Deadly Monsters = Deadly Sins?
In her critical essay, The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel’s Mother, Jane Chance asserts that each of the three monsters: Grendel, his mother, and the dragon, represent three of the Seven Deadly Sins in Christianity. According to Chance, Grendel represents envy, his mother represents pride, and the dragon represents avarice, or greed. Though it may be plausible that the dragon represents greed because he has a gold-hoard, it seems doubtful that Grendel symbolizes envy, or that his mother denotes pride. There is nothing within the poem that implicitly shows either that Grendel’s motivation is envy, nor that his mother’s motivation is pride, yet Chance goes as far as to say that Grendel’s mother “specifically epitomizes pride in Beowulf” (166). If Grendel was to signify one of the Cardinal Sins, it would more easily be proven that he represents either wrath or gluttony, as he eats his victims; his mother would, in the same way, more clearly epitomize wrath, because she angrily avenges her son’s death.
In the poem, there are passages that could be used to indicate the avaricious nature of the dragon, thus making it plausible that he signifies the Cardinal Sin of greed. Chance says, “The mock gold-king dragon avariciously guards his treasure” (166). In the poem, he is often referred to as the “hoard-guard” (64-5); the word “hoard” implies collecting or stockpiling, perhaps greedily. Not only does the dragon collect treasures, but he stores them away in a barrow he can easily guard. The poem says, “Into it the keeper of the hoard had carried / all the goods and golden ware / worth preserving” (57). The treasures the dragon collects are not only treasures to him (that he seemingly has no use for) but are materials valued by men. It is unknown why he
collects and guards the treasure, but his attempts to protect his hoard are in vain, as a man robbed him of a gold-plated cup. The poem says, “He is driven to hunt out / hoards under ground, to guard heathen gold / through age-long vigils, though to little avail. / For three centuries, this scourge of the people / had stood guard on that stoutly protected / underground treasury, until the intruder / unleashed its fury” (58). Though he had stalwartly protected his treasure for three hundred years, he failed to stop “the intruder” from robbing his hoard. Even though it was only one article that was stolen, his fury was “unleashed,” which certainly suggests the greedy nature of the dragon. With such an extensive gold-hoard (“the old dawn-scorching serpent’s den / packed with goblets and vessels from the past, / tarnished and corroding. Rusty helmets / all eaten away. Armbands everywhere, / artfully wrought” (69)) the dragon should not have even noticed the missing cup, unless his avarice controlled him. Because of this evidence, Chance may be correct in her presumption that the dragon is symbolic of avarice.
There is insufficient evidence, however, to support Chance’s assertion that Grendel is symbolic of the Cardinal Sin of envy. She assumes Grendel’s motivation when she says that Heremod is “impelled by envy like Grendel,” but there is inadequate evidence in the poem that would confirm that assumption (166). Nonetheless, there is evidence that wrath and/or gluttony could be Grendel’s motivation, which could support the idea of him symbolizing one of the Seven Deadly Sins. In the poem, it says, “Grendel / struck again with more gruesome murders. / Malignant by nature, he never showed remorse” (6). Because he is “malignant by nature,” wrath seems likely to be his motivation for his attacks and subsequent murders.
However, upon close examination of the poem, it seems that gluttony is more likely Grendel’s motivation. Many times, he is described as “greedy” during his attacks, grabbing “thirty men” and rushing back with their “butchered corpses” (6). The word “butcher” is often used when livestock is slaughtered for consumption. Grendel is certainly gluttonous if he greedily butchered thirty men and rushed back to his lair to eat them. Later, the poem says that he went “hunting for a prey in the high hall” and he “saw many men in the mansion, sleeping… / And his glee was demonic / picturing the mayhem: before morning / he would rip life from limb and devour them, / feed on their flesh… / he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench… / and gorged on him in lumps” (20). This quote undoubtedly shows Grendel’s gluttonous nature, as he was gleeful upon seeing many men to “devour,” and then he gorged himself on a man “in lumps.” The word “devour” implies he ate hastily, and “gorged” suggests that he ate to the point of distension; both of these points to gluttony. The most obvious evidence supporting Grendel as symbolic of gluttony is in the speech Beowulf makes before their fight. He says, “If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day; / he will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall… / he will run gloating with my raw corpse / and feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy” (13). Because Beowulf uses the word “glut” to describe Grendel’s eating the Geats, it only makes sense to symbolically attribute gluttony to him. Therefore, there is a much more cohesive case to be made for Grendel representing gluttony, as opposed to him symbolizing envy, as gluttony is his only identifiable motivation presented in the poem.
Similarly, there is inadequate evidence to show Grendel’s mother being driven by, or representing, pride. Chance describes her as “the monster that specifically epitomizes pride in Beowulf,” without providing a sufficient explanation of this bold statement (166). Instead, she
seems to epitomize wrath, if she is indeed the embodiment of any of the Cardinal Sins. The poem says she was on a “savage journey” to avenge Grendel’s death, while she was “grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge” (35). The words “savage,” “ravenous,” and “desperate” together suggest that she was violent, predatory, and frantic in her behavior, which can all be attributes of wrath. “Wrath” can also refer to vengeance, which is what she is seeking: vengeance for her fallen son. The poem says she is “driven to avenge her kinsman’s death” (36) and later she pulls out a knife to “avenge her only child” (41). Grendel’s mother’s only motivation appears to be the rage and sorrow she feels from losing her son, thus it only makes sense that, if she represents any of the Seven Deadly Sins, she would most closely symbolize wrath. It is unclear why Chance would associate Grendel’s mother with pride, when nothing in the poem seems to suggest it.
Chance may be correct in her interpretation that the monsters in Beowulf each represent one of the Cardinal Sins. If that is indeed that case, then her association of the dragon with avarice can be quite convincingly proven with evidence from the poem. Her associations for the other two monsters, however, do not have apparent connections within the poem. The other two monsters may very well represent two of the Seven Deadly Sins, but instead of Grendel representing envy, and his mother representing pride as Chance argues, a more convincing argument can be made for them representing gluttony and wrath, respectively.