Study Guide

Beowulf Violence

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Lines 1-300

Suddenly then
the God-cursed brute was creating havoc:
greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses. (120-125)

Grendel isn't only a violent murderer. He's also a "greedy" killer, someone who takes the lives of thirty men at one stroke even though he can't pay reparations for their deaths and there seems little reason for him to lash out in this way. Even though the world of the Spear-Danes and Weather-Geats is a brutal medieval battlefield, Grendel's violence stands out because it just doesn't make sense according to their customs.

Lines 301-606

"If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day;
he will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall,
swoop without fear on that flower of manhood
as on others before. Then my face won't be there
to be covered in death: he will carry me away
as he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied;
he will run gloating with my raw corpse
and feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy,
fouling his moor-nest." (442-450)

Beowulf imagines, not just the possibility of his death and defeat, but the exact details of his gruesome demise, what his corpse will look like, and what will happen to his body after he is dead. Why? Probably because, as a medieval warrior, he's seen a lot of men killed and been around a lot of corpses. It was a brutal life back then.

Time and again, when the goblets passed
and seasoned fighters got flushed with beer
they would pledge themselves to protect Heorot
and wait for Grendel with whetted swords.
But when dawn broke and day crept in
over each empty, blood-spattered bench,
the floor of the mead-hall where they had feasted
would be slick with slaughter. (480-487)

In the world of the Spear-Danes, violence alternates with drunken revels and feasting.

Lines 607-914

Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open
the mouth of the building, maddening for blood,
pacing the length of the patterned floor
with his loathsome tread, while a baleful light,
flame more than light, flared from his eyes.
He saw many men in the mansion, sleeping,
a ranked company of kinsmen and warriors
quartered together. And his glee was demonic,
picturing the mayhem: before morning
he would rip life from limb and devour them,
feed on their flesh. (723-733)

Grendel actually takes pleasure in the details of his murderous assaults on the Danes, suggesting that he values battle for its own sake, rather than for the glory or the gold that he can get as a result of taking part in it. By contrast, heroes like Beowulf fight for honor and for rewards, not for the thrill of killing.

Nor did the creature keep him waiting
but struck suddenly and started in;
he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,
bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood
and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body
utterly lifeless, eaten up
hand and foot. (738-744)

Grendel is, literally, a cannibal. (That is, if we assume that he's a human-like creature, not just a supernatural fantasy creature.) His murders are connected with consuming his victims, turning their flesh into his own – a disturbing thought for pagan warriors who would prefer being buried at sea or burned on funeral pyres.

Lines 915-1231

Then Hildeburh ordered her own
son's body be burnt with Hnaef's,
the flesh on his bones to sputter and blaze
beside his uncle's. The woman wailed
and sang keens, the warrior went up.
Carcass flame swirled and fumed,
they stood round the burial mound and howled
as heads melted, crusted gashes
spattered and ran bloody matter.
The glutton element flamed and consumed
the dead of both sides. (1115-1125)

Violence is connected with more aspects of life in medieval Scandinavia than battle alone. Even funerals are gory and gruesome, as a man's loved ones watch his body burning and decomposing before their eyes.

Lines 1232-1496

He went in front with a few men,
good judges of the lie of the land,
and suddenly discovered the dismal wood,
mountain trees growing out at an angle
above grey stones: the bloodshot water
surged underneath. It was a sore blow
to all of the Danes, friends of the Shieldings,
a hurt to each and every one
of that noble company when they came upon
Aeschere's head at the foot of the cliff. (1412-1421)

It's good enough for the most chilling horror movie: you're tracking the monster, you see a bloody lake around the corner of the cliff, and then your friend's severed head staring up at you. It certainly gives us the shivers.

Lines 1497-1812

So the Shieldings' hero, hard-pressed and enraged,
took a firm hold of the hilt and swung
the blade in an arc, a resolute blow
that bit deep into her neck-bone
and severed it entirely, toppling the doomed
house of her flesh; she fell to the floor.
The sword dripped blood, the swordsman was elated. (1563-1569)

Sometimes Beowulf does seem to take a bloodthirsty pleasure in his acts of violence, as in this scene, where he decapitates Grendel's mother. The parallel structure of the last line of this passage – "The sword dripped blood, the swordsman was elated" – implies a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the two, even though the poet doesn't explicitly say that one caused the other.

Lines 2397-2711

When a chance came, he caught the hero
in a rush of flame and clamped sharp fangs
into his neck. Beowulf's body
ran wet with his life-blood: it came welling out. (2690-2693)

The poet doesn't spare us a final scene of violence: Beowulf's death, seemingly from a severed artery in his neck. Even our hero becomes no more than a corpse by the end of the epic. Now that's depressing.

So the king of the Geats
raised his hand and struck hard
at the enamelled scales, but scarcely cut through:
the blade flashed and slashed yet the blow
was far less powerful than the hard-pressed king
had need of at that moment. The mound-keeper
went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames:
when he felt the stroke, battle-fire
billowed and spewed. (2575-2583)

Even the dragon's death-agonies are depicted in gruesome detail, as it thrashes and spasms in response to Beowulf's attacks. We think that as a film, if it were made exactly the way it's written, Beowulf would definitely get rated R for "intense scenes of fantasy violence."

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