“Beowulf: A Primordial Horror”
How Grendel and His Mother Impacted English Literary Tradition
The objective of this assignment was to write about a piece of literature that changed my life. So obviously, I picked Beowulf, the greatest work ever written in any version of the English language, and possibly the single greatest literary work ever created.
I. Original Paper
In the earliest days of English literature and its heroes, in times long before the tales of Robin Hood and his Merry Men or King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, lay the epic tale of Beowulf. Probably the single most important and influential text ever written in the English language, its impact ripples through the literary traditions of the Anglosphere today in ways both facile and subtle. While Beowulf’s fatal battle with the dragon represents part of a long and proud storytelling tradition of dragonslayer tales, it’s his fight against the monster Grendel which is most iconic.
In Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, J. R. R. Tolkien keenly observes that it is the monsters of what he calls ’fairie-stories” which provide the primary narrative thrust and which largely define the hero, his conflict, and therefore the story. Just as the importance of the role of antagonist cannot be understated in narratives more generally, so more specifically be it the case in folklore, mythology, fairie-stories, and the speculative fiction subgenres of fantasy, horror, and science fiction that it is upon the role of the monster, most often , which the dramatic tension lies, and which the hero’s identity as a hero hinges. After all, what would David be without his Goliath? Perseus without Medusa? Theseus without his Minotaur? Beowulf without his Grendel? Mina Murray without her Dracula? or Superman without his Doomsday?
Heroes and monsters are essentially equal-but-opposite forms of the same mythological entity; both heroes, in this context referring to larger-than-life mythological characters possessing abilities far beyond those any mortal human could ever hope to achieve, and monsters are often described as hybrids, having a combination of mortal and divine heritage, for the monster must be a worthy adversary for the hero’s victory to be meaningful. This is not David versus Goliath, an underdog story, but strife between equally formidable foes: a proverbial clash of the titans. This device heralds back to Nordic and Anglo-Saxon mythology in the conflicts between the Aesir (Gods) and the Jotunnar (Giants), paralleled in Classical Greek and Roman mythology in the conflicts between the Gods and Titans. It is no coincidence that Grendel is referred to as an Eontann (’Ent” or ’Ettin”; synonyms for ’Troll” or ’Giant”, and likely etymologically derived from ’Jotun”). Beowulf and Grendel are two sides of the same aglæa. Shades of this can be seen in Robin Hood’s rivalry with Sir Guy of Guisborne, Sherlock Holmes’s rivalry with Professor Moriarty, or The Doctor’s rivalry with The Master. The ’Evil Twin” cliché in modern fiction likely owes as much to this tradition as it does to tales of changelings and doppelgangers.
And while not the first example in Western literature, with Jason’s Argonauts being a particularly glaring example antedating anything ever written in the English language, it is doubtless from Beowulf’s troop of loyal thanes that Robin Hood’s Merry Men and King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table inherit their now emblematic fraternal associations of undying fealty.
Reminiscent of Grendel’s nocturnal predations on the mead-hall Heorot, stories would recur throughout the Middle-Ages in the British Isles featuring vampires, various unseely faeries and vengeful wraiths and revenants ever-ravening through the night, visiting their forms upon particular persons, families, or townships at regular intervals. The revenants and proto-vampires documented in Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium ("Of the trifles of courtiers") and William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum (’History of English Affairs’), both written in the 12th century, would famously obey this pattern. In the late Gothic literature precursory to the modern horror genre we find Bram Stoker using this template for Dracula’s nocturnal visitations upon Lucy Westerna.
It is likely no coincidence that vampires in the modern horror genre are often identified as descendants of the Biblical character Cain, just as Grendel was. Among the descendants of the Biblical character Cain in Beowulf are the orcneas, which seems to literally mean ’corpses of Orcus (the Roman God of the Underworld)”, but is most often translated something like ’evil spirits” or ’walking dead”, whence C. S. Lewis derived the word ’Orkneys” and from which J. R. R. Tolkien derived the term ’Orc” for his race of humanoid monsters. Though probably not intentional, it likewise cannot be regarded as entirely coincidental that the Orcs in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy bear a striking superficial resemblance to Count Orlock in the 1922 film Nosferatu, a character based directly on Stoker’s Count Dracula. Indeed, Grendel is referred to in the poem as sceadugenga, which means ’shadow-walker” or ’night-goer”.
The Friday the 13th series features the clearly Grendel-like figure, Jason, whose station at the bottom of Crystal Lake reminds of the lair at the bottom of the lake belonging to Grendel’s mother, a character mirrored in juxtaposition of the order of events in Beowulf by the first film’s antagonist, Pamela Vorhees, a similarly vengeful figure seeking a deranged form of justice for the death of her son.
While the Xenomorph in the first Alien film may not immediately remind the viewer of Grendel, the Xenomorph Queen from the second film in the franchise clearly takes inspiration from Grendel’s mother. The Borg Queen of Star Trek is even more strongly reminiscent of Grendel’s mother, being that Star Trek’s Borg are obvious sci-fi derivatives of zombies or vampires, which as previously shown descend much more directly from Grendel’s kind.
Lines like, ’sinews snapping, bone-frame breaking” when describing the fight in which Beowulf rends Grendel’s arm from his body are as evocative of gore and violence as any visual image found in horror films today. This fulfills what seems to be a very basic human need to indulge in violence vicariously, as evidenced by the gladiator matches in ancient Rome, or in modern American professional wrestling, or, of course, in modern horror films, and has its literary parallel in horror novels.
I’m uncertain if those uninterested in the horror genre and dismissive of genre fiction in general would recognize these themes present in their primordial forms in the epic poem, or see these layers of psychologically complex themes weaving their way through the centuries; the eldritch fears carving a crimson wake echoing through the minds of generation after generation of storyteller and listener alike. A pleasing fiction is it to quell our fears when in figment our heroes defeat their monsters, but fiction truly is it to say that Beowulf slew his foe. Though more than a thousand years have passed since Grendel preyed at Heorot, his spectre persists unslaked.