Of Monsters and Men: What Is the Grim Being Known as Grendel from the Epic Beowulf?

Nowadays, monsters hide under your bed. They come out of the closet or dangle from your ceiling. Children usually picture such monsters with fangs or scales, glowing eyes, and claws. With the right director, Monsters, Inc. could be turned into a horror film with only minor changes to the storyline.

In medieval England, monsters were very different and sometimes quite ambiguous. Such is the case of Grendel in Beowulf. Revered as a primary example of Anglo-Saxon literature and western epic poetry, the text was originally written in Old English and dictates the story of the Scandinavian hero Beowulf and his attempts to aid the Danish king Hrothgar. One of the three reasons Beowulf is needed is to slay a strong monster that has been consistently plaguing the mead hall of Hrothgar . This monster is none other than Grendel - who, arguably, is as famous as - if not more than - Beowulf himself.

A depiction of what Grendel may have looked like.

Was Grendel a Giant or Dragon?

The precise nature of Grendel's being is never made fully clear. Interpretations of his character have ranged from giant to dragon to a Scandinavian berserker. He has been described as a bipedal brute with impenetrable scales and spikes in place of skin and is called a shadow walker in the text. The moniker might be indicative of Grendel's preference for darkness and shadows, or it might have a symbolic meaning explaining the creature Grendel was initially intended to be interpreted as. Regardless, the aforementioned description of the monster has long been a topic of debate among scholars.

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"I am the giant Skrymir" by Elmer Boyd Smith. "In dragon's form Fafner now watches the hoard." Image depicting a weapon dancer followed by a berserker. (Public Domain) Was Grendel a giant, dragon, or beserker?

Due to the Scandinavian nature of the text, the arguments for Grendel as a giant or dragon are interesting. Grendel as a giant is a sensible assumption: giants (Norse: jötnar) are described in the Norse sagas and mythological stories as abnormally large bipeds living in the realm of fire called Jötunheimr (though the fire giants live in Muspelheim). The giant Ymir is even credited with creating the initial version of the world from his own limbs. The physical details of Grendel's person adhere best to the assumption that he is a giant, as the Norse claimed jötnar had numerous hideous features such as claws and fangs and some even possessed more than one head.

‘Giant Suttung and the dwarfs’.

The argument that Grendel is a dragon, on the other hand, does not align with Scandinavian views of dragons. The primary "evidence" that Grendel might fall into this category is based on the European interpretation of these creatures as large beings covered in impenetrable scales, preferring caves to hide their golden hoards from greedy men - it has been argued that Grendel might be an earlier version of such a creature. While he is considered somewhat humanoid in the original text, Grendel's physical description aligns with that of an early European dragon. The concept of flying dragons comes from Asia.

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Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch, the mythical creature dragon, 1806.

The Ambiguity of Grendel

However, in the literature of the Norsemen , dragons are more akin to serpents than the modern vision seen in movies. Medieval Scandinavian "dragons" had serpentine bodies with legs which were tiny—comparable in ratio to those of a dachshund—and they alternated between having wings and not. Fafnir, the son of a dwarf who killed for the golden ring of Andvari, was transformed into a dragon capable of breathing poison, but not flying.

Meanwhile, Nidhoggr, the dragon that gnawed on the roots of the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, has been described as able to fly. While these descriptions of Norse dragons do not necessarily indicate that Grendel is not a version of a Scandinavian dragon, the emphasis on his humanoid form, in conjunction with the inclusion of an actual dragon within Beowulf, makes it seem far less probable that Grendel is another dragon for Beowulf to fight.

Beowulf against the dragon. (Andimayer/ Deviant Art )

Weighing the Evidence

Due to the aforementioned evidence, it is the belief of this author that Grendel is likely a version of a Scandinavian giant . While the Anglo-Saxon author—whoever he was—might have created his own version of a "monster" while placing the tale of Beowulf in Scandinavia, the numerous interactions with Viking forces in modern day England, Ireland, and Denmark make it possible that the author attempted to incorporate Scandinavian mythology in the text as well. Further, there is quite a bit of overlap between pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon gods and Norse ones.

One factor to take into account in future research might be to determine whether Beowulf was meant for northern eyes or Anglo-Saxon ones, as such in inquiry might help determine the viewpoints of the intended audience. It is also just as likely that Grendel is intentionally kept ambiguous; the author might have simply wanted readers of his epic poem to use their imagination and create a Grendel from the monsters in their own minds.

Vikings carrying the head of Grendel, the beast that attacked the feasting hall in ‘Beowulf’

Grendel the Grim Demon

Nothing makes a good hero like a good monster that tries to rip the hero’s head off. Grendel and his mother, frankly, are the characters whom I find the most interesting in this epic. This passage introduces Grendel and, like the rest of the important characters, tells the audience of his ancestry and origins.

Cain, who according to biblical tradition was the first murderer, is named as the progenitor of Grendel’s clan. This motley lot includes “banished monsters” (105) like “ogres and elves and evil phantoms” (112). The original Old English refers to them as “eotenas” (112), “ylfe” (112), and “orcneas” (112). “Eotenas” likely refer to what are now known as Jotuns, the giants that often waged war with the gods of Aesgard in Norse Mythology. “Ylfe” are, of course, elves. “Orcneas,” which were translated into the Norton Anthology of English Literature version of Beowulf as “evil phantoms,” seem to be specters or sea monsters. A Christian worldview overlapping the older, pagan one gives these monsters a surprisingly human origin, for their ancestor was Cain, who was, despite being a murderer, as human as Abel was.

This background information about Grendel is important because, just as Hrothgar and Beowulf get their ancestries recited, so too is Grendel’s origins spoken of. His pedigree is nowhere near as noble or elaborate as theirs, yet it is presented nonetheless. He is, as the text alliterates, “Caines cynne” (107), Cain’s kin, and the scion of the first murderer with a lot of wretched skullduggery to live up to. This also shows that Grendel is not the only one of his kind, an aberrant freak in an otherwise normal world. He is not alone, he has kin, and once he is gone it will not be the last the humans hear of this pernicious family.

The kennings in this section include the “Ring-Danes” (116) referring to Hrothgar’s men, and for Grendel, “God-cursed brute” (121). Grendel is spoken of, in the original Old English, as “grimma gaest Grendel,” (102) a lovely alliteration. “Grimma” means to rage, to roar, to make haste, and in general to be angry. As a verb, it means to make angry, hinting that Grendel was not merely having a lousy day in the swamp—Hrothgar possibly did something to stoke his ire. Grendel’s rage is made apparent in his frequent attacks on Hrothgar’s hall, claiming the lives of “thirty men” (122) at once. “Gaest” is a word that means both guest and spirit, of which Grendel is technically both. This can translate to the raging spirit, Grendel or the raging guest, Grendel. This presents a bit of a conundrum of just how monstrous Grendel was, whether he was an actual spirit or simply an unusually strong human. Only his kinship to Cain—and the elves, and the specters, and the phantoms—cements him as someone otherworldly.

Grendel attacks at night, when “the Ring-Danes” (116) are drunk. He is nocturnal and tactical—or cowardly, depending on one’s point of view, and very, very large. He snatched “thirty men” (122) and carried them back to his lair. To reiterate, Grendel picked up thirty grown, probably large men. This is either an example of hyperbole, poetic license, or Grendel was about the size of Godzilla.

The way Grendel is “blundering” (125) back with his kill conveys several things. First of all, it gives the impression of a large, clumsy monster. It was also the middle of the night, so quite feasible that Grendel would be tripping and blundering about in his haste.

In summation, Grendel’s sinister ancestry is presented in keeping with the importance of kinship and ensuing generations. He is introduced as an angry, raging spirit that slaughters many of Hrothgar’s men, just the sort of foe for Beowulf to fight and prove himself against.

The Question of Race in Beowulf

J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal scholarship on Beowulf centers a white male gaze. Toni Morrison focused on Grendel and his mother as raced and marginal figures.

Most readers of Beowulf understand it as a white, male hero story—tellingly, it’s named for the hero, not the monster—who slays a monster and the monster’s mother. Grendel, the ghastly uninvited guest, kills King Hrothgar’s men at a feast in Heorot. Beowulf, a warrior, lands in Hrothgar’s kingdom and kills Grendel but then must contend with Grendel’s mother who comes to enact revenge for her son’s murder. Years later, Beowulf deals with a dragon who is devastating his kingdom and dies while he and his thane, Wiglaf, are slaying the dragon. Crucially, Grendel is never clearly described, but is named a “grim demon,” “god-cursed brute,” a “prowler through the dark,” a part of “Cain’s clan.”

Indeed, Beowulf is a story about monsters, race, and political violence. Yet critics have always read it through the white gaze and a preserve of white English heritage. The foundational article on Beowulf and monsters is J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Yes, before and while writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was an Oxford medieval professor who interpreted Beowulf for a white English audience. He uses Grendel and the dragon to discuss an aesthetic, non-politicized, close reading of monsters, asking critics to read it as a poem, a work of linguistic art:

Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.

Beowulf—which is written in Old English—was produced over a millennium ago and is set in Denmark. Learning Old English is on par with learning a foreign language. Thus Tolkien’s view on which bodies, fluent in this “native” English tongue, can read Beowulf, also offers a window into the politics of who gets to and how to read and write about the medieval past.

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Tolkien’s investment in whiteness does not just apply to his ideal readers of medieval literature. It also extends to the ideal medieval literature scholars. At the 2018 Belle da Costa Greene conference, Kathy Lavezzo highlighted Tolkien’s role in shutting the Jamaican-born, Black British academic Stuart Hall out of medieval studies. Hall’s autobiography, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, describes a white South African gatekeeper. Tolkien was the University of Oxford Merton professor of English Language and Literature when Hall was a Rhodes scholar in the 1950s. Hall explains how he almost became a medieval literature scholar: “I loved some of the poetry—Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wanderer, The Seafarer—and at one point I planned to do graduate work on Langland’s Piers Plowman.” However, according to Lavezzo, it was Tolkien who intervened in these plans: “But when I tried to apply contemporary literary criticism to these texts, my ascetic South African language professor told me in a pained tone that this was not the point of the exercise.”

This clashes with Tolkien’s friendlier image that has permeated popular culture, thanks to The Lord of the Rings. Through Tolkien’s white critical gaze, Beowulf as an epic for white English people has formed the backbone of the poem’s scholarship. To this day, there have only been a few black scholars of Anglo-Saxon studies to publish on Beowulf. Mary Rambaran-Olm has reported on the many instances of black and non-white scholars being shut out of medieval studies. She recently explained at the Race Before Race: Race and Periodization symposium what Tolkien did to Hall in light of her own decision to step down as second vice president of the field’s main academic society, citing incidents of white supremacy and gatekeeping. As a result of these incidents, studying Beowulf has long been a privilege reserved for white scholars.

Ironically, Tolkien’s advocacy for a Northern, “native,” and white ideal readership contrasts with his own personal and familial histories. He spent his first years in South Africa. Though Tolkien’s biographers have claimed that his birth in Africa scarcely influenced him, scholarly critics have pointed out the structural racism in his creative work, particularly in The Lord of the Rings. Additionally, he wrote an entire philological series, “Sigelwara Land” and “Sigelwara Land (continued),” on the Old English word for “Ethiopia.” In this series, he explicates the connections between Sigelwara Land and monsters by flattening the categories of black Ethiopians, devils, and dragons. He writes:

The learned placed dragons and marvelous gems in Ethiopia, and credited the people with strange habits, and strange foods, not to mention contiguity with the Anthropophagi. As it has come down to us the word is used in translation (the accuracy of which cannot be determined) of Ethiopia, as a vaguely conceived geographical term, or else in passages descriptive of devils, the details of which may owe something to vulgar tradition, but are not necessarily in any case old. They are of a mediaeval kind, and paralleled elsewhere. Ethiopia was hot and its people black. That Hell was similar in both respect would occur to many.

Tolkien’s work of empirical philology is a form of racialized confirmation bias that strips Ethiopia of any kind of connection to the marvels of the East, gems, or even his own fixation on dragons. He highlights Sigelwara as a term related to black skin and its connections to devils and hell, framing Ethiopians within the same category as “monsters.” He has no qualms about consistently connecting the Ethiopians to the “sons of Ham,” and thus the biblical descendants of Cain, linking medieval Ethiopia with the justification for chattel black slavery. In fact, no part of the etymology (nor any part of medieval discussions of Ethiopia) discusses slavery. Tolkien would have read Beowulf’s Grendel, who is linked to Cain, as a black man:

Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and, unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind’s home for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain.

Tolkien’s articles on Ethiopia and on Beowulf, all published in the 1930s, reveal that Tolkien likely interpreted Grendel as a black man connected to a biblical justification for transatlantic chattel slavery. Thus, Grendel was raced within the logics of Tolkien’s white racist gazer. However, his philological method is still seen as a non-politicized and non-personal form of “empirical” scholarship. His interest in solidifying white Englishness and English identity—as a chain of links from the premodern medieval past to contemporary racial identities—is a project that extended into multiple scholarly areas.

