Brain or Brawn: What Monster-Fighting Reveals About Beowulf’s Character

Beowulf’s fight with Grendel proves his heroic credentials and strength. Grendel, the unstoppable demonic troll, all but surrenders at Beowulf’s squashing grip. The bone-crushing grab, however, raises a crux debated by Beowulf scholars: Does Beowulf make the first move and put the death clamp on the approaching Grendel? Or does the blood-smeared Grendel strike first? The confusion appears just as Grendel looms over Beowulf:

Forð nēar æstōp,

nam þā mid handa, hige-þīthigne

rinc on ræste, rǣhte ongēan

fēond mid folme; hē onfēng hraþe

inwit-þancum ond wið earm gesæt.


(“He stepped further in and caught in his claws the strong-minded man where he lay on his bed—the evil assailant snatched at him, clutching; hand met claw, he sat straight up at once, thrust the arm back” [Chickering, p. 93].) In Chickering’s translation, Grendel represents hē, and reaches for Beowulf first. The original manuscript reveals an unclear pronoun antecedent that can be taken as either Beowulf or Grendel.

At the start of line 745, Grendel acts as the subject, advancing toward Beowulf, reaching out its hand. Yet some translators have switched the main subject from Grendel to Beowulf at line 746b. C. L Wrenn, for example, takes “hige-þīthigne,”...

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