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Beowulf : The Monsters and the Tradition

Marilynn Desmond

Oral Tradition, 7/2 (1992):258-83

Grendel’s attack on Heorot and the resulting battle with Beowulf is undeniably the most vivid and memorable scene in Beowulf and quite possibly in all of Anglo-Saxon narrative. Arthur Brodeur has commented on is narrative power (1959); Stanley B. Greenfield has analyzed the style of the passage on more than one occasion (1967, 1972); Alain Renoir has called the scene “one of the most effective presentations of terror in English literature” (1968:166); George Clark has described this scene as a version of the theme he calls “The Traveler Recognizes His Goal” (1965). Almost every book on Beowulf touches on the narrative qualities of this scene, and many an article on Beowulf will include some discussion of it. Thus Grendel’s attack on Heorot is not only the most memorable scene in the text;
it is also one of the most heavily glossed.

The other two occasions on which a monster attacks the hall have engendered much less discussion. The first, a fairly colorless passage that summarizes Grendel’s first attack on Heorot (and his seizure of thirty thanes), consists of a mere fourteen lines (115-129a). The attack of Grendel’s mother (1279-1304a) is somewhat more vivid than Grendel’s first attack, but much less fully realized than the scene in which Grendel meets Beowulf,3 though it has been characterized as a scene that imposes “a sudden dreadful fear” (Brodeur 1959:95). Yet all three scenes aptly fit their context: their quality as scene or summary is exactly suited to whatever slowly developed terror or sudden fear the narrative requires at that moment. The differences among these scenes are obvious, but their similarities much less so; indeed, they are all variations on one scene. These three scenes— including the most frequently discussed one in the text—are all manifestations of a single traditional episodic unit found in oral and oralderived narratives.

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