Monsters in Beowulf

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Beowulf, the renowned warrior of Geatland, must face three monsters, each stronger and more terrifying than the last. This lesson will focus on his battles with these fearsome creatures, from the epic poem ''Beowulf''.


The story begins with the Danish king Hrothgar, whose kingdom is being terrorized by a monster named Grendel. Though the poem is short on physical details of Grendel, leaving more to the readers' imagination, we know that he is huge, has claws, and likes to eat people. Grendel is a descendant of Cain, the biblical figure who murdered his brother Abel, and was forever banished from mankind by God.

Grendel is miserable as he sits in his stinking hole, listening to the sounds of joy and merriment in the great Mead Hall Heorot. Full of jealousy, he creeps up to the hall in the darkness, where he discovers several thanes passed out from their celebrations. He eats a few, and takes others back home to munch on later. This continues each night, and even as the Danes flee into the moors, Grendel picks them off one by one.

But hunger isn't what is driving this monster. He is driven by jealousy. These men are happy, but the wretched Grendel can never be happy, or take part in the joys that men experience. So, he stalks and terrorizes them, finding satisfaction in their misery.


Across the sea in Geatland, Beowulf hears of Hrothgar's plight with the monster Grendel. He decides to go and kill it, and earn a reward from the rich Hrothgar, and a place in songs and history. Beowulf and thirteen of his best men arrive on the shores of Denmark, ready for battle.

After a feast in Heorot, the Danes go off to their beds, and Beowulf's men hide and wait in the hall. Grendel creeps in amongst the sleeping men, grabs one, and eats him right there, delighted at this easy prey. Beowulf strikes, deciding to fight Grendel with his bare hands. In what amounts to a wrestling match that shakes the very walls of Heorot, Beowulf tears the arm off the mighty monster. Grendel runs away, back to his underwater cave, where he bleeds to death.

Grendel's Mother

The mighty hero doesn't get much rest. The very next night, one of Hrothgar's thanes is snatched from the hall at Heorot. Beowulf learns that there were actually two monsters plaguing Denmark, Grendel and his mother. He and his men follow the blood-trail to a boiling and glowing lake. There, they see the head of the murdered thane sitting on the lakeshore, in a 'come and get me' taunt. Beowulf jumps into the lake and swims down to Grendel's Mother's lair, an underwater cave as big as any Mead Hall.

Grendels Mother
Grendels Mother

Her motivation is easily understood: she wants revenge for the killing of her son. This is obvious in the way she taunts them, leaving the head out for all to see. It's notable that her choice of victim was King Hrothgar's best friend. While Grendel's killings were random, his mother's hate is focused. She wants to kill Beowulf.

As Beowulf nears the bottom of the lake, Grendel's Mother grabs him in her claws and pulls him into her lair. The lair is a dark, dry cave, with weapons hanging on the wall. The dead body of Grendel is there, too. Beowulf is nearly overcome in this fight, as she tries to pierce his sides with her claws, and stab him with a rusty dagger. Both times Beowulf's chain mail saves him. She tries to bite off his head, but her teeth only break through his helmet.

Beowulf grabs a Giant's sword from the wall and cuts her through the neck, killing her. The blood causes the blade to melt. He beheads Grendel as his final retribution, and takes the head along with the jeweled hilt of the Giant's sword, and swims back up to the surface, where his men wait for him.

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