What does the kenning "hell-forged hands" in line 64 of Beowulf suggest about Grendel?

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Recent treatments of Grendel, from John Gardner's novel (of which the monster is the eponymous protagonist) to Robert Zemeckis's 2007 film, Beowulf , have tended to portray the monster in a rather sympathetic light as a lonely outcast who attacks mead-halls as an expression of frustration. This sympathy is...

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Recent treatments of Grendel, from John Gardner's novel (of which the monster is the eponymous protagonist) to Robert Zemeckis's 2007 film, Beowulf, have tended to portray the monster in a rather sympathetic light as a lonely outcast who attacks mead-halls as an expression of frustration. This sympathy is entirely absent from the Old English poem, which consistently portrays Grendel as a terrifying force of nature long before nature was romanticized by Wordsworth and Coleridge.

In Beowulf, the world outside the mead-hall, Heorot, is cold, dark, and terrifying. Grendel brings that terror into the bright, cheerful abode of humanity. He is not a misunderstood outsider: he is a representative of everything diabolical and demonic which humanity must withstand and destroy if it is to continue to exist. All the works of "hell-forged hands" are necessarily evil, bringing chaos and destruction to the small enclave of light that it has taken humanity so long to create. This is what the kenning conveys.

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The kenning "hell-forged hands" suggests that Grendel is not simply a neutral force of nature but distinctly evil. This reinforces the theme that Grendel's intentions are demonic, framing this epic poem as a narrative centrally about the struggle between good, represented by Beowulf, and evil, represented by the malicious desires of Grendel.

Beowulf is not simply fighting and killing a monster: he is upholding the values that make civilization precious. Grendel's attack on the mead hall Heorot is framed as a deliberate attack on those virtues that make life worth living and which separate virtue from vice: the congeniality and community formed between men as they break bread, talk, and sleep together before the fires of the hall. Heorot represents the security from danger that allows a culture to flourish. In attacking Heorot, Grendel is attempting to destroy society itself, and this makes labeling his destructive impulses as "hell-forged" hardly seem like an exaggeration.

Nature in this poem is not presented as a good thing (as it is represented by Grendel and his mother)—it is a force of chaos and darkness that brave warriors like Beowulf must defend civilization against.

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Kennings, which are an old English and Norse literary device consisting of a compound word used as a metaphor, are found throughout the epic poem of Beowulf. This one is typical of many in the poem.

By stating that the terrorizing of Heorot was done by "hell-forged hands" it is suggested that Grendel is not of this world. It implies that he is pure evil. The lines that follow describe how Grendel has no respect for the laws of civilized people. He answers to no code of honor and follows his own evil impulses. Therefore, his acts are like those of demons from hell. Indeed, Grendel is described as being forsaken by God. He is a descendant of Cain and therefore carries the sins and evil ways of his ancestors with him. This kenning and the many other descriptions of Grendel suggest that he cannot be reasoned with and peace cannot be bought for any other price than the monster's death.

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The use of this kenning is part of a range of similar descriptors applied to Grendel, all trying to convey the same thing. He is variously described as a "fiend," as a descendant of Cain—who betrayed and killed his brother and was then sent away into exile, in the book of Genesis in the Bible—and as having come from hell. This description, then, is another implication along the same lines. Grendel is a monstrosity, a fiend, and something that was, as far as Hrothgar's men are concerned, forged in hell. Although he is not literally a demon, what he does to the men, tearing them apart and wrecking their hall, seems the work of the devil. Moreover, he has absolutely no regard for social norms. He does not recognize the strict boundaries of honor and respect for context which were placed on this society; this is part of why he is represented as a descendant of Cain, someone else who was exiled for his flagrant flouting of the rules of society. Grendel is hellish because he exists on the fringes of society and then attacks it for his own ends.

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