imagination, on qu…

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…pand the characters, making them more whole, more three-dimensional.

Looking at the two works side by side, a question arises: Who is the true monster? Beowulf fans will, no doubt, assert that their hero is the undisputed good guy, and that Grendel was a vicious bastard who got what he deserved. But the Gardner perspective offers an interesting twist: Beowulf was insane! An unbalanced, obsessive weirdo babbling bizarre gibberish into Grendel’s ear as he rended the unfortunate creature’s arm from his torso. This latter interpretation is not as far-fetched as one might think; the police departments of every major city in this country contain a certain number of these so-called “heroes,” men so mired in violence that their perceptions become distorted, that they ultimately become the very thing they’ve fought so hard to defeat.

The Theme of the Epic Poem, Beowulf

The Theme of Beowulf

Interpretations of Beowulf vary. In this essay I hope to state clearly some of the popularly mentioned themes running through the poem.

“Many critics feel that the speech of Hrothgar between lines 1700 and 1784 encapsulates the moral of the poem….’He does not know the worse – till inside him great arrogance grows and spreads’” (Shippey 38). Hrothgar’s ominous words do come back to haunt the hero more than once. Beowulf is a braggart; he is proud, and nothing seems able to change his basic proud outlook derived from his all-powerful physical strength. Even shortly before his own defeat against the fire-dragon, our hero is recalling his killing of the great hero of the Hugas with his bare hands:

ever since the time, in front of the hosts,

I slew Daeghrefn, the champion of the Hugas,

with my bare hands. He never brought back

his breast-ornament to the Frisian king:

the standard-bearer fell in combat

a prince, in valor; no edge killed him

my hand-grip crushed his beating heart,

his life’s bone-house (2501-09).

Yes, Beowulf was full of pride and self-confidence; this made him impetuous in his actions. Regarding the dragon, “its strength and fire seemed nothing at all to the strong old king”(2348-49); before facing the dragon, he was reminiscing about his valour in combat against the Hetware and how he alone had escaped:

Lines 2354-68: Nor was it the least

hand-to-hand comba…

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…some of the viewpoints on this topic.


Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.

Kaske, R.E.. “The Governing Theme of Beowulf.” In Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975

Leyerle, John. “The Conflicting Demands of Heroic Strength and Kingly Wisdom.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.

Shippey, T.A.. “The World of the Poem.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Tolkien, J.R.R.. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

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