Summary and Analysis
On the night following Grendel's death, the warriors sleep easy in Heorot for the first time in years, confident that the terror of the ogre is behind them. They don't realize that Grendel has a living mother intent on revenge. She ascends from her mere and raids the hall, retrieving Grendel's claw and murderously abducting one of the thanes. Before dawn, Beowulf and his men report to Hrothgar. The Geat hero agrees to pursue Grendel's mother. Hrothgar promises more rewards and greater fame for Beowulf. Accompanied by warriors, Hrothgar leads Beowulf to the mere that harbors the vengeful mother. It is a dark and evil place. Huge serpents and water-beasts inhabit the lake. Beowulf dresses for battle and prepares to search the lake for the enemy. Unferth humbles himself by presenting Beowulf with his great sword, Hrunting. The Geat hero speaks what may be his final words.
Grendel's mother embodies the theme of revenge as she buries her grief in an assault on Heorot. Again the Beowulf poet reminds us that she is a descendant of Cain; but there is something very human about her motivation, which John Gardner explores compassionately in his novel Grendel (1971). Although she is smaller and weaker than her son and lacks his magical protection from weapons, she is determined to avenge his death and retrieve the gruesome trophy that hangs under Heorot's roof. Once in the hall, she faces a number of warriors who, in force, probably can defeat her. She grabs one, Aeschere, Hrothgar's "dearest warrior" (1296) and chief adviser. Carrying the man as well as her son's arm, she retreats to the mere.
Beowulf is once more challenged by the possibility of increased reward — treasure and fame — and is further motivated by his devotion to Hrothgar. In his pre-dawn meeting with the king, Beowulf is informed of a rumor that has, for years, suggested the existence of two ogres, one possibly in the shape of a woman. Their den reportedly is hidden in a dark mere deep within "high wolf-country" (1357), a secret place amid wind-swept cliffs and "frost-bound trees" (1364).
The poet's description of the mere and its surroundings is especially eerie and effective. The imagery is specific, powerful, and dark. We are told that not even the wisest of humans knows what is at the bottom of the lake. The lake is so forbidding that a hart, chased by savage hounds, will die facing the dogs rather than seek safety by plunging into the water. "Not a pleasant place!" says the poet in classic understatement (an example of litotes). In fact, this place is very evil. The mere is "overhung with roots that sag and clutch" (1363); it seems to burst into flame at night, portending evil and reminding the audience of the ugly light that "shone out like fire" (727) from Grendel's eyes. In contrast to the joyful light of Heorot, here the hills are dark; black waves erupt from the mere; a "gloomy wind / stirs awful storms till the air turns choking, / the heavens weep" (1374-76).
When Hrothgar and his retinue accompany Beowulf to the mere, easily following the mother's footprints, the poet's description is again specific and forbidding as the party enters a cold, gray, "joyless wood" (1416). Adding to the horror is the discovery of Aeschere's head on a cliff near the lake. The lake bubbles with Aeschere's blood. The mother apparently has swum with the body to an underwater hideout, some sort of waterless cavern or den whose entrance is through the mere.
Unferth's presentation of his treasured sword, Hrunting, to Beowulf is an admission of the Geat's superior courage and ability. So insulting when full of mead at the earlier banquet, Unferth now is all humility. Despite his obnoxious behavior at Heorot when Beowulf first arrived, we have been told that Unferth cares as much about "famous deeds" (505) and his own fame as any warrior. Now his reputation is permanently damaged because he lacks the courage to pursue the mother: "he lost fame for that" (1470).
Beowulf is not as concerned with sportsmanship as he was in the battle with Grendel. He wears his mail-shirt and helmet and carries weapons. Although the mother is less powerful than Grendel, the battle will be on her turf, a strange environment. And she is highly motivated by revenge.
Beowulf's final words before diving into the unknown of the lake are realistic. He has earlier said (1384-89) that it is better to avenge a friend than to mourn; each must face his mortality and win whatever reputation he can before death. Now (1474 ff.) he asks Hrothgar to send to Beowulf's king, Hygelac, any treasure bestowed to the Geat if he should not return from this battle. Beowulf is ready for the battle. Again, he seeks the fame of victory or death.
abysm of time a reference to the hellish chaos, the unfathomable chasm that spawned Grendel's mother and other descendants of Cain.
Ring-Danes the Scyldings.
Ingwines another name for the Scyldings.
Yrmenlaf a Dane, Aeschere's younger brother.
rune-counselor an advisor especially adept at solving difficult problems.
unsouled The soul was believed to leave the body shortly after death.
bone-house a kenning for the body.
venom-twigs Some scholars suggest that Hrunting's edge was equipped with small, sharp points to which poison may have been applied; more likely, this is a reference to the use of acid (poison) in the shaping of the points during manufacture, a customary procedure of the time.
son of Ecglaf Unferth.
Hrethel father of King Hygelac, the Geat to whom Beowulf owes ultimate allegiance.