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Grendel and Beowulf: Fighting the Mirror Image

Jerome Dunk is a writer who writes articles on literature, including epic poems like "Beowulf."

This is a public domain image from Kip Wheeler's homepage at Carson-Newman College. Kip Wheeler declared its status thus: "The original image of the Beowulf manuscript comes from the anonymous Anglo-Saxon scribe who wrote the 'Nowell Codex', Cotton V

This is a public domain image from Kip Wheeler's homepage at Carson-Newman College. Kip Wheeler declared its status thus: "The original image of the Beowulf manuscript comes from the anonymous Anglo-Saxon scribe who wrote the 'Nowell Codex', Cotton V

Beowulf and Grendel

The very nature of a social group necessitates that there are those who are in the group as well as those who are outside the group. The qualities that may be good and admirable in a member of one's own group can be the same things that are feared or despised in somebody from outside one's group.

The fight between Beowulf and Grendel seems to be equally matched in strength. However, it is clear that one has a definite advantage over the other. Grendel will be defeated. Grendel must be defeated.

\Why, you may ask?

Grendel has to be defeated because he is a monster. Although it seems that I am making a moral statement or some sort of call to action, I am not. Grendel must be defeated, for he is a monster. Of course, some may say that this statement is just a statement of the obvious path a heroic tale will naturally take. Regardless of the truth of that statement, it is missing the point I am trying to make.

What I am saying is that the same set of circumstances that cause Grendel to be a monster is the same set of circumstances that lead to his defeat at the hand of Beowulf. Grendel and Beowulf are mirror images of one another, and this, combined with the differences in their pasts and social standing, is what ultimately leads to Grendel's defeat. The causes of his defeat will be made clear by an analysis of the character of Grendel and by contrast, Beowulf through Sigmund Freud's theories of the id, ego and super-ego and his theories on the uncanny, as well as through Jacques Lacan's writings about The Mirror Stage of development.

Public Domain Image

Public Domain Image

Many writers have dealt with the similarity in character of Beowulf and Grendel and have dealt with the question of the distinction between a monster and a non-monster. Although this subject is a portion of my paper, the question of what makes Beowulf the victor over Grendel seems to be dealt with less. There are clear reasons why Beowulf is defeated. An important one is the issue of the uncanny. This subject is dealt with in David Sander's "The Uncanny in Beowulf." He gives us a good background on Freud's theories on the uncanny and its function in Beowulf. He shows us the uncanniness of Grendel. He points to the fact that both Beowulf and Grendel are mirror images of one another: "both Grendel and Beowulf meet at the limit of
the human and grasp hands across it in a combat which reveals them as uncanny doubles for one another" (Sanders 169). Even though he states that they are uncanny doubles of the other, Sanders doesn't explore the idea that Beowulf embodies the uncanny from Grendel's point of view. The analysis of Beowulf, the hero and Grendel, the defeated monster starts with their similarities.

Jacques Lacan wrote about the mirror stage in an individual's development and how this stage influences an individual throughout its whole life. This mirror stage is instrumental in pointing to Beowulf's defeat of Grendel. The mirror stage takes place when a child first realizes that he is a being that is distinct and separate from his surroundings. At this stage the individual creates an ideal image of himself that Lacan calls the Ideal-I. This image is a perfected sense of self that the individual strives to reach his whole life. Lacan tells us that the individual in the mirror stage must be understood as an identification. "The transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image - whose predestination to phase-effect is sufficiently indicated by the use . . . of the ancient term 'imago'" (1124). Imago is a term that Freud used for the mental picture of a beloved parent that becomes the individuals pattern for relationships. Lacan uses this term a little differently than Freud and uses Imago as a mental picture of the Ideal-I that an individual forms in the mirror stage. Lacan believed the mirror stage to be a function of the imago that helped to establish the individual's relation between their inner world and the outer world. I also see this as related to Freud's balance of the id, ego and super-ego which helps an individual to reconcile their inner drives of the id to the excepted social norms of the outside world.

