Fifteen strangers arrive in the area by sea, filling Grendel with wild exhilaration. The strangers appear to be the fulfillment of his earlier premonitions; indeed, Grendel feels the strangers’ approach before he sees them. A Danish coastguard greets the strangers, whom Grendel describes as mechanical and dead looking. Their leader, a huge but oddly soft-spoken man named Beowulf, tells the coastguard that he and the other strangers are Geats, from the kingdom of King Hygilac. (The leader’s name is never explicitly mentioned in the text of Grendel, but he is clearly Beowulf.) Beowulf says that he has advice for Hrothgar, so the coastguard points him toward the meadhall. Grendel becomes fixated on Beowulf’s mouth, which seems to move independent of the words he speaks, as if his body were some kind of disguise. Grendel watches as the Geats travel like a huge machine up to Hart.
Back in his cave, Grendel is filled with an excitement he cannot describe. He is ecstatic about the arrival of the Geats, and everything around him suddenly seems absurd and surreal. He is overjoyed at the prospect of being released from his boredom, which he describes as the worst pain possible. Grendel dismisses the notion of order, calling it a mere mask that men use to connect the two realities they know—the self and the world. He believes that these theories are just talk, and can be demolished by an act of violent truth.
At Hart, there is an uneasy tension between the Geats and the Scyldings, who resent the fact that they need the Geats’ help. Unferth taunts Beowulf about a swimming contest he once lost to Breca, a childhood friend. Calmly, Beowulf explains that he actually did triumph over Breca, but that he had to single-handedly defeat a pack of sea monsters during the contest. Then, just as calmly, Beowulf tells Unferth that he will be condemned to hell in the afterlife for having murdered his brothers. The Scyldings are struck by Beowulf’s sharp words, and Grendel concludes that Beowulf is insane. Hrothgar deflates the situation by enlisting Wealtheow to serve mead. Grendel once again notices the strange disconnection between Beowulf’s mouth and his words. Unferth leaves the hall fighting back tears.
Hrothgar makes speeches and tells Beowulf how he plans to marry Freawaru off to Ingeld, king of the Heathobards. Hrothgar says that Beowulf is like a son to him, which makes Wealtheow—with an eye on Hrothulf—nervous. Beowulf smiles, but remains remote. At the end of the night, as the hearth dies, the Shaper’s assistant sings a song about spring overcoming winter. The Scyldings and the Geats go to sleep, and silence falls over Hart. When darkness falls, Grendel decides that “it is time.”
In this chapter, Grendel uses mechanical imagery to describe Beowulf—perhaps the most significant instance of the many mechanical images and characterizations that appear throughout the novel. In Chapter 1, Grendel describes the cycle of the seasons as the “cold mechanics of the stars,” a chilly and unfeeling progression that locks him into a mindless, endless loop. Grendel also meets three stupid animals—the ram, the bull, and the goat—whose foolish adherence to a set pattern of behavior elicits Grendel’s derision and more comparisons to unthinking machines. Machines are a decidedly anachronistic metaphor for a fourth-century monster, but as Grendel is really a modern creature at heart it seems an appropriate choice. The machine is a brute, unthinking creature with no hope of evolving, which Grendel fears is his own fate. Several times in the text he berates himself for being “as mechanical as anything else.” We see his extreme frustration at this state expressed in his encounter with the goat, which most vividly and grotesquely represents the plight of the machine. At times, however, Grendel uses the image of a machine to his advantage, presenting it as an excuse for his own violent, mindless behavior. Grendel is attracted to humans partly because they contrast so sharply with the other creatures he encounters. While the bull gores Grendel repeatedly without ever varying his tactics, humans are able to make their own patterns. Rather than blindly follow a system set by a higher power, men are able to assert their own systems of meaning.
The choice to describe Beowulf as a machine, then, is a bit puzzling. Though the human beings in Grendel may be silly, absurd, or even one-dimensionally allegorical, they are all real humans with real flaws and limitations. Beowulf, on the other hand, comes across as fantastic and supernatural, almost like a science-fiction android. He never blinks, and when he speaks, his words do not seem to match the movements of his mouth, as if his body were merely a shell or a disguise. Grendel describes the workings of Beowulf’s brain as “stone-cold, grinding like a millwheel.” On one hand, associating Beowulf with machines causes us to cast a critical eye on his character. Like so many other aspects of the original Beowulf poem, perhaps we are meant to question Beowulf’s heroism, to ask ourselves whether the unchallenged admiration he is granted in Beowulf is truly deserved. Furthermore, Beowulf’s machinelike appearance is also ironically appropriate, as it means that the very thing Grendel rails against throughout the novel is what finally causes his downfall.
Beowulf is not simply described as a machine; he is described as a dead man. His voice is that of a “dead thing,” and his patience rivals that of a “grave-mound.” These images reinforce the idea that Beowulf will be the agent of Grendel’s demise. However, as a man who has risen from the dead, Beowulf also resembles the resurrected Christ. Grendel’s mother tries to warn her son of his impending doom by bleating “Beware the fish”—fish being a commonly recognized symbol for the Christ figure. Indeed, Beowulf is associated with fish images several times throughout this chapter. He comes from over the sea, “has no more beard than a fish,” and has shoulders as “sleek as the belly of a shark.” Furthermore, the story of the swimming contest with Breca demonstrates Beowulf’s prowess in the water. Beowulf does appear to be the fulfillment of the Scyldings’ prayers for a Destroyer to come and rid them of Grendel.
by beowulfgeek, December 19, 2012
Spent a lot of years working on 'Beowulf' and I reckon that the monsters represent human characters. In my view: Grendel represents Agnar, son of Ingeld; Grendel's Mum represents the daughter of Earl Swerting of Sweden (and the first wife of Ingeld); and the Dragon represents Onela, king of the Swedes. I think that there has been a scribal error right at the beginning of the poem, which has made Scyld's 'bearn' (Modern English, 'bairn') into Beowulf the First. Thus the real parallels of the poem have been lost.
As far as the first tw
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