Evil Twins? The Role of the Monsters in Beowulf
Alexander M. Bruce
As a fan of the original Star Trek, I can remember having fun counting up how many times the show tapped into the “evil twin” motif. There was the episode where Kirk’s psyche was split into two people, so that a nice but wishy-washy Kirk and a mean but decisive Kirk roamed the Enterprise; or the episode when Kirk and three others ended up in a parallel “evil” universe where evil Spock had an evil goatee; or the episode where Kirk and an evil woman scientist (whom he had jilted) switched bodies (straight out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon) . . . the list could continue. Nor has Star Trek been the only show to turn to the “evil twin” plot; it has become so familiar, such an overused and tired cliché in the modern storytelling medium of TV, that when a show resorts to an “evil twin” episode, we know its writers are pretty desperate.
When we consider the structure of Beowulf, especially the balanced contrast between Beowulf and the monsters he faces, we might be tempted to see the poem as an early “evil twin” story. And I think there is some truth in that reading, as I will outline in this essay: example after example points to an intentional highlighting of a Beowulf-monster association, a sort of apposition such as Fred Robinson has argued for in his Beowulf and the Appositive Style but more extended and pervasive. But what I also want to stress is how the poet went beyond what we may consider a cliché plot motif to a greater issue; even as I outline the extent of the “evil twin” connections between Beowulf and the three monstrous foes, I wish to explore why the poet made the connections. I believe that the poet was stressing the evil twin aspect to make a statement about human beings: how we have a monstrous side, how at times it is truly difficult to tell monster from human, and at times so much easier because the humans are so much more monstrous.
From the outset, it is obvious that the poet meant to create an immediate comparison between Beowulf and his foes, for they are described in parallel terms. Such is obvious in the case of Beowulf and Grendel. There’s the matter of numbers: Grendel can “genam thritig thegna” (“he can seize thirty men at once”; 122-23).1 According to Hrothgar, Beowulf has “thritiges manna mægencræft on his mundgripe” (“the strength of thirty in his hand”; 379-80), a point illustrated later when Beowulf swims off with thirty suits of armor from Hygelac’s battle against the Franks, though of course Fred Robinson has disputed that feat in his “Elements of the Marvellous in the Characterization of Beowulf: A Reconsideration of the Textual Evidence” (84-85). Beowulf and Grendel are both known for their murderous progenitors: Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow, was on the run for killing Heatholaf of the Wulfings (and not paying wergild). Grendel descends from Cain, who is likewise on the run for his crime of killing another; that Cain killed his brother makes his crime more grievous, but the basic act is the same.
Hrothgar relinquishes control of Heorot to each: unwillingly to Grendel, who has driven away the warriors so that now he “Heorot eardode, sincfage sel sweartum nihtum” (“held Heorot, the richly adorned hall, by dark night”; 166-67), and later willingly to Beowulf: “Hafa nu ond geheald husa selest, gemyne mærtho, mægenellen cyth, waca with wrathum!” (“Have now and hold this best of houses, think on glory, show your mighty valor, watch for the foe!”; 658-60) In preparation for their battle, Beowulf notes that since Grendel “for his wonhydum wæpna ne recceth” (434)—that is, does not use weapon, armor, or shield—nor will he, thereby directly casting himself as Grendel’s equal or twin. Beowulf and Grendel also come from essentially single-parent families and have mothers who are never clearly named. Beowulf is known for his father Ecgtheow, and while he obviously has a mother, she is not deemed worthy of a name and has no place in the plot. Hrothgar does acknowledge and even praise her, but not for who she is but rather for whom she gave birth to:
Hwæt, thæt secgan mæg,
efne swa hwylc mægtha swa thone magan cende
æfter gumcynnum, gyf heo gyt lyfath,
thæt hyre Ealdmetod este wære
Indeed, it may be said
that whatever woman brought this young man
into the world, if she yet lives,
that the All-Mighty was kind to her
This Geatish woman could be simply referred to as “Beowulf’s mother.” Similarly, Grendel obviously had a biological father, but he is never named nor plays any part in the story. Yes, his distant father is Cain, but Grendel’s real father is unknown, and his mother is known not by her name but by her association with her son.
