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For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw their own rendition of Grendel’s mother from the Old English poem Beowulf. Together, these doodles give a neat overview of how Beowulf criticism has approached this feminine ‘monster’ and what my students have remembered of the poem.
i) Grendel’s mother: An enigmatic being
Of the three main foes of Beowulf in the poem, Grendel’s mother is perhaps the most enigmatic. Scholars have long since debated what to make of this “brimwylf” [sea-she-wolf] Beowulf, ll. 1508, 1601), living in an underwater-hall. She is presented as monstrously violent, but her actions are motivated by a completely understandable (and human?) desire to avenge the death of her son. Is she a monster or a human?These drawings by my students clearly demonstrate this complex ambiguity, ranging as they do from catlike, beastly mothers to fair-haired dinosaurs, through to a green-scaled woman in a dress:
ii) Grendel’s mother enters the scene: A woman on a mission
Grendel’s mother makes her appearance halfway through the Old English poem. The poet has just recounted how Beowulf has defeated the monster Grendel by ripping off its arm. This arm is hung underneath the roof of the great hall Heorot as a sign of Beowulf’s victory and there is much rejoicing. King Hrothgar gives a lavish feast and, that night, the Danes fall asleep, confident that the monster Grendel no longer poses a threat. Enter Grendel’s mother, hell-bent on revenge:
She trashes the Danish slumber party in Heorot, grabs hold of Æschere, King Hrothgar’s “best friend”, and then returns to her underwater hall.
According to some critics (and students), there is a particular ‘poetic justice’ about the fact that Grendel’s mother takes Hrothgar’s ‘right-hand man’ in retribution for Grendel’s ripped-off arm:
iii) A mother in her mere
The next morning, Hrothgar wakes up to the news that his friend Æschere has been killed and, spurred into action by Beowulf, he leads a troop to Grendel’s mere. Grendel’s mother, we are told, had ruled this place for fifty years.
This eery pond is inhabited by strange monstrous creatures and none but Beowulf himself dares enter it. He swims down to Grendel’s mother’s underwater lair and soon finds out that his sword Hrunting is useless. Luckily, Beowulf finds a giant sword and manages to kill his female foe. Beowulf next finds the body of Grendel and decapitates it, turning the mere red with blood. The Danes see the blood and think Beowulf has lost, but the “faithful Geats remain in the neighbourhood waiting for Beowulf to emerge”:
iv) Grendel’s mother: An exotic monster?
As noted above, Grendel’s mother is often interpreted as a monster. How else could she live in an underwater lair and pose a threat to the strong hero Beowulf? Surely, she must have had sharp teeth, claws, webbed hands, flipper feet, “light eyes to see under water” and “biceps because she’s strong”:
Another student imagines a monster of another kind, one with a beard [the reference to the ‘Wonders of the East’ is to another text in the Beowulf manuscript, see The Marvels of the East: An early medieval Pokédex]:
Yet another student thought Grendel’s mother may have hailed from Eastern Europe and was distressed because it could no longer feed its son a bowl of borscht:
v) Grendel’s mother as a human woman
Some critics (and students) downplay the idea of Grendel’s mother as a monster. Their main argument revolves around the interpretation of the phrase “ides, aglæcwif” Beowulf, l. 1259a), used for Grendel’s mother. This phrase has been rendered rather negatively in some Beowulf translations, ranging from “wretch, or monster of a woman” (Klæber), to “monstrous hell bride” (Heaney), “monster-woman” (Chickering) and even “ugly troll lady” (Trask). These rather monstrous descriptions of Grendel’s mother are problematic: the word “ides” means ‘lady’ and is used in the poem to refer to queens, including Wealhtheow (wife of Hrothgar, king of the Danes); the first part of “aglæcwif” is indeed used of the monster Grendel and the dragon (both called “aglæca”), but it is also used of Beowulf and another human hero, Sigemund. Since there is no indication for calling Beowulf ‘ugly troll’, ‘monstrous’ or ‘monster’, it seems strange to give the word a negative meaning when it refers to Grendel’s mother. Hence, the word “aglæc” may be best rendered as ‘opponent, adversary’. The following student certainly remembered that bit:
The next student, too, sees Grendel’s mother as “not a monster, just a sad woman”:
Æschere’s bloody head on a pole is a nice touch. In an article I recently co-authored, we argue that Æschere’s head was indeed used as a boundary marker (see: Thijs Porck & Sander Stolk, ‘Marking Boundaries in Beowulf: Æschere’s Head, Grendel’s Arm and the Dragon’s Corpse’).
