Old English, poetry

Beowulf beats Grendel (again), of woundings and loyalty (ll.1570-1590)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
What was Grendel’s Mother Thinking?
A Wound for a Wound, a Sword-Stroke for a Sword-Stroke
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837


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Synopsis

Beowulf uses the sword that slew Grendel’s mother to finish off his wounded body.


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Translation

“A light shone, brightened the hall from within,
made it as bright as the great candle
set in the heavens. He looked about the hall;
turned toward the far wall, with weapon raised,
its hilt hard up against ambush, Hygelac’s thane,
emboldened and resolute. That edge had proven
all but useless to that fighter, and he sought to use it
to avenge all of Grendel’s awful attacks,
each of the monster’s missions against the West-Danes,
many more than one occasion when he alone
slunk into Heorot to slay Hrothgar’s hearth-companions
who were all were asleep, devoured fifteen Danes
while all slept as if dead,
and made off with as many others,
a loathsome booty. Beowulf paid him his reward,
the fierce fighter, for there he saw laid out
the wounded body of Grendel,
now life-less, his grim energy drained through the injury
he bore from the fight in Heorot. His body was wide open
since he endured that death blow.
One hard sword-stroke severed his head from his body.”
(Beowulf ll.1570-1590)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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What was Grendel’s Mother Thinking?

All revved up from killing Grendel’s mother, Beowulf’s bloodlust draws him to take Grendel out, too. Why was Grendel there in the first place? I can only imagine that his mother had been tending to his wounds. Or, maybe she was just mourning him. Or maybe she tried to save him, but couldn’t, and she had been in the midst of preparing Grendel’s body for its final send off when Beowulf dove into their lake. However I can think to explain it, it comes back to Grendel’s mother doing something with Grendel’s body because she recognized it as more than just some thing. Like a human mother she valued her son’s life and his dismembered body was her last reminder of that. So, chalk up another one in the “human” column for the Grendels.

I kind of wish the poet went into more detail here, though. I mean, even if they were put into exile because they were the original inhabitants of where Heorot now stands, or because Grendel was rejected from society at birth, or because they’re the last remnants of a long since defeated tribe, I’m really fascinated by what’s going on in this underwater hall.

You’ve got two people living in this hall who tend to stay out of sight, there’s an armoury with a giant’s (or Roman?) sword, and a ceremoniously placed body of a dead loved one. What’s the story here in casa (or cueva) Grendel?

Unfortunately, we’re left guessing as Beowulf pays no mind at all to any of this. Nope, he’s got heads to lop off and places to go, a thane on the rise, this one.

Speaking of, even though it might seem like literally adding injury to injury, Beowulf’s taking Grendel’s head isn’t too weird. I’m not sure if this is a reason for trophy hunters taking animal heads as well, but I think Beowulf’s actions here come back to an ancient (Northern) European belief. This is the idea that the head is where everything important to a person (what some might call the soul) is housed. So in cutting off Grendel’s head, he’s laying claim on the beast’s very soul.

Do you think Grendel’s mother was trying to help heal her son, or was his body laid out to be mourned? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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A Wound for a Wound, a Sword-Stroke for a Sword-Stroke

A “an-ræd”1 “hilde-rinc”2 in the midst of the “guð-ræs”3, though “guð-werig”4 by many a “heoro-sweng”5, is sure to be mindful that he is a “heorð-geneat”6 and to leave several “guð-werig”4 thanks to his own “heoro-sweng”5.

At least, if The Battle of Maldon and what it says about “heorð-geneatum”6 and their loyalty to their lords holds any water.


1an-ræd: of one mind, unanimous, constant, firm, persevering, resolute. an (one) + ræd (advice, counsel, resolution, deliberation, plan, way, design; council, conspiracy; decree, ordinance; wisdom, sense, reason, intelligence; gain, profit, benefit, good fortune, remedy; help, power, might)

2hilde-rinc: warrior, hero. hilde (war, combat) + rinc (man, warrior, hero)

3guð-ræs: battle-rush, onslaught. guð (combat, battle, war) + ræs (rush, leap, jump, running, onrush, storm, attack) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

4guð-werig: wounded. guð (combat, battle, war) + werig (weary, tired, exhausted, miserable, sad, unfortunate) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

5heoro-sweng: sword-stroke. heoru (sword) + sweng (stroke, blow, cut, thrust)

6heorð-geneat: retainer. heorð (hearth, fire, house, home) + neat (companion, follower, (esp. in war), dependent, vassal, tenant who works for a lord) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]


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Closing

Next week, the story shifts back to the Geats and Danes waiting around the shore of the lake.

