The story of King Finn, Hengest, and the Danes, sung by the assistant at the Shaper’s funeral, is also sung in the Beowulf poem. The original Beowulf poet acquired the tale from another, unnamed Anglo-Saxon poem, the only remaining piece of which is known as the Finnesburgh Fragment. In Beowulf, the Danes’ scop, or bard, sings the song in celebration of Grendel’s destruction. The tragic fate of the song’s Queen Hildeburh—the wife of King Finn—foreshadows the ill-fated alliance of Freawaru and King Ingeld, leader of the rival Heathobard clan. Gardner alludes to this alliance in the next chapter, but only in passing. The true significance of the song lies in the section that Gardner actually chooses to quote, in which Hengest—who took over the Danish troops after the death of Hnaef—decides to enact revenge upon the Frisians rather than return to Denmark. Hengest has spent the winter stewing in his hate for King Finn. The coming of the spring brings freedom to Hengest and a decisive victory for the Danish people over their enemies. Grendel, in its journey through the calendrical year, is approaching the same season. The defeat of Finn at the end of the winter anticipates Grendel’s defeat at the same time of year. That the song is sung at Grendel’s death in Beowulf reinforces this association. Paradoxically, Spring has become a time that holds the promise of both life and death.
Grendel’s encounter with the goat echoes his encounter with the ram at the very beginning of the novel. The earlier scene is broadly comic, as Gardner surprises us by having Grendel, a fourth-century beast, use very foul modern language. The ram, meanwhile, is a drooling, idiotic animal that would be right at home in a cartoon—indeed, on numerous occasions, Gardner cited the influence of cartoons on his work. Grendel yells at the ram and, receiving no response, goes on his way, grumbling and cursing the stupidity of animals. Here, the encounter with the goat shares many of the same contours as the incident with the ram. Grendel stands at the top of the cliff wall and spies a mindless animal that he tries to shoo away. The slightly vulgar comedy of the first incident, however, turns into something much more violently grotesque. The violence remains cartoonish and over-the-top, but the image of the goat’s broken skull is genuinely disconcerting. Earlier, with the ram, Grendel is able to dismiss the animal and walk away. Now, however, something won’t let Grendel leave the goat alone, and he becomes obsessed with stopping it. While Grendel attributes the ram’s single-mindedness to stupidity, the goat’s single-mindedness frightens Grendel with its more sinisterly mechanical pursuit. The goat upsets Grendel because it represents the inexorable approach of death and because it causes Grendel to see his own pointless, self-destructive path mirrored in the goat’s interminable climb.