The following student blamed Grendel’s mother’s misfortune on her ugly baby:
vi) The Jolie-i-fication of Grendel’s mother
Beowulf has been brought to the big screen many times and these cinematic adaptations have certainly influenced how we visualise the monsters of this poem (I wrote about this here: Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies). One of the most memorable depictions of Grendel’s mother was the 3D animation of Angelina Jolie in the 2007 film Beowulf. The Jolie-i-fication of Grendel’s mother is captured beautifully by this student’s drawing:
vii) The Pietà of Grendelangelo
The last student drawing is something special. It is not an exam doodle, but a ‘commissioned piece of art’. I asked Jolene Witkam, a student who wrote an excellent BA thesis about Grendel’s mother’s human nature ánd a skilled artist, to draw Grendel’s mother and Grendel in the poses of Mary and Christ of Michelangelo’s famous Pietà statue. The endresult, you will agree, is absolutely stunning:
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy other student doodle editions:
- The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- The Old English Judith: A Student Doodle Edition
For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw scenes from the Old English poem Judith. Together, these doodles cover almost the entire poem and document how well (or how badly) my students remembered the poem.
Drawings have long since been used for the purpose of teaching (for an example from the Anglo-Saxon period see Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels). On occasion, I use my own drawings to spice up my lectures (such as my Anglo-Saxon Anecdotes) or to explain complicated bits of Anglo-Saxon literature (e.g., The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). In recent years, I have decided to turn the tables on my students and, for a bonus point (worth 1% of the exam grade), I have them draw scenes from Old English poems, discussed in class.
While the exercise was intended as a bit of a gag, their doodles actually allowed me to see which events from the poem had captured their interest; how they (mis)remembered certain passages and which scenes, apparently, made no impact on them at all. In previous blog posts, I shared their renditions of The Battle of Maldon (The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition) and the fight between Beowulf and the dragon (Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition) . Below follows a selection of my students’ drawings that deal with the Old English poem Judith, along with some commentary.
i) It all started with a party…
The Old English Judith is an Anglo-Saxon verse adaptation of the Old Testament book of Judith 12:10-16:1, narrating how the Hebrew city of Bethulia is besieged by the Assyrian warlord Holofernes. The Hebrew widow Judith plans to go to the Assyrian camp where Holofernes and his men are getting drunk. “This party is going to lose me my head if I drink anymore of this ale”, Holofornes says in one of my student’s renditions: a nice way to foreshadow what will eventually happen to the Assyrian overlord.
Judith is summoned to Holofernes and arrives looking as beautiful as an elf: “ides ælfscinu” [l. 14a: a woman as shining as an elf]. What do elves look like? Well, according to the next student, elven-beauty involves “lucious lips and a little neckline that is a little too low” and “batting eyelashes”:
ii) Off with his head!
When Holofernes and Judith end up in his tent, the intoxicated Holofernes quickly falls asleep. Judith picks up the Assyrian’s sword and cuts off his head in two strokes, not one:
The following student also drew a picture of Judith and Holofernes’s decapitated head. She could not remember his name and, naturally, she compensated with a nice Old English-ish poem which features structural alliteration of “h”:
He had a huge hairy head
That she now held in her hand
How horrible he was
So headless he is now
What a happy history.
iii) A handmaiden holds the door!
Some students remembered that Judith was not the only woman in the room: her handmaiden was on the look-out and we can see her smiling mischiveously in this colourful doodle, while Judith wickedly holds the blade she used to cut off Holofernes’s head:
iv) Bag it up!
While Holofernes, as the Anglo-Saxon poet assures us, is suffering the torments in Hell, Judith and her handmaiden still need to get out of the Assyrian camp. Since they want to bring Holofernes’s head with them, they put the head in a bag.
The next student doodle illustrates that God (who is looking on from a cloud above) agrees with these proceedings:
v) Putting the head on display
Judith emerges from Holofernes’s tent (or “meet hall” as this student would have it) and goes back to her city, where she shows the bloodied head to her people.
She delivers an incredible victory speech in the poem and her warriors respond as you would excpect: “Yay!”
vi) The case of the golden flynet
Throughout the Old English poem, references are made to an “eallgylden fleohnet” [ll. 46b-47a: an all-golden flynet], which separate Holofernes’s tent from the outside world. It is a special flynet, because Holofernes could use it to look through it from the inside, but no one was able to look into the tent from the outside. The flynet plays an important role in the poem, because it allows Judith and her handmaiden to kill Holofernes without anyone outside noticing it.
My students also caught on to the rather amusing role that the flynet plays after Holofernes has been killed. Roused by Judith’s victory speech, the Hebrews attack the Assyrians. The Assyrians, in turn, desperately try to wake up Holofernes. Because no one dares to enter the tent and because the flynet prevents them from looking in, they start to cough, gnash their teeth and so on. A rather humorous scene, which is captured nicely by the following doodles:
On the whole, my students appear to have remembered many details of the poem, ranging from the intoxicating drinking feast, to the helpful handmaiden and the fabulous flynet. The name of Holofernes a.k.a. “H.”, “Heofermus” and “Hreofernoþ” does not appear to have stuck well. In the end, what pleased me most was that none of the renditions of Holofernes resembles me in any way, shape or form.
If you want more student doodles, you may also like:
For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw scenes from the concluding fight in the Old English poem Beowulf. Together, these doodles cover almost the third part of the poem and document how well (or how badly) my students remembered the poem.
Drawings have long since been used for the purpose of teaching (for an example from the Anglo-Saxon period see Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels). On occasion, I use my own drawings to spice up my lectures (such as my Anglo-Saxon Anecdotes) or explain complicated bits of Anglo-Saxon literature (e.g., The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). In recent years, I have decided to turn the tables on my students and, for a bonus point (worth 1% of the exam grade), I have them draw scenes from Old English poems, discussed in class.
While the exercise was intended as a bit of a gag, their doodles actually allowed me to see which events from the poem had captured their interest; how they (mis)remembered certain passages and which scenes, apparently, made no impact on them at all. In a previous blog post, I shared their renditions of The Battle of Maldon (The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition) . Below follows a selection of my students’ drawings that deal with the fight between Beowulf and the dragon, along with some commentary.
i) A stolen cup
In the third and final part of Beowulf, the dragon is roused from his lair by the theft of a cup, as this student well remembered. Upon discovering the theft, the dragon became “gebolgen” [enraged; Beowulf, l. 2220) or, as this student put its, he was like: “I’m mad! Gimme that cup back! Imma go kill some people now!”
Another student recalled that the thief was a slave -and- that there were some striking resemblances with a scene in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Hence, the slave was given a “Bilbo nose” in this rendition:
ii) A special shield
In lines 2522-2524, Beowulf announces that he will not fight the dragon unarmed (as he had done with the monster Gendel), since he expects “heaðufyres hates” [the heat of hateful fire]. Thus, he uses a special shield, as illustrated by this student:
Naturally, Beowulf’s shield did not have any musicians attached to it (for as far as we know). The student explains that these are “the annoying musicians who are inflicting horrible violence on their instruments in the adjoining class room, keeping me from concentration”.
iii) Beowulf as an old man
When the dragon harassed Beowulf’s people, the king had been on the throne for fifty years. Thankfully, some students recalled this and, therefore, depicted the hero as an elderly man. One of them, apparently, came prepared for the bonus question and even used several colours:
iv) The breaking of Beowulf’s sword and his company’s morale
The dramatic scene of Beowulf’s sword breaking in the heat of the battle, causing his companions to flee to the woods, appears to have left an impression on several students; even though they seem to have a hard time remembering the name of the retainer who left behind:
v) The dragon bites Beowulf in the neck
Another dramatic scene is when the dragon clamps down on Beowulf’s neck, inflicting a mortal wound.
vi) Beowulf and Wiglaf stab the dragon in the gut
The following student remembered that it was Wiglaf (not Walder or Unferth!) who stayed behind to aid his king. They also remembered how the dragon was stabbed in the gut, though I doubt the dragon would have complained about its abdominal muscles as this one does, shouting “Oh no! My beautiful stomach! I had just started working out for the summer. Noooo!”
vii) Rebuking the oath-breakers
Following the defeat of the dragon, Wiglaf condemns the retainers who fled. They broke their oath of loyalty to their rightful lord: “Shame on you”, indeed!
viii) The dragon’s treasure and Beowulf’s barrow
“fremmað gena leoda þearfe” [Beowulf, ll. 2800-2801: Tend to the need of my people], Beowulf tells Wiglaf with his dying breath, while he glances upon the dragon’s treasure that he has just secured for his nation. Wiglaf, however, decides to bury the riches along with Beowulf’s body. The dragon’s treasure, the poet tells us, remains “eldum swa unnyt swa hit æror wæs” [Beowulf, l. 3168: as useless to people as it was before]. At least one student appears to have caught on to Wiglaf’s denying his lord’s last request:
ix) An encore: Browulf and Swaglaf fight the dragon
After having been confronted by so much artistic talent and inspiration by my students, I could not lag behind. So, I used the whiteboard in my office to produce my own doodle: here are Browulf and Swaglaf fighting the dragon.
If you want more student doodles, check out The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition