Beowulf

Evil

1

For Cain got no joy from committing that wrong, but God banished him away from mankind. From him all wicked offspring were born: giants and elves, and evil demon-creatures, and gigantic monsters—those who fought God, time beyond time. But God repaid them!

In pagan mythology, monsters represented evil, and it was the mission of heroes to overcome evil by slaying the monsters. By the time of Beowulf, evil was being equated with fighting against God. The Beowulf poet reconciles the pagan and Christian viewpoints by making mythological creatures the offspring of Cain, who committed the first murder in the Bible by killing his brother. This claim is poetic license and folklore, not official Christian teaching, but it intensifies the basic conflict between evil and good.

2

Thus he defeated the demon, laid low hell’s creature, and the wretched one departed, deprived of joy, to seek out his death-place, a fallen foe of mankind. And now came his mother, hungering for men’s death, who desired to go on a sorrowful journey to avenge her slain son.

The poet describes two evils, the monster Grendel, whom Beowulf has just defeated, and Grendel’s mother, whom Beowulf will soon fight. Grendel is evil because he is a demon from hell and thus a “foe of mankind.” His mother’s evil is more ambiguous, because killing for vengeance was allowed in the warrior culture of Beowulf’s time. Grendel’s mother is evil, not because she seeks sorrowful revenge but because she is a creature of hell who hungers for death. The opposite of evil, in this passage and throughout the poem, is joy.

3

So also an old woman, her hair loose and waving, sang in her sorrow a song of lament for Beowulf’s passing, repeating her prophecy that she feared the invading armies of bitter foes, a great many slaughters, the terror of war-troops, humiliation and captivity. Heaven swallowed the smoke.

The rare appearance of a woman creates a vivid image and a strong reality check on heroic sentiments. The evils that the old woman foresees are not created by hell-born monsters but by human beings. The poet gives increasing emphasis to this idea—that humans create evil—as the poem progresses. Now, in the final scene of the poem, the poet reminds the audience that Beowulf’s true heroism was his ability to protect his people from human evil. The smoke that heaven swallows comes from Beowulf’s funeral pyre.