(Listen, y'all. I'm busy as heck this week, so please enjoy a couple of paragraphs from my essay about Grendel from the Old English epic poem Beowulf.)
According to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, all the monsters of ancient literature exist to represent some moral or cultural turmoil: “the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns’…the monster signifies something other than itself.” (4). What, then, does Grendel represent? Unlike the other monsters within Beowulf, Grendel’s origins are described and emphasized: he is a child of Cain, and therefore likely represents the sins of his ancestor. These sins and Cain’s consequences for them are described as such in the text:
killed with his blade his only brother,
his father’s kin; he fled bloodstained,
marked for murder, left the joys of men,
dwelled in the wasteland…(1261-1265).
Therefore, it can be inferred that Grendel symbolizes hatred, bloodshed, death, and discord, as well as their natural consequences. These things would have been well-known in the medieval world, and their effects would have been powerful.
Interestingly, this hypothesis can be further confirmed by looking at Grendel himself, as well as the attitude taken towards Grendel by the humans who interact with him. The fact that Grendel is described as both an incorporeal demon and a physical being is analogous to the fact that things like war, hatred, and discord are abstract concepts that produce disastrous physical results. The fact that Grendel cannot be harmed by weapons represents the powerlessness of medieval people to defend themselves from death. In the time in which Beowulf was written, humans were relatively powerless against things like natural disasters, famines, and illnesses. Even war and civil discord were out of the hands of most people.
(Sad, I know. The good news is that Grendel gets killed in the middle of the poem. In fact, all the monsters in Beowulf get killed. That's the thing about monsters--no matter how scary they are, they always die, and the townspeople get some peace before another monster shows up. It's a cycle, but it's a hopeful one. Comment your favorite literary monster!)
M. J. Piazza is a Jesus-loving, dog-walking country girl who just so happens to write books.