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opinion

Thoughts on “Hrothgar, Heorot, and Threats to Heroism”

In the blog post “Hrothgar, Heorot, and Threats to Heroism” Peter J. Leithart makes some interesting points about heroism in Beowulf.

Basically, he takes an in depth look at what each of the monsters that Beowulf faces represent. In doing so he makes it clear that each creature stands in opposition to some element of human society, whether that’s general order and custom, the importance of social order in the hall setting, or the wealth sharing function of kings.

Over all, I think that this post makes for a quick, interesting read. It even offers some true, if melancholy, insights into how heroism perpetuates itself.

As Leithart explains, heroes are indeed special people, but anyone can memorialize them and carry their memory and example to future generations.

Now, being on a fairly religious blog, Leithart makes ample mention of Christian interpretations in his post. And I think that he’s more than right in a lot of his analysis. After all, when the poem was finally written down, it was written down by Christian monks. And I’m sure that those monks wanted to ensure that their work was circulated and preserved (monks were the medieval period’s copy machines, after all), so adding some Christian embellishments or details makes sense.

Plus, spinning the poem (however much it needed to be spun in this direction) as a Christian epic would have helped to make it relevant to a wider Christian audience.

So references to Christian ideas and images are easy to find in Beowulf. The Christian creation story and all of the talk of Cain are prime examples of these.

However, I think that Leithart goes a little too far saying that the writer of the poem would have seen the dragon as satanic. Something as generic as a dragon is definitely open to interpretation. Though, because of the popularity of imagery like the archangel Michael binding Satan while he’s in the form of a dragon, I’m sure dragons to many Christians were incarnations of Satan. But people were still individuals, and so where some people saw Satan others may have seen an embodiment of greed and gluttony or of pride.

I also don’t entirely agree with Leithart’s setting up a dichotomy between the family that the Grendels have and the life of the hall that Grendel and Grendel’s mother attack. I mean, sure, if you live a sheltered life, shielded from the outside world by your parents, then you’re going to have a hard time adjusting to it. A family so tightly knit that there’s wool constantly over your eyes sounds to me less like a family and more like a cult.

But, being outcast, going your own way, and thumbing your nose at climbing up some sort of social ladder is something you can try to do. I think that such an individual path is what true entrepreneurs seek out. And what’s more heroic than that?

Anyway, Leithart’s article is neither news nor an interview with someone doing something with Beowulf. So why did I decide to post it in this week’s showcase?

Well, it’s because I really like Leithart’s analysis but don’t think the religious overtones (which the medieval audience of the poem would have been very aware of and sensitive to) are necessary to reach his conclusions. Despite its religious trappings (be they Christian or Nordic paganism), Beowulf is about heroism.

And, as Tolkien pointed out, Beowulf is an elegy. Which means that it does not have a happy ending.

Instead, Beowulf ends with the death of its hero which leaves his people doomed to destruction. But what Beowulf does is provide an example for people as one who upholds order, the way of the hall, and generosity. That he does this through violence and action and other exciting things might not seem very novel, but I find it fascinating.

Why? Because so much of our entertainment has moved away from such a complicated display of violence.

Beowulf is a hero who gets to his goals through fighting, but he is also ultimately taken out in a fight with the greatest monster he faces. Aside from Terminator 2, or Batman vs. Superman (setting aside all the problems I had with that movie), I can’t think of any other pop culture touchstones where the hero isn’t allowed to live happily ever after in the greater future that their fighting has created. And I think that this version of violence needs to be featured more more widely. Right alongside calculating the trajectory of blood splatter from an exit wound, the consequences of violence would add an element of realism to our stories.

A lot of Beowulf might just be a bunch of people bashing each other with swords, but all that fighting has consequences and those consequences carry on into the future (as Alexis Fajardo pointed out in last week’s news post). And that’s one of the things what makes Beowulf so memorable to me.

What do you think about Beowulf’s commentary on heroism? Is it still relevant today? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Old English, poetry, translation

Grendel’s mother is gone, what warriors do (ll.1557-1569)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Grendel’s Mother Beaten, But Where did She even come From?
A Warrior’s Two Faces
Closing


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Synopsis

Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother.


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Translation

“He saw then in her armoury a sword blessed by victory,
a sword of giants’ craft from elder days, strong of edge,
ready for a warrior’s glory; that was the best of weapons,
but it was more than any other man
would have strength to bear into the dance of battle,
superb and splendid, the handiwork of giants.
He seized that belted hilt, the Scylding warrior,
he was fierce and fatally grim, when he drew that ring-patterned sword
she had no hope of further life, he angrily struck her,
so that the sword caught slickly at the base of her neck,
it shattered her vertabra; the sword passed through
her entire, doomed body; she crumpled to the floor,
the sword sweating blood, the man rejoicing in his work.”
(Beowulf ll.1557-1569)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Grendel’s Mother Beaten, But Where did She even come From?

And Beowulf has done it. He has killed Grendel’s mother. She wasn’t exactly “unseam’d from the nave to the chops” as the Sergeant says of Macbeth’s deed when talking with King Duncan in Macbeth (I.ii.22), but it still sounds like he split her with his enormous sword. How else could a threatened masculinity assert itself, right?

But what I wonder about while reading this passage is what sort of operation Grendel’s mother had in her underwater hall. I mean, Not only does she pull a dagger on Beowulf, but she has an entire armoury of some kind.

As more and more is built up around her, it’s sounding less and less like Grendel’s mother is some sort of animalistic monster and more like she’s the remnant of some sort of human culture. Or, at the least, she’s someone who was cast into exile and wound up living in a cave that had been lived in before.

So maybe Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary were onto something when they added an affair between Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother to the story of the 2007 Beowulf movie. But, instead of being a seductive water witch, Grendel’s mother was actually a member of Hrothgar’s hall.

Perhaps she was one who had given birth to a son with some sort of disability and, instead of just leaving him out on the rocks to die (if exposure was a thing the Norse did with babies who didn’t look “right”), she stole away into the night with him, found the cave, and became fierce and monstrous as she faced down all of the natural terrors that the community would otherwise have protected her and her child from.

Actually, looking at the timeline that the book gives us, Hrothgar ruled through 12 years of Grendel’s terror (ll.147-149). He also ruled for some time before that, enough time for Heorot to be built under his watch. whereas Grendel’s mother had ruled her depths for either 50 years or, as Seamus Heaney has it: “a hundred seasons,” which would work out to 25 years (ll.1498).

Now, it might be a bit of a stretch that Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother knocked boots if she’s been ruling for 50 years while he’s maybe been ruling for 20. But, if Grendel’s mother has only been ruling for 25, then, perhaps Grendel is Hrothgar’s son. So maybe she was an early mistress of the prince or even the young king Hrothgar and had to be kept quiet to allow for a more politically convenient marriage to come along.

Or, maybe there’s a bit of Anglo-Saxon history getting into the story here and Grendel’s mother was a Roman woman with a strange child that was cast out. After all, because they had better forging techniques, the Anglo-Saxons often considered Roman swords magical, mythically crafted weapons.

Unfortunately, though, all we can make of the Grendel’s mother’s background is based on assumptions.

But that’s also fortunate. As a poem Beowulf has a lot of gaps in its background information, and because of these gaps it can be talked about and used as a lens through which we can look at our own time almost endlessly.

So what do you think Grendel’s mother was doing with an armoury? Was she just a monster who happened upon an old previously inhabited cave? Or was she somebody exiled from Daneland who put everything around her together herself?


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A Warrior’s Two Faces

After the fact, a warrior who happens to bear a “eald-sweord”1 that he believes to be “sig-eadig”2 in the “beadu-lac”3 is likely to feel quite high and mighty. He’ll probably talk of the “weorð-mynd”4 he won while his grip was upon the “fetel-hilt”5.

But in the moment, through the “beadu-lac”3, that same warrior with the “hring-mæl”6 is a different person. He’s a “heoro-grim”7 swinging precisely and delivering death as limbs are severed and “ban-hring”8 are broken. His memory confers upon him “weorð-mynd”4 but his actions only make “flæsc-hama”9 after “flæsc-hama”9.


