There’s a killer watching a house lit up against the trees. And he hates the noise, the music, the light. He hates the drinking and the bragging. He hates “the sounds of joy.” He hates everyone inside. And he waits for his chance to put an end to it, to slip in and kill everyone while they sleep. He cannot be stopped. Weapons do nothing. No one can hide. He kills everyone, young and old.
He could be Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, or the animal-masked killers of You’re Next, though they reflect a hatred already living within the house, as the killer outside often does. Only this time it’s a hall, Heorot, in the marshes of Denmark. But it might as well be a house, because it’s where people live and feel safe, where people party and celebrate their accomplishments. It’s where people sometimes feel as if they have dominion over the earth. The Christian poets, sharing a story from earlier times, calls him a child of Cain, a descendant of the first murderer. Grendel himself is the first home invader in the first slasher story recorded in English, or at least Old English.
If you don’t know the story, Beowulf presents three of Beowulf’s adventures, though they feel gloomier than adventures, so perhaps “feats” is a better word. In the first, Beowulf travels from the hall of Hygelac, king of the Geats, to aid King Hrothgar, who has built a mead hall for his people in Denmark. The hall has been splendid and glorious and filled with light and song, but all those things provoke Grendel. Grendel murders everyone and drags them to his own home to eat. After discovering the slaughter the next morning, the Danes no longer party in Heorot. They must live with his curse or plague, depending on the translation, because Grendel is sick of their partying, which is very is familiar. Hearing that Grendel is killing without using weapons, Beowulf decides to fight Grendel unarmed. He retains the virtues of his time, and though they are not the virtues of more recent final girls, it is notable that he is the only one who can defeat Grendel and that he does it naked and disarmed*.
Then Beowulf and his Geat friends party once more in Heorot. That night, Beowulf feigns sleep but jumps up ready to fight when he hears Grendel attack. After a long struggle, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm off. Grendel flees home and dies.
The next night, the Geats and Danes celebrate without Beowulf’s presence. There is a party in Heorot and that night with Grendel’s arm as its centerpiece. But now it’s time for a sequel. it turns out that Grendel wasn’t the only one in the marsh. In Beowulf 2: The Revenge, Grendel’s mother attacks the hall, kills Hrothgar’s favorite retainer and takes back her son’s arm. And in a bit of additional horror, this killing is her right as a mother. Her son was taken from her and she has a right to revenge. This time Beowulf wears armor and borrows a sword from Hrothgar’s thyle Unferth. Beowulf dives into the lake where Grendel’s mother lives. He discovers Grendel’s dead body and the bodies of the men Grendel and his mother have killed. Unferth’s sword is useless against her. Beowulf finds another sword in the lair and kills Grendel’s mother with it. He then cuts off Grendel’s head and returns to Hrothgar with it.
Fifty years later, Beowulf is king of the Geats. Someone steals a golden cup from a dragon’s hoard and all dragon-hell breaks loose. Beowulf leads his warriors to the dragon’s lair to kill it, but fearing they will be killed, sends them back to wait for him. Despite his flame-proof shield, Beowulf is overwhelmed. His men flee except for one, Wiglaf, who comes to fight with Beowulf. They kill the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded. Wiglaf gives everyone guff and there is a lot of worry that the Geats will be overrun by their enemies now that Beowulf is gone.
There have been many adaptations of Beowulf and quite a few comic book adaptations. Gareth Hinds’ Beowulf (Candlewick Press, 2007) remains my favorite faithful adaptation.** Some lean towards embracing Beowulf as a viking and barbarian in a Robert E. Howard sword and sorcery mold. My favorite is Michael Uslan and Ricardo Villamonte’s Beowulf, Dragon Slayer for DC comics. Their Beowulf is still going after Grendel, but he needs to drink some serpent venom first. And his helmet looks like it might’ve been forged by Jack Kirby.
And just look at this. It’s taking a lot of pulp fiction liberties, but I love it.
And I very much enjoyed Gail Simone and Aaron Lopresti’s Wonder Woman: Ends of the Earth story teaming up Diana with Beowulf.
But there is very little rollicking adventure in Beowulf. Grendel doesn’t hold with “rollicking.” His mother is vengeful. And the Beowulf poet skips fifty years of Beowulf’s life to get to his death fighting a dragon.
As you might have noticed, Beowulf makes a lot of sense to me as horror. The setting and the heroes are different. Beowulf is set in the past, in a sort of “once upon a time,” but it is set against the historical world of its time. There are monsters, but they are in real places featuring historical figures and the diplomatic tensions between them.
