In this passage of Beowulf, we witness the hero’s struggle against Grendel’s mother, the second of the three monsters in the epic poem. He has dived below the water to seek her out, and she has dragged him to her lair. The passage begins with a description of the “water-hag, damned thing of the deep” (1516-1517) and Beowulf’s initial attempt to strike her with his sword. In addition to the four-beat alliteration that pervades the entire poem and gives it an inexorable rhythm, there is an example of kenning here, with his sword Hrunting referred to as his “battle-flame” (1522). This use of kenning gives the weapon a greater stature than just an ordinary sword, yet unfortunately even this great named sword, a gift from Unferth, is unable to do any damage. This is described with the “battle-flame refused to bite” and “the edge failed its lord in his need” (1524-1525), increasing dramatic tension in this scene by giving rise to the possibility that Beowulf may not succeed.
The fact that Beowulf comes close to losing this battle means that this is a more suspenseful and thrilling scene than the earlier battle with Grendel. In the broader narrative, the battles are progressively more difficult, until the final conflict in which Beowulf slays the dragon, but is also slain. Therefore the suspense and difficulty of this confrontation with Grendel’s mother is important in establishing that pattern and also in further demonstrating Beowulf’s heroic character.
Beowulf is angered by the ineffectual sword, but is then determined that “his own strength would suffice him” (1532). In a way, this turns out to be false bravado, given that he eventually finds and uses a greater sword to win the fight, but it is the persistence and courage to continue fighting that are most important here. Beowulf wants to “frame himself in long-lasting glory” (1534-1535), and in order to do this he cannot fear for his life. Bravery, honour, fame and glory are repeated motifs in this poem and so are the monsters.
Grendel’s mother is characterised in an interesting way in this passage and also earlier in the poem. Although she is a monster, she is also a mother seeking vengeance for her son’s death. This is a human quality that is also quite understandable within the theme of honour that the human characters are so focused on. In this passage, Grendel is not just a monster, not even her son, but “her boy” who “was to be avenged” (1547). This is a remarkably tender description, given the monstrous nature and deeds of both of these creatures, and it gives this passage an emotive edge.
Despite these conflicted emotions however, the hero Beowulf must triumph. The Christian narrator brings God into the narrative, and we know when “the Ruler of Heavens rightly settled it” (1554) what the outcome is going to be. This is one of many examples of the Christianisation of this originally pagan story. The passage ends with Beowulf returning to his feet and it is clear at this point that Grendel’s mother will lose the battle.