1eald-sweord: sword from elder days. eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + sweord (sword)

2sig-eadig:blessed by victory. sig (victory) + eadig (wealthy, prosperous, fortunate, happy, blessed, perfect)

3beadu-lac: war-play, battle. beadu (war, battle, fighting, strife) + lac (play, sport, strife, battle, sacrifice, offering, gift, present, booty, message)

4weorð-mynd: honour, dignity, glory, mark of distinction. weorð (word, value, amount, price, purchase-money, ransom, worth, worthy, honoured, noble, honourable, of high rank, valued, dear, precious, fit, capable) + mynd (memory, remembrance, memorial, record, act of commemoration, thought, purpose, consciousness, mind, intellect)

5fetel-hilt: belted or ringed sword-hilt. fetel (belt) + hilt (handle, hilt of a sword)

6hring-mæl: sword with ring-like patterns. hring (ring, link of chain, fetter, festoon; anything circular, circle, circular group, border, horizon, rings of gold, corslet, circuit (of a year), cycle, course, orb, globe) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

7heoro-grim: savage, fierce. heoru (sword) + grim (fierce, savage, dire, severe, bitter, painful)

8ban-hring: vertebra, joint. ban (bone, tusk, the bone of a limb) + hring (ring, link of chain, fetter, festoon, anything circular, circle, circular group, border, horizon, rings of gold (as ornaments and as money), corslet, circuit of a year, cycle, course, orb, globe)

9flæsc-hama: body, carcase. flæsc (flesh, body (as opposed to soul), carnal nature, living creatures) + hama (covering, dress, garment, womb, puerperium, slough of a snake)


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Closing

Next week, Grendel comes back into the story.

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interview, news

Alexis Fajardo’s Kid Beowulf sees the young Geat go on heroic adventures across epics

A Quick Note: I am in no way associated with Alexis Fajardo, Kid Beowulf, or The Beat. I’m just bringing this to my readers as a bit of news from the world of Beowulf.

Beowulf adaptations continue to come out, despite the story’s generally low profile in most circles these days. The latest adaptation to come to my attention is Alexis Fajardo’s new graphic novel series Kid Beowulf. Fajardo himself describes the project in this interview with Alex Dueben from The Beat.

In his adaptation of Beowulf, Fajardo goes back to when Beowulf was a kid (as the title suggests). The young Beowulf lives through some of the events that the poem describes (like the swimming contest with Brecca), but the focus is on entirely invented adventures.

Throughout these adventures, Beowulf travels around to visit other heroes from the epic poetry of other nations. But the biggest change that Fajardo makes is in Beowulf’s relationship with Grendel. In his version, Grendel isn’t just Beowulf’s first major victory, but also related to him and growing up alongside him. So in all of kid Beowulf’s adventures, Grendel is never far behind.

But Fajardo doesn’t deviate from the source material entirely. In the interview with The Beat he explains that ultimately Beowulf and Grendel split up and meet again at Hrothgar’s hall, where their destined fight takes place. Whether or not the implications of Beowulf tearing off Grendel’s arm despite their long-term relationship are dealt with Fajardo doesn’t say. But after reading what he’s said about his project I feel like he’ll probably leave that part of the fated fight out of his series.

Beyond using the old poem to create something new, in the interview Fajardo also makes an interesting point about superheroes.

For the most part, he notes, they never have to deal with the consequences of their choices.

His passion for the epic form showing, Fajardo then says that this is where the heroes of epic poetry have one up on superheroes since these heroes do deal with their actions’ consequences. For example, Beowulf dies because he decides to fight the dragon himself, rather than letting another have the glory. And Beowulf’s death leads to the decline and destruction of the Geats, since Beowulf had made a few enemies and was no longer around to keep them at bay.

As with a lot of stuff these days, despite the cartoony look of Kid Beowulf, Fajardo’s descriptions and the sample pages included in the interview make it sound like it’s going to deal with complex issues. What’s more, I think it’s fair to say that these issues will be dealt with in a way that acknowledges their nuances.

If you’re a comics/graphic novels fan, curious to see how one artist thinks Beowulf may’ve been as a kid, or just want to see how this adaptation of Beowulf goes, the first book of Alexis Fajardo’s Kid Beowulf is out now and can be found at Fajardo’s website.

How do you feel about adaptations that focus on characters’ lives before the events that made them famous like Fajardo’s Kid Beowulf? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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Beowulf, Old English, translation

Beowulf’s armour questioned, words on weary warriors (ll.1541-1556)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Is Beowulf’s Magic Armour really just God’s Influence?
Celebrating A Well-Armoured Warrior
Closing


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Synopsis

Grendel’s mother gets Beowulf down, but he bounces back.


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Translation

“She was quickly up and payed back that blow
with a fierce grip of her own, followed through with her forward grasp.
Stumbled then the wearied warrior, though the strongest,
a true foot-soldier, so that he fell to the floor.
She sat then on her hall-guest and she drew a dagger,
broad of blade, bright of edge; she was ready to avenge her son,
her only offspring. But on his breast lay
the firm mail-coat, that protected his life,
it prevented the dagger’s point and its edge from piercing.
The son of Ecgþeow would have perished
beneath the wide earth, that Geatish man,
if his war-corslet had not provided its help,
that tough mail-coat, and holy God
controlled the victory in that battle, the wise Lord,
Ruler of Heaven, he easily decided
the right outcome for the fight, once that man stood up.”
(Beowulf ll.1541-1556)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Is Beowulf’s Magic Armour really just God’s Influence?

Beowulf’s back, baby! Just as with the fight against Grendel, there’s explicit mention of god’s favour at the end of this passage. Though, Grendel’s mother almost had him.

Sitting astride her victim, she had a dagger at the ready, and raised. She would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for that meddling mail!

In fact, Bewoulf’s mail coat gets top billing, while god is just mentioned after the fact.

I think that the poet credits the armour and then god because the mail’s turning away the dagger is the incident, while god is said to be the cause.

Though, I can’t help but think that Beowulf’s armour is more than just something he straps on before a fight. I mean, he always heaps it with importance. In fact, he goes so far as to say that if he dies, the Danes need to send his armour back to Hygelac before the fight with Grendel (ll.452-453). As far as heirlooms go, that mail’s definitely really important to him. And he makes it clear that it’s the work of Weland the Smith (l.455), so there’s some magic to it.

And thinking of magic armour brings my mind around to RPGs.

As an avid fan of RPGs I find Beowulf interesting from a character building perspective. If you think of Beowulf as a caharacter in a game of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) or in an RPG on a video game console or PC, then his attack stat is insanely high (that handgrip’s something to reckon with, right?), but his defense most be average or worse. So to compensate he’s got this magic mail.

Looking at Beowulf this way really makes me wonder if the poet or the audience for the poem had some sense of fighters being offensive or defensive but never both, and the magic mail is a device that makes Beowulf almost invulnerable since it balances his defense with his attack power.

Though, on one hand I feel like reading eowulf as a character from an RPG like this is reading things from my life into Beowulf rather than reading things actually in the poem out of it. On the other hand, though, complex games like D&D aren’t outside the ken of people from the medieval period. Surely somebody, somewhere in medieval Europe, invented a variation on chess, or had some sort of battle simulation game that had numbers at work behind the clashes of fighters.

Anyway, getting back to the mention of god that I made above, the poet doesn’t just refer to god once in this passage. He lays down three back to back. These three epithets over the course of just two lines suggest to me that something’s up there. However, I can only guess at what exactly is up here. Maybe the poet’s trying to throw attention off of Beowulf’s magical armour – surely a heathen idea! Or maybe he’s just playing up the Christian spin on wyrd to show that magic armour or not, it isn’t the gear that a player has equipped so much as it is the DM’s rolls that save people.

Chess has been around in Europe since about 800 AD, so the poet and audience of Beowulf likely knew about it, and maybe some of them played it. How complex do you think medieval board games were? Did thanes sit around playing dice and checkers while enjoying their mead and pork, or were some of them playing games as complex as D&D?


