After witnessing the CGI spectacle that is Zemeckis’ 2007 film, Beowulf, I am once again struck by our culture’s fascinating ‘need’ to sexualize Grendel’s mother in cinematic adaptations of the Old English epic poem. First, let’s briefly outline her original role and motivations in the Old English poem. Distraught by her son’s death ensuing from his brawl with Beowulf in Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot, Grendel’s mother launches a surprise attack on the overconfident and unwary Danes. Though she is not physically described in detail, we know that she is an “ides aglaecwif,” or a “troll-wife lady,” that though she doesn’t equal Grendel in strength, she is still able to carry off Hrothgar’s beloved retainer, her skin is superhumanly hardened, and her blood is acidic. These factors seem to indicate that she is indeed monstrous in appearance. However, the poet’s curious use of the term “ides” (a less-commonly used word for ‘lady’) aligns her, as some scholars have noted, with the female Valkyries. “Ides” usually identifies a woman as aristocratic, interesting considering that Grendel’s mother lives in a subterranean cave only accessible from a toxic mere. Whereas Grendel fights with his hands, his mother fights with her hands and a “seax” (short sword or dagger) in her fight with Beowulf, implying that her form may in fact be more humanoid. Grendel’s mother enters the narrative to avenge the death of her son, and steals away and murders Hrothgar’s favorite retainer. Thus, she operates according to the early medieval Northern European principle of wergeld, a revenge system under which men could demand a life or an exorbitant fee as retribution for murdered kin.
In both Zemeckis’ Beowulf (2007) and Baker’s Sci Fi spectacle, Beowulf (1999), however, Grendel’s mother is more alluring seductress than monster. In fact, Baker’s choice for the role, Layla Roberts, was a Playboy playmate, bringing campiness, sex appeal, crimping, and tragic lipgloss to the role.
Quickly forgetting her son’s death, Roberts’ character quickly moves in on Beowulf for the irrestistible opportunity to create more progeny. Sadly, Zemeckis fares little better, presenting viewers with what hard-hitting news source OMG News! called a “sexy killer lizard beast.” Strategically covered in liquid gold and wearing the world’s first invisible support bra, Jolie’s further-enhanced CGI avatar succeeds in seducing Beowulf, who later discovers Hrothgar had also succumbed to her charms. I’d also like to point out that in our culture female monsters apparently have built-in stiletto heels and a fierce catwalk strut.
This unfortunate scene leads to Zemeckis’ most insidious upheaval of feminine agency under the guise of a more developed role for women in the epic: an extended scene in which Jolie’s character proceeds to caress Beowulf’s treasured sword, up and down, up and down, until it melts. I am not exaggerating. See still for a sample of the sexual insinuations this film makes.
Jolie’s CGI avatar is a far cry from the poem’s ravenous vengeful mother, whose hard skin and acidic blood prove impenetrable to Beowulf’s sword as she tries to rip him asunder with her hands and dagger.
So why are these movies so intent on sexualizing Grendel’s mother? Part of the reason, I think, is that our culture, particularly cinematic culture, repeatedly refuses to acknowledge that women have other motives than securing a man and having babies. The Bechdel Test easily proves this sad truth. Even more sadly, directors sexualize Grendel’s mother despite the fact that none of the women of the original poem express a desire to find a man. Grendel’s mother seeks revenge for her son’s death; Wealtheow speaks to protect and secure the lives of her young sons; Hildeburh laments the deaths of her kin as a result of her peaceweaving marriage which was arranged to prevent just such a tragedy; and heck, Modthryth has men killed for looking at her, displaying a violent reaction to the possibility of being perceived as a sex object.
What irritates me about these cinematic adaptations is that they destroy feminine agency in rendering Grendel’s mother as a sex object. In the original poem, I read Grendel’s mother as a subversive, interrogating figure who coopts masculine agency and exposes the flaw of an early medieval patriarchal society based on the concept of revenge. Performing Danish and Geatish masculinity in taking a life for a life, and in wielding a “seax” (shortsword or dagger) like a man, Grendel’s mother queers heroic masculine identity in the text, perhaps justifying the Danish warriors’ extreme response to her. Furthermore, her monstrous body both embraces and inverts medieval notions of gendered bodies. Whereas female bodies were considered more open and permeable, Grendel’s mother possesses a hard skin that cannot be pierced by Beowulf’s sword. Her physical strength, though less than Grendel’s, is such that she is able to wrestle with Beowulf and carry off Hrothgar’s retainer. When Zemeckis tries to give us a more “empowered” feminine figure, he gives us instead a heteronormative female monster who, despite her quest for vengeance, yearns to be penetrated by the hero. If you’ve seen either of these filmic adaptations, what do you think of their representations of female characters versus those in the poem? For the sake of brevity, I’m not covering Baker’s inclusion of the fictional Kira, nor am I discussing Zemeckis’ invention of Beowulf’s mistress, Ursula.
For further reading, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has provided a fascinating conversation on the dynamics of monsters in Beowulf: