No Sympathy for the Grieving Mother
Adaptations are revisions of works previously composed. Though the novel Grendel, by John Gardner, is a loose adaptation based on the Beowulf poem, elements of it reveal features of characters within the poem that may have been formerly overlooked. It is shown that Grendel’s mother is rather passive until her son is threatened, in the novel, or, in the case of the poem, killed. By way of a close reading of the poem through the literary lens of the novel, it is evident that Grendel’s mother’s violence is a direct result of Grendel’s death. If Grendel were not killed by Beowulf, his mother would have never attacked Heorot out of vengeance. This reading thus transforms Grendel’s mother from a horrible monster into a sympathetic character: a grief-stricken mother who failed to protect her son, so she tried to avenge his death. Because it was unacceptable at that time for women to seek revenge, she was killed, receiving no sympathy or understanding for the loss of her only child.
In the novel, Grendel’s mother is portrayed as very meek and mild until Unferth appears to slay Grendel, when she is shown to be very protective of him. The early descriptions of her render her rather pathetic and pitiful. She is described as “old, sick at heart” and as a “life-bloated, baffled, long-suffering hag” (11). She was obviously old and depleted, as if the years had drained her of her livelihood. Not only had she lost her stamina, but also her speech, as if she had digressed. She is portrayed as being a simple creature wanting nothing more than to care for her son. The novel says, “She whimpered, scratched at the nipple I had not sucked in years.
She was pitiful, foul, her smile a jagged white tear in the firelight: waste. She whimpered one sound: Dool-dool! Dool-dool!, scratching at her bosom, a ghastly attempt to climb back up to speech” (55-6). Grendel’s mother wanted nothing more than to perform the most natural, instinctual function of a mother: to nurse her child, yet she couldn’t do that for him, just as she could not protect him, nor could she even convey in words her feelings toward her son. Her love for Grendel was evident even to him, though she could not verbalize her feelings. He says, “She loved me, in some mysterious sense I understood without her speaking it. I was her creation. We were one thing, like the wall and the rock growing out from it” (17). This intense love she had for Grendel was apparent when Unferth came to fight him. It is the only instance in the novel of Grendel’s mother acting even remotely violent, and it is simply the instinctual protectiveness of a mother. It says, “I saw my mother moving slowly and silently past me, blue murder in her eyes. I understood instantly, not with my mind but with something quicker, and I darted around in front to block her way. I pushed her back” (86). Because Grendel was able to stop her and defend himself, his mother had no need to commit any violent acts, though she was quite intent on protecting her son, and she made that fact apparent.
In the poem, though none of the above is presented, there is still evidence to suggest that Grendel’s mother acts solely as the protector of her child; she kills only as a way of avenging her son’s death. She is even portrayed as semi-pitiful in the poem, as she is in the novel. She is described as “desperate” and “afflicted” (35). Perhaps her desperation and affliction are a result of her failure to protect her son, and her longing to get retribution. The poem also says that she “brooded,” which suggests self-pity and being worrisome (34). These characteristics paint her character in the poem as very similar to her character in the novel. Perhaps she was not simply
the same as Grendel: a ruthless killer, who kills for no other reason than to kill. Evidence suggests she has only killed for her son, and had made no attacks on Heorot prior to Grendel’s death. The poem says, “But now his mother / had sallied forth on a savage journey, / grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge” (35). This shows that her “savage journey” is made out of her grief-induced rage, and had her son not been killed, she would have nothing to avenge. Had Grendel not been killed, the Danes may have never even known she existed.
Moreover, there is a passage in the poem that suggests that Grendel’s mother was not adept at attacking, as Grendel was, showing her attack was motivated purely by his death. It says, “The hell-dam was in panic, desperate to get out, / in mortal terror the moment she was found” (35). This not only shows that she was not simply a killer, but also that she had attacked on a whim, and once she was found out, she regretted making the journey. Not only did she regret it, but she was terrified. She was in a “panic” and “mortal terror” because she may have realized that, because of attacking Heorot, her life would too be cut short because women were expected to merely grieve their losses, not avenge them. Before she fled Heorot, after the attack, she retrieved Grendel’s hand, which is described as a “fresh blow” to her (35). So, although she had just killed a man, before the Danes could retaliate, just the reminder that her son was killed was a hard hit for her to take. Furthermore, when Beowulf arrives at her lair to kill her, Grendel’s mother puts up quite a fight in order to punish the man who killed her son. The poem says, “She pounced upon him and pulled out / a broad, whetted knife: now she would avenge / her only child” (41). Though she had already killed a man for revenge, she really would have preferred to kill Beowulf, the man who killed her only child. Her way of getting vengeance for her son, and
relieving her grief, would have been to kill Beowulf: the ultimate retribution for her son. However, she never gets the justice she desires for her son, as she loses the fight with him.
With the evidence showing that Grendel’s mother only attacked Heorot out of grief and vengeance for her son, perhaps she is a character more deserving of sympathy than an evil monster, as she was previously viewed. Because women were not meant to avenge the deaths of their kin at that time, she seemed monstrous to the men in Heorot, and she needed to be punished. However, had a man gone to avenge Grendel’s death, perhaps he would not have been killed in response, as it would have been accepted by the social mores of Heorot. Grendel’s mother is a sympathetic character in the poem, just as she is in the novel. Her death in the poem is even described in a way which provokes empathy from the reader. It says, “The wandering fiend / let go of her life and this unreliable world” (42). She is portrayed as “wandering” to suggest that she is lost without her son, and because she no longer had the purpose of being a mother. Also, the world is described as “unreliable” to her because she was left all alone, her only son taken from her. When she tried to avenge his death, it was not allowed; she again had to sacrifice, this time with her life because no one at that time would have had sympathy for a woman trying to fulfill a man’s duty of avenging the death of a kinsman.
Just because of the atrocities committed by Grendel in life, his mother should not have been punished for attempting to defend him. Regardless of the crimes he committed in Heorot, he was still her son that she loved. Any mother would be devastated by the loss of her child; however, Grendel’s mother decided to take revenge in a time when it was unacceptable for women to do anything but grieve for the loss of her kin. Despite the cultural mores of that time, it is still possible to sympathize with Grendel’s mother, as there is no evidence in the poem of her ever
attacking prior to Grendel’s death. As any mother would receive sympathy for the loss of her child, so should Grendel’s mother, even though she would most likely not have during that time. Should the poem have taken place in a time period in which the social mores allowed retribution to be taken by women, she would not have been killed as a result.
After noticing the portrayal of Grendel’s mother as a rather sad, simple, and pathetic, yet protective mother in the novel by Gardner, it is evident upon a close reading of the original poem Beowulf that she is a character that should receive sympathy from the reader. She had no history of attacking Heorot prior to her son’s death, showing that it was simply a crime committed out of grief and seeking revenge for her only child. As any mother who has lost a child would be terribly grief-stricken, Grendel’s mother was only acting upon her feelings despite living in a time when doing so was unacceptable for women. She should not be regarded as the monster that Grendel was, just because she was his mother. Grendel had committed several crimes against the people of Heorot, yet she had not. Her only crime was avenging the death of her son at a time when women were forbidden to seek revenge.
Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. Ed. Daniel Donoghue.
Gardner, John. Grendel. 1971.