Grendel’s Shapeshifting: From Shadow Monster to Human Warrior

Of all the horrifying scenes, which activate what Michael Lapidge has termed the psychology of terror in Beowulf,[1] none are more terrifying than the scene of Grendel’s approach from the night, through the marsh and to the hall. Translations and adaptations of Beowulf approach Grendel in a variety of ways—from emphasizing his monsterization as a eoten “giant” (761) and þyrs troll” (426) to more humanizing treatments that focus on his status as a wonsaeli wer “unfortunate man” (105).

Monster from the Nowell Codex’s ‘Wonders of the East’, British Library, Cotton Vittelius a.xv, f101v.

This Halloween, in continuing our series on Monsters & Magic, I offer a translation and recitation of the monster’s haunting journey to Heorot. This scene has been well-treated in the scholarship, and Katherine O’ Brien O’Keeffe has noted that once the monster finally enters the hall, there is a potential “horror of recognition” by the audience who is then able to identify Grendel as human.[2] 

This blog will focus closely on the Old English poetic language and how Grendel shape-shifts as he draws nearer to Heorot, seemingly coming ever better into focus and transforming to match the space in which he inhabits. I will consider three major sections of his approach, signaled by the thrice repeated verb com “he came” (703, 710, 720), and I will reflect on the ways in which Grendel is described in each leg of his journey.

Image of Grendel as a Shadow Monster from Gareth Hind’s graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf (1999)

In the first passage, Grendel com on wanre niht “came in the dark night” (702), and he is characterized as sceadugenga “shadow-walker” (703): either a “going shadow” or “one who goes in the shadows” (both at available options based on the poetic compound). His movement is described as scriðan “slithering” or “gliding” (703), further emphasizing his portrayal as a shadow monster. Later, when Grendel is named a synscaða: either a “relentless” or a “sinful ravager” (707), depending on how one interprets the polysemous Old English syn in the compound,[3] the monster is described as pulling men under shadow, characterizing Grendel as a night terror shrouded in darkness.  Indeed, when Grendel comes from the dark night, he is represented by the narrator as a shadow monster that hunts and haunts after sundown.

Image of Grendel by J. R. Skelton from “Stories of Beowulf” (1908).

In the second passage, when Grendel ða com of more under misthleoþum “then came from the marsh under misty-slopes” (710), the monster emerges from the swamp and is addressed by his name: Grendel (711). I imagine the silhouette of the monster taking shape in the mist—perhaps a human shape—corresponding to his characterization as manscaða, which likewise plays on polysemous Old English man in the compound, (either mān meaning “criminal” or man meaning “human”).[4] The alliteration in line 712 seems to stress the possibility of monstrous manscaða as “ravager of humans” or a “human-shaped ravager” since manscaða alliterates with the monster’s intended prey, manna cynn “the kin of humans” or “mankind” (712).

The mist rising from the marsh continues to obscure the audience’s view as Grendel wod under wolcnum “went under the cloud” (714) maintaining the suspense generated in the scene by suspending knowledge of Grendel’s ontology. Nevertheless, in this second leg of his journey, Grendel’s form seems to come into focus as he shifts from sceadugenga “a shadow-walker” (703) into manscaða “a mean, man-shaped, ravager of men” (712).

Grendel portrayed as human in Sturla Gunnarsson’s ‘Beowulf & Grendel’ (2005)

In the third passage, Grendel finally arrived at the hall and the audience learns at long last what Grendel is: rinc dreamum bedæled “many bereft of joy” (720-21). During the last leg of his journey, Grendel’s humanity is laid bare leading to the ultimate realization identified by O’Brien O’Keeffe, when Beowulf appears to recognize Grendel’s humanity after the monster bursts open the door of the hall.

Throughout the next twenty lines, in addition to Grendel (720), the term rinc “human warrior” is repeated: twice in reference to the Geatish troop as a whole (728, 730), once in reference to the sleeping man Grendel cannibalizes when he arrives, who the audience later learns is Hondscio (741), and once in reference to Beowulf himself (747). This repeated use of rinc “human warrior” highlights how Grendel is a mirror for the hero and the Geatish warriors, characterized in identical terms.

