As you see it it is, while the seeing lasts, dark nightmare-history, time-as-coffin; but where the water was rigid there will be fish, and men will survive on their flesh till spring. It’s coming, my brother. . . . Though you murder the world, transmogrify life into I and it, strong searching roots will crack your cave and rain will cleanse it: The world will burn green, sperm build again.
These are among the first words Beowulf says to Grendel as they engage in their fatal battle in Chapter 12. Beowulf denounces the nihilism the dragon espouses while accepting the dragon’s basic premise that time is essentially a “coffin,” containing the promise of death and destruction for all. However, Beowulf also paints an image of spring emerging from winter, stressing the equal importance of rebirth in the grand scheme of life. This imagery echoes the song sung at the Shaper’s funeral, which also sees the surfacing of spring as a time for violence and death as well as a new beginning. This conception of the seasons as a natural cycle full of meaning and import directly contradicts Grendel’s earliest thoughts about the seasons, which regarded their effect on the dumb ram’s instincts as pointless and mechanical routine.
The imagery in this passage describes several rigid, hard objects being burst open with violent but cleansing force. This image is soon replicated rather gruesomely with Grendel’s own head, which Beowulf is about to smash against the walls of the meadhall. The forces that break through barriers in this passage are natural and life-giving in their violence—supporting the idea that Beowulf’s merciless treatment of Grendel is, in a sense, a project of salvation. Beowulf calls Grendel “brother,” which not only refers to the Cain and Abel story, but also manages to bring Grendel much closer to humankind than his history of enmity has ever allowed for. Furthermore, Beowulf’s reference to the fish in the frozen river remind us of the Christian elements of Beowulf’s character, and the fact that we may see him as a kind of avenging Christ figure.