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Celebrating A Well-Armoured Warrior

The “werig-mod”1 “feþe-cempa”2 could make a fantastic “sele-gyst.”3 Especially after he has dirtied his “breost-net”4 on the battlefield (is that rust or blood…or both?) and achieved “wig-sigor”5. Though that “heaðu-byrne”6 may have just narrowly turned the sword “brun-ecg”7 away from his vitals in the fight. But at least that means that there aren’t any holes in him, or that wondrous “breost-net”4!


1werig-mod: weary, cast down. werig (weary, tired, exhausted, miserable, sad, unfortunate) + mod (heart,mind,spirit,mood,temper;arrogance, pride,power;power, violence)

2feþe-cempa: foot soldier. feþe (power of locomotion, walking, gait, pace) + cempa (warrior, champion) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

3sele-gyst: hall-guest. sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison) + gyst (guest, stranger) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

4breost-net: coat of mail. breost (breast, bosom, stomach, womb, mind, thought, disposition) + net (netting, network, spider’s web)

5wig-sigor: victory in a battle. wig (strife, contest, war, battle, valour, military force, army) + sigor (victory, triumph)

6heaðu-byrne: war-corslet. heaðu (war) + byrne (corslet)

7brun-ecg: with gleaming blade. brun (brown, dark, dusky, having metallic lustre, shining) + ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle-axe)


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s luck turns around.

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news

Grendel’s mother inspires a new trope

A depiction of Grendel's mother from the graphic novel adaptation of the 2007 Beowulf movie.

Grendel’s mother in IDW’s graphic novel adaptation of the 2007 Beowulf movie. Image from: http://www.comicosity.com/buttkickn-moms-in-comics-beowulf-aliens-and-lois-lane/

On the translation side of this blog, I’m currently working through Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother. Out of the three monsters, she somehow seems the one most shrouded in darkness.

For starters, we never really get a good description of her. We’re only told on lines 1349-1351 that she has a woman’s likeness. Beowulf encounters her in the depths of a strange lake, and fights her in an underwater cave. And, although she’s a monster, some sort of creature like Grendel, she pulls out a dagger at one point in their fight and tries to stab Beowulf.

So she’s definitely mysterious, but entirely monstrous? That’s left quite unclear.

Especially if you focus in on her motivation for attacking Heorot and killing Æschere.

Grendel’s mother only kicks into action once she learns that her son has been killed. So she’s plainly motivated by revenge and the sort of anguished sorrow that only a parent who loses a child can really know.

This mysterious figure whose motivations are not only clear but also relatable has inspired comics fan and writer Michael Hale to identify a new trope.

Writing for Comicosity, Hale jumps from Grendel’s mother’s motivation to the presence of other female characters stepping up when their children are in danger. He calls this trope the “Ripley Twist,” based on Ripley’s fighting the alien at the end of Aliens to protect her ward Newt. You can read Michael’s full article here.

Finding the connection that Hale makes with Beowulf reminds me of how relevant the poem remains. As he points out in his first sentence, the poem isn’t too well known anymore. And, sometimes it seems like people groan and bemoan its existence in favour of things wittier and more polite (Victorian lit, I’m looking at you).

And why not?

In Victorian literature the gruesome brutality of human nature is tucked away in things like My Secret Life.

Beowulf, on the other hand, makes no excuses for the brutality of life. Its brutality is much more physical and visceral, but that makes its violence a potent analogy to the to the social, psychological, and emotional brutality that people experience today.

As brutal as it can be, Beowulf is something that allows us to look back at ourselves in a very different context. That people like Hale can bring ideas like the “Ripley Twist” out of it, then I’d say Beowulf‘s definitely worth reading. Who knows what you’ll find within its wordhoard?

What’s your favourite era of stories and why?

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poetry, translation

Beowulf a law breaker? And Old English tips for facing your mortal foe (ll.1529-1540)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf the Law Breaker?
Things to Remember When Facing your Mortal Foe
Closing

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11001837


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Synopsis

Beowulf gathers himself, and then grabs and throws Grendel’s mother.


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Translation

“He was yet resolute, not at all did his courage wane,
mindful of the glorious deed at hand was that kin of Hygelac,
that angry warrior threw the sword with curved markings,
inlaid with ornamentation, so that it lay, useless, on the ground,
hard and steel-edged, he then trusted to his own might,
the strength of his hand-grip. So shall a man do
when he thinks to gain long-lasting fame in the midst
of combat; not at all is he anxious about his own life.
He grabbed her by the shoulder — feeling no sorrow for his violent act —
the man of the warrior Geats pressed against Grendel’s mother,
then flung the fiend from where she stood, enraged
against the deadly foe, so that she fell to the floor.”
(Beowulf ll.1529-1540)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Beowulf the Law Breaker?

