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.

How to Slay a Dragon (and Reach a Public Audience)

If you ever fall asleep and wake up in a strange fantasy world, there is no reason to panic. Even if you have never rolled a d20 or published an article on Tolkien, you probably know you will be meeting your traveling party at an inn, dealing with a dragon or two, and feasting like it’s 1480 and you plan to commission a 124-folio illuminated manuscript account of your wedding that will also be printed for distribution to a wide public readership. [1] You know these things because a facsimile of the Middle Ages has been host to wizards, jinn, and paladins since Lord of Rings, since Gothic fiction, since 1000 Nights became 1001. And now you can know that medieval history holds all the answers you need to survive and triumph in a five-volume fantasy trilogy.

At least, this is the premise of my new book, How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages (Tiller Press, 2001). It is a handbook for heroes that uses fantasy tropes as allegory to teach medieval history–and a little bit about critical interpretation of sources along the way. Throughout the book, you take on the role of an illiterate peasant (a Chosen One?) called to a quest (slaying a dragon, saving the princess, figuring out what to do while the princess saves herself), and every chapter presents a common trope–the more magical, the better–as a problem to solve.

Befriending the Enchanted Forest might not be possible because enchanted forests do not exist, but Muslim and Christian rulers alike showed off their power and riches with silver forests filled with golden chirping automatons. Medieval patterns of evangelization and conversion demonstrate the exact opposite of Bringing the Old Gods Back, but the Sphinx guarded the desert outside the Fatimid capital, and Abu Ja’far al-Idrisi (d. 1251) wanted to know why. (Caliphs were more interested in staging races up the Great Pyramid and throwing torchlit parties at Giza.) If you have ever needed to survive some shrieking eels or use linguistic evidence to reconstruct Early English beacon warning systems, How to Slay a Dragon is the book for you.

From the standpoint of writing the book, on the other hand, one of the big advantages of working with an editor and sales team at a major publishing house was to see what did and did not appeal to them along the way. The ideas seem basic, especially from a classroom point of view, but the publishers’ explicit acknowledgment of them suggests both their necessity and a feeling that they are lacking in the overall public discourse on the Middle Ages.

The “medieval world”

It was vital to me to write about a “medieval world,” not just the western Europe that underlies traditional fantasy (or as I like to put it, A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to Fifteenth-Century Germany and Tenth-Century Cairo). What “medieval world” does and should mean in scholarship is constantly in flux, but I ultimately settled on a spiderweb approach: the economic and cultural networks that criss-crossed the world around the Mediterranean, with branches stretching out to the Sámi, Mali, Sumatra. My editor was thrilled that this approach acted as a counterpoint to narratives of the mythic white Middle Ages, and suggested that the push to diversify the fantasy genre has made average readers hungrier for a historical accuracy hunt in the medieval Islamic world as well.

Analyzing primary sources

Although most of the 1000-1500 word chapters bring together information from three to eight secondary sources and the occasional primary, several chapters zoom in on one or two primary sources, for example, John of Morigny’s Liber florum (“How to train a wizard”) and Bertrandon de la Brocquière’s Le Voyage de Outre-Mer (“How to cross the barren wastes”). [2] My editor thought readers would respond really well to my method of talking the reader through the source bit by bit, gradually revealing its own genre elements and how we should not take primary sources at face value.

Being specific about time, place, and origin

Because How to Slay a Dragon is essentially Medieval Studies 101 using a fantasy epic instead of a timeline as its narrative, I tried to be very specific about the time and place of every anecdote, event, or text. I was surprised at how strongly my editor stressed this point as well. But even more, she insisted that I include background information about primary sources. Once again, I think it’s a good lesson that people are hungry for firsthand access to actual medieval writing and material objects, but also to know how to understand them.

You, the hero

Throughout the process, the strength of the book’s quest through-narrative was the biggest point of contention between my editor and me. My original vision was to use the tropes as an excuse to talk about the “cool parts” of medieval history (need to cross a cursed swamp? Let me tell you about bathhouse ghosts and London’s public toilets). But the marketing team in particular pointed to the self-insert, immersive aspect of fantasy gaming (computer and tabletop) and even fanfiction, not just reading, in terms of how people engage medievalist fantasy. After all, as Tolkien himself pointed out in “On Fairy-Stories,” part of the eternal appeal of fantasy is the escape into another world–your escape.

Although the first three points are foundational to how I, a medieval historian, approach the Middle Ages, I find it significant that my editor and marketing team believe so strongly in their place in books aimed at a popular audience. And if you are interested, of course, I invite you to see an example of how they can play out in How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages.

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] The text and its illuminations are translated in Jane Bridgeman, The Celebrations at Pesaro for the Marriage of Costanzo Sforza & Camilla Marzano d’Aragona (26 – 30 May 1475) (Brepols, 2013).

[2] Claire Fanger and Nicholas Watson (eds.), John of Morigny: Liber florum celestis doctrine / The Flowers of Heavenly Teaching: An Edition and Commentary (Brepols, 2016); C. H. Schefer (ed.), Le Voyage d’outremer de Bertrandon de la Broquière (Ernest Leroux, 1892).