Artistic Response to Beowulf—Analysis
The epic poem Beowulf is a truly fascinating work of art. It tells an exciting tale of loyalty, bravery, fame, and strength while intricately weaving in morals and lessons about life and death. I also appreciate the poem because of the other works of art is inspires. The poem leaves so much open to interpretation that all who read it get different ideas in their minds about what the characters look like. At times the poet is vague, and it is up to the reader to imagine and fill in details about the characters and their pasts. John Gardner did an excellent job of expressing his own interpretation of Beowulf when he wrote the novel Grendel. Beowulf and Grendel both inspired me to draw two pictures: one of Grendel after his arm was pulled off by Beowulf, a significant moment in the plot, and another of the dragon, an important character in both Grendel and Beowulf, who is, if anything, worse than Grendel in evil and destructiveness, and who even contributes to Grendel’s wickedness.
My first drawing shows Grendel on his knees near the doorway of Herot. His arm has just been ripped off by the great warrior Beowulf. I chose to show the great bully Grendel brought to his knees howling in agony, clutching at his shoulder, mortally wounded. It is ironic, even shocking, to see Grendel on his knees, a position of weakness, almost as if he is begging for mercy, after plaguing Herot for so long. After Grendel’s arm is pulled off, “…the Danes laughed with delight” (12.824), showing their superiority to Grendel. By having him kneel, I mean to show that he has been defeated—that he is vulnerable after all. Although Grendel’s blood is corrosive and inhuman, I chose to make it red, like a human being’s, to show that his ancestors were indeed human beings and that he is related to man; also I wanted the color to stand out against the black and white of the rest of the drawing. The sword in the corner represents Beowulf’s great strength. Even though swords are powerless against Grendel, Beowulf still won the fight—relying on only his might. The sword is lying on the floor, useless. “…the sharpest and hardest iron could not scratch at his skin” (12.801).
Grendel is the opposite of good, and I wanted to show that in my drawing. Light is shining on Grendel from Herot and casting a shadow behind him. Light symbolizes goodness, and the light is coming directly from the great mead hall, while behind Grendel, outside, the sky is dark. This was really a pivotal point in the poem because Beowulf has saved the Danes from a monster who has been attacking and demoralizing them for years. No one else could do it, so Grendel—arrogant bully that he is—has finally been revealed to be a coward. He gains a huge amount of fame and recognition for his good deed, but the battle with evil is never over. When Grendel’s mother finds out that her son has been killed, she begins attacking Herot. While one evil was destroyed, another potentially worse one is unleashed upon the Danes.
I intentionally made my second drawing to be interpreted in two different ways. If the viewer thinks of the small figure whom the dragon is looking at as Beowulf, then the drawing would be depicting the crucial scene in which Beowulf faces the dragon alone. This is a vital scene because it is Beowulf’s final and not entirely victorious battle; although he kills the dragon, he dies in the process. However, the figure could also be seen as Grendel, in which case the drawing would be illustrating the scene in the novel Grendel in which Grendel talks to the dragon. This is a key scene also because, although Grendel was certainly not good before he talked to the dragon, he had some potential for good and in this moment walks on the narrow edge between good and evil. At one point, he feels, “…like a two headed beast, like mixed up lamb and kid at the tail of a baffled, indifferent ewe…” (Gardner 44). This scene in the novel is really a turning point for Grendel because he chooses the dark, evil side of the dragon. I drew the gigantic dragon as if he were beckoning to the figure towards him; either trying to lead Grendel into his world of greed and sin, or calling Beowulf to fight. The dragon is greedy and cares only about his treasure, of which there is a ridiculous excess. He represents mindless greed, and is illustrated as enormous, compared to the tiny looking Grendel/Beowulf, to show how greed grows and expands to monstrous proportion. I drew him with a smirk on his face, looking down upon Grendel/Beowulf, because of the dragon’s love of making others feel small and nervous. He has great confidence in himself.
The two drawings depict pivotal scenes in the epic poem Beowulf and John Gardner’s novel Grendel, depending on which way one interprets it. Through symbolism, use of light and dark, and color, I wanted to illustrate these scenes in which so much comes to a crisis.