The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 17 (2017)

Her Own Hall: Grendel's Mother as King

M. Wendy HennequinMailto: Icon

Tennessee State University

©2017 by M. Wendy Hennequin. All intellectual property rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2017 by The Heroic Age. Permissions granted for educational and personal purposes only.

Abstract: This paper proposes that Grendel's mother is represented as a king through idiomatic constructions and her possession of a hall, heirloom sword, and treasure. Her representation as kingly serves plot progression, gives Beowulf a high-status enemy, and explains Grendel's mother's "unqueenly" behavior.

§1. In "Beowulf and the Grendel-Kin: Thane, Avenger, King," Stephen C.B. Atkinson argues that Grendel acts as Beowulf's foil in his role as thane (1984, 58–60); later, he argues that the dragon also acts as a foil to Beowulf in his later role as king (1986, 1–4). Atkinson believes that Grendel's mother functions as an avenger to mirror Beowulf as well (1984, 61–62). But he also states that Beowulf does not act only as an avenger in that section of the poem: Grendel's mother "presides, as it were, over the crucial section of the work during which Beowulf is transformed from Hygelac's thane to prospective king of the Geats" (1984, 61). Atkinson does not explore the implications of his statement: if Beowulf's opponents act as his foil, and if Beowulf's role in the middle section of the poem is that of prospective king, then Grendel's mother, in order to act as his foil, must too be a king or prospective king.

§2. This idea that Grendel's mother might be represented as a king or prospective king deserves further exploration, but how can we determine how Grendel's mother is depicted as kingly? The poem literally tells us nothing of Grendel's mother until her attack on Heorot and gives her very little history or clues about her life and position outside of her relationship to Grendel and her role as avenger. This lack of information limits application not only of the historical research, but also philosophical and literary studies of kingship, even those concerned exclusively with Beowulf.1 Nor does Anglo-Saxon history provide us with detailed descriptions of female kings for comparison, though The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions two.2 The poem itself gives us many depictions of kings which we can bring to bear on Grendel's mother, however: the text specifically associates particular diction and objects with kings. When we compare the kingly diction and possessions to the diction and objects assigned to Grendel's mother, we will see that the poem denotes her home and rule similarly, and it portrays her with certain kingly possessions, specifically, a hall, treasure, and an heirloom sword. Such associations are admittedly brief, and connecting Grendel's mother to kingship on such meager evidence may seem difficult at best. Atkinson, however, uses comparable details to support his arguments (1984, 60–61; 1986, 2–3), and through a similar analysis of the representation of Grendel's mother, I will show that the poem constructs her as kingly through the diction used to refer to her control of the moor, the representations of her hall, and her possession of that royal hall, an ancestral sword, and treasure.

The Diction of Rulership

§3. It may seem strange to claim that poetic diction constructs Grendel's mother as kingly. The poem does not apply any word meaning king or lord or even ruler to her. Only one word, "ides" in line 1259a,3 affords her nobility and perhaps royalty (Carlson 1967, 361; Meaney 1979, 4; Temple 1986, 13), but it does not specifically label her a ruler. Beowulf does, however, connect Grendel's mother and kingship through the language describing her control over the mere. When Beowulf descends to the underwater hall to fight Grendel's mother, we are told that: "Sona þæt onfunde se ðe floda begong / heorogifre beheold hund missera" ["At once, the one who,4 sword-greedy, held the floods' circuit for a hundred half-years, discovered it …"] (Beowulf 1497–98). While these lines tell the audience that Grendel's mother realizes that Beowulf has arrived, the particular diction describing her here is significant. The poet uses the word "beheold" ["held"], combined with a place, the floods' circuit, and a duration of time, specifically "hund missera" ["a hundred half-years"]. This construction—some form of healdan, in conjunction with a people or place and often an expression of time—is used elsewhere in Beowulf and in Old English prose and poetry generally to signify the reigns of kings.

§4. Let us examine the elements of this construction, beginning with the word "beheold." The verb behealdan is used four times in Beowulf (Bessinger and Smith 1969, 16), but in very different contexts than in line 1498a (See Chart 1). In this particular context and in this syntactic construction, however, behealdan functions as the verb healdan. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary defines behealdan, a compound of the prepositional adverb be- ["by"] and the verb healdan, as "to hold by or near, possess," the equivalent of healdan (Bosworth 1898, "behealdan" def. I, 79);5 the prefix be- here simply intensifies meaning or does not change it (Bosworth 1898, "be-" def. I.1, I.3 69). The Dictionary of Old English also states that the prefix be- does not change the main verb's meaning (Cameron, Amos, and Healey 2003, "be-") and defines behealdan accordingly as "to hold, occupy, inhabit (a place acc.)" (Cameron, Amos, and Healey 2003, "behealdan," def. E1). This definition matches An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary's second definition of healdan: "to hold, have, possess, occupy, inhabit" (Bosworth 1898, "healdan," def. II, 517). Behealdan is used here interchangeably with healdan, and we can meaningfully explore the use of healdan in Beowulf in similar constructions to extrapolate the connotations of the construction in lines 1497–98.

