Reading the Hildeburh Episode: Feuding, Vengeance & the Problem of Motherhood in Beowulf

Beowulf is historically known for its “digressions” into extratextual storytelling, and scholars have regarded these intrusions as everything from evidence of Beowulf’s oral origin to a demonstration of the problematic structure of the poem. My interpretation of this narrative interlace understands the various stories as directly engaged with the main subject of the plot by providing parallel circumstances that highlight important aspects of the main narrative centered on Beowulf and monster-slaying.

Much ink has been spilled on the Sigemund and Heremod episodes. Some read these stories as foils of each other with Sigemund representing a positive model for Beowulf to follow and Heremod representing a negative model that serves as a warning for the young hero. However, Mark Griffith has demonstrated how even the Sigemund episode is coded with misdeeds, and he has suggested that many of the details included in the story portray the hero rather pejoratively.

There are numerous other “digressions” within Beowulf, though these two have traditionally gained the lion’s share of attention in the scholarship. Today, I want to look closely at the form and possible narrative function of the Hildeburh episode (1076-1159), frequently called the Finn episode, which follows directly after the two previously referenced stories, and the three serve as entertainment during the celebration following Grendel’s defeat and Beowulf’s triumph.

John Howe’s illustration of the funeral of king Finn (2005).

While the first two “digressions” seem to parallel aspects of Beowulf’s own character, the episode centered on Hildeburh conveys a very different message, and I would argue, perhaps to a specific audience. While the first two stories focus on heroes who possess great strength, the third story centers on something only hinted at thus far in the poem: maternal loss.

Just prior to the celebratory storytelling in Heorot, we learn that Wealhðeow, queen of the Danes, advises her husband, King Hroðgar, to place his trust in his nephew and kinsman Hroðulf rather than investing in a foreign hero, like Beowulf. Thomas Shippey has noted the irony in this as earlier in the poem there is reference to the burning of Heorot, which is perpetrated by Hroðulf and results in the murder of both of Hroðgar’s sons and Hroðulf’s usurpation. These enigmatic references to a future Danish power struggle might easily be missed, but they nevertheless frame Wealhðeow as a mother who will lose her sons to violence and kin-slaying, possibly within the broader context of a feud between rival brothers for the throne. After all, Hroðgar is not the first in line, and he even remarks of his late (and elder) brother Heorogar—deep in his cups—that se wæs betera ðonne ic “he was better than I” (469) presumably referring to his prior kingship.

J. R. Skelton’s image of Wealhðeow as a cup-bearer in Stories of Beowulf by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1908).

Indeed, the need for Hroðgar to build Heorot at all suggests that the former Danish mead hall is no longer around, which invites further questions such as whether its destruction was a result of inter-family violence and Hroðgar’s overthrow of his older brother to claim the Danish crown. Alas, the poem does not tell.

Although the Hildeburh episode concludes the celebration of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, its mood is far from jovial. The tale relates a feud between the Danes and the Frisians and Hildeburh is caught in the middle. Hildeburh’s song relates how her bearn ond broðor “sons and brothers” (1074) find themselves on opposite sides of a feud where everybody dies in the ensuing conflict—everyone loses—all of them die in the violence. Indeed, Hildeburh’s role as Danish princess made Frisian queen herself—a failed freoðuwebbe “peace-weaver” (1942) is highlighted by the mutual deaths of her family members. The feud takes both Finnes eaferan “the heirs of Finn” (1068) and hæleð Healfdena “heroes of the half-Danes”(1069) as the parallel descriptions of how wig ealle fornam (1080) “war took all” and lig ealle forswealg “fire swallowed all” (1122) connects warfare with their shared cremation next to one another on the funeral pyre.

Hildeburh metodsceaft bemearn “bemoaned her fate” (1077) because she has no way to avenge her kinsmen. She is on both sides and therefore on neither. No matter what happens in the ongoing feud between her peoples, Hildeburh will suffer loss. And again, a mother loses her sons. Moreover, her tale parallels the foreshadowed fate of Wealhðeow’s sons, who will be betrayed by her treacherous nephew Hroðulf (1180-7). 

As I discuss in much greater depth in my dissertation subchapter “The Ethical Paradox of Grendel’s Mother’s Revenge” (358-370), it is this contextual framework within which Grendel’s mother appears in the narrative (out of nowhere) as a wrecend “avenger” to wreak vengeance upon those who murdered her son. In a sense, Grendel’s mother does—and is able to do—what Hildeburh cannot. And, as Leslie Lockett and others have observed, Grendel’s mother’s actions represent a legally and ethically “fair” exchange: a life for a life. This engenders further sympathy for her character’s suffering and retaliation, especially following directly after the context established by Hildeburh episode.

Image of monstrous hybrid-woman from The Wonders of the East in British Library, Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f.105v.

Even after Grendel’s mother is slain, the pattern repeats. Not long after we meet Queen Hygd in Geatland, her son is killed in a feud with the Swedish king Onela, leaving Beowulf to inherit the throne. Yet another mother loses her son to a feud, underscoring the narrator’s comments on the violence between the Danes and the Grendelkin: ne wæs þæt gewrixle til,/ þæt hie on ba healfa bicgan scoldon/ freonda feorum “that was not a good exchange, that they on both sides should pay with the lives of kinsmen” (1304-06).

We do not know who wrote Beowulf, and probably never will. Nevertheless, at this point in the poem, I am reminded of Virginia Woolf’s argument in A Room Of One’s Own: “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”  While I am not arguing for a female author of the poem (though why not), I would contend that there seem to be strong rhetorical appeals directed at women—especially mothers—within Beowulf, which suggest that they were likely part of the poem’s anticipated audience.

Richard Fahey
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

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

Fahey, Richard. “Enigmatic Design and Psychomachic Monstrosity in Beowulf.” University of Notre Dame: Dissertation, 2020.

—. “The Lay of Sigemund.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (March 22, 2019).

Fell, Christine. Women in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.

Franzen, Eleanor. “Peace, Politics, Gender and God: Beowulf and the Women Of Early Medieval Europe.” Bluestocking: Online Journal for Women’s History (October 6, 2011).

Gardner, Jennifer Michelle. “The Peace Weaver: Wealhtheow in Beowulf.” Western Carolina University: Master’s Thesis, 2006.

Griffith, Mark. “Some Difficulties in Beowulf, Lines 874-902: Sigemund Reconsidered.” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995): 11-41.

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

Lockett, Leslie. “The Role of Grendel’s Arm in Feud, Law, and the Narrative Strategy of Beowulf.” In Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge (I), edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard, 368-88. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

McLemore, Emily. “Grendel’s Mother Eats Man, Woman Inherits the Epic: Why Women Should Continue Teaching Beowulf.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (April 28, 2021).

Overing, Gillian. Language, Sign and Gender in Beowulf. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

Shippey, Thomas A. “The Ironic Background.” In Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology, edited by Robert D. Fulk, 194-205. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.

On the Process of Writing a Pop History Book


Reviewer #1: This is an important article. Although the topic is quite specialized, the application of a methodology normally applied to the Middle Ages to a neglected early modern topic is a useful tool for further investigation of less documented subjects.

Reviewer #2: The author’s argument is unoriginal and uninteresting. There is room for a retelling of the story, but this piece of writing is not it.

As medievalists, our scholarship and self-esteem are to a large extent governed by Reviewer #2. Or rather, they are shaped by an entrenched system of abstracts, standardized book proposals, peer review, impostor syndrome, and desperate self-scrutiny in hopes of avoiding that Reviewer #2. In the course of writing a medieval history book aimed at a popular market, however, I (and my self-esteem) fell headlong into a rather different process. After my earlier post concerning my book, How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages (Tiller Press, 2021), some readers expressed interest in hearing more about the process of producing a pop history book.

A small disclaimer: I cannot adequately compare the scholarly and popular processes, unfortunately, because I am currently working on my first academic book proposal, also unfortunately. Nevertheless, I hope that my experience can prove helpful and even hopeful—if I can make it through this process, so can you.

The Ambush(es)

Relieved that academic conferences might be dwindling in the Zoom era? I was actually approached by a representative from Tiller Press (a Simon & Schuster imprint) after an in-person conference panel on Internet public history. It was not an open-ended conversation, however: she had a specific book for me to write, a coffee-table volume on people of color in medieval Europe. Since everyone wants to write that book right now, I was eager to set up a later meeting to discuss the possibility.

I decided in the meantime that such a book really needed to be written by a junior scholar of color, and I am white, so I thought the meeting was going to be short. Instead, now was the time the editors on the other end of the call asked me what I would like to write. Sure, I have plenty of ideas—but I did not have a practiced elevator pitch for any of them. I stammered out several, and miraculously, they jumped on A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages.

Well, “jumped on” meaning I would have to prove the viability with a book proposal.

Image of Christine de Pizan (Cristina da Pizzano) lecturing from her works in British Library, Harley 4431, f.259v (1413).

The Book Proposal

Fortunately for us, this bears some similarity to the academic version, except with a far stronger focus on potential sales. The publisher wanted:

1. A short abstract: a 1-2 sentence publicity blurb to entice readers quickly.

2. A long abstract: 250ish words in which to:
(a) describe the premise in more depth
(b) explain that the book would be based on proper primary and secondary sources
(c) present the desirable “P crossed with Q crossed with R” description of the contents (in my case, “Rejected Princesses meets Lords of the Rings meets TV Tropes”)
(d) set out the probable audience
(e) justify its current relevance (its gender- and race-inclusiveness, in light of Internet discussions)
(f) finish with an “awesomeness” factor (“How to Slay a Dragon reveals a Middle Ages far more outrageous than any fantasy fiction could hope to be.”)

3. An author profile

4. A projected outline

5. Multiple sample chapters

Fun fact: only one of my three sample chapters made it into the book.

Don’t Panic

This was—and remains—the hardest part for me. If you think you struggle with impostor syndrome when submitting an article, imagine how it feels when your contract mentions royalty shares from the potential sale of audiobook rights and other people being hired to write a sequel. I know to say that may sound like I’m bragging, but trust me, all I feel inside are knots around my heart and maybe a little nausea. So please be aware before you start the process of writing and publishing a pop history book: it’s not a matter of “pick a manuscript illumination to plop on the cover, contact the archive, and get the rights.” Your editor is going to mention “cover art” and “hiring an illustrator,” and your job is to not panic.

I was not good at this.

Writing and Editing

Rather than deliver a full book and then revise it wholesale, my editor (the wonderful Ronnie Alvaredo) required me to work in pieces. The nature of my premise means my book has around forty short chapters, and she set up a schedule for me to submit three new ones or three revised ones at a time. She also asked me to start with a few chapters that I thought might make good advance chapters to show the sales team and potential corporate buyers. No pressure! So I was always revising other chapters as I was writing new ones.

Another important factor for medievalists to keep in mind is that we are the experts, not the editorial team—not just in terms of information, but in terms of how medieval as a field works. I lost count of how many times I had to explain, “We simply don’t know exact dates or a location and also the author’s name is probably a pseudonym.”

The Best Part

There is no Reviewer #2.

The Worst Part

That means you have to be your own.


Cait Stevenson
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

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 an 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.