This is a horror with a more expanded sense of the natural world. And, as in many a slasher movie, the evils outside the hall in some ways are a reflection of the evils within, though perhaps more allegorically. Grendel’s mother is acting within her rights when she takes revenge, for instance. And if she chooses to decline material compensation, she has a right to blood even though Grendel was killed after slaughtering dozens of people. Which is a horrifying turn of the law. And the horror Beowulf presents, the revelation that maybe the law itself is horrifying, that maybe we are not safe in our homes, is one that happens even now in both stories and life.
When Beowulf dies, he dies with a warning of another danger that might overcome both Geat and Dane, another horror waiting for its chance if they become unworthy: the Swedes. And an ending with a warning that the protagonists’ world is in danger isn’t alien to horror either.
Santiago García and David Rubín’s Beowulf (Image, 2013) leans into the horror. They use the colors of horror: red, green, black and white. Most especially red. The art and the pacing are fantastic. And Beowulf’s recounting of his contest with Breca is particularly fine. But they make some decisions—one in particular—that I am just not down with. And I mention it at all because I want to talk about adapting and recognizing the strengths of the poem.
There is a temptation with simple stories to add more. It is almost always a mistake. And there is a temptation with old stories to update them and that has more variable results, especially depending on exactly how perverse one is. I, for example, enjoy the poem, but I also enjoy Christopher Lambert’s Beowulf (2000) and Outlander (2008) starring James Caviezel, aka, Beowulf in space, more than the theoretically more faithful adaptations Beowulf and Grendel (2005) or that animated Beowulf (2007).***
García and Rubín update Grendel in several ways, some more effective than others. Grendel and his mother have a kind of vision that allows them to see the musculature of their intended victims. It is reminiscent of Predator and works well enough in a drawn format because art is gorgeous and it comes across as a stylistic flourish as much as way of modernizing Grendel. But I think, unless it was adapted into a low budget movie starring Christopher Lambert, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Scott Adkins, the predator-vision would not be great on screen. Without a stylized visual component, I think it would not work well at all. And while in the poem, Grendel kills everyone, not just warriors but children and the elderly, in their adaptation he kills soldiers, which gives him another bit of a predator vibe. But I am glad it is only a vibe.
But there is one change to the story does not go well. In the poem, Beowulf pretends to be asleep and attacks Grendel as soon as the monster begins his nightly killing in Heorot. In this adaptation, Beowulf is apparently awakened when Grendel becomes excited and ejaculates on Beowulf. This is unnecessary, and a bit confusing as it only gradually became clear that Grendel’s penis was erect, because Grendel’s penis is complicated. The tone is off in comparison with the rest of the story and art. It comes across very much as frat bro mead hall “no homo.”****
The intention is to show us just how evil Grendel is and that he truly is the son of Cain, even if in the poem that part always feels a bit patched on. But this ejaculatory addition feels as much stuck on as the monk’s cribbing from Genesis. The design of Grendel’s mother feels similar. She becomes a creature similar to Grendel, but perhaps larger and much more biologically complicated and indeterminate. Grendel’s mother is a cthonic horror in this adaptation– all teeth and green pods and parts of her are like seed casings pulled back with more teeth on them, like when a vampire squid inverts itself. She is to Grendel as an xenomorph Queen is to a regular xenomorph, but grosser. And while it’s harder to convey the horror of Grendel’s mother inverting the law, that is the horror more than any body horror that confronts Beowulf, Hrothgar and the people of Heorot. She has a right they recognize and she is executing her right.
While the book is beautiful and I am happy to see a horror slant on Beowulf, it demonstrates some of the difficulty of adapting the poem. Sometimes horror is best presented–and a poem is best adapted–stripped down, like Beowulf himself. To me, the horror of Beowulf is not the biological monstrousness of Grendel or his mother–not Gigerian heads, Predator vision, green pods, vampire squid toothy parts, extremely complicated genitalia or sexual excitement over killing. I mean, sure, Grendel is a monster with scales and claws. Which is scary. But more than a collection of gross parts, he himself is relentless and nearly invulnerable. Like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, Grendel kills, which is distressing, and he cannot be stopped from killing, which is moreso. And what is at the heart of this horror is something simple and something still horrific even now: Grendel kills people when and where they believe they are safe.
*It is possible I might have made some puns there.
**Though friend of the Gutter and Medieval scholar Dr. Kate Laity does not like the translation Hinds uses.
***In fact, I find these adapations annoying because they are not faithful adapations where Beowulf (2000) and Oultander make no pretense. They are the Beowulf: Slayer of Dragons of Beowulf movies.
****There is a whole other version of this article that is about Beowulf and his Geats as frat bros.
These aren’t so much recommendations as the resources I used when working on this:
R. M. Luizza, trans. Beowulf. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2012.
Seaumus Heaney, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999.
Carol Borden is fond of Grendel and thinks he might have gotten a bad rap.