§5. This particular construction, healdan plus place or people plus time, occurs frequently in Beowulf to refer to kings' reigns (See Chart 2). For instance, Hrothgar's father "heold þenden lifde / … glæde Scyldingas" ["held (healdan) while he lived (time) … the glorious Scyldings (people)"] (Beowulf 57b–58b). Hrothgar himself says, "ond on geogoðe heold ginne rice, / hordburh hæleþa" ["and in youth (time), I held (healdan) the spacious realm, the treasure town of heroes (place)"] (Beowulf 466–57a). Beowulf likewise "geheold tela / fiftig wintra" ["held (healdan) (it—the kingdom of the Geats mentioned in line 2207b) well for fifty winters (time)"] (Beowulf 2208b–09a). Later, Beowulf says, "Ic ðas leode heold / fiftig wintra" ["I held (healdan) that people (people) for fifty winters (time)"] (Beowulf 2732b–33a). Occasionally, the king holds a symbolic place: Offa "let ðone bregostol Biowulf healdan, / Geatum wealdan" ["Offa let Beowulf hold (healdan) the prince-stool (symbolic place), wield the Geats (people)"] (Beowulf 2389–90a). The prince-stool, literally the seat of power, emblemizes kingship (Hill 1982, 183; Raw 1992, 169) and functions metonymically as the kingdom and people as the appositive variation, "wealdan Geatum," indicates. These examples clearly indicate that, in Beowulf, healdan, in this construction, connotes "to rule or govern" (Bosworth 1898, "healdan," def III, 517).6

§6. This construction of healdan, plus a place or people and a period of time, commonly denotes rulership, generally of a king, in Old English poetic texts. These texts, like Beowulf, sometimes omit the designation of time without changing the meaning of the expression. In Maxims II, we are told that "Cyning sceal rice healdan" ["A king must hold a kingdom"] (Maxims II 1a). Even without a time period, we cannot doubt here that healdan must also mean "to rule or govern;" Maxims II, as usual, is prescribing appropriate behavior. In Genesis B, Satan resents "þæt Adam sceal, þe wæs of eorðan geworht, / minne stronglican stol behealdan" ["that Adam, who was made of earth, shall hold my strong throne"] (Genesis B 365–366). Here, once again, we have a form of healdan and a place—the same symbolic stol or throne that Beowulf is allowed to hold in lines 2389–90a—but again with the omission of time, since Adam's take-over is hypothetical at this point. Significantly, the form of healdan used here in Genesis B is behealdan, the same word used in reference to Grendel's mother's holding to the floods' circuit, thus emphasizing the equivalence of the healdan and behealdan in this construction.

§7. Nor is the healdan plus a place or people and time construction unique to Old English poetry. Indeed, its prevalence in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle may indicate that it is an Old English idiomatic expression designating overlordship. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle version A uses this construction no fewer than thirty-seven times to discuss the reign of a king7 over a place or people. For instance, King Alfred the Great "heold þæt rice oþrum healfum læs þe .xxx. wintra" ["held that kingdom a year and a half less than 30 winters"] and Harald Godwinson "feng to ðam rice 7 heold hit .xl. wucena. 7 ænne dæg" ["succeeded to the kingdom and held it 40 weeks and one day"] (ASC-A an. 900, 1066). In both instances, the Chronicle uses the construction used in Beowulf, a form of healdan plus place plus time, and in both cases, the construction clearly records the reign of a king.

§8. The construction applies to other rulers in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as well. The expression occurs six times in reference to bishops and popes. For example, in the year 167, "Her Eleutherius on Rome onfeng biscepdom 7 þone wuldorfæstlice .xv. winter geheold" ["In this year, Eleutherius in Rome ascended the bishopric and he held it gloriously for fifteen years"] (ASC-A an. 167). The Chronicle clearly specifies that the pope rules a bishopric, but otherwise, the expression designating his rule is the same one that the Chronicle and Beowulf use for kings. In one case, the Chronicle uses the construction to designate the reign of a queen: "7 þa feng Cenwalh to 7 heold .xxxi. wintra, 7 se Cenwalh wæs Cynegilses sunu; 7 þa heold Seaxburg his cuen an gear þæt rice æfter him" ["And then Cenwalh ascended (the throne) and held it 31 winters, and this Cenwalh was Cynegils's son; and then Seaxburg his queen held the kingdom for one year after him"] (ASC-A 1995, Introduction, my emphasis). Seaxburg is not called a king—she is "his cuen," his queen8—yet none of the kings listed in the introduction to Chronicle A are called kings either, though they clearly function as such. More importantly, the expression denoting Seaxburg's reign matches not only that of her husband Cenwalh but that of thirty-five other kings. The construction clearly carries the same meaning regardless of gender and applies to both sacred and secular overlordship. By using the construction reserved for kings to denote Seaxburg's reign and the reign of the bishops and popes, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle represents them as ruling in the same manner as kings, and likens them to kings themselves.

§9. The poem also associates Grendel's mother with the kings of the poem not only by idiomatic construction used to talk about it, but also by the years of her reign. The length of the historical reigns in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle predictably vary, but in Beowulf, the only exact duration of any king's reign is a hundred half-years, or fifty years. Grendel's mother's hold over the mere shares this duration. Neither The Dictionary of Old English nor An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary attaches special cultural significance to the number fifty (Bosworth 1898, "fiftig," 286; Cameron, Amos, and Healey 2003, "fiftig"), yet both Beowulf and Hrothgar, the poem's most prominent and effective kings, both rule for exactly fifty years. The text tells us twice that Beowulf himself rules over the Geats for "fiftig wintra" (Beowulf 2733a). Hrothgar, too, rules the Danes for fifty years before Beowulf comes to defeat Grendel. Hrothgar's reign and Grendel's mother's last the same amount of time (and occur simultaneously), but more importantly, that duration is described in exactly the same words: "hund missera" ["a hundred half-years"] (Beowulf 1498b and 1769b).9 It cannot be coincidence that Grendel's mother's reign over the mere lasts for the exact amount of time assigned to the reigns of Hrothgar and Beowulf. A fifty-year reign may be proverbial or possibly may indicate a good king in Beowulf, since Beowulf and Hrothgar both rule for fifty years. Regardless, the poet's use of the phrase "hund missera," the duration of Beowulf and Hrothgar's reigns, especially in the healdan plus time and place/people construction, clearly associates Grendel's mother with the poem's principle kings and their long reigns.