Over the last several years, Tolkien’s most circulated political stance has been his resistance to fascism as displayed in letters he wrote to a German publisher. He may have abhorred fascism and antisemitism, but he upheld the English empire’s white supremacy. He held racialized beliefs against Africans and other members of the English black diaspora.

Black scholars have been systematically shut out of Old English literature. If there is no critical mass of black intellectuals, writers, and poets who can talk back to the early English literary corpus and the large-looming white supremacist gatekeepers, then Toni Morrison’s Beowulf essay might well be the first piece to do so. Because she writes about Beowulf, race, and how to read beyond the white gaze, her essay speaks back not only to Beowulf but to the English literary scholarship that has left Anglo-Saxon Studies a space of continued white supremacist scholarship.

In Toni Morrison’s 2019 collection, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, we get the first revision of who should read Beowulf and how race matters. In her essay, “Grendel and His Mother,” she explains:

Delving into literature is neither escape nor surefire route to comfort. It has been a constant, sometimes violent, always provocative engagement with the contemporary world, the issues of the society we live in… As I tell it you may be reminded of the events and rhetoric and actions of many current militarized struggles and violent upheavals.

As a black feminist reader, Morrison examines Beowulf as political, current, for any reader. Indeed, she opens by explaining that literary criticism is always performed through the lens of its moment, urging her readers to “discover in the lines of association I am making with a medieval sensibility and a modern one a fertile ground on which we can appraise our contemporary world.” Morrison’s Beowulf interpretation highlights what other critics, following Tolkien’s lead, have deemed marginal. She decenters the white male hero, focusing instead on the racialized, politicized, and gendered figures of Grendel and his mother, who in Tolkien’s read would have been black. In his article “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” his white male gaze concentrates on what these two “monsters” can do for Beowulf’s development as the white male hero of Germanic epic. Morrison, on the other hand, is interested in Grendel and his mother as raced and marginal figures with interiority, psyche, context, and emotion.

In Morrison’s interviews with Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose, and The Paris Review, she explains her literary method when she unpacks nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature—especially Faulkner, Twain, Hemingway, and Poe—and how white writers and critics hide blackness and race. Similarly, in Morrison’s discussion about Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, she exposes the power dynamics of whiteness in Cather’s novel. The novel describes the complicated relationship between a white and a black woman in which Cather’s white gaze forces not just unspeakable violence onto the black woman but also erases her name, context, and point of view. Similarly, Tolkien is not interested in Grendel or his mother’s racialized contexts, emotions, and reasons. He writes with the white gaze—Grendel and his mother are racialized props that help explain Beowulf’s conflicts, contexts, emotions, and reasons. Morrison’s sentiments about nineteenth-century American literature apply to white supremacist Anglo-Saxon Studies: “The insanity of racism… you are there hunting this [race] thing that is nowhere to be found and yet makes all the difference.”

Morrison analyzes Beowulf through Grendel’s racialized gaze. She points out Grendel’s lack of back story:

But what seemed never to trouble or worry them was who was Grendel and why had he placed them on his menu? …The question does not surface for a simple reason: evil has no father. It is preternatural and exists without explanation. Grendel’s actions are dictated by his nature the nature of an alien mind—an inhuman drift… But Grendel escapes these reasons: no one had attacked or offended him no one had tried to invade his home or displace him from his territory no one had stolen from him or visited any wrath upon him. Obviously he was neither defending himself nor seeking vengeance. In fact, no one knew who he was.

Morrison asks readers to dwell on Grendel beyond good versus evil binaries. She centers the marginal characters in Beowulf, who have not been given space and life in the poem itself. She forces us to rethink Grendel’s mother and Beowulf’s vengeance, writing:

Beowulf swims through demon-laden waters, is captured, and, entering the mother’s lair, weaponless, is forced to use his bare hands… With her own weapon he cuts off her head, and then the head of Grendel’s corpse. A curious thing happens then: the Victim’s blood melts the sword… The conventional reading is that the fiends’ blood is so foul it melts steel, but the image of Beowulf standing there with a mother’s head in one hand and a useless hilt in the other encourages more layered interpretations. One being that perhaps violence against violence—regardless of good and evil, right and wrong—is itself so foul the sword of vengeance collapses in exhaustion or shame.

Morrison’s discussion of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Beowulf is about violence and how it undoes all potential motivations, including vengeance. The final tableau of Beowulf holding both the blood-covered sword of vengeance and Grendel’s mother’s head is about the corrosiveness of violence. For Morrison, the corrosive violence that eats through the sword of vengeance is that of whiteness.

Morrison goes further to unpack Beowulf through the work of contemporary writers. She explains:

One challenge to the necessary but narrow expectations of this heroic narrative comes from a contemporary writer, the late John Gardner, in his novel, titled Grendel… The novel poses the question that the epic does not: Who is Grendel? The author asks us to enter his mind and test the assumption that evil is flagrantly unintelligible, wanton, and undecipherable.

Specifically, she discusses Gardner’s rethinking of Grendel’s interiority. She writes that Gardner tries to “penetrate the interior life—emotional, cognizant—of incarnate evil.” For Morrison, the poem’s most salient interpretation comes from reading it politically, cogently, and rigorously. She writes:

In this country… we are being asked to both recoil from violence and to embrace it to waver between winning at all costs and caring for our neighbor between the fear of the strange and the comfort of the familiar between the blood feud of the Scandinavians and the monster’s yearning for nurture and community.

In Morrison’s analysis, Grendel has developed from being a murderous guest to Hrothgar’s Hall who kills for no reason, to becoming the central focus. This passage asks us to think about why Grendel would do what he did. Morrison understands him as dispossessed his “dilemma is also ours.” She situates Grendel as kith and kin to her imagined critical reading audience—black women.

Morrison concludes with a meditation on complicity, inaction, and the politics of contemporary late fascism and democracy:

…language—informed, shaped, reasoned—will become the hand that stays crisis and gives creative, constructive conflict air to breathe, startling our lives and rippling our intellect. I know that democracy is worth fighting for. I know that fascism is not. To win the former intelligent struggle is needed. To win the latter nothing is required. You only have to cooperate, be silent, agree, and obey until the blood of Grendel’s mother annihilates her own weapon and the victor’s as well.

In other words, we can reread that scene as a statement about fascist violence and its self-destroying and gendered toxicity. Morrison has made reading Beowulf raced, gendered, political she has envisioned its interpretation through the centrality of a black feminist reading audience where politics matter and “democracy is worth fighting for.”