As with Beowulf and Grendel, there are also situational associations between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. Grendel’s mother had held her lair for “hund missera” (1498)—a hundred seasons, or fifty years, if we allow two seasons (summer and winter) to make a year—and of course Beowulf rules “fiftig wintra” (2209). As Beowulf took Grendel’s arm as a trophy, Grendel’s mother took Æschere’s body as a trophy. She beheads Æschere, which Beowulf repays by beheading both her and Grendel. And when they fight, there is a sense that she and Beowulf are more evenly matched than Grendel and Beowulf, for Beowulf is in real jeopardy during his battle with her.
Even Beowulf and the dragon have some “evil twin” connections. Both have the number fifty associated with them; again, Beowulf ruled fifty years, and the dragon is “fiftiges fotgemearces” (“fifty paces long”; 3042). More significantly, both are lords who respond when their respective halls are violated. The dragon, after all, has been robbed and is understandably angry:
Tha se wyrm onwoc, wroht wæs geniwad;
stonc tha æfter stane, stearcheort onfand
feondes fotlast; he to forth gestop
dyrnan cræfte dracan heafde neah. (2287-90)
When the worm awoke, the strife was renewed;
moving among the rocks, the stout-hearted found
the track of the foe—he who in secret cunning had stepped
too near the dragon’s head.
For his part, Beowulf has had his mead-hall burned and wants revenge:
Hæfde ligdraca leoda fæsten,
ealond utan, eorthweard thone
gledum forgrunden; him thæs guthkyning,
Wedera thioden wræce leornode. (2333-36)
The fire-dragon had destroyed with flames
the stronghold of the people, the seaboard from outside,
the land-guard; for this the war-king,
the Weder-Geats’ prince, devised revenge.
To protect him from the dragon’s fire, Beowulf uses an iron shield, the metal reminding us of the dragon’s scales which likewise shield it from sword-blows. The two opponents are also most evenly matched in battle; of course Beowulf is over-matched as he cannot kill the dragon alone, but their “twin” nature comes out as they prove to be each other’s bane. The dragon, J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us, fits Beowulf perfectly: “it is necessary that his final foe should not be some Swedish prince, or treacherous friend, but a dragon: a thing made by imagination for just such a purpose. Nowhere does a dragon come in so precisely where he should” (128).
So we can readily note the descriptions, details, and situations—some obvious, some more subtle—that allow us to consider Beowulf and his three monstrous foes as “evil twins.” Yet there is another way the poet highlights the connection between man and monster: there are numerous examples of linguistic “twinning,” moments where the language itself blurs the line between man and monster. For example, both men and monsters have “folman”: hands or paws, depending upon the translator’s interpretation. “Rinc” (usually translated as “warrior”) is used in reference to human beings almost exclusively, but it is also applied to Grendel at line 720. We translate “wer” as “man,” but we can also note that Grendel is described as being “on weres wæstmum” (1352), that is, having the form of a “wer,” or man. Klaeber tells us to translate “aglæca” as “wretch, monster, or fiend” as in “Licsar gebad atol æglæca” (“the horrid monster [Grendel] endured bodily pain”; 815-16), except when it refers to a person, in which case it ought to be translated as “warrior or hero,” as in “Hæfde aglæca elne gegongen” (“the hero [Sigemund] had succeeded with strength”; 893). And actually, at line 2592 the word means both “monster” and “hero” at the same time, as the plural form “aglæcean” refers to both the dragon and Beowulf: “Næs tha long to thon, thæt tha aglæcean hy eft gemetton” (“It was not long before the aglæcean again clashed”).
The scene with the dragon brings up one of the most complex examples of the impact of such ambiguous language. The specific moment comes as Beowulf and the dragon size each other up before their melee begins:
Stithmod gestod with steapne rond
winia bealdor, tha se wyrm gebeah
snude tosomne; he on searwum bad. (2566-68)
The stout-hearted one [Beowulf] stood with his high shield,
the lord of retainers, when the worm coiled itself
quickly together; he/it waited in cunning.
The flexibility of the language allows us to have the masculine personal pronoun “he” refer to the “winia bealdor,” the person Beowulf; or the masculine personal pronoun “he” may refer to the closest masculine noun, in this case “se wyrm,” the dragon. Or maybe “he” refers to both Beowulf and the dragon, for both “awaited in cunning.”