Public Domain Image

Public Domain Image

The difference of lineage between Beowulf and Grendel points to the difference in their forming of the imago and in their respective Ideal-I. The question of lineage is a major theme in the poem. "Beowulf concentrates on ... the crucial sites in genealogical or patrilineal succession. The poem opens with a fatherless father whose past is unknown, Scyld, and closed with the death of a childless son, Beowulf" (Lees 430). The question of lineage is an important subject in the time of Beowulf and was traced through the father. Beowulf comes from a respected lineage. By contrast, Grendel had no father. Therefore, he had no way to trace his lineage. What we do find out from the author of the poem about Grendel's lineage, is that Grendel is a "kin of Cain" (Donaldson 5). The character of Cain, the murderer of his brother Abel, is known biblically as the first murderer. Cain was cursed to live as a wanderer and became an outcast. Beowulf is a member of society and Grendel is not welcome to be a member of society. Grendel "might not approach the throne, [receive] treasure, because of the Lord; he had no love for him" (Donaldson 6). Being unable to live as part of society keeps Grendel from receiving any gifts and causes him to have no money with which to pay wergeld. Wergeld (man-price) is a person's worth in money. If a person kills another in this society, a wergeld is to be paid to their family. Grendel has no money and therefore cannot pay wergeld. Interestingly, the biblical Cain, of which Grendel is said to be a descendant also cannot pay a wergeld because upon killing his brother, there is no way to pay his family their own money back. This results in Grendel not being able to be part of the surrounding society.
Grendel being cast out of society, like Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, causes him to have no choice but to become a monster. Jay Ruud states: "Grendel is barred from receiving the gifts of a Germanic lord, and how the monster can ever be expected to pay the customary and legal wergeld to the families of those he devours. Three times he is called an ellorgast - 'outcast spirit.'" (9). Beowulf as a part of his society has as his Freudian Imago, a parent who is part of the community and of a respected lineage. By contrast, Grendel's Freudian Imago is based on his mother who is not accepted into society and lives on the outskirts. Grendel is an outcast. "Grendel's race has been composed of fugitives since the time of God's curse on Cain." (Phillips 45). The wandering outcast, or person without a home would be a well known and fearful image to the Beowulf poet's contemporaries. Like the biblical Cain, Grendel not only lives quite literally on the outskirts of society, but mentally is a person without a home. Jeffery Jerome Cohen compares a person without a home to a person who cannot find a sense of his Ideal-I:
Compare this Anglo-Saxon quest for a warm hall to Lucan's description of the subject's battle for a coherent 'I'. Because this image is exterior to the subject, a gap opens that cannot be bridged or filled in. The Lacanian unconscious is a place, an imaginary geography in every way parallel to the wintry wastes and churning seas over which the Anglo Saxon exile wanders, (Cohen 356).

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This physical and mental persona non grata status that Grendel possesses seems to find him with an imperfect form of his Ideal-I. Grendel's lack of a father figure further affects him negatively. Sigmund Freud states, "The super-ego arises, as we know, from the identification with the father taken as a model" (655). Freud states in his works that the super-ego is a formed of influences of the father figure and through the regulations of society. This is not to imply of course that anyone who does not have a father will turn into a cannibalistic monster, but in the case of Grendel, not having a father figure and being cut off from society seems to result in his having a non-existent or at least under formed super-ego. The superego acts as our conscience. It checks our id and keeps us from breaking society's taboos. Because of society not allowing Grendel's super-ego to form, the society created the monster in Grendel. An individuals need to fit in to society can be very important. If an individual feels that they have no place in their world it can lead to violence. Many mass shootings in our own time are caused by "monsters" that feel like they do not have any place to fit in. An example of this is in the April 20, 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in which two student "outcasts", Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve of their fellow students, one teacher, and lastly killed themselves. As Murray Forman states: "In life, the perpetrators were outsiders, first by social circumstance and later by choice: in death, their outsider status was discursively recast, and they emerged not simply as misguided juveniles but as unfeeling beasts, as monsters" (Forman 67). These students felt left out of their society at school. Unfortunately, many other incidents of violence, school and otherwise involve perpetrators with the same sad profile of these two. They were generally ostracized by the other students and withdrew into a world of their own. Often being taunted or made fun of especially by the popular kids and the jocks at their school, they were constantly reminded that they were not to consider themselves part of the school society. Without any choice but to have to be at school, they eventually lashed out against a system they felt powerless in. I am not defending these boys actions as in any way morally right, but I am attempting to provide some understanding to their motives. How similar is our friend Grendel. Who is not allowed to be part of his society in any way. We must remember that being a part of society isn't always our own choice. David Sanders points to this fact:

