Who is Grendel?

Descriptions in Grendel’s last attack on Heorot horrify; a darkened and deadly creature comes out of shadow and mist, a door collapses at its touch, and many disembodied parts of a sleeping man become swallowed in his maw. In the subsequent battle with Beowulf his arm rips from his shoulder. He flees, leaving a trail so bloody that it wells and moves like disturbed water. These things would inspire terror enough, but in translation this moment’s strangeness seems to creep into the characterizations where it may not need to be. Grendel eats men, and that is monsterous to us, but to what degree must he be a monster?

Heaney continues a long tradition of turning Grendel into a monster. Grendel, “the captain of evil” (Heaney 749), “the dread of the land” (761), is given talons, kinship with demons, and comes “greedily loping” (711). What Grendel leaves behind of himself warrants a grotesque picture. His disembodied arm is clawed, and his severed head takes four men to carry from his mother’s den, something about the weight of a full human corpse. We are told that he descends from Cain, in hybrid Germanic and Christian tradition the sire of all strange creatures like gnomes, elves, giants, and ettins. Grendel may resemble his family. Besides agreeing that giants are big, though, no one certainly knows what these things looked like in Anglo-Saxon imaginations, and relating him to Cain, who was a man, distantly suggests anthropomorphic features. Beyond that, as has been mentioned before, we know nothing of what he looked like.

Words that describe him during his last trip to Heorot remain vague (Amodio). Andy Orchard has pointed out that aglæca, which those before have noted applied to both heroes and monsters (including Beowulf and Grendel), best translates with the words offered by Elliot Dobbie: ‘the awe-inspiring one,’ or ‘the formidable one’ (Orchard 33). Beowulf, while violent, does not resemble a monster, so for the sake of consistency an aglæca, friend or foe, cannot be one.

Nonetheless for Heaney the words “Licsar gebad / atol æglæca” (Klaeber 815-16) become “The monster’s whole / body was in pain” (Heaney 814-15). With two aglæcan wrestling, the sentence should confuse the reader a little. Grendel’s pain is implied, but no more. As Amodio has noted, the ambiguous substantive imbues the fog of war. No one, not even those in the fight, would know in the chaos and the night what precisely was happening. Strained, the senses process what is necessary for survival, and memory becomes uncertain. The text will give us “fingras burston” (Klaeber 760) ‘fingers burst’ without telling whose fingers. A translators who offers answers too quickly makes a helpful but unnecessary and indecorous interpretation.

A tale of deep horror depends its flirtation with uncertainty. As far as Grendel’s last attack, the first chance at a glimpse of Grendel, the perspective nearly keeps us from seeing anything at all. Something wicked this way comes, but it does not offer much more than strange and shadowy movement, and a taste of Grendel’s desire. Michael Lapidge believes that obfuscation serves the narrative, taking Beowulf outside the heroic and into horror. “It is because the monster lies beyond our comprehension, because we cannot visualize him at all, that its approach is one of the most terrifying moments in English literature” (Lapidge 383).

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