"This unhappy being had long lived in the land of monsters since the Creator cast them out as kindred of Cain (103-106)."
This quote is from the story of Beowulf describing a sad creature named Grendel. Grendel is one of the monsters Beowulf, the hero, fights. Another monster, though insignificant, Beowulf fights is Grendel's mother. In this paper, both Grendel and his mother will be examined through a humanistic view. First, however, the story of Cain and Abel will be discussed to illustrate how Cain's descendants became monsters and outcasts. Similarly, monsters in the Christian and medieval world will be examined.
Cain and Abel
The story of Cain and Abel can be found in the book of Genesis of the King James Version of the Bible. Cain and Abel are the son's of Adam and Eve. As a tribute to God, Cain offered a fruit that had fallen from a tree, while Abel offered the flesh of his finest among his flock of sheep. God was pleased at Abel's offering, but held no respect for Cain's offering. Cain became jealous of his brother, and proceeded to kill Abel. When God found out about this horrendous crime of kin slaying, he became outraged. God punished Cain by marking him as a fugitive and a vagabond. Cain was to be an outcast of society. With Cain, his future descendants were to be punished for their ancestor's crimes by suffering the same punishment - an outcast of human society.
Cain's descendants, by a medieval and Christian view, were monsters, marked by Cain's original sin, either mentally, in their violence, or physically, in a deformity. In the Christian and medieval world, monsters were human beings with an unnatural birth or a birth deformity. Monsters generally had certain characteristics. In Beowulf, Grendel had abnormal body strength, a strange dietary habit - eating flesh and living in an unusual dwelling, outside human society - the wastelands.
"It was with pain that the powerful spirit dwelling in darkness endured that time, hearing daily the hall [Heorot] filled with loud amusement (85-88)." Grendel, by classification, is considered a monster. He was even considered demonic at one point due to his dwelling being in an underworld atmosphere. Grendel is the descendant of Cain, the kin-slayer, and "from Cain came down all kinds misbegotten - ogres and elves and evil shades (110-111)." Due to Cain's crime against humanity, Grendel is forced to live in darkness. He is "doomed to dwell in the dread waters, in the chilling currents, because of that blow whereby Cain became the killer of his brother…He stole away branded, marked for murder, from all that men delight in, to inhabit the wastelands (1259-1264)." His home lies in the "treacherous (1376)" and "uninhabitable country (1410)" "where that creature of sin (1377)" lives. As one can imagine by the poet's description of Grendel's homeland, it is not a land of joy and love, but one of misery, hate, and evil.
Grendel's physical appearance and strength are apart of his monstrosity. He is able to carry away thirty warriors at a time. He has a grotesque form and is greedy for human flesh. However, despite this, Grendel is guided by human emotions and whims. His aggression is due to jealousy and loneliness as "the Lord's … love was unknown to him (168)." The poet of Beowulf comments, "Woe to him who must in terrible trial entrust his soul to the embrace of the burning, banished from thought of change or comfort (183-186)!" Grendel is a pitiful monster "condemned to agony (721)." Grendel seems to crave human acceptance and to live within human society. He wants to experience the love and joy he sees when he finds Heorot. However, that is never going to be found, he will always be seen as a monster and an outcast to human society. One can assume that he wishes for love and joy because he grew up in a world of monsters, one of hate, violence, and evil. To Grendel, Heorot must have been something different and magnificent, something he could never have. This led to his attack on the festive hall.
"With the coming of night came Grendel…maddening with rage, he struck quickly, creature of evil, grim and greedy, he grasped on their pallets, thirty warriors, and away he was out of there, thrilled with his catch (114-124)." Grendel's attack on Heorot was after all the warriors had drank their fill and had fallen asleep. Due to Grendel's jealousy, his outrage at the unfairness of his ancestry making him an outcast "was openly seen (125)." Grendel continued his attack on Heorot for twelve years. "He [did not] let them rest…and shrank not from it: he was too set on these things (134-137). Finally, came Beowulf, set to kill the wretched creature called Grendel. The night of the ambush, Beowulf and his men pretended to lay asleep to cast an illusion of helplessness. Grendel grasped the first man he saw to kill, while Beowulf carefully "kept watch how the ravager set to work with his sudden catch (737-738)." Once Grendel finished with that warrior, he moved on. The next one to be chosen to die was Beowulf. However, Beowulf had the strength of thirty men.
Grendel, "the upholder of evils at once knew he had not met…any man of harder handgrip: his heart panicked (750-753)." Grendel started to react like a caged animal, scared and frightened at his terrible plight. He yearned to run back to all he knew, the gloomy and dank swamplands. The poet of Beowulf described Grendel's fear as he had "shrilled terror to the ears…the grisly pliant of God's enemy, his song of ill-success, the sobs of the damned one bewailing his pain (783-789)." This quote creates an image of sympathy for the reader towards Grendel and his helplessness he unknowingly came upon. As the battle waged on "a breach in the giant flesh-frame showed then, shoulder-muscles sprang apart, there was a snapping of tendons, bone-locks burst…" Grendel fled homeward "to a den where he knew there could be no relief, no refuge for a life at its very last stage (815-821)." Beowulf was victorious and as a show of triumph from the battle "the hand, the arm, and torn-off shoulder, the entire limb, Grendel's whole grip (833-835)." Meanwhile, Grendel "staggered onwards; each step evidenced his ebbing life blood (840-845)." Grendel then "humbled he went thence and sank despairing in the depths of the Mere (2098-2099)." He had "dived to his doom, he died miserable…his heathen soul (849-851)." Grendel was dead and "he lives no longer, laden with sins, to plague mankind: pain has set heavy hands on him, and hasped about him fatal fetters. He is force to await now, like a guilty criminal (973-977)."
With Grendel dead, joy arose among the people. No longer did they have to fear for their lives. Grendel is a character to be pitied due to his humanistic nature. Despite theses human emotions, Grendel is a monster, who lacked remorse and was very cruel by nature. Grendel did know of jealousy and loneliness which drove him to outrage, anger, and a spree of murder.
However, the people discovered there was one relative still among the living to carry out vengeance against them for the mutilations and fatal wound Grendel received at their hands. "Grendel's mother, herself, a monstrous ogress, was ailing for her loss (1257-1258)." The mother is not given a name of her own; she is just referred to as a kin of Grendel, a man. This is mainly due to the fact that she is a woman, and as a woman, she is but an annoyance to Beowulf. When she commits her vengeance "the fury of her onslaught was less frightful than his [Grendel's]; as the force of a woman, her onset in a fight, is less feared by men (1280-1283)." However, she is a mother and her purpose was "to set out at last - savage in her grief - on that wrath - bearing visit of vengeance for her son (1275-1277)."
Grendel's mother killed the King's most trusted advisor, and as such, the King called Beowulf to deal with this matter. She had "in furthering her son's feud…gone far enough (1338-1339)." Beowulf and his troops traveled to her homeland "of wolf-fells, wind-picked moors, and treacherous fen paths (1356-1358)." When they arrived, Beowulf dived into the water to kill the mother. He treated her as a woman and an insignificant one at that. He grasped her hair and threw her to the ground with force. He eventually kills her with a blow to the neck with one of her own scabbards. Once he killed her, Beowulf "scoured the dwelling in single-minded anger…for he meant soon enough to settle with Grendel for those stealthy raids…he saw where Grendel lay at rest, limp…his life wasted through the wound he had got…he [Beowulf] had severed the neck (1571-1589)." Beowulf commits this hideous act as he was disappointed when Grendel fled from the battle at Heorot leaving only his arm as a symbol of triumph. Now that Beowulf gained another victory, though insignificant to kill a woman, he thought to finish his fight with Grendel by severing off Grendel's head to give to the King.
Both Grendel and his mother are monsters in the story of Beowulf. However, they are monsters with a substantial portion of humanity. Due to their exile from human society they live in a world afar from human contact and human socialization. Grendel seeks to leave his world for one that is different than his, but realizes due to his monstrosity that he would never be accepted. Monsters in Christian society came from abnormality or the unusual, those outcasts from society, feared and hated alike. Cain, as the first real Christian monster, created this pariah world of feared creatures far away from normal and moral human beings. In the end, Beowulf kills Grendel and his mother and finally; and sadly: for these creatures are still human beings with emotions, but doomed for their abnormities; "the world was rid of that invidious enemy of God and his mother also (1680-1682)."
Anonymous. Beowulf. Trans. Michael Alexander. New York: Penguin Classics. 2003.