2008-09 Gathering of Voices

Grendel's Mother: A New Light on a Dark Figure

Robin J. Henley

I read “Beowulf” eagerly, trying to understand the poetry and relate sections to each other and yet I came away with more questions than I answered. What was the original story before the Christian aspects were added, what histories could be referred to in reinterpreting certain passages, and the one thing that bothered me most for weeks-what or who is Grendel’s Mother?

First off, she needs a name because she deserves a name. I am betting at some point in the story’s oral tradition she had a name and represented a much less mysterious (though possibly more supernatural) being. If I am going to write about her, I’m going to do so seriously and without dim or dismissive titles-from here on out, she is Hulda.

I read other translations of “Beowulf,” and while the characterizations of Hrothgar and Beowulf seemed consistent within all of the versions I read, Hulda’s characterizations varied. Translations, in my opinion, must always be read with a grain of salt as the translator often lets biases show through. Indeed the majority of the text’s translations are prone to these biases thanks to a handful of 19th century scholars.

So I found a barebones translation, and I was surprised at what I found.

“Ides aglæcwyif” is used to describe Hulda (“Beowulf,” 1258-59) and early scholars translated this phrase as “a monster woman,” or “a monstrous ogress,” and “the demon’s mother.” (Alfano, 2) Actually, when the root aglæc is used in other situations of Old English texts, it refers to a warrior “who goes in search of his enemy…an attacker,” (Alfano, 5) and is used in this text to describe Beowulf, Sigemund, and the Dragon. In the three times the word is used to refer to Grendel’s mother, once is retranslated as “a monster woman” (“Beowulf,” Allen, 1258-59).

 Even in David Allen’s translation, Hulda is described in similar terms when Hrothgar tells Beowulf “look in...that dreadful dale where the she-demon dwells” (“Beowulf,” Allen, 1221-1222). Why the discrepancy? Who knows, but I will use the term as it’s interpreted for Beowulf and the other fighters. “Ides aglæcwif” translated as “woman warrior.”

Once I had that in mind, Hulda’s actions made better sense to me, and shed light on her motivations in the text.

As a warrior, Hulda also follows the Anglo-Saxon heroic code. The code consists of bravery, loyalty, and generosity. A warrior is willing to go to battle for his liege and kinsmen, and believes in a social order that requires an eye for an eye, tit for tat. In the first section of the text, Beowulf seeks revenge for the death of the Danes of Heorot, as well as his own stature as a brave warrior, in living up to this code.

So when Grendel is slain by Beowulf, Hulda, as a warrior and mother in mourning, seeks revenge for her son’s death, and this is reiterated in her later battle with Beowulf-“[A]straddle the hall guest, she drew her dagger, bent on avenging her only offspring” (“Beowulf,” Allen, 1269-1271). She went to Heorot to reap her vengeance in kind, and chose the most beloved member in the hall-King Hrothgar’s right arm and friend, Aeschere. She kills him, takes her trophies, recovers her son’s arm, and leaves the hall.

When Hulda get back to her watery home, she does with her bloody trophy what the fierce Danes did with their trophies-hangs it high in her hall. She hangs Aeschere’s head above the mere-“every soldier was stricken at heart to behold on that height Aeschere’s head “(Beowulf,” Allen, 1259-1260). She also has taken a sword and shield, which is also something the warriors, including Beowulf, had done in their own ventures, and as Scyld Scefing, an ancestor of Hrothgar had also done-“Ambushed enemies, took their mead-benches, mastered their troops” (“Beowulf,” Allen, 5-6).

When Beowulf goes to battle the Warrior Woman of the mere, and he swims deep into the lake, Hulda sees him-“she glimpsed a creature come from above and crept up to catch him” (“Beowulf,” Allen, 1329-1330). She does not wait for him to get to her-she shows her courage by going to him.

The fight shows some interesting physical characteristics of Hulda. While Beowulf and Grendel’s mater struggle, Beowulf finds she is stronger than Grendel. She may not have been the resentful, psychotic, murderous monster her son was, and had not killed dozens without honor, but it is because she operates with a different code-the warrior’s code. She fights when challenged, or revenge is required. Grendel was truly monstrous and did not fight fairly, and had to be trapped. Hulda took her revenge in kind and no more, and when challenged by Beowulf, meets him directly in the mere on equal footing.

Hulda’s strength becomes apparent when Beowulf cannot kill her. The sword Hrunting cannot pierce her flesh, “He swung his sword for a swift stroke…the whorled blade whistled its war-song, but the battle-flame failed to bite her” (“Beowulf,” Allen, 1346-1349). He then tries to kill her with his bare hands, and he discovers that she is even stronger than Grendel-he cannot tear her limb from limb, and she gains the better of him (he even fears his own death): “[w]ith her grim grasp she grappled him still…weary, the warrior stumbled and slipped; the strongest foot-soldier fell to the foe” (“Beowulf,” Allen, 1364-1366).

Hulda would’ve killed Beowulf except for the fine chainmail he wears-“[h]is chainmail shielded shoulder and breast…the woven war-shirt saved him from harm” (“Beowulf,” Allen, 1370-1374). At the point she would’ve killed the Geatish warrior, he is saved by divine intervention-“but for armor and Heaven’s favor furnishing help”(“Beowulf,” Allen, 1376-1177). He sees “in a hoard of ancient arms a battle blessed sword with strong-edged blade…forged by giants of old,” and with that charmed weapon is able to kill the woman warrior (“Beowulf,” Allen, 1379-1384).

Hulda is certainly a bereaved mother (“maddened by grief”), and acts within the warrior’s code in dealing with the death of her son. There is no champion to serve her-who could or would? She does it herself and within the rules of the Anglo-Saxon culture. While she is described as an enemy, she has done nothing that is outside the bounds of the warrior code. She acts with all of the moral sense any of Danes or Geats have. She is within the boundaries. But she killed a beloved friend of the king of the Danes, and so she is an enemy, and the only response for Beowulf was to seek revenge. There is a touch of tragedy here.

She’s damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t.

Works Cited

Alfano, Christine. “The Issue of Feminine Monstrosity: A Reevaluation of Grendel’s Mother.” Comitatus: A Journal of medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol.23 (1992). 1-16. Article 1. http://repositories.cdlib.org/cmrs/comitatus/vol23/iss1/art1

“Beowulf”.Trans. Alan Sullivan. The Longman Anthology: British Literature, Volume A. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. 27-91.*+

Unknown authors. “Beowulf.” Cotton Vitellius A.XV. Possibly 8th to 11th cent. c.e.

Further Readings

Syd Allen (producer). Beowulf Translations. http://beowulftranslations.net

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