23 September 2011

XXIII. Beowulf Finds Grendel's Mother

Beowulf's encounter with Grendel's mother begins firmly in the real world. Beowulf asks Hrothgar to respect two promises he had made: If Beowulf dies, Hrothgar should treat Beowulf's companions well and send Beowulf's newly-won treasures to comfort the Geat king.

Beowulf then enters the water, and reality is left behind. The rest is dreamlike, surreal.

First, he sinks for the better part of a day (!) until he sees the bottom. Grendel's mother then seizes him so that he cannot resist. At this point, evil sea beasts come ravening in against him, striving to get through his armour. He then finds himself in an underground chamber, mysteriously dry and brightly lit. His sword has no effect on Grendel's mother, so he engages in a desperate hand-to-hand fight with the hag and is forced to his knees. Only his armour saves him. He pulls himself together and rises...

This fight reminds me of one that the god Thor had in a giants' palace, according to the Prose Edda. Stealing a translation from a Wikipedia page:
Útgarda-Loki answered, looking about him on the benches, and spake: 'I see no such man here within, who would not hold it a disgrace to wrestle with thee;' and yet he said: 'Let us see first; let the old woman my nurse be called hither, Elli, and let Thor wrestle with her if he will. She has thrown such men as have seemed to me no less strong than Thor.' Straightway there came into the hall an old woman, stricken in years. Then Útgarda-Loki said that she should grapple with Ása-Thor. There is no need to make a long matter of it: that struggle went in such wise that the harder Thor strove in gripping, the faster she stood; then the old woman essayed a hold, and then Thor became totty on his feet, and their tuggings were very hard. Yet it was not long before Thor fell to his knee, on one foot.
Beowulf is godlike in his strength; like the god, he faced an old woman as an opponent; like the god, he was forced off his feet. One might say that Elli, as the personification of Old Age, would look much weaker than Grendel's mother, but we don't know what Grendel's mother looked like. All we know from her attack on Heorot is that she was nowhere near as formidable in appearance or strength as Grendel:
Grendel’s mother, a menace less great
by the same amount a maiden’s strength,
a woman’s might, is weaker than an armed man’s
So, once the alarm was raised against her, she had to flee Heorot to save her life. Why she was so much more formidable in her own territory is a question without an answer. However, if an Old English audience knew the story of Thor and Elli in the Prose Edda, I am sure they would think of the parallel with Beowulf.

Before we start, here is a drawing of Thor and Elli; it would serve for one of Beowulf and Grendel's mother, if you ignore the giant onlookers and covered Thor's chest with chain armour.


Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow.
“Hold in your mind, Healfdene’s great heir,
“before I face her—far-seeing ruler,
“gold-friend to the people—the pact that we made.
“If it happens that the help I give
“causes my death, then keep for me
“a father’s mind from that moment on. 1480
“Look after these, my loyal young men,
“my brothers in arms, if battle claims me.
“And all the rich gifts I got from your hand,
“honoured Hrothgar, are Hygelac’s.
“The lord of the Geats will look into the gold,
“and Hrethel’s son will see in the hoard
“that I found a man of many virtues,
“a generous giver I enjoyed while I could.
“Let Unferth have an ancient treasure,
“the wonderful wave-sword; let that well-known man 1490
“have that hard edge. With Hrunting I earn
“fame for myself or find my death.”

After these words the Weder-Geat lord
waded out strongly, unwilling to stay
for words in reply. The waves covered
the man-at-arms. Most of the day
passed till he saw solid bottom.
Then soon the hag that had held the sea
for fifty years in fury and hunger,
grim and greedy, grew aware of a human, 1500
an alien presence exploring her realm.
Then she groped forwards and gripped the fighter
with a wild strength. At once she crushed
his sturdy frame. The strength of the ring-mail
in the soldier’s shirt shut the passage
of her hateful hand through the hauberk’s links.
Then the sea-wolf took, when she touched bottom,
the rings’ possessor inside her court.
She held him so, despite his courage,
no weapon could strike. Many strange creatures 1510
smelled him and raged in. A rout of sea beasts
with deadly tusks tore at his war-shirt;
the nightmares attacked.
                                        Then the noble was
in a deep-buried hall—I do not know which–
where no water waited to harm him.
It chafed to reach through the chamber’s roof
in savage flood. He saw firelight,
a pale lustre that lit the room.
Then the good man saw the sea-deep’s monster,
the mighty hag. With a heave he swung. 1520
He did not deny the deadly sword,
so right on her head the ring weapon sang
a vicious war song. Then the visitor found
that the torch of war would not bite her,
refused to slay, and so it failed him,
the lord in his need. It had lasted through
hand-to-hand combats, cut through helmets,
doomed men’s armour. Only this time
the great treasure disgraced its name.
With strength of will, stern-minded and brave, 1530
and thinking of fame, the furious lord,
Hygelac’s kinsman, cast the patterned sword,
damascened iron, to earth where it lay
steel-edged and stiff. Now strength was his hope,
his mighty grip. So a man will act
whenever in war he wants to earn
a lasting name: his life means nothing.
With no regrets, the noble Geat
grabbed her shoulder, Grendel’s mother.
The battle-hard fighter, inflamed with rage, 1540
heaved down his foe so she hit the floor.
She requited him quickly after
with an angry grip. She grappled him.
Worn by the struggle, the warrior stumbled;
standing alone, he lost his footing.
She knelt on her downed guest and drew out her knife,
wide and bright-edged. She wanted vengeance
for the last of her line. There lay on his shoulder
a woven-mail coat. It kept him alive,
allowing no entry to edge or point. 1550
Life would have ended for Ecgtheow’s son,
the earl of the Geats, there under the ground,
without the help his armour gave,
that hard battle-net, and holy God
controlled who won; the wise Master,
Heaven’s ruler, rightly decided
so the earl quickly came to his feet.

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