Grendel killing Hondscio in Sturla Gunnarsson’s ‘Beowulf & Grendel’ (2005)

Similarly, when Grendel approaches from the shadows, Beowulf is described as bolgenmod “swollen-minded” and angrily awaiting battle (709); however, once the monster arrives at the hall, Grendel becomes gebolgen “swollen (with rage)” as he enters the hall ready to glut himself upon the men sleeping inside (723). This parallel description interweaves the respective emotions and behaviors of both hero and monster in Beowulf.

The interplay between hero and monster continues when Beowulf and Grendel struggle together, both called reþe renweardas “ferocious hall-guardians (770) and heaðodeore “battle-brave ones” (772) during their epic battle that nearly destroys the hall. The fusion of hero and monster together into a shared plural subject and object respectively helps to underscore their mutual affinity: the hall must contend against the fury of both warriors and each is a fearsome—yet overconfident—conqueror, who intends to overcome any enemy he encounters.

Grendel from the cover of John Gardner’s novel, ‘Grendel’ (1980).

We know that this is Grendel’s final chance to haunt the hall, and the monster is at least able to feast on one last human, this time a Geat and one of Beowulf’s own warriors (Hondscio). Sadly for Grendel, once Beowulf finally decides to enter the fray, and after a relatively brief struggle, the monster is fatally disarmed and retreats to die at home in the marshes.

Naturally, vengeance follows. Unfortunately for the Danes, and especially Hroðgar’s best thane Æschere, the audience soon learns that Grendel has a mommy, and anyone who messes with her baby boy, will have to answer to her.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading:

Brodeur, Arthur G. The Art of Beowulf. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1959.

Fahey, Richard. “Medieval Trolls: Monsters from Scandinavian Myth and Legend.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (March 20, 2020).

—. “Enigmatic Design & Psychomachic Monstrosity in Beowulf.” University of Notre Dame: Dissertation, 2020.

—. “Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (July 20, 2018).

Gwara, Scott. Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

Johansen, J. G. “Grendel the Brave? Beowulf, Line 834.” English Studies 63 (1982): 193-97.

Joy, Eileen, Mary K. Ramsey, and Bruce D. Gilchrist, editors. The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2006.

Kim, Dorothy. “The Question of Race in Beowulf.” JSTOR Daily (September 25, 2019).

Köberl, Johann. The Indeterminacy of Beowulf. Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 2002.

Lapidge, Michael. “Beowulf and the Psychology of Terror.” In Heroic Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Period: Studies in Honor of Jess B. Bessinger, edited by Helen Damico and John Leyerle, Studies in Medieval Culture 32, 373-402. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1993.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23.4 (1981): 484-94.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Sharma, Manish. “Metalepsis and Monstrosity: The Boundaries of Narrative in Beowulf.” Studies in Philology 102 (2005): 247-79.

Ringler, Richard N. “Him Sēo Wēn Gelēah: The Design for Irony in Grendel’s Last Visit to Heorot.” Speculum 41.1 (1966): 49-67.

[1] Michael Lapidge, “Beowulf and the Psychology of Terror,” 373-402.

[2] Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, “Transformations and the Limits of the Human,” 492.

[3] Andy Orchard raises the possibility of polysemy in synscaða, see Pride and Prodigies, 38.

[4] Orchard also raises the possibility of polysemy in manscaða, see Pride and Prodigies, 31.

The Lay of Sigemund

Having recently posted a blog on dragonomics in Beowulf and Tolkien’s Hobbit, I decided to follow up by offering a complementary poetic translation of the Sigemund-episode in Beowulf.

I have chosen to isolate the Sigemund-episode (874-902) and translate this passage as a discrete poem, in part because the episode operates as a poem within a poem, delivered as one of three songs by the Danish court poet and recited in celebration of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel. Numerous scholars have tried to identify its literary function in Beowulf, and the episode has traditionally been regarded as a heroic exemplum, honoring Beowulf and foreshadowing his fight with the dragon. I wish to challenge this reading of the passage.

“The Sigurðr Portal” from Hylestad Stave Church, Setesdal, Norway; now housed at the Oldsaksamlingen of the University of Oslo.

The Sigemund-episode in Beowulf is the earliest known account of the Vǫlsung legend, and this tale is alluded to in both the anonymous Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson as well as in Njáls saga, Þiðreks saga and the Vǫlsunga saga. Christine Rauer notes in her study of the Beowulf-dragon and analogous medieval dragon-fights, “The more extensive accounts of the Vǫlsung dragon-fight, such as those found in Fáfnismál (Poetic Edda) and Vǫlsunga saga, date from the thirteenth century, although the subject matter can be presumed to be of an earlier date” (42). However, in these later Old Norse-Icelandic versions of the legend, it is Sigurðr, Sigmundr’s son, who is credited with slaying the hoard-guarding dragon, Fáfnir—not his father.

I would note that, in the section in Beowulf describing Sigemund’s slaying of the dragon, there appears to be an alliterative formula that features also in the Old English Maxims II. This poem characterizes the behavior, function and stereotypical nature of various things—including references to cyning “a king” (1, 28), wulf “wolf” (18) and þyrs “giant” (42), in addition to geological features such as ea “a river” (30), wudu “woods” (33) and brim “sea” (45), as well as material objects and structures such as daroð “a spear” (21), beorh “barrow” (34) and duru “doors” (36). Maxims II describes sweord “a sword” (25) before shifting focus onto the stereotypical image of a gold-proud and barrow-dwelling dragon. The line reads drihtlic isern. Draca sceal on hlæwe “lordly iron. The dragon shall be in a barrow” (26). This closely parallels a similar line in Beowulf, which reads dryhtlic iren. Draca morðre swealt “lordly iron. The dragon died by murder” (892). Although the ending of the line is altered, the commonalities are nevertheless striking, especially since in both cases the alliteration stretches across two discrete semantic units.

I have also tried in my translation and recitation to emphasize the poetics of this episode, especially the two rhyming b-verse half-lines, which emphasize the dragon’s demise. The first, draca morðre swealt “the dragon died by murder” (892), characterizes Sigemund’s killing of the monster as a crime, in its description of the slaying as morðor “murder” (892). The second, wyrm hat gemealt “the hot worm melted” (897), reiterates the dragon’s death at the hand of the hero, and emphasizes also the element of heat—otherwise absent from the characterization of the dragon in the Sigmeund-episode—though explicitly linked to the Beowulf-dragon, described as fyrdraca “fire-dragon” (2689) and ligdraca “flame dragon” (2334, 3040).

Vǫlsung Legend runestone discovered at Drävle (U 1163), relocated in 1878 to the courtyard of the manor house Göksbo, containing image of Sigurðr who thrusts his sword through the serpent.

The Sigemund-episode is also enveloped by references to his ellendædum “valorous deeds” (876, 900), a compound that appears at both the beginning and end of the passage. However, Mark Griffith has provided a detailed commentary of the episode, and he concludes that “The episode of Sigemund is more highly enigmatic, and its central figure much more problematic than received opinion has it” (40). Griffith observes the numerous pejorative terms used to describe the hero, perhaps most famously his characterization as aglæca “fearsome marauder” (893), a term used to characterize each monster in the poem, Grendel (159, 425, 433, 591, 646, 732, 739, 816, 989, 1000, 1269), Grendel’s mother (1259), and the dragon (2520, 2534, 2592, 2907, 3061), though notably also Beowulf at two key moments (1512, 2592). As Griffith points out, “if the term does have pejorative meaning, then this applies to both Sigemund and Beowulf” (35).

This calls into question the merits of his heroism, and makes the reader wonder about the nature of his ellendædum, uncuþes fela “valorous deeds, much known” (876). The mystery introduced in this line is resolved when the Danish poet reports that þara þe gumena bearn gearwe ne wiston,/ fæhðe ond fyrena, buton Fitela mid hine “feuds and crimes, of which the the sons of men did not readily know, except Fitela with him” (878-79). Indeed we learn that his valorous deeds are characterized specifically as fæhðe “feuds” (879), a term associated with the Grendelkin’s feud with God (109), and especially Grendel’s mother’s vengeance (1333, 1340, 1380, 1537) as well as the dragons wrath (2403, 2513, 2525, 2689). We learn also that these deeds are explicitly fyrena “crimes” (879)—a term repeatedly associated with Grendel (101, 164, 750, 811)—who likewise performs fæhðe ond fyrene (137, 153).

Moreover, the reference to Fitela, Griffith argues, may call to mind information for the Vǫlsunga saga, which “records how Signy changes shape with a sorceress, visits her brother and sleeps with him, whilst in this disguise, in order to beget a son to further the Vǫlsung feud with her husband” (25). In other words, Sigmundr (Sigemund) is both father and uncle to Sinflǫtli (Fitela), as a result of his incestuous relations with his twin sister. This seems further emphasized by the reference to the secrets shared eam his nefan “uncle to nephew” (881), which focuses the reader’s attentions on Sigemund’s incest and role as eam, an Old English term which indicates specifically “maternal uncle.”

