“A Swamp-Thing From Hell”: The Representation of Femininity in Beowulf
EN 245: The Literary Tradition I
Instructor: Dr. Edwin Jewinski
Tutorial Group: Elizabeth
Student: Shauna Leeson
Date: November 29th, 2010
Within in the elegiac narrative of Beowulf, Beowulf purges the Danes not only of Grendel‘s serial terror, but the heroic Geat further triumphs in destroying Grendel’s vengeful and violent hungry mother. Upon closer analysis of the character of Grendel’s mother, a tension suggestively arising from the text as to how the reader should interpret this figure; a empowered matriarch, or an illogical and primitive female? The argument of this analysis shall side with the latter interpretation, as Grendel’s mother is presented as a hybrid, demonic creature, who’s sovereignty is limited to the natural spaces of beasts and water she governs. Presented as nameless, illogical in acts of revenge, cowardly and existing outside the human world, Grendel’s mother’s defeat becomes symbolic of her inability to penetrate the instruments of a hypermasculine, male dominated civilization. Therefore, through a feminist perspective, Grendel’s mother becomes an antagonist of inferiority and “otherness”, rather then a foe equal in integrity and strength.
Despite the power and ruthlessness of Grendel’s mother’s “brutal grip”, her power is paired with a hybrid and beastly appearance. She is described by the poet as baring “savage talons”, swimming in a “wolfish” manner, existing as a “swamp-thing from hell”, and thriving in reptile infested waters. (Il. 1504, 1506, 1518) The implications of such descriptors project Grendel’s mother as a creature outside human physicality and domain, a anomaly of nature, advocating that she is defined by hybridity. Also, upon defeating her, Beowulf is described “toppling the doomed house of her flesh,” associating Grendel’s mother with a fallen or sinful race. Therefore, a sense of mystery, monstrosity, or otherness is transfixed to her identity, as we are unable to correlate such characteristics with a identifiable subject. In feminist, Simone de Beauvoir’s work, The Second Sex, she exposes how an element of “mystery“ is often associated with the feminine, leading to a mythologizing of woman which is ambiguous, inferior and hybrid in nature;
... lurking within the Danish society itself. Grendels mother is the second of the three monsters Beowulf battles. Grendels mother stays in swampland within a desolate ... a Goatish hero who fights the monsters, Grendel, Grendels mother, and a fire breathing dragon. Beowulf defeats all three of the monsters, which possess ...
But if woman is depicted as the Praying Mantis, the Mandrake, the Demon, then it is most confusing to find a women also the Muse, the Goddess Mother…Few myths have been more advantageous to the ruling caste than the myth of woman…To say that woman is mystery is to say, not that she is silent, but that her language is not understood; she is there, but hidden behind veils, she exists beyond these uncertain appearances. What is she? Angel, demon, on inspired, an actress. It may be supposed either that there are answers to these questions which are impossible to discover, or, rather, that no answer is adequate because a fundamental ambiguity marks the feminine being; and perhaps in her heart she is even for herself quite indefinable: a sphinx. (de Beauvoir 1409&1410)
Simone de Beauvoir’s arguments can easily be correlated with the descriptors and atmosphere associated with Grendel’s mother, because like de Beauvoir, the ogress’s identity is utterly uncertain. The mythologizing of Grendel’s mother, or her sphinx-like qualities is personified further through her battalion of monsters aiding in her onsluaght of Beowulf;
…and a bewildering horde
came at him from the depths, droves of sea-beasts
who attacked with tusks and torn at his chain-mail
in a ghastly onslaught. (Il 1509-1512)
Here, Grendel’s mother is intermingled with hellish characters, connoting her femininity to bare more “otherness” and mystery. Furthermore, the mystery surrounding her femininity is highlighted most plainly in the poet labeling her simply “aglaec-wif” or “aeglaeca,” when translations to modern English has been debated by modern medievalists. For example, in Anglo-Saxon philologist Frederick Klaeber’s edition, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, he translates the above terms to that of “wretch, or monster of a woman.” On the other hand, Klaeber also glosses the term “aeglaeca” as “warrior” or “hero” when referring to Beowulf. (Klaeber 1950) If one considers Klaeber’s appropriation as valid, then the intention of the poet is ambiguous, but also strange in it’s distinction. When identified with Grendel’s mother, the Anglo Saxon is negative in connotation and gendered, while simultaneously providing a vague and demonizing view femininity.
... interested in Grendel. But like any proud human Beowulf lashed out at the monster and tried to claim the woman for himself ... woman he had loved for many, many years. Following the crusades, and the various battles throughout the Grendel crept silently behind Beowulf ... years. Surprised by his appearance Beowulf stood calm and collected and awaited the inevitable. Grendel lashed out at the knight and ...
The intermingling of otherness and a mythologizing of woman, is represented further through the juxtaposition of Beowulf’s armor and sword, versus Grendel’s mother’s body and weapons. Despite Beowulf throwing a heavy blow down on Grendel’s mother’s head, she remains unharmed and protected by some supernatural force;
then heaved his war-sword and swung his arm:
the decorated blade came down ringing
and singing on her head. But he soon found
his battle-torch extinguished: the shining blade
refused to bite. It spared her and failed
the man in his need. It had gone through many
hand-to-hand flight, had hewed the armour
and helmets of the doomed, but her at last
the fabulous powers of the heirloom failed. (Il. 1520-1528)
Within the above passage, the implements of Beowulf’s human world are useless in their fight against Grendel’s mother, regardless of the triumphant legacy of the sword. As such, Grendel’s mother, and her power, seem to linked to workings and scenes of the natural world, in contrast to the tools which define Beowulf’s might; “: the mesh of the chain-mail / saved him on the outside. Her savage talons / failed to rip the web of his war shirt.” (Il. 1503-1505) As such, Beowulf must negotiate a his fight outside the tools of a male dominated society, and conform to Grendel’s mother’s more primitive battle trends.
... . Getting fed up with the battle, Beowulf notice a sword, which he uses to decapitate Grendels mother. Beowulf announces his intention to battle the dragon ... and recover his treasure using shield and sword. The dragons flames ...
From a feminist perspective, Grendel’s mother is a matriarch in that she holds dominion over the creatures of her environment, and she is all powerful in strength; “… but she rose quickly and retaliated, / grappled him tightly in her grim embrace. / The sure-footed fighter felt daunted,” (Il. 1541-1543) However, the extent of her power becomes limited and more detached from the human world when she fails pierce Beowulf’s armor; “But the mesh of chain-mail / on Beowulf’s shoulder shielded his life, / turned the edge and tip of the blade.” (Il. 1547-1549) Furthermore, Beowulf defeat over his rival through an implement of his rival’s underwater hell, signifies how he triumphs by utilizing the forces of her exotic or supernatural space. For example,
Then he saw a blade that boded well, /
a sword in her armory, an ancient heirloom
from the days of the giants,…
So the Shieldings’ hero, hard-pressed and enraged,
took a firm hold of the hilt and swung
the blade in an arc, a resolute blow
that bit deep into her neck-bone
and severed it entirely… (Il. 1557-1559 & 1563-1567)
Not only does Beowulf defeat Grendel’s mother, but the weapon used to do so is seemingly bound to the confines of the gloomy world she and Grendel are birthed from, a world transformed from hell to heaven in the moment of her and Grendel‘s death; “A light appeared and the place brightened / the way the sky does when heaven’s candle / is shining clearly” (Il. 1570-1572) If readers consider such a scene of transformation in an allegorical sense, then the conflict between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf is easily attributed to that of Christian allegory– Beowulf swims down to hell (“some hellish-turn hole“), to a space characterized by darkness, in which he confronts the devil (Grendel’s mother) kills her, transforming the darkness to the light from heaven, saturating hell as though it has been blessed or purged of sin. Beowulf then returns from the darkness of hell to reach the light of heaven. Through this reading, the most influential female character of the epic is viewed as not only primitive, but that such femininity and power is embodied in the figure of the devil, only being defeated by a warrior of an omnipotent and patriarchal God.
However, the image most striking in juxtaposing the feminine and primitive world of Grendel’s mother, to that of Beowulf’s male dominated civilization is that of the melting sword. Although the sword can be read as a phallic symbol of male dominance and sexuality, here the sword has been tainted and bastardized by the confines of Grendel’s mother’s dominion, so it self-destructs when it enters back into the logical and civilized world; : “Meanwhile, the sword / began to wilt into gory icicles, / to slather and thaw. It was a wonderful thing, / the way it all melted as ice melts /. (Il. 1605-1609) Metaphorically, the sword can also be read as a that of a man corrupted by the inherently sinful behavior and identity of the women. As the consensus of femininity of the Medieval period was caught between the binaries of either Eve or that of the Virgin Mary, women were more likened to the temptress of mankind, as it was impossible to perfect themselves beyond the holiest woman in Christianity. Therefore, Grendel’s mother, her lair, and the dark or supernatural influence she holds on particular elements of the world, hyperbolizes the social and religious discourse on women and femininity prevalent in the Medieval consciousness. The logical and phallic association of the sword is thus seduced by the illogical and sinful feminine influence.
... ensuing battle Grendels mother carries Beowulf to her underwater home. After a terrible fight Beowulf kills the monster with a magical sword that he ... She arrives at the hall when everybody is sleeping and carries off Esher, Hrothgars chief advisor. Beowulf, rising to the occasion ... the night burning down houses, including Beowulfs own hall and throne. Beowulf goes to the cave where the dragon lives, ...
The illogical female stereotype is also suggested in the way in which Grendel’s mother reacts to the butchery of Grendel. Instead of have a strategic plan to achieve a successful vendetta, Grendel’s mother enters the mead hall wild and terrible, but she flees as soon as she is aware the men have spotted her.
The hell -dam was in panic, desperate to get out,
in mortal terror the moment she was found.
she had pounced and taken one of the retainers
in a tight hold, then headed for the fen…
Then this roaming killer came in a fury
and slaughtered him in Heorot. Where she is hiding,
glutting on the corpse and glorying in her escape,
I cannot tell; (Il. 1291-1293 & 1330-1333)
Instead of staying and facing her foes with the fury she first entered the hall, Grendel’s mother disturbs the haven of the hall, lashes out with hostility, but flees as soon as a Hrothgar’s are aware of her trespassing. In his article, “The Might of Grendel’s Mother”, Martin Puhval argues for a subordinate read of Grendel’s mother by contrasting her battle tactics with that of her son’s;
... next moral obligation that Beowulf has is to kill Grendels Mother since it his fault she is attacking the mead hall. Grendels Mother is upset because ... the people who did this. Beowulf then has to fight Grendels Mother because she attacked Hero, the mead hall, and kills Aes chere, the ...
The figure and role of Grendel’s mother in Beowulf pose a puzzling paradox. When, on her revenge-attack on Herot, she carries off the retainer AEschere, she fails to stand and fight with the Danes, who had proved such inferior opponents of her son, but flees in all haste back to her mere-retreat…whereas Grendel had terrorized and slaughtered the assembled Danish champions with impunity and carried off thirty at a time, the ogress contents herself with seizing one and beats a hasty retreat when she is discovered in the course of the sneak attack. Thus the notion of female physical inferiority is here unmistakably woven into the fabric of the poem. (Puhvel 81 & 82)
Puhval establishes that although Grendel’s mother achieves terror and panic in the mead-hall, she is relatively weak and panic stricken when contrasted with her son’s former carnage and havoc. While the warriors are woken disheveled, their only means of weaponry are sparse an unavailable, and such a reality still evokes Grendel’s mother towards flight; “
Then in the hall, hard-hoard swords
Were grabbed fromthe bench, many a broad shields
Lifted and braced; there was little thought of helmets
Or woven mail when they woke in terror. (Il. 1289-1291)
The poet couples Grendel’s mother’s panic and flight, with her initial revenge being illogical and lacking in strategy, distinguishing her actions form that of Grendel’s. Furthermore, if readers consider the mead-hall as the central symbol in Beowulf for civilization, haven, warmth and living community, then Grendel’s mother’s reaction is representative of her inability to traverse and succeed in the confines of a space dominated by male influence, and the ideals or values of the human world. Not able to negotiate the human landscape which her son was able to penetrate and manipulate with terror, Grendel’s mother flees to the mere. As mentioned previously, the mere is the natural and more primitive space, in which the order and logic most stereotypically associated with maleness is absent, and the mystery and otherness of her femininity is nurtured.
Although the epic of Beowulf does present a female character as powerful and resilient, Grendel’s mother is a character who’s actions and attributes imply her has a personification of female inferiority. Through her demonic and hybrid physicality, her identity being bound to a more the natural, or primitive world, and her inability to negotiate the confines of a world defined by masculine implements and spaces, Grendel’s mother is cloaked in otherness, what de Beauvoir calls the “mystery” or mythologizing of women.
... in an underground hall aglow with a roaring fire, standing before Grendel s mother. Attempting to end his quest quickly, Beowulf swung his trusted ... years, we have recovered many works from all over the world, dating back through years that had been long forgotten to ... the fears of the people and the uncertainty of the world around them. Although the stories themselves may differ considerably from ...
1. Anonymous. Beowful: A New Verse Translation. Ed. Seamus Heaney. New York:
Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. 2000. Print
2. De Beauvoir, Simone. “Myth and Reality.” The Norton Anthology of Theory &
Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001.
3. Klaeber, Frederick. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. Third ed. Boston: Heath,
4. Puhval, Martin. “The Might of Grendel’s Mother.” Folklore 80.2. Web (1969) pp.