§10. Given this information, then, the poem says something startling when it tells us that Grendel's mother, "floda begong / … beheold hund missera" ["held the floods' circuit for a hundred half-years"] (Beowulf 1497–98). The poet clearly is familiar with the healdan construction, as its use in reference to Hrothgar and Beowulf shows. That Beowulf takes this phrase and assigns it to Grendel's mother cannot be a mistake or a coincidence or sloppiness. The poet is not simply telling us that Grendel's mother lives in the mere, but that she rules it. This idiom distances Grendel's mother from Beowulf's queens (and other women), who do not hold a people or place, nor rule, and represents her instead with the expression used for the kings of the poem and of other Old English texts. The poem further associates her with the successful kings Beowulf and Hrothgar, whose reigns last the same length of time. In other words, this construction, healdan plus place or people, plus time, represents Grendel's mother ruling the floods' circuit as a king.

The Hall as Royal Power

§11. The Beowulf-poet not only represents Grendel's mother as kingly through the healdan construction, but also associates her with kingship through her possessions. Granted, the text does not spend much time describing the mother's possessions. Grendel's mother only physically holds two objects: Æschere's corpse in lines 1294–99a, and a "seax," or short sword, in lines 1545–49.10 Still, the poem assigns her three highly significant objects: a hall, treasures, and a sword. These three objects, like the healdan construction in 1497b–98, represent Grendel's mother as kingly, because halls, treasure, and special swords are associated specifically with kings and potential kings elsewhere in the poem and in Anglo-Saxon culture.

§12. Grendel's mother is one of the few characters in Beowulf—and the only female character—to have her own hall. Scholars generally refer to the underwater hall as a "Grendel's lair," though the poem does not use the word "lair" nor designate Grendel as its owner. Rather, the poem assigns ownership of this hall specifically to Grendel's mother: it is "hofe sinum" ["her own hall"] (Beowulf 1507b). She controls the hall until her death,11 and she, like Beowulf later, defends it herself. And it is specifically a hall, not a lair or a cave: the text's three principle words for the dwelling, "reced" (Beowulf 1572b), "sele" (Beowulf 2139a and in kennings, 1513a and 1515a), and "hof" (Beowulf 1507b), all signify "hall," and all three words refer to royal halls elsewhere in Beowulf. As ownership or control over a royal hall is an attribute of kingship in Beowulf (Swanton 1982, 89–90; Raw 1992, 168–169), Grendel's mother's ownership of a royal hall, regardless of its location, marks her as kingly.

§13. Let us first examine the terms used for Grendel's mother's underwater hall and their connections to other kingly halls of the text. The most telling is "reced" (Beowulf 1572b). Reced has clear royal connotations both within the poem and in Old English generally. Although Beowulf refers to both Grendel's mother dwelling and the dragon's as "reced" (Beowulf 1572b, 2719a, 3088a), the poem calls Heorot reced thirteen times and uses the word once for Hygelac's hall (see Chart 3). The connection between reced and kingly halls extends beyond Beowulf, however. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary notes that the adjectival form of the word, ræcedlic, carries the Latin gloss palatina (Bosworth 1898, "raecedlic", 781), "… of the imperial palace" or "… of the royal palace" (Niermeyer 1976, "palatinus," 753, defs. 751 and 752); reced clearly carries regal and imperial connotations. Therefore, when Beowulf calls Grendel's mother's home a reced, the audience would know it is no mere dwelling (or mere-dwellling), but a royal or imperial building, like Heorot and Hygelac's halls. That Grendel's mother owns a reced shows her possessing a king's royal hall like Heorot, like a king herself.

§14. Similarly, the poet repeatedly calls Grendel's mother's home "sele," alone in line 2139a,12 and in the kennings "niðsele" ["battle-hall"] in line 1513a and "hrofsele" ["roofed hall"] in line 1515a. Like reced, sele ["hall, house, dwelling" (Bosworth 1898, 859)] generally refers to kings' halls in Beowulf. The word occurs alone or in compounds thirty-seven times elsewhere in the poem; in twenty-seven of these instances, the word specifically refers to a king's hall, usually Heorot, but also to the unnamed halls of Finn, Hygelac, and Beowulf (see Chart 4). In line 2456a, "winsele" refers to the hall of a bereft old man of uncertain identity, possibly King Hrethel. The remaining nine occurrences of sele refer to the dwelling places of Grendel's mother and the dragon. Still, the word sele, alone or in compounds, overwhelming signifies the hall of a king, just as reced does. As with reced, sele associates Grendel's mother's hall with the other kings' halls, and therefore associates her with the kings who own them.

§15. The third word which describes Grendel's mother's dwelling, "hof" ["house, hall, dwelling, building" (Bosworth 1898, "hof," 548)] in line 1507b, pertains certainly to royal buildings, though not always to halls. Hof occurs elsewhere in Beowulf five times (Bessinger and Smith 1969, 124),13 and clearly, its use in the poem supports Bosworth and Toller's broader definitions. As Chart 5 shows, Beowulf uses hof to refer to a number of different dwellings, some of them distinct from royal halls. Hrothgar retires from Heorot to a hof, for instance (Beowulf 1236b). But while hof may not always indicate a hall in Beowulf, the word does not signify a generic "house" or "dwelling" or "building," as An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary suggests. If we eliminate the reference to Grendel's mother's dwelling, we can see a clear pattern: hof, like reced and sele, refers specifically to royal buildings (see Chart 5).14 The word hof refers to the dwelling places of kings: Hrothgar and Hygelac's chambers, the Geatish court, and the royal buildings burnt by the dragon, including Beowulf's hall. The use of hof in reference to the underwater hall indicates that Grendel's mother dwells in a similar royal building, and again associates her with the other kings who own such buildings.

§16. Granted, the poet could be using these words, hof, sele, and reced, figuratively. Even so, since the diction so clearly and consistently denotes kingly halls, the diction surely constructs Grendel's mother as figuratively kingly at least. As Atkinson has shown, the poem similarly associates the dragon with kings through its ownership of a hall described in similar terms (Atkinson 1986, 3). Yet the poem most likely uses the words hof, sele, and reced literally. The poem only gives us brief glimpses of Grendel's mother's home, but we know that it keeps the water out (Beowulf 1515a–16a), it has a fire (Beowulf 1516b–17b), it displays armor, weapons, and treasure (Beowulf 1557, 1613), and Grendel's corpse is lying on a bed (Beowulf 1585b–86). Edward Burroughs Irving interprets these descriptions as a "quite ordinary Germanic hall, described in the usual vocabulary … with a cozy fire burning on its hearth and a bed supporting the body of Grendel. Its conventional domestic décor includes weapons hanging on the walls and much treasure" (1989, 150). But even if we do not accept Irving's reading of the description (and there is no textual reason not to), hof, reced and sele are not used metaphorically elsewhere in Beowulf, even in the case of the dragon's dwelling (3128b, 3088a): "seah on enta geweorc, / hu ða stanbogan stapulum fæste / ece eorðreced innan healde" ["he (Beowulf) saw the work of giants, how the eternal earth-palace held stone arches, fast by pillars, inside"] (2717a–2719). The dragon's dwelling, though beneath a stone hill, is clearly a hall, not a natural cavern or a cave, purposely built with distinctly architectural features, arches, and pillars. If the poem is using sele, reced, and hof figuratively for Grendel's mother's home, it is the only case where it does so. It would be difficult to maintain that the poet uses these terms metaphorically only for Grendel's mother's hall, and nowhere else, not even for the dragon's hall.

§17. The representation of Grendel's mother's home as a royal hall underscores the depiction of Grendel's mother as kingly because halls are an important marker of kingship in Beowulf (Raw 1992, 172). Control over the hall shows kingship over the land. Heorot symbolizes Hrothgar's success as a king (Swanton 1982, 89–90) and his power over people, resources, and territory (Raw 1992, 168–169). Grendel's control over Heorot allows him to reign over Denmark after he has driven the Danes away in lines 134b–143: "Swa rixode" ["So he ruled," my emphasis] (Beowulf 144a). When Hrothgar gives control of Heorot to Beowulf—significantly with the phrase "Hafa nu ond geheald husa selest" ["Have now, and hold the best of houses," my emphasis] in line 658—he foreshadows Beowulf's future as a king (Carruthers 1994, 24). This equation of rulership with the possession of a hall also appears in Hygelac's gifts to Beowulf after the latter's return from Denmark:

Het ða eorla hleo in gefetian,
heaðorof cyning Hreðles lafe
golde gegyrede; næs mid Geatum ða
sincmaðþum selra on sweordes had;
þæt he on Biowulfes bearm alegde,
ond him gesealde seofan þusendo,
bold ond bregostol. Him wæs bam samod
on ðam leodscipe lond gecynde,
eard eðelriht, oðrum swiðor
side rice þam ðær selra wæs.
[The protector of warriors then commanded Hrethel's heirloom, decorated with gold, to be fetched inside; at that time, there was no better treasure in the form of a sword among the Geats. He laid it on Beowulf's lap, and he gave him seven thousand (units of land), a building, and a prince-stool. The land, the people, the hereditary homes, the wide kingdom, were inherited by them both together, mostly by the other who was higher there.] (Beowulf 2190–2199)

Beowulf is clearly receiving power over the country and his people, together ("samod" in line 2196b) with his king. But with this authority, Beowulf receives three physical objects: a sword, which I will discuss shortly; a prince-stool, or throne, literally a seat of power; and a hall, the "bold" in line 2196a. The hall, like the prince-stool, physically represents this shared kingship, and after Beowulf has received these gifts, it is clear he is a co-king, who has inherited ("gecynde" in line 2197b) the land of line 2197b and the kingdom of line 2199a (Hill 1982, 192; Atkinson 1984, 65; Biggs 2005, 710, 731). Beowulf does not become a king simply because he owns a hall—at the end of the quotation, the poem makes it clear that Hygelac is still his superior—but the hall publicly and materially constructs Beowulf's status as heir apparent and shows his impending kingship (Hill 1982, 192; Atkinson 1984, 65).

§18. When we apply these patterns to Grendel's mother's hall, the implications are clear. Diction associates Grendel's mother's hall with the halls of Hrothgar, Beowulf, and other kings. Only kings or prospective kings own such halls in the context of the poem. Therefore, her ownership of a royal hall aligns her depiction with those of the poem's other kings, the clear and indisputable owners of the poem's halls, and with the dragon, whose hall also functions to make him kingly (Atkinson 1986, 3). Moreover, by defeating the kingly owner of a royal hall, Beowulf shows himself to be kingly as well. In lines 1845b–1853a, just after his defeat of Grendel's mother, Hrothgar notes that Beowulf would make an excellent king (Atkinson 1984, 64), and almost immediately afterwards, Hygelac gives Beowulf his own royal hall and promotes him to co-regnant king and prospective king. If we see Grendel's mother as a king or prospective king, Beowulf's promotion after defeating her is simply a logical development in his career, an acknowledgement that he now ranks with those who defeat kingly enemies, not simply enemies of the king.

The Treasures of Kingship

§19. Beowulf connects kings not only to halls, but to the treasures distributed in those halls. The association between kings and treasures is not a poetic invention or even poetic convention. Most scholars of Anglo-Saxon kingship agree that kings were expected to give treasure to their followers (Abels 1988, 11; Carruthers 1994, 19; Fox 2004, 29), and that great displays of treasure assert and reinforce "the king's status and position" (Fox 2004, 20). Beowulf clearly reflects these expectations. All good kings in the poem—Scyld Scefing and his son Beow, Hrothgar, Finn, Hygelac, and Beowulf himself—give treasure to their followers. All treasure in the poem, including the dragon's hoard, pass through a king's hands. Furthermore, Beowulf's halls are intimately connected to treasure. Heorot shows Hrothgar's control over treasure, for instance, not only because of its function as the center for distributing wealth but also because of its size, location, and ornate decoration (Raw 1992, 168–169; Swanton 1982, 89–90). Indeed, Heorot is built for the purpose of giving treasure: "ond þær on innan eall gedælan / geongum ond ealdum, swylc him God sealde" ["and there inside, he (Hrothgar) would distribute to everyone, young and old, such that God gave to him"] (Beowulf 71–72). The dragon's hall, on the other hand, exists for the sole purpose of housing treasure. Treasure, then, becomes an accoutrement of kingship, like the gift-stool or the hall. After Hygelac's death, Hygd offers Beowulf the position of king: "þær him Hygd gebead hord ond rice, / beagas ond bregostol" ["There Hygd offered him hoard and kingdom, rings, and prince-stool"] (Beowulf 2369–70a). The diction is very telling here. Hygd offers Beowulf the kingdom, as we expect, and the prince-stool, the throne, a metonymic symbol of kingly power; these two are so closely connected ideologically that they may function as variations. But the narration adds two other objects into Hygd's offer, "hord" and "beagas," a treasure hoard and a specific type of treasure, rings. By interspersing the treasure and rings within the list of other kingly accoutrements, the poet connects the hoard and rings to the kingdom and prince-stool, as if treasure were merely another variation for the kingdom—or another symbol or possession of kingship.

§20. While the relationship between kings and treasure is readily apparent in Beowulf, the connection between Grendel's mother and treasure, let alone how this treasure depicts her as kingly, is not immediately obvious. Grendel's mother never distributes treasure, nor ends a feud with it. Yet the text shows us clearly that she has a kingly treasure in her royal hall. During Beowulf's fight with Grendel's mother, the narration tells us that Beowulf "Geseah ða on searwum sigeeadig bil" ["saw then a victory-blessed sword among the armor"] (Beowulf 1557). The sword is clearly treasure; the poem elsewhere treats swords and armor as treasures (for instance, in lines 1020–24a). And Grendel's mother's hall literally holds many treasures: "Ne nom he in þæm wicum, Weder-Geata leod, / maðmæhta ma, þeh he þær monige geseah" ["The leader of the Storm-Geats did not take from that dwelling more treasure-property, though he saw many there"] (Beowulf 1612–13). The presence of so much treasure indicates one of two possibilities. The first: Grendel's mother is a great warrior who, like Beowulf, has received prodigious amounts of wealth through her prowess. Grendel's mother is indeed a powerful warrior,15 but the poem never indicates that she serves some other king who has rewarded her service. The second and more likely possibility, given the connection of halls and treasures, and both halls and treasures with kings, is that the poem is again depicting Grendel's mother as kingly by stocking her royal hall with treasure. The poem similarly associates the dragon with kings later by assigning it great treasure as well (Atkinson 1986, 3).

§21. A particular treasure, the giant-forged sword which Beowulf spots in line 1557, also depicts Grendel's mother as kingly and associates her with the other kings of the poem. The poem describes the sword in some detail:

Geseah ða on searwum sigeeadig bil,
ealdsweord eotonisc ecgum þyhtig,
wigena weorðmynd; þæt [wæs] wæpna cyst—
buton hit was mære ðonne ænig mon oðer
to beadulace ætberan meahte,
god ond geatolic, giganta geweorc. (Beowulf 1557–2)

This sword is clearly an heirloom sword with a history, like other heirloom swords in the poem, and is described similarly. Like Unferth's sword Hrunting which never fails in battle (Beowulf 1460b–61), it is a victorious blade: "sigeeadig" ["blessed with victory"]. It is an "ealdsweord eotonisc," ["old giantish sword"], as is Wiglaf's sword, a Swedish royal heirloom (Beowulf 2616a). Where Hrunting is "foron ealdgestreona" ["foremost of old treasures"], and the sword of Hrethel is the best treasure-sword among the Geats (Beowulf 1458 and 2192b–93), Grendel's mother's sword is described as "wæpna cyst" ["choicest of weapons"]. Beowulf's heirloom, King Hrethel's sword, is "golde gegyrede" ["decorated with gold"] (Beowulf 2192a), and Hrunting is "fah" ["adorned"] (Beowulf 1459b). The giant sword in Grendel's mother's hall is likewise highly decorated: "geatolic." This sword is described in more detail than any other object associated with Grendel's mother, indicating its importance and status. And all other swords described at length in Beowulf— Unferth's Hrunting, King Heorogar's sword, King Hrethel's sword, Wiglaf's sword, and Beowulf's Nægling—are heirlooms, and except possibly for Hrunting, they are all royal heirlooms. The similarity in description and diction indicates that poem is designating the giant-made sword in Grendel's mother's hall as a royal heirloom, the sword of a king.

§22. In Beowulf, such heirloom swords indicate dynastic succession, a convention familiar to an Anglo-Saxon audience. Swords were considered "symbols of royal power" (Brooke 2001, 34), and were used as accoutrements of kingship in coronation ceremonies as early as Alfred's investiture as consul in 853 and as late as the eleventh century (Nelson 1986, 313–314 and 378; Brooke 2001, 34). The Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold being presented a sword in panel 72, perhaps as part of a coronation ritual or as an emblem of kingship (Nelson 1986, 395 note 104). Swords specifically symbolize kingly power, not regal power generally; as Pauline Stafford points out, queens do not receive a sword in Anglo-Saxon coronation rituals (1997, 167). Beowulf, too, clearly uses royal heirloom swords to indicate royalty and to designate a king's successors (Hill 1982, 177). Barbara Raw and John M. Hill both argue that Hrothgar's gift of King Heorogar's sword to Beowulf attempts to designate Beowulf as successor to the Danish throne (Hill 1982, 184–185; Raw 1992, 172), which Beowulf tactfully refuses by passing the sword on to his own king (Hill 1982, 191–192). The gifts accompanying Beowulf's promotion to co-king to Hygelac, and possibly the heir to the Geatish throne, include not only a hall, but King Hrethel's sword (Beowulf 2190–99; Hill 1982, 192; Swanton 1982, 134; Creed 1992, 94). Only royal and important men own such heirloom swords, with the possible exception of Unferth (certainly important but not necessarily royal). These swords, therefore, clearly indicate royal status and possibly kingly authority or succession. Grendel's mother's possession of a clearly heirloom sword such as those owned by kings and kings' successors indicates her royal rank, and her ownership of the heirloom sword, like the healdan construction, and her possession of a hall and treasure, indicates Grendel's mother's position as a potential king.


§23. As we have seen, the poem Beowulf represents Grendel's mother as kingly through diction and through her hall, her treasures, and the giant-made sword, and thereby associates her with the poem's many kings. But what purpose does this kingly construction of Grendel's mother serve? One possibility concerns plot progression. Constructing Grendel's mother as kingly makes her more prestigious than her already-defeated "healðegn" ["hall-thane"] son (Beowulf 142a). Grendel's mother must be more important and prominent than her son, or Beowulf's second victory becomes less important than his first, and thus anti-climactic. By constructing Grendel's mother as kingly, rather than thanelike, the poem gives Beowulf a more powerful and prestigious enemy to defeat. Furthermore, if Grendel's mother is the potential king of or heir to the mere, Beowulf conquers not only an enemy but territory by defeating her. He takes control of the hall and bears away the sword, usurping the two markers of the kingship in the mere, and gives the sword hilt to Hrothgar, thus designating the latter as the new ruler of the mere and eliminating a rival ruler in Denmark.

§24. More importantly, constructing Grendel's mother as kingly represents her as Beowulf's equal. By the time Grendel's mother appears in the plot, the poem begins to transform Beowulf from hero to king, though exactly when this process begins is disputed.16 Beowulf's metamorphosis from thane to king is clearly signaled by Hrothgar's gifts and Hygelac's. By depicting Grendel's mother as kingly, with the same diction of rulership and the same possessions, the poem gives Beowulf an opponent equal to him and worthy of him. The fight with Grendel's kingly mother, born of a feud, also gives Beowulf experience handling feuds with enemy kings which he later needs during the Geats' feud with the Swedes (2391–96). Finally, by making Grendel's mother an equal and kingly enemy, the poem shows Beowulf, her conqueror, someone who can successfully protect his people from other kings and therefore shows him even more worthy of kingship himself.

§25. Viewing Grendel's mother as kingly also forces us to re-evaluate her gender performance. Beowulf scholars often maintain that Grendel's mother is some sort of perversion of queenship, womanhood, motherhood, or all three.17These conclusions are quite understandable since the poem does not depict Grendel's mother as it depicts the other women characters, Wealtheow, Hildeburh, or Hygd, all queens. Grendel's mother fights and seeks vengeance, two very masculine behaviors (Schrader 1983, 41; Kiernan 1984, 23; Olsen 1984, 153; Chance 1986, 95 and 101; Haruta 1986, 12; Magennis 1996, 117; Acker 2006, 705–07). Yet the conclusions that her behavior is inappropriate derive from nineteenth-century assumptions about Anglo-Saxon gender norms based (without much evidence) on the word freðuwebbe, peaceweaver (Baker 2013, 103–38), a word that "is not necessarily gender-specific" (Cavell 2015, 356). Moreover, historically and in literature, noble women seek vengeance when no male relative is available (Baker 2013, 144; Gradowicz-Pancer 2002, 7–12), and such masculine behavior is admired in some texts (Clover 1993, 7). Grendel's mother's construction as kingly, rather than queenly, explains these "unqueenly" behaviors, just as it explains her ownership of hall, treasure, and sword and the use of the healdan construction in reference to her. Kings in Beowulf must necessarily fight, must avenge insults and feuds, and must rule; kings own halls, treasures, and swords. Queens do not. In other words, Grendel's mother is not crossing gender boundaries nor even behaving as a bad queen, but rather fulfilling her duties as king.

