In the previous post we discussed in greater detail Grendel’s treachery against the Dane. Grendel is an violent outsider – really an outlaw, someone who is outside the law – who hates celebratory worship. Though cursed as a descendant of Cain, we see that Grendel is really a mirror for the treachery of human society as seen throughout the narrative of the human actors.
We turn now to Grendel’s unnamed mother. Following Grendel’s death, caused by the severing of his arm by Beowulf, his mother returns quietly and kills a friend of Hrothgar in the middle of the night. If Grendel represents the violence of the culture he is not welcomed in, his mother represents the spirit of revenge equally prevalent in that culture.
The reader knows nothing of Grendel’s mother until the aftermath of Grendel’s execution. It is then that we are told that Grendel was not the only bloodthirsty monster in the dark. Grendel’s mother, too, is a descendant of Cain (and of Adam we should add) and thus the curse is equally upon her. The spirit that is upon Cain is upon her and her son. She does not flinch at the thought of taking an eye for an eye or, as in this case, a life for a life.
In the book, A Companion to Beowulf, author Ruth Johnston Saver offers the following insight:
The Anglo-Saxons must have felt a keen interest in the story of Cain, his crime, and his banishment. They may have wondered why the feud ended with Cain, because in Germanic tradition the sons or brothers of the dead man would have to carry out revenge. The Bible does not list any son for Abel, but Adam had a third son named Seth. To Germanic minds, Seth would have the duty of continuing the feud. (33)
This is precisely what Grendel’s mother did. Without regard of real justice, she acts out in revenge. The reader is aware that Grendel’s death, though violent, slow, and bloody, was, in the end, just. Grendel was a murderer who had to be stopped. Beowulf carries out the sentence of death upon the demon.
This is what makes Grendel’s mother revenge so despicable. We all agree that the family of a convicted criminal executed cannot, at least under the banner of justice, seek revenge. Yet that is precisely what Grendel’s mother does. Grendel is, in fact, the son of violence for his mother proves she is just as despicable as her lifeless son. Yet her first act of revenge was not enough for her. When Beowulf enters her lair, her lust for revenge when faced with the real killer of her son.
Revenge is a drink that never quenches our thirst.
Again, Grendel’s mother is a mirror to the broader world she hunts in. One author provides the evidence in the following:
Revenge also motivates the many feuds that the poet refers to and is a way of life — and death — for the Germanic tribes. Old enmities die hard and often disrupt attempts at peace, as the poet recognizes. Upon his return to Geatland, Beowulf (2020 ff.) speculates about a feud between Hrothgar’s Scyldings and the Heathobards, a tribe in southern Denmark with whom Hrothgar hopes to make peace through the marriage of his daughter. Beowulf is skeptical, envisioning a renewal of hostilities. In fact, the Heathobards do later burn Heorot in events not covered by the poem but probably familiar to its audience. Another example of revenge overcoming peace occurs in the Finnsburh section (1068-1159).
Beowulf’s final battle is the result of vengeance. A dangerous fire-dragon seeks revenge because a fugitive slave has stolen a valuable cup from the monster’s treasure-hoard. His raids across the countryside include the burning of Beowulf’s home. Beowulf then seeks his own revenge by going after the dragon. (source
It is at this point the Christian theologian should pause and consider the biblical warning against revenge. “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay.’” Remember, also, the history behind the story. The pessimism of Wiglaf at the end of the story was a real one for the people of this culture. But the spirit of revenge would not cease until a new world entered their society. That was the story of Christianity rooted in a Messiah who defeated such violence by succumbing to it.