As Tolkien’s intellectual grandchild (my advisor was his student), I do not think it is accidental that Morrison’s critical voice reframes Beowulf for the racialized, political now. Tolkien’s deliberate shut out of Stuart Hall means that we can only speculate about Hall as a critic of Beowulf, and we know that Anglo-Saxon scholarship continues to shut out black and minority scholars. With Morrison, finally, I believe we can put Tolkien’s “Monsters and Critics” to bed and read Beowulf anew.

Editors’ note: This essay has been updated to reflect the fact that while Tolkien may be considered South African by measure of his birthplace, he moved to England as a toddler.


It&rsquos no overstatement to say that Beowulf is &ndash today &ndash one of the most important surviving works of medieval literature. It is by far the longest Old English poem and &ndash at just over 3,000 lines &ndash preserves about one tenth of surviving English verse from before the Norman Conquest. But it&rsquos also very much a mystery. There isn&rsquot a lot we know about who composed it, or why, or even when. There is only one surviving copy from the whole of the medieval period &ndash the manuscript now known as British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV.


Beowulf is an Old English epic poem which survives in a single precious manuscript.

For a long time, academics didn&rsquot really know what to make of Beowulf. An early criticism was that it &lsquoputs the irrelevancies in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges&rsquo. [1] By &lsquoirrelevancies&rsquo, Ker means the three monster fights that make up most of the action. Most critics today would disagree: the monsters now hold a &lsquocentral importance &hellip crucial to the very structure of the poem&rsquo. [2] After all, Beowulf is &ndash at its heart &ndash the story of a heroic man who kills three monsters and then dies. So, to understand this ancient poem, we need first to understand its monsters.

Getting to grips with Grendel

First up is Grendel: in many ways an unknown quantity. He&rsquos a shadowy figure (literally, a &lsquomearcstapa&rsquo, [&lsquoborder-stepper&rsquo], (l. 103)), whose eyes glow with a &lsquoleoht unfæger&rsquo [&lsquogrim light&rsquo], (l. 727). He&rsquos descended from Cain, the fratricidal son of Adam and Eve, whose murder of his own brother sees him cast out by God and fated to wander the world in exile (Genesis 4. 1&ndash16). This gives the impression that Grendel is human, or at least humanoid, and we&rsquore told that he goes on &lsquoweres wæstmum&rsquo [&lsquoin the shape of a man&rsquo], (l. 1352). But he&rsquos much larger than that: it takes four warriors simply to lift his head (l. 1637). He lives in a gloomy underwater lair somewhere beyond the &lsquomyrcan mor&rsquo [&lsquodark moor&rsquo], (ll. 1402&ndash41). He eats his victims &ndash bones and all &ndash and fights without weapons or armour in frenzied attacks that leave dozens dead in his wake (ll. 120&ndash25, 730&ndash44). These details emerge in fits and starts over the course of the poem: always suggestive, never specific. In the best traditions of horror narratives, the more that&rsquos left to the imagination the better.

Marvels of the East

A parallel for the Grendels: illustration of a humanoid cannibal from The Marvels of the East in the Nowell Codex, which also contains the Beowulf manuscript.

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Grendel attacks the Danes night after night for years, until Beowulf comes to their aid in an epic encounter that literally shakes the Danish hall to its foundations (ll. 744&ndash835). Grendel&rsquos final incursion into Heorot begins with a bloody assault on one of Beowulf&rsquos sleeping warriors:

[Grendel] slat unwearnum,
bat banlocan, blod edrum dranc,
synsnædum swealh sona hæfde
unlyfigendes eal gefeormod,
fet ond folma (ll. 741&ndash45)

Grendel tore without hesitation,
bit the bone-locks, drank the blood of the veins,
swallowed sinful bites soon he had
entirely consumed the unliving one,
down to his feet and hands.

Emboldened, Grendel reaches for his next victim &ndash only to find himself grappling with Beowulf himself. The monster soon realises he&rsquos bitten off more than he can chew: &lsquohe ne mette middangeardes, / eorþan sceata on elran men / mundgripe maran&rsquo [&lsquohe had not met in the world, in any corner of the earth, a greater handgrip in another man&rsquo], (ll. 751&ndash53). In a stark reversal, the monster who began the evening feasting on human flesh now finds that his own &lsquoseonowe onsprungon, / burston banlocan&rsquo [&lsquosinews snapped, bone-locks burst&rsquo], (ll. 817&ndash18). Grendel flees, but Beowulf never relinquishes his grip. Once the dust has settled, our hero is left holding the monster&rsquos &lsquohond &hellip earm ond eaxle &hellip Grendles grape&rsquo [&lsquohand &hellip arm and shoulder &hellip Grendel&rsquos grasp&rsquo], (ll. 834&ndash36).

Meeting Grendel&rsquos mother

Beowulf emerges from this first fight a bona fide hero. But we&rsquore only a third of the way into the poem, and Grendel was only the start of Beowulf&rsquos monstrous troubles. The very night after Grendel limps back to his lair, minus one arm, to die in peace, the Danes are attacked again (ll. 1279&ndash99).This time it&rsquos Grendel&rsquos mother, looking for vengeance. Her appearance is similar to Grendel&rsquos, except &lsquoidese onlicnes&rsquo [&lsquoin the likeness of a woman&rsquo], (l. 1351), but her attack differs in some significant ways. Rather than wholesale destruction, she kills just one Dane before fleeing home with her son&rsquos severed arm. The man she chooses is Æschere, Hrothgar&rsquos closest advisor, in a tit-for-tat killing that&rsquos meant to match the loss of her only son (ll. 1304&ndash09). It&rsquos a point the poet drives home with a grim pun &ndash just as Beowulf took Grendel&rsquos &lsquoearm ond eaxle&rsquo [&lsquoarm and shoulder&rsquo], (l. 835), now Grendel&rsquos mother has taken Hrothgar&rsquos &lsquoeaxlgestealla&rsquo [&lsquoshoulder companion&rsquo], (l. 1326).

Illustration from a 1975 edition of Beowulf

20th-century illustration depicting Beowulf holding Grendel&rsquos severed head, following the death of Grendel&rsquos mother.

Usage terms © Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Duelling with dragons

The final of the three monsters enters the poem late in Beowulf&rsquos life. No longer a young warrior out to make a name for himself, our hero is now an aged king when he is called on to defend his people from a fire-breathing dragon (ll. 2550&ndash2705). This is the most conventional of the monsters Beowulf encounters &ndash we all know a dragon when we see one &ndash yet it&rsquos also the most challenging. Beowulf does his duty, kitted out with weapons and armour that even he seems to know will do him no good:

wisse he gearwe
þæt him holtwudu helpan ne meahte,
lind wið lige. Sceolde lændaga
æþeling ærgod ende gebidan,
worulde lifes, ond se wyrm somod.
(ll. 2339&ndash43)

[ he clearly understood
that the forest-wood could not help him,
the wooden shield against the flames. The foremost prince
would have to endure the end of his transitory days,
his life in the world, and the dragon with him.]