Indeed, troubling descriptions of the hero persist, as Sigemund becomes characterized as wreccena wide mærost “the most famous of exiles”(898), which calls to mind the exiled Grendel, described as mære mearcstapa “famous border-crosser” (103), depicting the hero once again in pejorative terms. I would argue that this bears especially on the final reference to Sigemund’s ellendædum “valorous deeds” (900), and specifically the parenthetical half-line at the end of the episode, which indicates that he þæs ær onðah “he prospered before by these” (900).

Vǫlsung legend runestone located at Gök (Sö 327), containing a runic text on two serpents that surround much of the Vǫlsung imagery, including a depiction of Sigurðr stabbing the serpent from below (photo from 1922).

If Sigemund prospers through fæhðe ond fyrena “feuds and crimes” (879), what does this say about the warrior ethics displayed in the poem? Indeed, I would suggest that the parenthetical half-line he þæs ær onðah “he prospered before by these” (900) highlights how in the heroic world of Beowulf, the only way to thrive is by imitating monsters and engaging readily in fæhðe ond fyrena. In Beowulf, feuds and crimes result in the protagonist’s death and the subsequent genocide of the Geatish people—which mirrors Sigemund’s (and Fitela’s) annihilation of ealfela eotena cynnes “an entire race of giants” (883)—perhaps in part because Beowulf seems to adopt Sigemund as a role model and seeks to emulate the ellendæda of this aglæca.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. “Bee-wolf and the Hand of Victory: Identifying the Heroes of Beowulf and Vǫlsunga saga.The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116.4 (2017): 387-414.

Bonjour, Adrien. The Digressions in Beowulf. Basil Blackwell. 1950.

Kaske, Robert.  “The Sigemund-Heremod and Hama-Hygelac Passages in Beowulf.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 74 (1959): 489-94.

Griffith, Mark. “Some difficulties in Beowulf, lines 874-902: Sigemund reconsidered.” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995): 11-41.

Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon. D. S. Brewer. 2000.

The Lay of Ludwig

Jake Coen‘s translation of the Old High German Ludwigslied marks an expansion of the Medieval Institute’s Medieval Poetry Project, formerly the Old English Poetry Project, which now welcomes contributions that translate into modern English any verse composed in a medieval language.

Manuscript illumination of Frankish cavalry taken from the so-called “Stuttgart Psalter” (fol. 3v), a Psalm codex produced c. 820 at the monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (Paris), now Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart, Cod.bibl.fol.23.

Translator’s Preface:

In August 881, the West Frankish King Louis III successfully routed an invading force of Vikings at Saucourt-en-Vimeu. Within a year, a poet tied to the court celebrated this seminal triumph in verse, creating one of the monuments of Old High German literature: the Ludwigslied.

Presented below is a new transcription, translation, and recitation of this early vernacular masterpiece from its sole surviving attestation in Cod. 150, fol. 141v-143r of the Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes. Its inclusion in Notre Dame’s ongoing digital collection of Old English translations marks the beginning of a new phase of this project which will now expand beyond the bounds of one language. If Old High German still retains many similarities to Old English, the Ludwigslied already demonstrates a series of changes within the former that led to the birth of a language unique and clearly distinct from its sister tongues. The text, therefore, serves as a fruitful tool for philological comparison and poetic analysis while capturing the reader’s attention with its driving rhythm, its presentation of divine intervention (as well as punishment), and its heroic protagonist.

Transcription Note: In past editions of this text, the words ðugidi and gunðfanon have been transcribed with d instead of ð. I believe, however, that the forms of these letters in the manuscript are different enough—their ascenders are curved and rather short while elsewhere the letter d is marked by a longer, straight, and almost spatulate ascender—to require a different transcription. Furthermore, given that the text is composed in a Rhenish-Franconian dialect (closer to “Middle” German), it is entirely possible that the High German shift /ð/ > /d/ (and further /d/ > /t/ in some positions) was not yet complete or was at least not yet distinguished in writing.

Jake Coen
PhD Candidate in Medieval Studies
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame