A Monstrous Mother

If you’ve not read Beowulf, you probably still know it’s an old tale about a warrior called Beowulf fighting a monster. It’s an epic poem from around AD700-1000, possibly from an oral tradition that goes back much further. Hero fights monster – it’s a tale as old as time.

But are the monsters really the bad guys here? Okay, I know it’s a controversial opinion but hear me out.

So King Hrothgar fails to get the full building survey done for his new mead hall and builds it near Grendel’s home, Grendel being the big bad monster:

[A] creature of darkness, exiled from happiness and accursed of God, the destroyer and devourer of our human kind

Grendel is harrowed by all the noise of folk singing and celebrating (and drinking too much presumably, the drunk aren’t known to be particularly quiet) so he starts coming to the hall every night to devour people. While I absolutely don’t support that kind of behaviour, we’ve all got really grumpy when someone’s being too noisy for us to sleep, right? This goes on for twelve years, and I know how stroppy I get with just one night’s disturbed sleep.

Anyway, one night when he turns up at the noisy drinking hall (when all the drinkers are apparently asleep although it’s not specified how loudly they snore), he meets Beowulf and they fight. While Grendel isn’t killed during the battle, Beowulf does pull off the monster’s arm. It’s going pretty badly for Grendel so what does he do? He runs home to his mummy.

Yeah, like the playground taunt. Scholars have a lot of theories about the role of Grendel’s mother in the narrative but, well, was it a joke? I mean, I don’t think Grendel’s age is mentioned anywhere but I did figure he was an adult. Were audiences supposed to laugh, or just look down on Grendel for being a bit pathetic?

He’s a monstrous abomination but he still lives with his mum? I guess you could argue that he acts like an angry adolescent. I don’t think anything is said about his father or any siblings, so I’m guessing he wasn’t planned and she raised him as a single mother. Given her reaction to all this, I’d guess they were pretty close too.

Grendel’s mother, who hasn’t caused any problems for anyone in the past despite all the noise at unsociable hours, is quite upset, to put it mildly. A bigger boy hurt her son and kept his arm (anyone else think that’s a bit weird?), so she is furious and goes to get revenge, and the arm back. Again, it’s not the kind of behaviour I support, but can you blame her? She’s not as large or as powerful as her son but is driven by matriarchal rage, which frankly make her the more terrifying enemy.

There’s been quite a lot written about her character in the story and how she reacts to Grendel’s injuries – in the past she just minds her own business but when her son is hurt then she reacts in a very human way.

But she doesn’t even get a name.

There have been various books written from the baddie’s point of view to make us rethink traditional stories, like Wicked by Gregory Maguire telling the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, or Circe by Madeline Miller giving a rather different take on Odysseus’s version of events (both of which I’ve read and would heartily recommend).

Are there any novel’s from Grendel’s mother’s point of view? I can’t find any and I think her story should be told.

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25 thoughts on “A Monstrous Mother

  1. How funny, my eldest daughter has just finished studying Beowulf at school and she had to write about it from Grendel’s mother’s perspective! I can’t remember what she wrote now but I did find the text fascinating and I certainly don’t remember us studying it at school (Yr 5 Primary). The curriculum seems much more interesting nowadays! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Yes there is! “Grendel’s Mother,” by Diana Stout walks readers through the life of how she came to give birth to Grendel. There’s also another take on the black-versus-white monster trope in John Gardner’s “Grendel,” where the monster becomes the anti-hero.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, what age group were you teaching to? Which aspects were you focusing on? It’s not a book I ever looked at for school, college or university but I think I would have loved to.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I taught Beowulf to my Senior English and English 101 classes. I focused on several aspects and sections of the epic poem, including the Anglo-Saxon elements and background. My students were also required to write and present an original “boast,” a poem following the style and structure of the epic poem. Entertaining presentations! Too bad you weren’t in my class. πŸ˜† I wrote a boast style poem too – it is on my blog, titled, “Blood Builds a Bond.” 🩸

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Terry Pratchett makes a passing mention of the story in one of his books. Some heroes are discussing heroing and one of them mentions how one of the mobster’s “actual mum come and complained”.

    Legacy of Heorot by Niven and Pournell riffs on the legend for its alien antagonists, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is that in Guards! Guards!? I’m pretty sure it’s one of the City Watch ones and I didn’t get it when I read that book as a kid. I love finding stuff like that on a reread πŸ™‚


  4. I came late to Beowulf and only read it a few years back in the Seamus Heaney translation. I loved it. Your post, however, has given me a lot to think about and I’m off to read Circe which I haven’t, and Wicked. ditto. Thanks for that. And why shouldn’t you have a shot a writing the Grendel story? You’ve done the background work already it seems.

    Liked by 1 person

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