Line 64 of Beowulf states: "By hell-forged hands / His misery leaped." What does the kenning "hell-forged hands" suggest about Grendel?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is one of the oldest works of literature still in existence, and it tells of the heroic deeds of a man named Beowulf who fights against three non-human foes. The first of these is Grendel.

Grendel is a great monster who "nursed a hard grudge" against Hrothgar and Hrothgar's mead-hall, Heorot. He is a night marauder, killing at will, and no one is able to stop him. A few lines before the quote you mention we read this:

Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend

Grendel who haunted the moors, the wild

Marshes, and made his home in a hell.

Not hell but hell on earth. He was spawned in that slime

Of Cain, murderous creatures banished

By God, punished forever for the crime

Of Abel's death.

The clear implication of this description is that Grendel is somehow from the devil, just like the other fiends and demons. WHen the poet says Grendel made his home in hell, he is of course suggesting that Grendel is connected to Satan. This is intensified by the reference to Cain being banished by God.

The full quote which contains the description from your question is this:

Twelve winters of grief for Hrothgar, king

Of the Danes, sorrow heaped at his door

By hell-forged hands, His misery leaped

The seas, was told and sung in all

Men's ears.

This description of Grendel is fitting for the evil he does. "Hell-forged hands" imply that the creature to who the hands belong (Grendel) was shaped (formed, birthed) in hell by the devil. It is one of many descriptors we are given that implies that Grendel is pure evil.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A kenning is a feature of Old English poetry that involves creating a compound word with metaphorical meanings. "Hell-forged hands" to describe Grendel means that he has come from a long line of devils. In other words, his hands were made in hell, and he traces his ancestry back to devils. The use of this kenning suggests that Grendel is the spawn of the devil. Grendel does battle with Hrothgar and his people, who long suffer at Grendel's hands. Grendel lurks in the marshes beyond the mead hall, suggesting that the lands that lie beyond the mead hall are the domain of the devil.

Grendel's hellish ancestry explains some of his strange qualities, such as that he cannot be harmed by weapons. Instead, Beowulf must wrestle Grendel to death and kill him with his hands. In slaying the spawn of the devil, Beowulf acquires saintly qualities, as he does battle for God.