Grendel’s Kin: Monsters in Mythology
The following passage from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf describes Grendel:
Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan…there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too (102-106,111-113)
This sentiment is repeated when Grendel’s mother comes for vengeance, reaffirming their evil genealogy. It is important to understand the monsters mentioned to whom Grendel is related, the monsters that were very real to Anglo-Saxon people of the time. While there is literary evidence that early Britons and their educated leaders believed in these myths what is fascinating in reading Beowulf is seeing Grendel’s familial relationship to these monsters and the overwhelming unification of the supernatural throughout history that Beowulf affords us.
The poem does a great job of reflecting the culture and custom of the time, given that recent archaeological digs have confirmed burial customs and funeral rites and battle garb of the era, and recent excavations have found the ruins of an actual Heorot and scholars believe there existed a Danish King named Hrothgar living in this time. But what about the monsters, the beasts of the darkness? What about Cain’s clan?
As for Grendel and his mother, they are not described but for their kin. We know they are very powerful and very old—she is described as hunting for a hundred seasons and he is described as capable of carrying off thirty bodies of men. Their details feel Lovecraftian at times (or vice versa, it feels like Lovecraft based some of his ideas on Grendel and his mother). We know they are related to ogres and fairies and giants, but these are not to be confused with Shrek or Tinkerbell. So what were these ancient demonic beings?
Ogres—Franklin describes them as stupid, large and deformed…a class of fairies. They live in caves and have white or ebony skin, prominent lower teeth and round ears. In the work by John and Caitlin Matthews, they are cannibalistic giants. Elves/Fairies—Judith Illes says the most accurate modern depiction of elves comes from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Tall, beautiful, healers, archers. Illes also equates Fairies to the idea of fate, but the most detailed description of fairies can be found in Anna Franklin’s work. Phantoms—ghosts, but they can be demonic as well as human spirits. Phantoms are synonyms with ghosts which are discussed in the different works. Like fairies, phantoms are a broad classification with many individual creatures and species named. Giants—in the Matthews work, they are traced back to the Titans of ancient myth. Scientifically speaking, Giants could have originated with dragons when ancient people discovered prehistoric bones. Franklin cites giants as the builders of Stonehenge, and writes that the British Isles were populated by giants until being vanquished by Brutus. This could be taken from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, who sets her story in a time when giants and fairies roamed the British Isles.
But what is important about this is the cohesiveness of myth throughout centuries. From the beginning of time with Cain and Abel and the murder, Cain’s sin, his mark the early Britons believed gave rise to the monsters, the things that go bump in the night, the things that want to hurt us and haunt us. If Adam and Eve gave us original sin with the bite of the apple, then Cain gave us original evil. Beowulf reflects this idea started in the Bible, and links all the supernatural into one family, old like Lovecraft’s Old Ones and indescribably evil, every monster and creature one can imagine, springing forth from one source.
What scholars believe about the epic poem, and this is supported by research and historical evidence, is that Beowulf was originally written in a transformative time for Britons, as they moved away from their pagan gods and embraced their Roman Occupiers’ Catholic faith. That the author would then link the monsters to Cain in Genesis seems obvious, as it is well known the Church accepted the myths of foreigners but demonized them so as to help draw people to the faith. So then from ancient Hebrew to early Briton the link is shown. Later still, Chaucer takes it a step further, suggesting a time on the British Isles that predates human domination. Is the Wife of Bath talking about Beowulf’s time or something even earlier? Just till Chaucer’s time in the 1300’s, we have Cain’s descendants walking the earth for six to ten thousand years. Then Shakespeare comes along, describes Puck and the fairies, King Oberon, the witches of MacBeth (another historical figure from around Beowulf’s time), Caliban as the bastard child (Grendel would not have been proud of his enslaved little brother in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. What we are able to do is draw a cohesive family tree of the supernatural throughout British myth with all these works, and that is the fascinating contribution of this early epic poem.
Franklin, Anna. The Illustrated Encylcopaedia of Fairies. Sterling Publishing Company: New
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, London, 2000.
Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies,
Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses. Harper Collins: New York, 2009.
Matthews, John and Caitlin. The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures: The Ultimate A-Z
of Fantastic Beings from Myth and Magic. Sterling Publishing: New York, 2005.