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Book Review / Grendel's Mother

"Now I am the creation of their mind, magnified by their fear."

Those familiar with the Old English tale of Beowulf will already know of the name Grendel and of his mother. The character of Grendel’s Mother takes over where her son left off once he’s killed whilst terrorising Hrothgar, and she in turn perishes. It’s been a very long while since I studied Beowulf, and so knowing how much of this story ties up I couldn’t be certain (so I probably should go read it again), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Grendel’s Mother tell of a girl who feels put upon with her lot in life and yearns for something more exciting. With an easily angered and sometimes violent father, and a mother who, on one hand shares the secret knowledge of herbs and plants with her, and on the other doesn’t support her against the men in the family (or anywhere else). The girl feels a woman’s lot is not for her and she is just a cog in a machine she doesn’t control. Written in first-person present tense and we don’t learn her name – which makes sense in this story—however, the character was a bit modern in comparison with the era, i.e. the sense of independence over duty; both featured in the medieval mind in the era Beowulf was written and was what caused a lot of conflict for both men and women.

After being raped and trying to hide it, she’s put out for sacrifice to the local dragon, who instead takes her away and doesn’t kill her (she doesn’t eat “her own” – females). And so she carries on in the forest, forming a distant relationship with the dragon (though we don’t see much of the dragon, though I assume it might be the dragon Beowulf later offs in his tale…).

I enjoyed the evolution of her character in the woodlands and then the cave, and the prose is sharp and to the point, which leads you through it at a good pace. I also like that there are no chapters, just scene breaks, which in in line with ancient epics. The author writes scripts too and it is fairly similar in style in that sense—it was done in a way that I was kept interested pretty much the whole way through. The character just gets on with it, and does her best to adapt to her crappy circumstances, whilst coming to terms with how harsh freedom can be. She learns that escape is unforgiving and uncomfortable, but at least she has it.​I found the finale a little odd. The story is fairly grounded the whole way through (even the dragon bits) but then it goes off on a bit of a tangent post-Grendel’s Mother’s death (spoiler, she dies at the end) with an odd winding up of her seeing her own body and invoking Nature with her spirit and feeling triumphant in accepting her (titular) name, which felt odd after being used to a more realistic-style (yes, still even the dragon bits!).​

To anyone who knew me in my other life, my name is forgotten, gone, eradicated from lips and minds alike, the result of the village decree. To them, I no longer exist. I am dead.

There seems to be a need to make Grendel’s Mother a sympathetic character, who was wronged and led to revenge through love for her son, and I understand this. But to me she would be more sympathetic if this wasn’t connected to the Beowulf manuscript and Grendel didn’t go out and murder people for fun. Grendel’s Mother grew into a character that was strong and resourceful and seemingly with a good moral code – off the unfortunate examples she was given - so I didn’t really buy how she could hate Grendel’s addiction to killing and being a general arse, but then go practically mad when she finds her vicious, murderous son was killed by people he had been attacking. It would have made more sense to me for her to take Nature for what it was – you get what you give. Or better still, have watched her strength be absolutely shattered by her son’s control over her because she loved him so much--I'd have a mental breakdown with trying to bring that up. Seeing a gradual degradation of character can also serve sympathy, especially one who has been so wronged. But, of course, she had to avenge Grendel because that’s in the Beowulf tale and it already held an immovable moment in time; but the consequences there unfortunately didn’t quite marry up to the character that was clearly wanted for this story.

All in all, I enjoyed reading it and it was an interesting concept and journey—and I do not remember enough of Beowulf to know how much of Grendel’s Mother’s intentions were put on the page—but in the end I’m afraid I was still on the side of Beowulf. He was in the right, and Grendel started it.​


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