I think the poet was intentionally exploiting the grammatical flexibility and ambiguity of his language to underscore subtly the point that at times we cannot distinguish between man and monster. Such blurring has been the case throughout the poem, for in each of the three battles, it becomes clear that it takes a monster to kill a monster. Only Beowulf with his monstrous strength can kill Grendel, and I have the sense that Beowulf’s men strike ineffectively at Grendel not just because of his enchanted skin but also in part because Beowulf and the monster are wrestling so tightly that it is difficult to tell one from the other. The poem reads that they strike “thær hie meahton swa” (“where they might do so”; 797) suggesting that they had few chances at a clear shot. In his fight with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf must arm himself with a giant’s sword, the “ealdsweord eotenisc” (1558), choosing the weapon of a monster to kill a monster. Moreover, Beowulf’s men confuse the blood of Grendel and his mother with the blood of Beowulf, assuming that the vast quantity of blood that gushed to the surface of the mere was the hero’s. And finally, Beowulf and the dragon, linguistically equated, cancel each other out, neither surviving the battle; again, as Tolkien noted, Beowulf and the dragon truly fit each other, as Beowulf’s death by anything less than a monster would be anti-climactic. Beowulf’s dying wish is to see the treasure, to claim it in a way as his own just as the dragon had done before, and the gold indeed is transferred from the mound of the dragon to that of Beowulf.
So what is the point of equating man and monster, of making them “evil twins”? I think that ultimately the poet draws such strong associations to highlight not how threatening and dangerous the monsters are, but rather how threatening and dangerous human beings are, or at least can be. For all their monstrous nature—the strength, appetite, and terror of the Grendelkin and the flames and poison of the dragon—the monsters are in the end ineffective. They are defeated. The greater, more threatening force in the poem is people. Grendel can terrorize Heorot and Hrothgar but he does not destroy the hall nor kill Hrothgar and his kin: Heorot awaits destruction in “lathan liges,” the “hateful flames” that will come in the feud between Hrothgar and his son-in-law Ingeld of the Heatho-Bards (81-85). And Hrothulf, Hrothgar’s trusted but treacherous kinsman, will seize the throne from his cousin, Hrothgar’s son. Grendel’s mother, as monstrous as she is, is only acting out the approved social code of revenge, a code reaffirmed in the lay of Hildeburh, told the very night Grendel’s mother attacks. And while Grendel’s mother is hunted down for seeking revenge for the death of her son, Hildeburh is stripped of all right to such revenge for the death of her son, brother, and husband. The dragon, for all his destructive abilities and justifiable anger at being robbed, does not destroy the Geats; rather the Franks, Frisians, and Swedes will obliterate the Geats, as the messenger prophesizes at the end of the poem and apparently has come to pass, for we still have Franks, Frisians, and Swedes, but no Geats.
I have often considered how the Beowulf-poet tended to say “both/and” instead of “either/or,” for example how the poem speaks positively about both pagan qualities (courage and loyalty to one’s lord) and Judeo-Christian theology (the need to trust God, not heathen idols). I think that with the “twinning” of Beowulf and the monsters, we have another example of “both/and.” The poet did not place Beowulf and the human beings clearly on one side and Grendel and the dragon on another; we cannot read the poem and say that people are either heroes or monsters, for as the poem reminds us, we human beings can be heroic and we can be monstrous at the same time. The real monsters—the ones completely beyond our power and control—are the people. We can get our heads or hands around the simple monsters; we can appreciate the direct nature of Grendel’s evil or of the dragon’s greed and anger. But the desire of men to kill each other, openly and treacherously, and a social system that encourages such destruction is more frightening, a point I believe the Beowulf-poet wanted to make. He gave us monsters with whom we can identify: which is to say that we are they.2
1All citations are from Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, edited, with introduction, bibliography, notes, glossary, and appendices by Fr. Klaeber, 3rd ed. (Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1950). Line numbers will be noted in the text. The translations are my own. Return
2A version of this essay was read at the 2005 meeting of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association at the “SEMA at SAMLA” session. Return
Klaeber, Fr. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 3rd ed. Lexington: D. C. Heath and
Robinson, Fred C. Beowulf and the Appositive Style. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1985.
-----. “Elements of the Marvellous in the Characterization of Beowulf: A Reconsideration of the Textual Evidence.” Beowulf: Basic Readings. Ed. Peter S. Baker. Basic Readings in Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Garland, 1995. 79-96.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95. Rpt. In Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Ed. Daniel Donoghue. New York: Norton, 2002. 103-30.
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