Peraldus' Theological Miscellany

This illustration of a red fire-breathing dragon – from a much later manuscript, dated c. 1250 –1300 – conforms to our expectations of what a dragon should look like, and how it should behave.

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Aided by a young warrior called Wiglaf, Beowulf is able to strike a mortal blow right through &lsquowyrm on middan&rsquo [&lsquothe belly of the dragon&rsquo], (l. 2705). But, true to the prophetic lines above, Beowulf is himself grievously wounded. As his injuries &lsquoswelan ond swellan&rsquo [&lsquofester and boil&rsquo], (l. 2713), Beowulf is keenly aware &lsquoþæt he dæghwila gedrogen hæfde / eorðan wynne&rsquo [&lsquothat he had passed his share of days, his earthly joys&rsquo], (ll. 2725&ndash27). He dies gazing on &lsquoenta geweorc&rsquo [&lsquothe works of giants&rsquo], (l. 2717) &ndash the mound in which the dragon lived &ndash beside the corpse of this final monstrous foe (ll. 2794&ndash2820).

Marvels of the East

Illustration of a snake from The Marvels of the East. In Beowulf the 'draca' [dragon] is also described as a 'wyrm' [serpent].

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Moral and figurative threats: Greed, vengeance, isolation

Although the three monsters allow Beowulf to prove his heroism in battle, that&rsquos not their only purpose in the poem. The dragon is a literal threat to the safety of Beowulf&rsquos people, but in the way it behaves it represents a moral danger, too. Earlier in the poem, Hrothgar makes a lengthy speech warning against the dangers of greed (ll. 1709&ndash57), and he rewards Beowulf lavishly with gifts and weapons in return for killing the Grendels (ll. 1019&ndash55, 1866&ndash99). This, the poet tells us, is what a good leader does (ll. 20&ndash21). But the dragon, in contrast, doesn&rsquot behave like this at all. The havoc it wreaks on an entire kingdom is instigated by the theft of a single gold cup from its hoard (ll. 2293&ndash2310). Greed is a real concern in Beowulf: reflecting heroic Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon societies, the poem&rsquos human characters live and die by the generosity of their rulers. In standing against the dragon, Beowulf also stands against the greed it embodies.

We can see a similar moral aspect to the first two monsters. Grendel&rsquos mother attacks for one very simple reason: revenge. In a society that&rsquos heavily defined by loyalty and family ties, vengeance poses problems, fuelling violence, destruction and instability. We get a telling snapshot of a family torn apart by vengeance in the &lsquoFinnsburg Episode&rsquo (ll. 1070&ndash1158). Here, the Danish princess Hildeburh marries Finn, a Frisian king, in an attempt to create peace between two hostile nations. But all does not go to plan. Old wounds reopen, fighting resumes between the now in-laws, and by the end of the story Hildeburh&rsquos brother, son and husband are all dead. It&rsquos exactly this sort of destruction that Grendel&rsquos mother threatens when she attacks the Danes in her own quest for vengeance just a few lines later. Is vengeance ever justified? And where does it end?

This brings us back to Grendel. Earlier on I referred to Grendel as an unknown quantity, and that&rsquos the exact threat he poses. You&rsquoll notice that families and familial ties are a recurring theme throughout this poem. The whole story starts with an extended prologue that runs through four generations of Hrothgar&rsquos family tree before we get anywhere near the action (ll. 1&ndash85). All through the poem, characters are identified not by their names, but by their relationship to others. This ability to place oneself &ndash and be placed &ndash in a family and tribe is central to the social interactions of the poem, mirroring the culture of its Scandinavian setting. Grendel, though, is unplaceable. We know that he&rsquos descended from Cain (l. 106), and we also know that he has a mother, although we never learn her name. Beyond that, everything is a mystery: &lsquono hie fæder cunnon&rsquo [&lsquothey know of no father&rsquo], (l. 1355). Grendel is an outsider who lives apart, out in the wilderness, without family or friends to vouch for him. The threat he represents to the human world of the poem is simply that he has no legitimate stake in it.

Guthlac Roll

Like Beowulf, the story of the life of St Guthlac presents an isolated landscape as a site of danger and monstrosity. After a religious conversion, Guthlac lived in solitude in the Lincolnshire fens where he experienced a series of battles with ferocious demons.

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

That&rsquos one way of reading Beowulf and the monsters at its centre: the monsters are both physical threats to the poem&rsquos humans, and figurative ones as well. They literally kill people &ndash and sometimes eat them &ndash but they also embody the behaviours that threaten to undermine the social fabric that holds human communities together. Peace is fragile in the world of Beowulf, and it can be easily overturned by greed, or feuding or social isolation.

Monsters and heroes

If we push this reading further, though, things get more complicated. The opposition between human and monster is far murkier than we might think, especially when it comes to our hero. The first monster Beowulf fights is Grendel, the epitome of isolation and social exclusion. But Beowulf, too, is somewhat isolated. Like Grendel, he arrives in Denmark as an outsider, without warning and &lsquone &hellip leafnesword&rsquo [&lsquowithout permission&rsquo], (ll. 237&ndash47). Like Grendel, he has a muddied family history &ndash raised by his uncle after his father was banished as a trouble-maker responsible for causing &lsquofæhðe mæste&rsquo [&lsquothe greatest feud&rsquo], (ll. 459&ndash72). Like Grendel, he fights without weapons or armour (&lsquowit on niht sculon / secge ofersittan&rsquo, [&lsquowe both will forgo swords this night&rsquo], (ll. 677&ndash87)), and he holds his own in a match with a monster capable of killing 30 men single-handed.

If Grendel&rsquos isolation marks him as a monster, we should find the parallels in Beowulf&rsquos character more than a little disturbing. And these parallels only get stronger as the poem progresses. Grendel&rsquos mother may be motivated by vengeance, but Beowulf&rsquos response to her attack is indistinguishable: &lsquoselre bið æghwæm / þæt he his freond wrece þonne he fela murne&rsquo [&lsquoit is better for everyone to avenge friends than to mourn greatly&rsquo], (ll. 1384&ndash85). The eagerness with which Beowulf urges vengeance contrasts starkly with Hrothgar&rsquos more muted grief, and even with the poet&rsquos own reservations. We&rsquove already seen, in the Finnsburg section described above, how futile such feuds can be. Finally, as he lies mortally wounded beside the dragon&rsquos corpse, Beowulf&rsquos last wish is to see the riches that the dragon greedily defended (ll. 2743&ndash51). He dies gazing at what is now his very own treasure hoard (ll. 2794&ndash2801).

These parallels between monsters and heroes are not lost on the poet. There&rsquos an Old English word that&rsquos used a number of times in the poem to describe Grendel: &lsquoaglæca&rsquo (ll. 159, 425, 433 and more).The same term is later used of Grendel&rsquos mother (l. 1259) and the dragon (ll. 2520, 2534, and more). But here&rsquos the thing: it&rsquos also used to describe Beowulf (ll. 1512, 2592). How should we translate a word that somehow encapsulates both the best and the worst of characters? As Andy Orchard puts it:

Whatever the precise connotation of the term, the fact that the poet employs the word to designate not only monsters but monster-slayers clearly underlines the linked contrasts between the world of monsters and men which run through the poem. (p. 33)


The point is not that humans are the real monsters of Beowulf, nor that monsters are the true heroes. Rather, it&rsquos that the same qualities can be found in both &ndash for better or worse. Beowulf&rsquos supreme strength brings his character uncomfortably close to Grendel&rsquos, but it also makes him the only one capable of standing up to the monster. Without Beowulf, the Danes don&rsquot have a hope. Beowulf&rsquos physical prowess makes him an asset to his own people too. After a disastrous raid in Sweden, in which King Hygelac is killed, Beowulf returns home with the armour of 30 slain warriors in his bare hands (ll. 2354&ndash66). This is the same number of victims Grendel carried off in his first raid on Heorot, many years earlier (l. 122).

Beowulf returns to his people as a welcome hero. What does he look like to the Swedes? We&rsquore left to wonder. In the murky world of Beowulf &ndash where humans and monsters act from the same motives, in the same ways and are described using the very same words &ndash the line between hero and villain comes down to a matter of perspective: one person&rsquos Beowulf is another&rsquos Grendel.


[1] Ker, W P, The Dark Ages (London: Blackwood, 1904), p.253

[2] Orchard, Andy, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript (Cambridge: D S Brewer, 1985), p.28

Jack, George, Beowulf: A Student Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Victoria Symons is an Honorary Lecturer at University College London, where she teaches Old and Middle English literature. Her research focuses on medieval communication, in particular on runic writing, the theft of manuscripts, and various aspects of digital medievalism. Her publications include Runes and Roman Letters in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, Stasis in the Medieval West? Questioning Change and Continuity, and articles on Old English charms and riddles, Beowulf, and Scandinavian runes.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

What last thoughts does Beowulf express as he is dying? He wanted to see the treasure, but now that he is dying wants every one to remember him for all that he did. What is the most important event in Beowulf’s career as leader of the Geats? The attack of the dragon, his last battle where he dies.

Why is it ironic that after his death the Geats build a tower to memorialize Beowulf? Most of the Geats had deserted him in battle. ” ‘I mean to stand, not run from his shooting / FLames, stand till fate decides / Which of us wins.

Beowulf Grendel Quotes

‘If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day
he will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall,
swoop without fear on that flower of manhood
as on others before. Then my face won’t be there
to be covered in death: he will carry me away
as he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied
he will run gloating with my raw corpse
and feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy,
fouling his moor-nest.’

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

‘I have heard moreover that the monster scorns
in his reckless way to use weapons
therefore to heighten Hygelac’s fame
and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce
sword and the shelter of the broad shield,
the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand
is how it will be, a life-and-death
fight with the fiend. Whichever one death fells
must deem it a just judgment by God.’

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

So every elder and experienced councilman
among my people supported my resolve
to come here to you, King Hrothgar,
because all knew of my awesome strength.
They had seen me boltered in the blood of enemies
when I battled and bound five beasts,
raided a troll-next and in the night-sea
slaughtered sea-brutes. I have suffered extremes
and avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it
upon themselves, I devastated them).
Now I mean to be a match for Grendel,
settle the outcome in single combat.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

‘Now Holy God
has, in His Goodness, guided him here
to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel.
This is my hope and for his heroism
I will recompense him with a rich treasure.’

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

All were endangered young and old
Were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
Who lurked and swooped in the long nights
On the misty moors nobody knows
Where these reavers from Hell roam on their errands.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

For twelve winters, seasons of woe,
the lord of the Shieldings suffered under
his load of sorrow and so, before long,
the news was known over the whole world.
Sad lays were sung about the beset king,
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

Suddenly then
the God-cursed brute was creating havoc:
greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

Grendel was the name of this grim demon
Haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
And the desolate fens he had dwelt for a time
In misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed
And condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
The Eternal Lord exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
Because the Almighty made him anathema
And out of the curse of his exile there sprang
Ogres and elves and evil phantoms
And the giants too, who strove with God
Time and again until He gave them their reward.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters
in His splendour He set the sun and the moon
to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

When they joined the struggle
There was something they could have not known at the time,
That not blade on earth, no blacksmith’s art
Could ever damage their demon opponent.
He had conjured the harm from the cutting edge
Of every weapon.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

The story goes
that as the pair struggled, mead-benches were smashed
and sprung off the floor, gold fittings and all.
Before then, no Shielding elder would believe
there was any power or person on earth
capable of wrecking their horn-rigged hall
unless the burning embrace of a fire
engulf it in flame.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

And now the timbers trembled and sang,
a hall-session that harrowed every Dane
inside the stockade: stumbling in fury,
the two contenders crashed through the building.
The hall clattered and hammered, but somehow
survived the onslaught and kept standing:
it was handsomely structured, a sturdy frame
braced with the best of blacksmith’s work
inside and out.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

Venturing closer,
His talon was raised to attack Beowulf
where he lay on the bed he was bearing in
with open claw when the alert hero’s
comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly.
The captain of evil discovered himself
in a handgrip harder than anything
he had ever encountered in any man
on the face of the earth. Every bone in his body
Quailed and coiled, but he could not escape.
He was desperate to flee to his den and hide
With the devil’s litter, for in all his days
He had never been clamped or cornered like this.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

Nor did the creature keep him waiting
but struck suddenly and started in
he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,
bit into his bone-lapping, bolted down his blood
and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body
utterly lifeless, eaten up
hand and foot.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open
the mouth of the building, maddening for blood,
pacing the length of the patterned floor
with his loathsome tread, while a baleful light,
flame more than light, flared from his eyes.
He saw many men in the mansion, sleeping,
a ranked company of kinsmen and warriors
quartered together. And his glee was demonic,
picturing the mayhem: before morning
he would rip life from limb and devour them,
feed on their flesh.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

‘I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.
As I sat in the boat with my band of men,
I meant to perform to the uttermost
what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,
in the fiend’s clutches. And I shall fulfill that purpose,
prove myself with a proud deed
or meet my death here in the mead-hall.’