Beowulf gathers himself after the sword that Unferth gave him falters (here’s a poem that speculates as to why it failed). And then? Well, Beowulf resolves to do things his way: the bare-handed way!

Though rather than going for some sort of karate chop or punch from a “horse” stance, Beowulf pulls a grab and throw. What exactly does he grab though?

The old English word for what he throws is “eaxl,” which means “shoulder” (l.1537). However, some translations of the poem render the word “eaxl” here into “hair” instead. They do this not because “eaxl” could also mean “hair” but because of the quick parenthetical that follows Beowulf’s grab: “feeling no sorrow at all for his violent act” (“nalas for fæhðe mearn” (l.1537)).

I think that this little phrase could be taken literally: the poet, if not also Beowulf, is respectful enough of women that to attack one by grabbing them is unfit for a warrior of any honour.

But, according to Anglo-Saxon law pulling on someone’s hair could be considered an insult, and quite a few translators believe that “eaxl” is a corruption of “feax” (the actual Old English word for “hair”). So some translators render “eaxl” into “hair”. This change makes this little phrase less about Beowulf or the poet expressing concern about being gentlemen and more about Beowulf feeling no remorse for insulting Grendel’s mother in such a crude and illegal way.

In other words, Beowulf, the upright fighter for god, feels no remorse for breaking the law.

Maybe this means that god’s law is indeed greater than that of human judges and kings. If this is how this act is meant, then of course Beowulf is all right with breaking the anti-hair pulling policy.

But maybe this phrase is more about Beowulf feeling extremely frustrated that once again a weapon doesn’t work for him. After all, when he fights the dragon at the end of the poem the poet tells us that no sword ever worked for Beowulf (ll.2682-2687). Though then I wonder why Beowulf would be frustrated about his sword not working.

Is he afraid that he doesn’t know his own strength when he’s bare-handed?

Is he afraid of fighting a woman without a weapon to keep distance between them?

Is there something dangerous about Grendel’s mother that Beowulf wants to keep away?

What do you think Beowulf is feeling as he flings Grendel’s mother to the floor? Frustration? Rage at her for resisting the sword? Rage at himself for trusting Unferth? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Things to Remember When Facing your Mortal Foe

If you’re facing your “feorh-geniðlan”1, then you’re probably “an-ræd”2 about things. There’s not likely a lot of grey area there.

I mean, this is your greatest foe and you are now ready to defeat them. You’ve got your “styl-ecg”3 sword that’s “wunden-mæl”4 with a lovely design and twice as deadly tight in your “mund-gripe”5 and are ready to go.

But you must be careful in this moment. If there’s even the smallest fruit fly of doubt buzzing around your brain, your foe could just lay out the slightest empathetic fact to get you to drop your guard. So be sure to have your mind “wunden-mæl”4 with your “an-ræd”2 purpose.

1feorh-geniðlan: mortal foe. feorh (life, principle of life, soul, spirit) + nið strife, enmity, attack, war, evil, hatred, spite; oppression, affliction, trouble, grief) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

2an-ræd: of one mind, unanimous, constant, firm, persevering, resolute. an (one) + ræd (advice, counsel, resolution, deliberation, plan, way, design; council, conspiracy; decree, ordinance; wisdom, sense, reason, intelligence; gain, profit, benefit, good fortune, remedy; help, power, might)

3styl-ecg: steel-edged. style (steel) + ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle axe) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

4wunden-mæl: etched, damescened. wunden (wind, plait, curl, twist, unwind, whirl, brandish, swing, turn, fly, leap, start, roll, slip, go) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

5mund-gripe: hand-grasp. mund (hand, palm (of the hand, as a measure), trust, security, protection, guardianship, protector, guardian, the king’s peace, fine for breach of the laws of protection or guardianship of the king’s peace) + gripe (grip, grasp, seizure, attack, shield, handful) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

 


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Closing

Next week, Grendel’s mother turns the tables on Beowulf!

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