Chart 1: Behealdan in Beowulf

Line Meaning Refers to
494 hold / keep a thane keeping old customs in Heorot
667 hold / keep Beowulf guarding against Grendel
736 behold Beowulf's view of Grendel
1498 hold Grendel's mother holding the floods' circuit

Chart 2: Healdan + Time + Place / People Construction in Beowulf

Form of healdan in italics, time in boldface, place or people underlined.

"… heold þenden lifde / gamol ond guðreouw glæde Scyldingas" (57b–58b))
["The old and battle-fierce one held, while he lived, the glorious Scyldings"]

"se þe moras heold, / fen ond fæsten"
["He (Grendel) who held the moors, fen and stronghold"] (103b–104a)

"sinnihte heold / mistige moras" (161b–62a)
["He (Grendel) held the misty moors in everlasting night"]

"ond on geogoðe heold ginne rice, / hordburh hæleþa" (466–67a)
["and in youth, I held the spacious realm, the treasure town of heroes"]

"þæt þæt ðeodnes bearn geþeon scolde, fæderæþelum onfon, folc gehealdan, hord ond hleoburh, hæleþa rice, eþel Scyldinga." (910–13a)
["That the lord's child should prosper, receive his father's rank, to hold the people, hoard, and fortress, the kingdom of heroes, homeland of the Scyldings."]

"þæt hie gesawon sylce twegen micle mearcstapan moras healdan, ellorgæstas." (1347–49a)
["That they saw two such great border-steppers, alien spirits, holding the moors."]

"gyf þu healdan wylt / maga rice" (1852b–53a)
["if you wish to hold the kingdom of kinsmen"]

"… wisdome heold / eðel sinne" (1959b–60a)
["he (Offa) held his homeland by wisdom"]

"geheold tela / fiftig wintra" (2208b–09a)
["he held (it) well for fifty winters"]

"Swa se ðeodsceaða þreo hund wintra heold on hrusan hordærna sum eacencræftig …" (2278–80a)
["So the hugely powerful people-scather (the dragon) held in the earth a certain hoard-building for three hundred winters"]

"bearn ne truwode, þæt he wið ælfylcum eþelstolas healdan cuðe" (2370b–72a)
["She (Hygd) did not trust her son, that he knew how to hold native seats against the foreign folk."]

"let ðone bregostol Biowulf healdan, Geatum wealdan" (2389–90a)
["He (Onela) let Beowulf hold the prince-stool, wield the Geats"]

"Ic ðas leode heold / fiftig wintra" (2732b–33a)
["I (Beowulf) held that people for fifty winters"]

"… þæt ic ðy seft mæge æfter maððumwealan min alætan, lif ond leodscipe, þæt ic longe heold." (2749b–52)
[". . . so that I (Beowulf) may more easily give up afterwards my treasure–wealth, life, and nation, which I long held"]

"… frean userne ealdorleasne, þone ðe ær geheold wið hettendum hord ond rice after hæleða hryre" (3002b–05a)
["our lord (is) lifeless, who before held the hoard and kingdom against the haters after the death of heroes"]

Chart 3: Reced and -Reced in Beowulf

-reced referring to Forms Lines
Heorot (total = 13) reced (hall, palace), healreced (hall-palace), hornreced (horned palace), winreced (wine-palace) 68a, 310a, 326b, 412a, 704a, 714b, 720a, 724a, 728a, 770b, 993b, 1237b, 1799
Grendel's mother's hall (total = 1) reced (hall, palace) 1572b
Hygelac's hall (total = 1) healreced (hall-palace) (Klaeber's edit; the manuscript reads "side reced," wide hall [Zupitza 1959, 90–91]) 1981a
Dragon's hall (total = 2) eorðreced (earth-hall), reced (hall, palace) 2719a, 3088a

Chart 4: Sele and -Sele in Beowulf

Sele referring to Forms Line Numbers
Heorot (total = 24) sele (hall), guðsele (war hall), beorsele (beer hall), dryhtsele (troop hall), heahsele (high hall), winsele (wine hall), goldsele (gold hall), gestsele (guest hall), beahsele (ring hall) 81b, 323b, 411b, 443a, 482a, 485a, 492a, 647a, 695a, 713b, 715a, 767a, 771b, 826b, 919b, 994a, 1016a, 1177a, 1253a, 1639a, 1640b, 2010a, 2083a, 2352b
Finn's hall (total = 1) beorsele (beer hall) 1094a
Grendel's mother's hall (total = 3) niðsele (battle hall), hrofsele (roofed hall), guðsele (hall) (Klaeber's edit; the manuscript reads "sele," hall [Zupitza 1959, 98–99]), 1513a, 1515a, 2139a
Hygelac's hall (total = 1) sele (hall) 1984b
The Dragon's dwelling (total = 6) dryhtsele (troop hall), eorðsele (earth hall), hringsele (ring hall), sele (hall) 2320a, 2410a, 2515a, 2840a, 3053a, 3128b
The hall of the bereft old man (total = 1) winsele (wine hall) 2456a
Beowulf's hall (total = 1) biorsele (beer hall) 2635a