He is hopeless and forlorn. Anyone might, by the turning of fate, be subject to exile. Grendel's dual nature confronts us with the possibility that we might turn out to be exiles, and, beyond that, monsters as well. Grendel's uncanniness allows us, on the one hand, to fear him and, on the other, to fear we might be him. (167)
Sander's quote points us to the old adage, "There but for the grace of God, go I." In this case the adage is quite literal. Grendel who is not only outcast from society, but also doesn't have the grace of God, being a "kin of Cain." Whether we are in a high school where we are unable to define our own place, or in a society such as Grendel's that relegates him to a certain place within it, sometimes there seems to be no choice in being who you want to be. In the case of Grendel, through no fault of his own he is an outcast to his society, thus leaving him no other position as to either disappear or become a monster.

Burial Mound In Sweden That Some Feel To Be the Burial Place Of Beowulf


Beowulf's Ideal-I is more completely formed. He has no father figure problems to overcome and his having a respected lineage, helps him to belong to a respectable place in society. Beowulf's super-ego keeps him in check and allows the aggressions of his id to manifest themselves in a more socially acceptable manner. He, in opposition to the Columbine shooters mentioned in he previous paragraph, has more the position of one of the jocks in the school. He has violent urges, true, but there are ways in these can be channeled. For the jocks at Columbine that were well respected members of their society, aggression could be vented in sports, or in tormenting the outcasts. For Beowulf, killing monsters is a socially acceptable way to vent his aggression. Beowulf, when hearing of the monster Grendel, the mirror image in strength of himself, feels the need to do battle with him. Perhaps at this point, Beowulf may feel his imago to be threatened by this image of Grendel; a mirror image, but yet a monster. Lacan referred to the image of the "fragmented body" (1126) which is in opposition to the perfected body of the Ideal-I. Though Grendel's body is strong, it is monstrous. This may be a reminder to Beowulf of his own fragmented body. This giving Beowulf more motivation to seek out and defeat him.

Both Beowulf and Grendel are affected by seeing each other as their mirror image. This recognition takes place for each character at a different time. This difference in time is a large factor in Grendel's defeat. As I previously stated, we know from the poem that they are mirror images of one another in strength. If we were placing bets on who the winner of this battle would be by strength alone, it would seem to be a 50/50 shot. Grendel was undefeated by Hrothgar's armed men for twelve years. Beowulf is described as stronger than any of his contemporaries. One of the biggest differences that timing made in the victory of Beowulf was that he knew of Grendel first and was able to prepare himself for his meeting with his rival. Beowulf, while in his homeland, hears the tale of the monster of Heorot and identifies himself with Grendel. In Laura Mulvey's essay, "Visual Pleasure and The Narrative Cinema," she refers to Lacan's mirror stage and compares it to the viewer in the cinema. The viewer sees the main male character as a mirror image of themselves. For Beowulf, hearing of Grendel, Grendel is the main male character of the tale that Beowulf heard. It seems likely that he projected himself onto Grendel as a mirror image. This gave Beowulf a distinct advantage in the coming battle. First, he was aware of his opponent. Second, he expected his opponent to be as mirror-strong as himself. Third, he knew the actions of his opponent and could lie in wait, knowing where he would meet and surprise him.
Poor Grendel does not have any of the advantages that Beowulf has, he is not even aware of the existence of his opponent until he finds himself locked in battle with him. Knowing he is stronger than any man, Grendel tears into Heorot unaware that he is going to be faced with a mirror image of himself in strength. "Straightway the fosterer of crimes knew that he had not encountered on middle-earth, anywhere in this world, a harder hand-grip from another man. In mind, he became frightened, in his spirit; not for that might he escape the sooner." (Donaldson 14-15). In this part of the text, we realize that Grendel has come face to face with a mirror image of himself. This mirror image is more perfect than he would have pictured for himself, for not only is this opponent big and strong, but he also belongs to society and carries with it all that entails. Picture coming in contact with someone exactly like you, who is richer, more popular, of better social standing and a having a better job than you. Now picture this person, trying to kill you. This will give you a bit of empathy for what Grendel was encountering. It is at this point that Grendel comes face to face with the uncanny and spends the remainder of the fight trying to get away from what frightens him. Freud in "The Uncanny," describes the role of the double:
The double was originally an insurance against the destruction of the ego ... Such ideas, however have sprung from the soil of unbounded self-love, from the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of the child and of primitive man. But when this stage has been surmounted, the 'double' reversed the aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death. (522-523)

