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Barron's Booknotes-Beowulf-Free Chapter Summary Synopsis
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VERSES 21-23

Beowulf's heroic stature is never more in evidence than when he consoles Hrothgar on the death of his friend, and offers to kill Grendel's mother. Both men follow the monster's tracks until they reach the lake where the monsters live and where now, floating on the water, they see "Esher's bloody head."

NOTE:

Some readers interpret the poet's use of the image of dismemberment-Grendel's claw, Esher's head-as a metaphor for the disunity in the world. A person's body, they say, is like a world in itself. Protecting the body with armor and helmets is a way of protecting one's world.

The surface of the lake is swarming with serpents and sea monsters. Beowulf, for no apparent reason, shoots an arrow at one of the monsters. What does he have to prove? Remember the earlier story of his swimming match with Brecca and how he boasted of his ability to fight against sea monsters. Possibly in this instance he is merely testing himself, as a way of preparing for his underwater battle with Grendel's mother.


He has certainly proved his courage to Unferth. No longer doubting Beowulf's superhuman abilities, he gives the hero a special sword to take into battle. Is Unferth reconciled to the fact that Beowulf is a braver warrior than he? He does seem genuinely embarrassed by the speech he made when Beowulf first arrived in Denmark. Beowulf, by killing Grendel, has revealed to the Danish warriors the limits of their own bravery; all they can do is stand back, awestruck, as he prepares to enter the lake.

Beowulf tells Hrothgar that if he dies in the lake to look after his comrades and to send his treasures to Higlac, king of the Geats. Beowulf again reveals the aspects of his personality that make him a true hero: consideration of others, humility, generosity, and awareness of his own mortality.

Without waiting for a response from Hrothgar, Beowulf leaps into the snake-infested waters. "For hours he sank through the waves," the poet says, indicating that Beowulf possesses the amazing power to hold his breath underwater for an unlimited period of time. Some readers feel that this ability detracts from the realistic nature of the story, and gives the impression that Beowulf is more like a good monster than a man. (It has been suggested that in keeping with the Christian themes that pervade the poem, Beowulf's descent into the lake represents a true descent into the underworld or hell.)

Grendel's mother captures Beowulf in her claws and drags him down to her cave at the bottom of the lake. As they wrestle together, the other sea monsters look on-in much the same way the Geat and Danish warriors watched as Beowulf battled Grendel. Beowulf attempts to sever the monster's head with Unferth's sword before realizing that Grendel's mother, like her son, is immune to ordinary weapons, and that no sword could slice her evil skin."

Beowulf, the poet tells us, is motivated by his desire for fame, as if he didn't have enough already. "So fame/Comes to the men who mean to win it/And care about nothing else!" (1534-36). The desire for revenge that motivates Grendel's mother makes her seem even fiercer than her son. Remember that Grendel didn't put up much of a fight against Beowulf, while Grendel's mother, "squatting with her weight on his stomach," almost manages to stab Beowulf with her dagger.

Until the very end of Verse 22 there's no mention of God's help. Beowulf in this battle is relying on courage alone. But when all is hopeless, and Grendel's mother appears to have the upper hand, God intervenes. It's as if God has been looking on all along, waiting for the right moment to show whose side He's on.

The battle ends swiftly. Beowulf sees the magic sword hanging on the wall of the cave, and in a moment of desperation and pure strength, cuts off the monster's head. A brilliant light shines through the roof of the monsters' hall, a supernatural light "as bright as heaven's own candle." Recall that in the simplest sense evil is associated with darkness (Grendel and his mother appear only at night) and goodness with light.

The poet then retells the story of Grendel's attacks, creating a bridge between the two battles. Beowulf explores the monsters' hall, finds Grendel's body, and cuts off his head.

NOTE:

Revenge, which motivates the people in this society, is not to be taken lightly. Recall the Finnsburg Episode, and how a feud between tribes could be resolved only by taking revenge for what the other tribe had done. Is revenge ("an eye for an eye") the great equalizer? Is the poet telling us that no true resolution can take place without it?

We return to the audience of warriors standing at the edge of the lake. As the blood (it's Grendel's mother's blood, but they don't know that yet) rises to the surface, they begin to lose all hope that the Geat hero will ever return. "Almost all agreed that Grendel's/Mighty mother, the she-wolf, had killed him" (1598-99). Hrothgar and his men give up and go home, while Beowulf's comrades linger. Does it surprise you, after all Beowulf has accomplished, that they give up hope so easily?

The poet takes us from the real world-the warriors awaiting the news of Beowulf's fate-to the supernatural underwater world where Beowulf is battling the monsters. The sword, without which Beowulf would certainly have died, begins melting away like an icicle: it dissolves "in Grendel's steaming blood." The sword is the sign of God's presence. Beowulf takes Grendel's head and the hilt of the magical sword, and swims up to the surface to rejoin his comrades.

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