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Since the dawn of time, the forces of evil have always tried to gain an upper hand over the forces of good. The battles between these two forces have transcended time in both different forms and in different places. Every culture since the birth of man has background stories of creation and the battles that are waged between the two forces of light and dark. Leaving in the aftermath, stories and legends that are passed down from generation to generation through the vast cultures and civilizations. Beginning with the use of oral traditions that took these stories and the use of spoken word to both inform and entertain the people of a given society. These tales also had another purpose, which was to remind the people of the evils that were around them. Lurking in the shadows, waiting to claim another victim in the war of good and evil. Such stories fed on the fears of the people and the uncertainty of the world around them. Although the stories themselves may differ considerably from region to region, the basic underlying theme has always been identical. With the coming into being of written word, these stories could now be put down for people to read and serve as a reminder of their folklore. Not only to them, but to future people who come to read these documents. We have been lucky in the fact that over the last few hundred years, we have recovered many works from all over the world, dating back through years that had been long forgotten to many of us. In a great many of these works we have come into contact with many tales of heroism and the fight between good and evil. Just as the heroism in these stories may take on different faces, so does the evil present itself in many different guises.
This brings us to one work in specific, Beowulf, one of the earliest Old English poems that we have today. It is the embodiment of the struggle between good and evil. The poem begins with the funeral of Scyld, the mythical founder of the Danish Royal House. One of his descendants builds a great hall called Heorot, and it is here that the people gather to rejoice and sing the praises of G-d. This singing angers a vile fiend named Grendel, that inhabits the nearby bog. The poet describes Grendel in this way:
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The grim demon was called Grendel, a notorious ranger
of the borderlands, who inhabited the fastness of moors
and fens. This unhappy being had long lived in the land of
monsters, because G-d had damned him along with the
children of Cain. (1.97-101)
This tells the story of when Cain murdered his brother Abel and was banished from humanity by G-d. It was said that from Cain was born the monsters that roamed the earth, perpetuating their hatred and evil to all around them. Grendel is one such monster, which is why the music and song about the Lord and of Creation enrages him so enormously. The daily celebrations caused Grendel to enter the hall at nightfall when everyone had fallen asleep, and slaughter the men in protest to the music and song that filled his ears during the day. Grendel hated all of mankind and the sounds that resonated from the great hall fueled his hatred even more.
Grendel held an inborn hatred for all of mankind. Nightly Grendel would make his trip into the hall and kill whomever was there. In speaking about the nightly raids that Grendel made, the poet writes:
Thus the malign outcast, like the enemy of man that he
was, made frequent attacks and produced unspeakable
havoc. In the darkness of night he occupied the rich hall of
Heorot; but he could not approach the treasure-throne be-
cause of the Lord, nor could Grendel know His love.
With all of his hatred and because of the evil that dwelled in his heart, Grendel would never know what they love of G-d felt like. No amount of money, or treasure could ransom the lives of the people from Grendel’s wrath. Only the blood and fear of the people could satiate Grendel’s anger. For twelve years, Grendel invaded the hall nightly to punish anyone who would be there. This was indeed a dark time for all, the once glorious great hall that echoed with the sounds of happiness and beatitude had now fell silent. There were no more songs sung or music played, only the screams of terror that seeped from the walls at night. The people took to finding places to sleep further away from the hall. Eventually, no one dared stay at the Heorot when night came, for fear of being Grendels next victim. Fear had transformed these people’s noble and good nature into a deep seething feeling helplessness and impending doom.
At this time, word has gotten across the water to Beowulf, nephew of the king of the Geats, a tribe from Sweden. Beowulf, a mythical character in his own rite, decides to travel to the aid of the king and his people in these troubled times. Upon arriving, Beowulf and his men request an audience with the king, to explain that they have come to slay this creature. The king, knowing both Beowulf’s father and the reputation that proceeds Beowulf is very grateful for his coming. Beowulf and his band of fighters spend the night in the great hall waiting for Grendel to appear. Just as they had suspected, night came and so did Grendel. At once Grendel pounced on a sleeping soldier ripping into him and consuming him blood, bone and all. But this would be the last victim that Grendel would ever take, because next Grendel reached for the ready Beowulf. As Grendel reached for him, Beowulf took hold of the abomination with his mighty hand, grasping the monster so tightly that he could not get free. Bewildered, and frightened, Grendel tried to free himself from the death grip of Beowulf, but his attempts were in vain. Beowulf had no intention of letting the monster leave that night with his life. The two forces, good and evil clashed in a tempestuous battle, one that destroyed the inner contents of the great hall. Grendel feverishly tried escaping from Beowulf, but to no avail. Beowulf’s grip on the wretched pestilence was both tight and true. When the battle reached an end, Grendel defeated and mortally wounded, retreated to his murky lair which was to be tomb. Beowulf as he had promised, stood victorious before the Danes. In his hand he held the arm of Grendel that he torn off at the shoulder. All was right again, and good had once again triumphed over evil.
Following the victory of Beowulf, the king rewarded Beowulf with a treasure of fine metals, a jewel studded sword and a large banquet in celebration. Once more happiness had returned to the king and his people, they gave thanks to Beowulf and to the Lord for sending them a hero in their darkest hour. After the celebration, it was now time to rest and the hall was full once more with men asleep. Only the tranquillity was short lived, because that night as the men slept another of Hell’s creatures stormed into the hall. This time it was Grendel’s mother, an evil creature like her son, bent on avenging the death of her son. Once discovered she snatched up a man, the king’s most cherished counselor, and the bloodied talon of her son’s. The king’s heart was once again heavy with the news of the events that happened the past night, not only has another foul beast appeared but he lost a most loved comrade. Beowulf unaware of what had happened, remarked about how quiet the previous night was. Overcome by his sorrow, the king exclaimed that the hall was attacked by another creature and proclaimed that Beowulf go and dispose of this fiend. Beowulf, noble hero that he is, gives his reply:
She can go where she likes, but I promise you that
she shall find no cover from me, whether in the bowels of
the earth, in mountain thickets, or in the depths of the
ocean. Have patience in your grief today, as I know you
Beowulf and the men soon came to the murky water that housed the hellish she-beast below. Without hesitation, Beowulf plunged into the sanguine lake to confront Grendel’s mother. He swam down into the dark waters, until he was seized by the beast and dragged through the water. He found himself in an underground hall aglow with a roaring fire, standing before Grendel’s mother. Attempting to end his quest quickly, Beowulf swung his trusted sword at the head of the demon-woman. The blade struck without a scratch to the creature. Beowulf now found himself overtaken in the hands of Grendel’s mother. Furiously fighting her with all his strength, Beowulf sees a sword hanging on the wall. This was no ordinary sword, it was forged by the ancient titans. Beowulf was able to free himself from her and grab the sword. Swinging the sword with all his might Beowulf slashed off the head of his adversary. Taking only the head of the beast and the handle of the mystical sword, Beowulf swam back up the now clear water to the surface. With the beasts dead, and the evil purged, the once dark gloomy waters pure once more. They returned to the hall and brought the news of Beowulf’s victory over the evil that befell them. As before, they celebrated the bravery of Beowulf and gave praise to the Lord for this wondrous deliverance.
This poem illustrates the faces that evil takes on, and the way in which good conquers evil. Grendel was the embodiment of the fear of the dark, and the mysteries that the night holds. What lurks inside the shadows, behind corners, in the forest when the sun retreats and the minions of Hell come out into the moonlit night. How once the light of day is swallowed by twilight, blanketing everything with a cloak of darkness. Grendel’s hatred for the people of the great hall and their praises of the Lord are indicative of the opposition between the light and the dark; Grendel being the dark force and the songs and praises of the people representing the light of the Lord.
Grendel’s mother is a symbol of evil’s revenge upon man. She is a factor used to tip the scales in the ongoing conflict between the covenant of the Lord and the servants of the underworld. Beowulf is the hero, present to defend the realm of G-d, and to vanquish the evil. This timeless motif of the struggles between man’s faith and his fears is encapsulated in this poem, ultimately proving that whatever incarnation evil takes will be suppressed by the power of G-d.