antkriz photostream on Flikr - Creative Commons

antkriz photostream on Flikr - Creative Commons

So, at this point, I must feel pity for poor Grendel, who only moments ago was not only thrown from his youthful narcissistic stage by being confronted with a mirror of self. He is immediately faced with an uncanny and quite literal "harbinger of death." To further frighten the wits out of poor Grendel, the seizing of the apparently sleeping Beowulf and finding a man beyond any known strength further added to the uncanniness he was experiencing. As Freud further remarks, the uncanny is brought about by the familiar which contains "something which ought to have remained hidden, but has come to light." (517). In this case, Beowulf is literally hidden but "comes to light", but more so, the fact that Grendel's strength isn't all he thought it was is a hidden fact brought to light by Beowulf. The advantage clearly lies with Beowulf, not only in mounting a surprise attack, but by causing Grendel to confront his mirror self. Grendel was afraid and his survival instinct just told him to get away. He was only able to do so by surrendering his arm and thereby, his life to Beowulf.

Grendel returns to the only place he can call home and finds the end of his life, confused, afraid and next to mother, contemplating his image of self that has just been so badly broken. Grendel encountered something strange - someone unexpected, someone like him. This somebody like himself, somebody with great strength and a taste for violence, has something that he doesn't have, something he is unable to have - social acceptance. Grendel had no chance to win this fight, he was a monster. Being a monster is a losing proposition. The very factors that make one a monster, make one fated to lose. The issue of social acceptance is still important to us today. Like Grendel, people that feel that they are not part of their society are more likely to act in violent and anti-social ways. Sometimes people with violent tendencies can find ways within society to channel these feelings into socially acceptable ways as Beowulf did. But if those people are not made to feel that they are part of the total picture of society, the results at best can be a sad life for them, or at worst, a harmful or deadly situation for people that they come into contact with. The same qualities that both Grendel and Beowulf share are both shaped and interpreted by the position that each has in their society. Social acceptance has great power. It can make one side of the mirror a hero and make the other side of the mirror a monster.

Works Cited:

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. "The Ruins Of Identity" The Postmodern Beowulf. Ed. Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey. Morgantown, West Virginia: West Virginia University Press, 2006. 345-381. Print

Donaldson, E. Talbot. Beowulf A Prose Translation. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.
Forman, Murray. "Freaks, Aliens, and the Social Other: Representations of Student Stratification in U.S. Television's First Post-Columbine Season." Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film & Television Spring. 53 (2004): 66-82. Print
Freud, Sigmund. The Freud Reader. New York: Norton, 1989. Print.
---. "'The "Uncanny '" The Critical Tradition. Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. Richter, David A. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2007. 514-523. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I a Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience" The Critical Tradition. Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. Richter, David A. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2007. 1123-1128. Print.
Lees, Clare A. "Men and Beowulf" The Postmodern Beowulf. Ed. Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey. Morgantown, West Virginia: West Virginia University Press, 2006. 417-438. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" The Critical Tradition. Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. The Critical Tradition. Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. Richter, David A. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2007. 1172 -1180. Print.

Phillips, James. "In The Company of Predators; Beowulf and the Monstrous Descendants of Cain." Angelaki; a new journal in philosophy, literature and the social sciences. 13.3
(2008): 41-51. Print.
Ruud, Jay. "Gardner's Grendel and Beowulf; Humanizing the Monster." Thoth 14. 2-3 (1974):
3-17. Print.
Sandner, David. "Tracking Grendel: The Uncanny in Beowulf." Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy 40.2 (1999): 162-76. Print.

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