The Antagonists of Beowulf
Grendel is literature’s first serial killer, which isn’t super surprising. The guy has Cain as an ancestor. Must’ve been some great family reunions. Click on the video to find out more about the antagonism present in Beowulf.
in a lot of ways gets defined by the
way society allocates resources.
Certain societies that have natural enemies -
rains or earthquakes or whatever -
allocate a lot of resources to various things.
But as society grew and more people populated the Earth,
resources in the form of land and boundaries
started to be an issue.
And the whole notion of antagonism
became a social theme,
which I guess gave rise to it being a literary theme.
So here we have maybe the first English written antagonist
And we don't get much of a physical description of Grendel.
So, you know, it's kind of like almost, again, the symbology.
It's just a force or a concept.
Other than Grendel's a big, monstrous biped,
who stands on two feet.
And his motivations seem equally ambiguous.
What can you tell us about Grendel?
You know, he's Beowulf's - spoiler alert -
first victim here.
Yeah, you make a good point that he --
We don't know a lot about him physically
and his motivations are ambiguous, too.
Compare that to Beowulf, right?
We know everything about this guy.
The story starts discussing --
Some of the first lines of Beowulf
are about his great-grandfather, about his lineage.
We know his lineage. We know what he's like.
We know what he cares about. He boasts, et cetera.
Grendel, we really don't get a lot of information about.
And that is because we are probably not supposed to,
you know, sympathize with this character at all.
He's really English literature's first serial killer.
When we get introduced to him, all we know
is that he is demonic with glee
because he knows he's gonna
rip these people to shreds
and tear them limb from limb.
He's not just gonna kill them;
he's gonna tear them limb from limb.
And he's super psyched about it.
Here's what happens.
Basically, Grendel hears a lot of
partying going on at Heorot, the mead hall,
and he's not psyched about it.
And we can kind of think that it might be because
he's seeing this bustling civilization
when he is this, you know, primitive monster.
He doesn't have that. He's isolated.
And he doesn't really like the fact that these guys
are all part of a fun community.
So he goes and he keeps attacking the mead hall.
And this is when Beowulf comes in
and says, you know,
"I'm gonna kill this guy.
I'm gonna protect your civilization
against the primitive Grendel."
Another thing that we learn about Grendel,
one of the very few things,
is that he's a descendant of Cain,
from the Bible.
This is actually the only biblical reference
that we get in Beowulf.
But, as you might remember,
Cain kills his brother.
And he's the original murderer of the Bible.
And so we're supposed to, again,
connect Grendel with, basically, you know,
the first murderer in the history of the world.
And then here we have him being kind of the first serial killer/
murderer in English literature.
Again, we're not supposed to sympathize with him.
And then, the last thing that Grendel --
As you mentioned, he's more of a symbol than anything else.
There's a big concept in this time period
called the "death-price,"
which means if you killed someone,
you could then pay the relatives or community
of the person you'd killed
in order for them not to take revenge on you.
Grendel doesn't have, you know, a community.
He doesn't have a backing.
He's totally primitive.
So he basically just ignores all the laws.
The death-price means nothing to him.
So, you know, he kills a bunch of people
and there's no way to make retribution,
because he's on his own.
He's, you know, his own character.
So basically we're really showing --
Grendel is a symbol of this divide between, you know,
civilization, this grandiose civilization
that we're supposed to be in awe of,
and the primitivity of Grendel.
So let me back you up a little bit.
You mentioned lineage before
as being an important element.
So let me kind of backtrack,
sort of just how my brain works on this.
I think of this era
as having very low levels of policing.
I think of bands or hordes of bandits, gang members basically
who had this new technology called a sword
and maybe some armor
against a guy with a wood spear
tending his sheep or farm or something.
Like, that guy's dead.
So the notion of lineage being important --
And also there's this concept of good and evil
in the world
and the hordes of gangs, I would think
would be viewed as evil.
That they would come in and rape and pillage the communities.
So you wouldn't be able to trace someone's lineage
if they were the seed of gangs raping the landside and so on.
And so the notion of being able to
follow someone's lineage, I guess, was important
because this notion of evil
not polluting your family line
was a big deal.
Right. If you can trace someone's lineage like we can
with Beowulf, it makes them even more of a hero
because we know exactly where they came from.
And usually, in an epic poem like this,
they come from some amazing background.
- Right. - Right? And so, again, the story opens
with information about Beowulf's great-great-grandfather.
Which means that we can directly
trace where he came from for several generations if not more.
And I'm thinking about the purity of that lineage
that's unpolluted, and then
against the Grendel impurity
that traces all the way back to Cain.
- You sort of have this iconoclastic -- - Exactly.
All we've got from Grendel is -
we will later meet his mother -
but we have Grendel, his mom, and Cain.
It just goes -- It's monster, monster, and then original murderer.
- So, not great. - Not great.
How did antagonism become a social theme
before becoming a theme in literature?
Why aren't Grendel's physical attributes described in detail?
What are Grendel's possible motivations for attacking Heorot
and killing so many people?
What is the "death-price" and what role does it play in the story?
Why is lineage so important to a hero?
English literature's first serial killer.