Summary and Analysis
As the good will of the gathering returns, Queen Wealhtheow passes around more mead. Courteous and stately, adorned with gold and jewels, she makes an impressive appearance. She greets Beowulf and thanks God for his arrival. Beowulf pledges to defeat Grendel that night in the mead-hall or die trying. Hrothgar retires early. The party breaks up, but Beowulf and the Geats remain to spend the night in Heorot.
Grendel comes up from the marsh hoping to find a human to devour. In some respects, he looks like a man: two arms (something like giant claws), two legs, one head; but he is much larger and stronger than most men and might be thought of as a huge, angry monster whose joy is destroying the joy of men. He is delighted when he sees several Geats sleeping in the hall. Beowulf lies awake, watching, as Grendel kills and eats one of the warriors. Then he reaches for his second kill, Beowulf. The Geat champion grabs hold of Grendel's claw with the strength of 30 men and won't let go. Grendel cannot escape, and a vicious match ensues, ending when Beowulf rips Grendel's arm from its shoulder socket. Mortally wounded, Grendel flees. Beowulf hangs the giant's claw under the roof of the mead-hall (926-983).
Hospitality and generosity are major themes in Beowulf, and Wealhtheow is their most gracious representative. Wealhtheow is the perfect host. She is beautiful and richly attired, courteous, proper, and "excellent in virtues" (623). Following decorum, she offers the first cup of mead to King Hrothgar, her husband. She then proceeds through the hall, serving as she goes, but pays special attention to Beowulf, greeting him appropriately and thanking God for sending the great warrior. Apparently touched by the queen's grace, Beowulf vows that he will end that night with either victory over Grendel or his own death.
The role of women is limited in the epic; they were still thought of as chattel, possessions of their husbands. Among the nobility, however, they sometimes were used as peacemakers. Feuding tribes might find it in their best interests to unite through marriage. There is an indication that Queen Wealhtheow came to Hrothgar as a result of that kind of union. The novelist and scholar John Gardner makes more of that in his fictional account of the tale, titled Grendel (1971) and told sympathetically from the point of view of the ogre. Wealhtheow is from a Germanic tribe, a Helming or Wylfing. A connection like that could have aided Hrothgar when he bought a truce for Beowulf's father (470). Hrothgar has also sought peace with the Heathobards, another Germanic tribe, by giving his daughter in marriage to Prince Ingeld; this attempt fails when the Heathobards destroy Heorot, a future event referred to ominously by the Beowulf poet.
When Hrothgar retires for the night, he comments that this is the first night that he has ever entrusted the care of his hall to another man. Heorot is the symbol of his rule. In effect, Hrothgar is placing his reign in Beowulf's mighty hands. Significantly, he tells Beowulf to remember fame. Although the poet frequently mentions God, these warriors' credo is really devoted to glory, reputation, honor, wealth, and fame. The modern reader might benefit from understanding that fame and reputation are close to the same thing in Beowulf's world.
Beowulf strips for bed, noting again (677 ff.) that he will not use weapons against Grendel because the ogre "does not know the warrior's arts" (681), the skills of a fighter trained in the use of weapons. Although this is called a "boast" (676), it sounds more like another vow. Beowulf sets aside his chain-shirt. When the poet tells us that the "pillow took the cheek" (688) of the mighty warrior, he is pointing out that Beowulf wears no protective helmet even though the Geat champion is sure that Grendel will come.
And come he does. In a passage that almost everyone agrees is one of the finest in Anglo-Saxon poetry (710-727), Grendel ascends from the fen. The poetry here is best appreciated if read aloud in Old English with a literal understanding of each word. (Chickering's "Glosses to Select Passages" (p. 397-98) include translations.) In set stages, Grendel approaches the "house of … joy to men" (715-16). Angry, defiant, and cursed, Grendel resents, above all, the hope and happiness of mankind. The poet effectively contrasts the light of Heorot with the darkness of the fen and Grendel's soul. One metaphor for killing warriors is to drag them into the "shadows" (707), which even the ogre cannot accomplish if it is not God's will. Grendel comes "up from the marsh, under misty cliffs" (710), a demon ascending from a dark hell. The night is noticeably dark as he approaches the "shining wine-hall" (715) where the Geats wait. The only brightness coming from Grendel is "an ugly light [that] shone out [from his eyes] like fire" (727).
The door to Heorot bursts open at the ogre's touch, implying Grendel's great strength. His heart laughs, an effective metaphor, at the sight of the sleeping Geats. Grendel's entrance into Heorot anticipates his brutality. He doesn't just knock down the door; he "rip[s] open / the mouth of the hall" (723-24). In a device often used by the poet, this image anticipates the next major action: Grendel's ripping apart of the Geat warrior, Hondscio (740 ff.). Grendel quickly guts the man while the warrior still sleeps. Blood swills from veins ripped open by the ogre's mouth, and the warrior is quickly devoured. With an appreciation for gruesome detail, the poet reveals that Grendel even gulps down "fet ond folma" (745), the feet and hands of the Geat.
Meanwhile, Beowulf watches, learning the likely approach of his adversary. Some critics complain that Beowulf should attack immediately instead of observing as his man dies, but A. K. Moore (Modern Language Notes 68 , 165-69) has it right when he points out that Beowulf's responsibility lies in the mission, not the protection of one warrior. When Grendel reaches for Beowulf, the world's strongest human hand grips the ogre and won't let go. Although Grendel would prefer escape, he is trapped and must engage the hero.
Imagery throughout the poem is specific and vivid, but it is especially strong in Beowulf and Grendel's battle sequence. The battle is furious. The two nearly knock down the superbly fortified Heorot. Danes around the compound are riveted to the noise but stay their distance. The Geats try to come to Beowulf's aid but find that their swords are ineffective because Grendel is protected from weapons by a magic spell. He must be killed by hand, and he is in the hands of the mightiest warrior alive. Instead of minutely detailing what the two combatants do to each other, the poet describes the effect. Mighty Heorot is nearly destroyed. We can see it almost bursting. The fixtures are in ruins. Ornate mead benches are ripped from the floor. Grendel's scream of hate and pain horrifies the Danes who prudently remain well outside the hall.
The poet then zeroes in on a very specific piece of the action. Beowulf tears Grendel's arm from its shoulder. Tendons pop. The bone-locker bursts ("burston ban-locan," 818) as muscles are ripped away. Here the imagery takes the reader very close. Mortally wounded, Grendel flees back into the darkness. Triumphantly, Beowulf hangs the trophy under the high roof.
Bright-Danes another name for the Scyldings, the reference to shining light.
Helmings Wealhtheow's original tribe.
King of Glory God, not Hrothgar.
body-warden a kenning for a chain-mail shirt.
shepherd of sins Grendel, perhaps in contrast to God as shepherd of souls.
fen low, swampy land.
palisade a defensive fortification or fence made of pointed sticks (pales).
protector of nobles Beowulf.
killer-guest Grendel. The poet ironically plays with the theme of hospitality.