Heorot, the great hall of King Hrothgar and the Danes, has been under attack by the monster Grendel, the “notorious waste-wanderer” (line 100) and descendent of Cain. Grendel enters Heorot each night when Hrothgar's thanes sleep in the hall, grasps the men, kills them, eats some of them, and carries...
Heorot, the great hall of King Hrothgar and the Danes, has been under attack by the monster Grendel, the “notorious waste-wanderer” (line 100) and descendent of Cain. Grendel enters Heorot each night when Hrothgar's thanes sleep in the hall, grasps the men, kills them, eats some of them, and carries others away for a snack later on. Grendel despises these men, for they have something that he never would: a place in the hall and the joys of fellowship with their king and among themselves.
Then Beowulf, Prince of the Geats, appears on the scene. His father was once aided by Hrothgar, and Beowulf wants to return the favor, so he volunteers to get rid of Grendel. He settles himself in Heorot that night, having already decided that he will fight Grendel with his bare hands and brute strength rather than with a sword. Grendel enters the hall and quickly eats one man, but Beowulf is ready for him. The strong Geat grabs Grendel's arm and holds on. Grendel cannot free himself, no matter how he struggles, until finally his arm starts to separate at the shoulders. His “sinews sprang asunder / bone-locks burst” (lines 817–18). Then Beowulf is still holding Grendel's arm, but Grendel himself is fleeing into the fens, mortally wounded.
The Danes and Geats celebrate Beowulf's victory all day and into the night, but another adversary lurks in the wilderness, bent on revenge: Grendel's mother. While the men sleep in Heorot, she enters stealthily, retrieves Grendel's arm, and grabs a warrior for good measure. Beowulf suddenly has another task to perform, and he is ready for it. He will kill Grendel's mother.
This job, however, will not be quite as straightforward as his fight with Grendel. Grendel's mother is more wary and sly, and Beowulf will fight her on her own turf. Beowulf and his men track Grendel's mother to her lair, which is at the bottom of a lake. Beowulf has to swim down amidst “many a sea-beast / with battle-tusks” (lines 1510–11) that attack him. When he finally confronts Grendel's mother in her own hall, he thrusts at her with his sword but does not even make a dent in her thick skin. Beowulf then grabs her by the shoulder, thinking to repeat his performance on her son at Heorot, but she falls to the floor and turns on him. Beowulf stumbles, and Grendel's mother draws her knife. She has Beowulf pinned, and only his mail-shirt saves him from death. Beowulf then sees an old sword nearby, one made by giants, which gives it extra powers. He grasps it and swings, catching Grendel's mother in the neck and killing her.
If we think about which fight was more dangerous to Beowulf, then, that with Grendel or that with Grendel's mother, we would have to conclude the latter. Grendel's mother almost kills Beowulf. His own sword proves useless, and it is only because of his sharp eyes that spy the magical sword and his quick thinking to grasp and use it that Beowulf survives the encounter.