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. ( Public Domain )
Was Grendel a Dragon or Giant?
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 regarding 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. ( Public Domain ) "In dragon's form Fafner now watches the hoard." ( Public Domain ) 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 of 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’. ( Public Domain )
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. ( Public Domain )
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 probably that Grendel is another dragon for Beowulf to fight.
Beowulf against the dragon. (Andimayer/ Deviant Art )
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 been 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 as well. (Further, there is quite a bit of overlap between pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons 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’ ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Beowulf fighting Grendel’s Mother beside Grendel’s body. Source: ndhill
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Lindow, John. 2001. Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Merrill, R. 1984. "John Gardner's Grendel and the Interpretation of Modern Fables." American Literature. 56.2 pp. 162-180. Accessed August 21, 2017.
McAllistr, Robin. 2016. "Poor, Pitiful Monsters from Homer to Borges." Journal of Literature and Art Studies. Vol. 6.8 pp. 901-904. Sacred Heart University
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