The epic poem, Beowulf, describes the struggle that the Geats and Danes experience when living with monsters who terrorize their society. Each of the monsters has its own significance in a biblical and mythological sense; however, they are a common enemy to humanity. What makes a monster? The Merriam Webster Dictionary gives two meanings to the word ‘monster’: “an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening.
” and “an inhumanly cruel or wicked person.” In Beowulf, the monsters signify one who is an outsider of the society and disrupts social order. The society of the Geats and Danes is based on the warriors Heroic Code which represent virtues of loyalty, protection, reputation, selfless bravery, and courage. Loyalty is supposed to be the foremost principle, meaning they always fight for their king, even to the point of death. Beowulf, the hero in the poem, conveys all the qualities of a true warrior and protector. He is an essential and prophetic figure who can defeat the monsters that cause torment.
The contradicting lifestyles of the monsters makes them an ongoing threat to the kingdom. Essentially, the poem is divided into three of Beowulf’s victorious fights, starting with Grendel, then his mother, and, finally, the dragon. Each fight is centered around the warriors valued principles versus the troublesome morals of the monsters.The Kingdom of the Danes enjoyed prosperity and peace until Grendel, the first enemy that Beowulf faces, emerges from the swamps, disrupting order and killing people for about twelve years, causing great fear. The narrator makes it clear in the beginning that Grendel is monstrous by calling him a “powerful demon, a prowler through the dark” (Heaney 86). He is a contrast to God and is said to be a descendant of Cain, who killed his brother, and is punished for his sins.
Heaney translates that Grendel is “a fiend out of hell” (100). Being the Lords outcast, he hates to hear the songs praising God. Even though he is a monster, Grendel still has human qualities and emotions, one of those being jealousy. He envies the warriors’ happiness and companionship and longs to find a place to fit in this world. Grendel is a lonely creature. He realizes that he is hopeless, isolated, and separate of the mortal world; this increases his urge and anger. Out of this rage, Grendel starts killing people.
The way he attacks is contrasted with the actions of the warriors. The monster is strong, but not brave; he displays qualities of a coward, who is quick to hide in the darkness. Grendel plans his attacks in the middle of the night, when the warriors are drunk and asleep because he is afraid to fight. None of the warriors know what he looks like because he does not allow them to see himself. It plainly shows that the demon is ashamed of his looks. His first response, when he faces Beowulf and realizes his strength, is to flee. This confirms Grendel’s cowardness, which is a juxtaposition to the warriors’ value of bravery.
Grendel represents everything that a warrior should not be based on his lifestyle, motives, and actions. The author shows a more negative side to human impulses in Grendel’s nature since he lacks a father figure. Heaney describes his bitterness, one of his negative human impulses, “He was numb with grief, but got no respite/ for one night later merciless Grendel/ struck again with more gruesome murders. / Malignant by nature, he never showed remorse” (134-137). Unable to overcome his deep bitterness and resentment, Grendel completely loses any feelings of regret. The demon seems to enjoy killing, as if it gives him a sense of completion and fulfilment, thinking that by killing the people of God, it would free him from the despair of his lonely existence.
Even his blood is poisoned by the toxic hatred in his heart: “it’s blade had melted and the scrollwork on it burnt, so scalding was the blood of the poisonous fiend who had perished there” (Heaney 1614-1616). Grendel’s lust for blood contradicts the warrior’s values, which shows the demonization of not only his appearance but in his heart too. Grendel was never taught how to love and accept his fate. He does not have a father figure to teach him to be courageous, which causes his actions to be even more monstrous. Grendel only fights purely out of rage and hate. His motive to fight is selfish which amplifies his monstrous abilities. In contrast to Grendel’s fatherless upbringing, Beowulf’s father figure taught him the Heroic Code of values which brought out the best in the young warrior.
He learned about obligation between friends and family and that are true warrior sacrifices their own life, if necessary. Beowulf is a symbol of pure bravery and ultimate sacrifice for others which is something Grendel could never be, instead is the reason for his mothers’ death. Even though the poem describes Grendel with monstrous attributes, the deeper meaning of his character is the clearest example of human nature without God and higher principles; guided only by resentment, jealousy, hate, and malice. Grendel’s mother, Beowulf’s second enemy, was never the original target but due to her lack of “peacemaking” skills that women should have and being the source of her sons cruel and empty life, she consequently loses her life. She is Grendel’s sole role model, because as previously stated, Grendel is fatherless. Grendel’s mother is seldom mentioned, but the reader can infer that she possesses similar monstrous qualities as her son because she is the only other monster who Grendel could learn from. As Heaney describes in detail, she and her son live together outside of the human community in a gory, swampy territory: The water was infested with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons and monsters slouching on slopes by the cliff, serpents and wild things such as those that often surface at dawn to roam the sail-road and doom the voyage.
(Heaney 1425-1427) She brought up her son in a hellish environment surrounded by others like them, a place where no human dared to venture. On the other hand, the people that she torments seem to have an extremely different lifestyle. The warriors have a loving community where they grow up and are taught family values. Since Grendel’s mother did not have a husband, and her son was her only source of family, his death increased the fear of loneliness, causing her to strike with enormous power and viciousness. Similar to Grendel, she attacks in the middle of the night without mercy, but shows cowardice when the warriors wake.
The only difference between her and Grendel’s murderous actions, is the fact that Grendel’s mother aims to kill Hrothgar’s favorite. She is filled with vengeance and is “driven to avenge her kinsman’s death” instead of a being a peacemaker, which is a core value for women in the warrior society (Heaney 1339). This shows the true monstrous nature of Grendel’s mother through her lack of reconciliation. These actions make her monstrous and the opposite of what the Danes and Geats’ culture valued in women. Throughout the poem, the monsters that Beowulf faces are the embodiment of lacking social standards. Beowulf’s final fight with the dragon, the largest and most monstrous looking beast, was his ultimate sacrifice for his people as an experienced, dedicated king.
The creature is described as a large, frightening serpent with scales on its body, “The dragon began to belch out flames and burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glow that scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger would leave nothing alive in his wake” (Heaney 2312- 2315). Beowulf decides to use a shield, sword, and armor, which he never uses, because of the dragons’ enormous size and deathly breath. The dragon, who hoards a pile of treasure, represents the dark side of kingship, in contrast to a generous king who rewards his people with goods. The treasure was no use to the dragon and since Beowulf dies in the fight, without a king, the kingdom has no use for it either. The greediness of the dragon overrides his outward appearance.
This monstrous quality is what ultimately kills Beowulf. The deeper meaning behind the dragon was that despite being the most disturbing in appearance, it was his selfish qualities that make him a monster.Typically, monsters are thought of as ugly, frightening, imaginary creatures, but like shown in this poem, just lacking the right values can make a monster. The three creatures that Beowulf fights in this poem all hold values that were completely the opposite of the warriors. This is what makes them monsters. The values and principles that are dear to the warriors in the Anglo-Saxon culture are still cherished by the society in the modern day we live in. The monsters in this poem represent everything a person should not be.
Lacking the values of the Heroic Code can cost a lot to a community or family. What makes someone monstrous is not necessarily how that person looks, but how he or she behaves throughout life and what that person represents.