As for Grendel’s physical description, his habits and the geography of his haunts, they are as follows: He was a youngster, having preyed on the Danes for about twelve years before Beowulf heard of him. He was man-like in his stance, in other words bipedal. He had two small forelimbs that the Saxons call eorms (arms), one of which Beowulf tore off. He was a muthbona, one who slew with his mouth or jaws, and the speed with which he was able to devour his human prey tells us something of the size of his jaws. His skin was impervious to sword-blows. Beowulf had heard of the futility of using ordinary weapons when dealing with the monster, and had resolved on overcoming him with brute force. Hence, knowing his trade very well, he went for Grendel’s weakest part, his forelimb.
The monster Grendel is the most famous of Beowulf’s successes. He is described in two ways; his awesome wickedness and his physical characteristics. There are the perfectly natural epithets that attached to his name through the sheer terror that he inspired in the hearts of those on whom he preyed. He was a demon who was synnum beswenced (afflicted with sins). He was godes ansaca (God’s adversary), the synscatha (evil- doer) who was wonsaeli (damned), a very feond on helle (fiend in hell)! He came from the race of the grundwyrgen, accursed monsters who are said to be descended from Cain himself. Descriptions such as these of Grendel’s nature convey something of the horror with which men anticipated his raids on their homesteads.
Grendel is further described as aeglaeca, (the ugly one), with an ugly appearance to match his ugly nature. He hunted alone, being known by the locals as the atol angengea, (the terrifying solitary one). He was a mearcstapa, literally a march stepper, who stalked the marches or outlying border regions. He hunted by night, approaching human settlements and waiting silently in the darkness for his prey to fall asleep before he descended on them as a sceadugenga, (a shadow goer), that is a nocturnal prowler. He would come down from the mlstige moras (misty moors) and the deathscua, (shadow of death). The Danes employed an eotanweard, (a watcher for giants), to look out for the monster’s coming, but often in vain. So stealthy was Grendel’s approach from out of the darkness of the night that sometimes the eotanweard himself was surprised and eaten. Little wonder that Beowulf was rewarded so richly and was so famed for having slain him.
Grendel himself is often spoken of by modern scholars as being a troll – a mischievous hairy dwarf from Swedish fairy tales – who swaps troll children for human children in the middle of the night. Needless to say, not only does this run completely counter to all descriptions and accounts of the animal in Beowulf, but the word troll does not even appear in the original Anglo-Saxon text! Further, Grendel’s name is usually said to be derived from the Old Norse grund meaning ground or depth, but is more probably an onomatapoeic name from the Old Norse grindill meaning storm, or grenja, bellow. The name Grendel is reminiscent of a deepthroated growl, and it would seem that it was not just a pet name for this particular animal, but was the name for the species in general. In an Anglo-Saxon charter from King Athelstan, dated 931 AD, we read of a grendels-mere (a lake where such animals lived) in Wiltshire. It also forms an important element in place-names in several Northern European locations, and in the Alpine Grindelwald. The name also is found in Middle English, where grindel meant angry.
In all, a comprehensive and somewhat horrifying picture of Grendel emerges from the pages of Beowulf, and I doubt that the reader needs to be guided as to which particular species of predatory dinosaur his description best fits. Modern commentators who have been brought up on evolutionary ideas are compelled to suggest that monsters like Grendel are primitive personifications of death or disease, and other such nonsense. But really, the evidence will not support such claims.
In line 1345 Hrothgar tells how his subjects have reported seeing two monsters (Grendel and his supposed mother) haunting the moors. The descriptions are those of bipedal creatures, both much larger than humans, the one a young male and the other an older female. Tracing Grendel’s tracks back to his liar (line 1425) Beowulf and his men can see sea-dragons and other monsters swerving or undulating through the depths of the lake. These are described as creatures who sally forth at dawn to wreak havoc in the seas where ships sail. Some of these creatures, so familiar to the Danes, are portrayed in the serpentine and dreagon- like figureheads of Saxon and Danish ships that have been disinterred in recent years.
Beowulf himself was born ca 495 AD. At the age of seven he was brought to the court of his grandfather Hrethel, who was king of the Geatingas, a tribe who inhabited southern Sweden. After an unpromising youth, during which time the Geatish-Swedish wars took place (in particular the Battle of Ravenswood), he undertook his famous visit to Hrothgar, king of the Danes, in 515 AD. It was in this year that, as we shall see, he slew the monster Grendel. He returned to his uncle King Hygelac’s kingdom in 521 AD, avenging Hygelac’s death that year by slaying Daegrefn. He declined the invitation to succeed his uncle to the throne but acted as guardian to the young King Heardred during his minority. Heardred was killed by the Swedes in 533 AD, in which year Beowulf became king of the Geatingas. Beowulf went on to reign for fifty years, dying in 583 at some 88 years of age.
The York Notes series of the Longman Literature Guides, when dealing with the Beowulf epic, makes a far more honest comment:
Among these details are the fact that although mention is certainly made of God, the Creation and Cain, these are items that are also found in the decidedly pre-Christian genealogies and other pagan records of the Saxons. No mention whatever is made in Beowulf of Christ, the saints or of any New Testament event. This is in marked contrast to those poems and other accounts that are known to be of early Christian date. Moreover, the poem expresses no exclusively Christian sentiments, but rather gives approving references to decidedly pagan notions, sacrifices and oaths. Although seemingly written (or at least copied) in early Saxon England, the poem contains no reference to the British Isles or to any British king or character. (The King Offa that it mentions was the pre-migration ancestor of Offa of Mercia and his name is duly preserved in the Mercian genealogies.) Beowulf is therefore a pagan poem whose origin lies in the times of which it speaks.
“In spite of allusions to the devil and abstract concepts of evil, the monsters are very tangible creatures in Beowulf.
They have no supernatural tricks, other than exceptional strength, and they are vulnerable and mortal. The early medieval audience would have accepted these monsters, not as symbols of plague or war, for such creatures were a definite reality.” (page 65).
Although scholars always refer to the Christian nature of the poem Beowulf, there are many details that tell us that it pre-dates the Christianisation of the Saxons and Danes.
Sea Serpents and Flying Reptiles The Beowulf epic records that in Grendel’s lair, a large swampy lake, there lived other reptilian species that were collectively called wyrmcynnes (literally, wormkind, a race of monsters.) Amongst these were giant saedracan (sea-drakes or sea-dragons), niceras (water monsters), wyrmas (giant serpents) and wildeor (literally, wild beasts). One in particular, an ythgewinnes (wave thrasher) was harpooned by Beowulf’s men, using eoferspreotum, (boarspears), and dragged out of the water for examination. They had, after all, a professional interest in the animals that they were up against, and this interest contributed greatly towards the success of their work.