G is for . . . Grendel’s Mother

Grendel’s mother, monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs. She had been forced down into fearful waters . . . had sallied forth on a savage journey, grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge.

Sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries, an anonymous poet wrote the epic poem Beowulf, one of the oldest surviving long poems in Old English. In the tale, Beowulf takes on three Gmythical beasts–the monster Grendel; his mother, who is enraged by her son’s death; and a dragon.

Grendel’s mother doesn’t get a name in the story. She’s a descendant of Cain. And though she’s said to be monstrous, there’s no real description of her. She acts only in retaliation after Beowulf kills her son and takes his arm for a trophy. She comes into the hall at night, and in the ensuing battle many lives are lost.

When Beowulf pursues her, he spends most of a day swimming downward, through a lake filed with viscera and fire, to find Grendel’s mother. She tries to crush him, but Beowulf’s armor protects him. But despite failure of Beowulf’s mythic sword and the strength of his hands, he can only match her. Only with a sword made for giants can he win the fight; he decapitates Grendel’s mother and decapitates Grendel’s corpse, which he finds nearby.

There’s more here than I know what to do with. There’s a nameless woman who watched her son die. She’s part of a Scandinavian legend, and at that time in that culture, avenging the death of blood-kin would’ve been seen as a rightful mission. She goes to avenge his death and retrieve the arm that Beowulf is keeping as a trophy–the arm of her child. Her lair is dark, damp, and primordial. It’s womb-like.

And Grendel’s mother’s identity is all bound up in motherhood, all caught up in her child. She doesn’t even get a name besides “Mother of…”

Maybe that’s why she’s so angry. Well, that, and Beowulf killed her son and took his arm as a trophy.

She’s a monster. But is she a villain?


*Image from Wikipedia



Leave a Comment

  1. I have no idea how she might’ve been intended or perceived when the story was first being told… But I think when we read Beowulf in class (I’ve read it for two different classes + solo), and judging from other comments here, the appearance of Grendel’s mother was really a humanizing twist for both of them. You have this basic monster story… But then all of a sudden you realize the monster had a mother, and if he had a mother, there must’ve been a whole life there. A whole history and genealogy and day-to-day existence, and you walk away a little unnerved, wondering what “really” happened and what else is in the world aside from your little drinking hall. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Grendel’s mother is a really interesting character, and I’m not sure if she was viewed as a villain in that sense. It’s surprisingly common (until you hit the fairy tale theater) for premodern texts to never have the “true evil”. The antagonists have very real, tangible motives, and are not always wrong in their pursuits. In the end, it’s about who the gods side with, or Fate/Fortune favors.

    Excellent post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Probably. It’s one thing to seek revenge for those who’ve been murdered (which is why Beowulf fought Grendel), but it goes way further when he takes Grendel’s arm as a trophy, displays it in the castle. That’s quite awful, and it’s hard not to see the reason a mother would be so angry about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’d be interested in seeing (if it were possible, which it sadly isn’t) what Grendel’s mother was like in the pre-Christian version of the epic. Although I suppose that statement applies to everything about it, but I was just thinking about it because of your comment that she’s described as descended from Cain. Presumably, the monk who wrote the epic down and modified it to be acceptable to Christian tastes put that in there in place of some other descriptive element regarding her origin. But what? Was she descended from a legendary giant? A local god? A local demon? Were her ancestors human, monstrous or undefined? One of many sets of questions whose answers have been lost in the mist of time…

    …which is why I so often fantasize about having a time machine, I suppose.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah, I’ve often wondered what other versions of this story were out there and how much of it was changed in the writing. Beowulf has really never been one of my favorites, but I do find the part with Grendel’s mother really interesting—probably the most compelling part of the epic to me.


  4. “A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity. It dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.” Agatha Christie.
    She’s not a villain – she’s a mother who happens to be a monster!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True enough—and that’s pretty close to how I feel about her, too. She’s only a villain because we’re supposed to sympathize with Beowulf.


  5. Awesome post. I remember reading and thinking, “She’s acting like a mad Mama”. Not going to lie, I never thought her a monster but one who became monstrous after the untimely death of her child. Which I think is perfect.

    We talk about Mama bears, back then they were Mama Monsters I guess. Monster? Yes. Villain? Only if you mess with her baby.

    Liked by 3 people

Talk to Me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s