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 mythical 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