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly
as keen and courageous as you claim to be
Grendel would never have got away with
such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,
havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

Time and again, foul things attacked me,
Lurking and stalking, but I lashed out,
Gave as good as I got with my sword.
My flesh was not for feasting on,
There would be no monsters gnawing and gloating
Over their banquet at the bottom of the sea.
Instead, in the morning, mangled and sleeping
The sleep of the sword, they slopped and floated
Like the ocean’s leavings.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

The monster wrenched and wrestled with him
but Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
the wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
he relied for help on the Lord of All,
on His care and favor. So he overcame the foe,
brought down the hell-brute.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

He has done his worst but the wound will end him.
He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain,
limping and looped in it. Like a man outlawed
for wickedness, he must await
the mighty judgement of God in majesty.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

‘First and foremost, let the Almighty Father
be thanked for this sight. I suffered a long
harrowing by Grendel. But the Heavenly Shepherd
can work His wonders always and everywhere…
I adopt you in my heart as a dear son.
Nourish and maintain this new connection,
you noblest of men there’ll be nothing you’ll want for,
no worldly goods that won’t be yours.
I have often honored smaller achievements,
recognized warriors not nearly as worthy,
lavished rewards on the less deserving.
But you have made yourself immortal
by your glorious action.’

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

The monster’s whole
body was in pain, a tremendous wound
appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted
the glory of winning Grendel was driven
under the fen-banks, fatally hurt, to his desolate lair.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

A brutal plunder. Beowulf in his fury
now settled that score: he saw the monster
in his resting place, war-weary and wrecked,
a lifeless corpse, a casualty
of the battle in Heorot. The body gaped
at the stroke dealt to it after death:
Beowulf cut the corpse’s head off.

– Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (trans.)

‘She has taken up the feud
Because of last night, when you killed Grendel,
Wrestled and racked him in ruinous combat
Since for too long he had terrorized us
With his depredations. He died in battle,
Paid with his life and now this powerful
Other one arrives, this force for evil
Driven to avenge her kinsman’s death.
Or so it seems to thanes in their grief,
In the anguish every thane endures
At the loss of a ring-giver, now that the hand
That bestowed so richly has been stilled in death.’

Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature). The secret to any, successful scary monster story is to keep your monsters clouded in mystery a secret that was known to the Beowulf poet, but sadly lost on modern movie makers.

Grendel goes to Heorot

Grendel is one of the three monsters that feature in the Old English poem Beowulf. We are introduced to Grendel as an “ellengæst” [bold spirit] (l. 86a) who has spent the last twelve years harassing the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, devouring anyone who spent the night there. A Geatish hero, Beowulf, arrives to save the day. After a long battle, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm and the monster, mortally wounded, returns to his home in the swamp and dies.

A troll, a giant, a monstrous man or a bipedal dragon what exactly is Grendel? The nature of Grendel is a matter of scholarly debate and the various solutions offered depend, mostly, on circumstantial evidence. The poem itself reveals very little about the monster at one point, Beowulf himself confesses that Grendel is “sceaðona ic nat hwylc” [an enemy, I do not know what kind] (l. 274b). Throughout the poem, Grendel is described by generic terms, such as “grimma gæst” [grim spirit] (l. 102), “feond mancynnes” [enemy of mankind] (l. 164b) and “manscaða” [vile ravager] (l. 712a), and his physical description leaves much to be desired. At first, we only learn that “him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfæger” [from his eyes issued a distorted light, most like a flame] (l. 727b), that he drinks human blood and eats their bodies whole. It is only after Grendel is defeated that we learn a little more about him. The Danes report that he was wretchedly shaped like a man and very large:

We saw two monsters… © The British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.XV, fol. 162v-163r

hie gesawon swylce twegen
micle mearcstapan moras healdan,
ellorgæstas. ðæra oðer wæs,
þæs þe hie gewislicost gewitan meahton,
idese onlicnæs oðer earmsceapen
on weres wæstmum wræclastas træd,
næfne he wæs mara þonne ænig man oðer
þone on geardagum Grendel nemdon
foldbuende. No hie fæder cunnon (ll. 1347-1355)

[they had seen two such big boundary-steppers holding the moors, bold spirits. One f them was, as they were most certainly able to discern, in the likeness of a lady the other was wretchedly shaped in the forms of a man, he trod in the exile’s tracks, but he was bigger than any other man people called him grendel in the days of yore. They did not know his father.

Whatever kind of monster Grendel may be, what becomes clear from the poem is that Grendel is the ultimate ‘Other’. While the Danes enjoy life in a lighted hall, revelling in songs and enjoying each other’s company, Grendel dwells in a dark swamp, he does not speak and he lives the life of an exile, alone with his mother. Even Grendel’s parentage is obscured: whereas the Beowulf poet, rather annoyingly, mentions the father of every other Tom, Dick and Harry in the poem, we never find out who Grendel’s father is. We do learn that Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain, just like “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas” [ogres, elves, orcs and also giants] (ll. 112-113a).

In short, Grendel is a mystery monster, unknown and different. The Beowulf poet must have realised that the omission of descriptive details was an effective narrative method which would stimulate his audience to participate actively with his story. The vague description of his monster allowed his audience to imagine its own nightmare being.

Grendel goes to Hollywood

Beowulf has been brought to the big screen on six occasions (Not counting the Beowulf-inspired TV episodes of Animated Epics, Star Trek and Xena: Warrior Princess and happily ignoring the rather licentious adaptations in the Sci-Fi-Channel television film Grendel (2007) and the ITV Series Beowulf: Return to the Shield Lands). Each movie has solved the Grendel mystery in its own, unique way.

In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981), an animated musical, Grendel is depicted as a slightly depressed green crocodile or, possibly, a dragon without wings. The film Beowulf (1999) features Christopher Lambert as Beowulf who battles Grendel, a muddy ogre of sorts, in a ‘post-apocalyptic techno-feudal future’. In The 13th Warrior (1999), the Viking hero Buliwyf takes on the Wendol, a group of bearskin wearing wildlings. Beowulf & Grendel (2005) depicts Grendel as an oversized, hairy human, who hits himself with rocks until his forehead bleeds. In the 3D animation Beowulf (2007), Grendel is “a hideously disfigured troll-like creature with superhuman strength”. Finally, in the movie Outlander (2008), Kainan (a man from another planet) crashes his spaceship in an eighth-century Norwegian lake and, accidentally brings along an alien, known as the Moorwen. The Moorwen takes on the role of Grendel and is best described as a fluorescent, reptile-like tiger with various tentacles at the end of its tail.