Chart 5: Hof in Beowulf

Line Refers to
312b Heorot (Klaeber's edit; the manuscript reads of (Zupitza 1959, 14–15))
1236b Hrothgar's personal chambers
1507b Grendel's mother's home
1836b the Geats' court or dwelling
1974b Hygelac's dwelling or court
2313a Geatish buildings that the dragon burns


1. Many studies of the conventions and depictions of Anglo-Saxon kingship are difficult to apply to Grendel's mother for two additional reasons. Firstly, historical studies are necessarily grounded in time and place, and the time and place of Beowulf's composition have not been conclusively determined. Secondly, many studies of Anglo-Saxon kingship focus on aspects that are difficult to apply to the kings in Beowulf, let alone Grendel's mother. Some studies, such as Peter Fox's An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Kingship (2004), Richard P. Abels's Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England (1988), and Kent G. Hare's "Heroes, Saints, and Martyrs: Holy Kingship from Bede to Aelfric" (2006), focus on philosophy and theories of kingship, the political developments of kingship in England, and kingly virtues. Barbara Yorke's study on the word bretwalda, "The Vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon Overlordship" (1981), considers the use of specific vocabulary to denote a particular type of kingship, while Carol L. de Vegvar's article, "The Iconography of in Anglo-Saxon Archeological Finds" (1984) discusses the Anglo-Saxon adoption of Roman and Celtic practices. [Back]

2. These women are Seaxburh and Æþelflæd, whom I will discuss shortly. [Back]

3. All references to the poem use Klaeber's third edition and hereafter will simply cite line numbers in the text. Translations are my own unless otherwise noted. [Back]

4. Literally, "he who." This is one of several instances in which Beowulf assigns masculine nouns and pronouns to Grendel's mother. [Back]

5. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary also suggests other meanings, such as "behave" and "signify" which do not fit this context (Bosworth 1898, "behealdan" def. I, 79). [Back]

6. When used figuratively to refer to Grendel or the dragon in lines 103b–04a and 2278–80a respectively, the expression still carries this connotation and likens their power and control to the reigns of kings. [Back]

7. I arrived at these numbers through a search of the electronic version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, version A, on Georgetown's Labyrinth website (1995). The references to reigns of kings occur 16 times in the introduction, and in the years 560, 565, 611, 643, 688, 694, 704, 716 (three occurrences), 728, 731, 738, 741, 754, 755 (three occurrences), 860, 900, and 1066. The references to rule of bishops occur in the years 167, 660, 670, 703, 709, and 931. The one reference to the reign of a ruling woman, quoted in the next paragraph, occurs in the introduction. [Back]

8. Seaxburg was not the only Anglo-Saxon woman to hold a kingdom. Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred, ruled the tributary kingdom of Mercia as documented in The Mercian Register version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and elsewhere (Cubbin 1983, 37–40; Wainwright 1990, 44–55). Unfortunately, the sparse references we have to Seaxburg, Æthelflæd, and Æthelflæd's daughter, who tried to succeed her mother, do not tell us much about cultural attitudes towards women who ruled as kings. There is nothing to indicate whether a woman who ruled as a king was normal or exceptional, accepted or merely tolerated. Neither Seaxburg nor Æthelflæd are criticized in their respective chronicles for ruling, however. [Back]

9. Although the verb wealdan (to wield) is used in this instance to denote Hrothgar's reign, the phrasing is similar to the healdan construction and clearly describes Hrothgar's reign: "Swa ic Hring-Dena hund missera / weold under wolcum" ["So I wielded the Ring-Danes under the clouds for a hundred half-years"] (Beowulf 1769–70a). [Back]

10. Grendel, in contrast, carries only one object, a glove or bag, which Beowulf mentions in line 2085b during his report of his deeds to King Hygelac. [Back]

11. The implication that Grendel's mother is kingly leaves open an interesting question. If Grendel's mother is king, then Grendel is consequently a thane, as he is called early in Beowulf (142a) and as Atkinson argues (1984, 58–59). Grendel's mother apparently controls her hall—and her thane—for thirty-eight years without incident. She continues to control the hall, but evidently cannot control Grendel her thane, who raids the neighboring king's hall for twelve years. Grendel's mother may be just as ineffective at controlling her thane as Hrothgar is at controlling his. [Back]

12. Emended to guðsele ["battle-hall"] by Klaeber. [Back]

13. The occurrence in line 312b is Klaeber's emendation; the manuscript reads of (Zupitza 1959, 14–15). [Back]

14. The pattern holds whether the emendation in 312b is included or not. [Back]

15. See for instance, Puhvel (1969), Kiernan (1984), Irving (1989), Acker (2006), Trilling (2007), Hennequin (2008). [Back]

16. Carruthers points out that Hrothgar "designates Beowulf as a future king" when Hrothgar temporarily cedes control of Heorot to him (1994, 24). Others believe that Hrothgar further acknowledges Beowulf as a potential king of Denmark with the gift of King Heorogar's sword (Hill 1982, 184–85; Raw 1992, 172; Swanton 1982, 115). Others believe the shift in Beowulf's status and character from thane to king begins immediately after Beowulf's defeat of Grendel's mother (Atkinson 1984, 63–64; Creed 1992, 108). [Back]

17. See, for instance Chance (1986), Damico (1984), Schrader (1983), Temple (1986), Morgan (1991), Lee (1998), and Acker (2006). [Back]

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Last Modified: 19-Apr-2017