Three more movie Grendels

Sympathy for the devil: Feeling sorry for Grendel

Aside from making the monster’s appearance explicit, some movies also try to make their audience sympathize for the creature by adding motives for his vicious attacks on the Danes. In Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, the monster is a misunderstood intellectual that wants to be friends with the buffoonish Danes, who shun him for his monstrous appearance. Beowulf & Grendel opens with a scene where the young Grendel (a bearded baby!) witnesses the murder of his father by the Danish king. In Outlander, we learn that the Moorwen is only trying to avenge Kainan for having tried to colonize its home planet.

Poor, polite Grendel and nasty Danes in Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981)

Who’s your daddy? Solving Grendel’s parentage

The films Beowulf (1999) and Beowulf (2007) go one step further and even solve the problem of Grendel’s parentage: Grendel turns out to be the monstrous offspring of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. His vicious attacks on Hrothgar’s hall thus become payback for a fatherless childhood. Far removed from the original poem, the only advantage of this approach appears to be the casting of a physically attractive actress for the role of Grendel’s mother. While the poem describes her as a “brimwylf” [sea-wolf] (l. 1506a) and an “aglaecwif” [opponent-woman] (l.1259a), the 1999 film featured Layla Roberts, a former playmate (who, in one scene, erotically licks Hrothgar’s nose!), and a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie (naked, covered in gold, with a tail!) was one of the ‘unique selling points’ of the 2007 film.

Grendel’s mother licking Hrothgar’s nose in Beowulf (1999)

To conclude, none of these movies can be seen as a faithful adaptation of Beowulf and some have argued that film is an unsuited medium for the early medieval epic poem. As long as modern movie makers feel that they need to produce stunning visual effects, to create a sense of sympathy for the ‘bad guy’ and to include steamy bedroom scenes to please their modern audience, this certainly seems to be the case. Unlike the Old English poem, none of these movies can be called a huge success in terms of cultural impact and popularity. When it comes to effective storytelling, there is still a lot we can learn from the literature produced over a thousand years ago.


Beowulf (poem)

Grendel is described as a 'fiend from Hell', enraged from the laughter and merry-making coming from the Hrothgar's meadhall, and goes on a terrible and destructive rampage, slaughtering and eating 50 of the kings warriors on the first night. This goes on for the next 12 long and bloody years, with nobody being able to stop Grendel. Eventually, King Hrothgar tires of this, so he sends for a champion to final rid him of the monster. The mighty Thane warrior Beowulf and his men are eventually called upon and sent to the kingdom.

Once they arrive, they make merry in the meadhall to get Grendel's attention. Later in the night, Grendel sneaks in and begins eating Beowulf's men. Unfortunately for him, Beowulf had been waiting for him and when Grendel tries to eat him, Beowulf grabs him by the wrist and they begin to fight. A horrific battle ensues, climaxing with Beowulf ripping off Grendel's arm at the shoulder socket. Grendel retreats to his cave where he bleeds to death in his mother's arms, having just enough life left in him to tell his mother the name of the man who killed him. She later confronts Beowulf for revenge.

Beowulf (film)

His most famous media portrayal was in the rendered 3D motion capture film directed by Robert Zemeckis, where he was played by Crispin Glover. He is portrayed as King Hrothgar's illegitimate son after an affair with his mother. Essentially in this version, he is a very thoughtful and sympathetic villain because he is an outcast. When not attacking the Danes, he is shown as a timid and quiet creature that speaks in Olde English around his mother. The reasons for his attacks are due to having hyper-sensitive hearing from an exposed eardrum, and the racket from the meadhall was causing him physical pain. Despite being more sympathetic, his fate is still the same as in the poem. Beowulf slams the door into his arm with enough force to take it off, and hang it over the meadhall door.

Grendel in the 2007 film Beowulf.

The philosophy professor Stephen T. Asma argued in the December 7 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education that, "Zemeckis's more tender-minded film version suggests that the people who cast out Grendel are the real monsters. The monster, according to this charity paradigm, is just misunderstood rather than evil. The blame for Grendel's violence is shifted to the humans, who sinned against him earlier and brought the vengeance upon themselves. The only real monsters, in this tradition, are pride and prejudice. In the film, Grendel is even visually altered after his injury to look like an innocent, albeit scaly, little child. In the original Beowulf, the monsters are outcasts because they're bad (just as Cain, their progenitor, was outcast because he killed his brother), but in the newer adaptation of Beowulf the monsters are bad because they're outcasts [. ] Contrary to the original Beowulf, the new film wants us to understand and humanize our monsters."

Grendel, Grendel, Grendel

Grendel as he is portrayed in Grendel Grendel Grendel.

The Australian animated film Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, is based on John Gardner's the story, told from Grendel's point of view. The film shows how the events weren't his fault, and were mostly to blame on the greed and aggression of the humans. He is voiced by the late Peter Ustinov. He was a highly intelligent being, possibly smarter than the humans living in his time period. He questioned the purpose of his existence, and was very philosophical, reflecting on the humans and hating them, but secretly wishing he was one of them.

Other Appearances

In The Wolf Among Us, Grendel is a fable that lives in Fabletown located in New York City. He is very ill-tempered, argumentative, impatient, and tired of being treated like a second rate citizen. He sees the establishment of Fabletown as corrupt and only interested in the rich, and he aims these frustrations mostly at the sheriff of Fabletown, Bigby Wolf, otherwise known as the Big Bad Wolf. Grendel serves as an antagonist in the first episode of the Wolf Among Us.

Essay On Huckleberry Finn Should Be Banned

Today’s world is so different than how it was back in the ages of History where everyone was not always politically correct. Some people are offended by the language in this novel, but the truth is it is a part of History that happened and we can’t just pretend it didn’t. The controversy still stands today that the content in this novel is inappropriate and not acceptable or racist. If you believe this or you don’t it still does not change the fact that things in history didn’t happen. If this is the case a lot of things now would be banned.&hellip


Bergen, Richard Angelo. “A Warp of Horror”: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sub-Creations of Evil.” Mythlore, Vol. 36, Issue 1, 2017, pp. 103-121. Web. Accessed 14 November 2017

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “The Ruins of Identity.” Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Print.

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1989. Print

Mittman, Asa Simon. Inconceivable Beasts: Then Wonders of the East in the Beowulf Manuscript. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013. Print.

Mittman, Asa Simon. “Monsters and the Exotic in Early Medieval England.” Literature Compass, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 2009, pp. 332-348. Web. Accessed 7 December 2017.

Watch the video: Silhouettes - Of Monsters and Men Lyrics (January 2022).