Feuding References (ll.99-114) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Referential storytelling
Justification through a feud
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Grendel has his first mention by name, and his origin is quickly explained.

Back To Top
Translation

“So the warriors of the hall lived in joy,
were prosperous, until one began
committing crimes, like a fiend of hell.
It was the ghastly ghoul called Grendel,
border walker from the marshlands, he that the moors held,
whose mire was his mansion; from the land held fast by
woe laden man-shaped sea beasts,
since the Shaper had condemned them
as kin of Cain – so the almighty Lord punished
him for that murder, when he slew Abel.
Cain was given no good from that, the Measurer cast him
far abroad, done for his evil, away from humankind.
Then the monsters all awoke,
ogres and elves and orcs,
also giants, those that waged long warfare
against God; until he gave them their reward.”
(Beowulf ll.99-114)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Referential storytelling

To anyone familiar with Greek myth, there’s a strange mash up of origin stories happening here. The final two lines suggest some sort of war between god and monsters, specifically giants. In Greek myth, such a story would be a reference to the Gigantomachy wherein the Giants (the force of chaos) fought against the gods of Olympus (the force of order).

Taken as a reference to early parts of the Old Testament, these lines could be describing an Anglo-Saxon take on the Nephilim, the half human/half angel offspring of angels who walked the earth and cavorted amongst humanity. In the Old Testament stories, interestingly, given the Anglo-Saxons’ warrior status, these angels are allegedly the ones who showed humans how to work metal and create weapons for war.

This tale of a war between god and monsters could also be a reference to the story of the Roman de Brut, an epic poem about the first settling of what’s now England, and the giant that the settlers had to overcome to claim the land for their own. But the version of that poem written by Wace is dated to 1150-1155 with much more certainly than Beowulf’s own dating. As a result of this late date, Beowulf would have had to have been written/composed later in the twelfth century. Alternatively, it could well have influenced Wace (along with his major source for his Roman de Brut, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regium Britanniae).

Nevertheless, the story about a war between god and giants could be construed in a number of historical ways, too. Perhaps it’s a Christian insertion into the poem, meant to represent how Christian monotheism overtook pagan polytheism (something that is quite active in this leg of the poem, actually). Or maybe there’s more of an historical/allegorical bent at work, the figures on either side standing for certain factions that faced off in the poets/writers’ distant past.

Whatever the case, this event is definitely something that took place far into the past. After all, it’s clearly stated that the monsters all awoke after the condemnation of Cain (ll.109-112). Likely this is how the story goes because Biblically Cain is the first human outcast. Surely, Adam and Eve had their own losses from being cast out of the garden, but to be cast out from the cast outs would make Cain particularly damned. Especially in the eyes of the Anglo-Saxons, for whom community and social inclusion were integral for survival.

Back To Top
Justification through a feud

The whole “kin of Cain” (“Caines cynne” (l.107)) thing is interesting. It takes something that is by its nature as a creature of the borderlands mysterious and other and gives it a lineage. Grendel isn’t just some monster that no one knows anything about, but is instead related to the first murderer and, curiously, an early farmer. A cheeky reading of the Cain and Abel story, could, in fact, be that god, with childish aplomb, prefers meat to vegetables.

Anyway, giving Grendel a lineage and taking the mystery out of him thereby, makes him more approachable. It feeds into the feud culture of the Anglo-Saxons as well. After all, without a hereditary feud to conclude/perpetuate, Grendel would be somewhat in the right, since the Danes are encroaching on his territory. What’s more, Grendel only attacks Heorot once he’s provoked by the noise from within. Giving Grendel a clear ancestor, though, brings the feud element into play, which makes who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong muddier. After all, any godly person would surely take the side of god in a war with the monsters. Surely.

Running with the idea that Beowulf was substantially altered when written down for the sake of Christianizing the Anglo-Saxons, any feud element would be an incredible asset. From the perspective of a missionary such elements would be their “in;” to the Anglo-Saxons feuds were eminently familiar.

This familiarity would help make the Christian parts of the story seem more understandable. Particularly helpful in this area is the final line of this extract. The climactic sarcasm to be found there makes it prime for Anglo-Saxon appreciation, and could be there as a kind of medieval fan service.

Back To Top
Closing

Grendel ventures into the hall next week, and there wreaks his first reported havoc.

Back To Top

Grendel’s glimpse, and the poets’ creation song (ll.86-98) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Sympathy for Grendel?
Singing the song of creation
Closing

Back to Top
Abstract

Outside the revels in the newly erected Heorot, a dark presence is stirred by poets’ songs of creation.

Back to Top
Translation

“Then a terrible demon had a time of
difficult suffering, as it would be in darkness,
he who daily heard the joy makers
loud in the hall; there hands were waved over harps,
there the poets sang clear. Told they of
knowing the long ago provenance of all people,
spoke of how the Almighty made the earth,
this beauteous world, and the water that flows about it;
set the sun and the moon victoriously above
with rays to light the ways of people,
and adorned the rolling hills
with limbs and leaves; how the Maker shaped
each variety of life, all things that have motion.”
(Beowulf ll.86-98)

Back to Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back to Top
Sympathy for Grendel?

Though Beowulf is an old poem, and it’s easy to say that old things (especially old works of art and literature) come from black and white world views, Grendel (and Beowulf‘s other monsters) are sometimes more sympathetic than you’d expect.

Though this isn’t a formal introduction of the ravager of Heorot, it’s still his first appearance, and yet the poet does nothing to make him seem like a terrible thing. Aside from the whole “terrible demon” (“ellengæst earfoðlice” (l.86)) thing. But names can just be clever fronts and masks placed onto things to draw attention away from their true portrayal.

After all, demon or no, how would an early medieval audience react to the “difficult suffering” (“geþolode”(l.87)) of a demon? Possibly with cheers and grins, but that could also be too simplistic an assumption on our part. Though, within this excerpt there isn’t much evidence to the contrary.

All that we do have here to suggest that Grendel could be a sympathetic character is the parenthetical “as it would be in darkness,” (“se þe in þystrum bad,” l.87)). Grendel’s natural state is such darkness, and as a people who measured color by brightness and not by hue (as we do), such a state would be unimaginably bleak. Possibly even reason to pity even a monster like Grendel.

Yet, by the nature of alliterative verse, this little description of Grendel’s natural living conditions could just be here to fill out the second half of a line. However, a variety of other descriptions could fit here too, perhaps more physical, or perhaps describing Grendel’s position while listening to Heorot’s hustle. The point is, though the form of the description was chosen to fit the form of the poem, its content could still have been chosen with intention and not just to add a flourish to the piece.

If then, the description of Grendel’s usual living conditions as being what you’d expect of darkness is carrying some intention, its placement makes it prime material for a sympathetic reading of Grendel. Or, at the least, it raises the question of why describe a demon’s habitat if they’re already well known and reviled. Without (unfortunately) other texts to back me up on this, I think it’s because demons were still a very abstract thing when Beowulf was written or composed. In fact, if the version of the poem that we have is one that was altered by the Christian-trained scribes writing it down, then perhaps this description is a sarcastic Anglo-Saxon addition and something that’s calling attention to the otherness of Grendel. Perhaps it is, as I read it, calling such attention so that we the readers begin to pity Grendel, the dweller in the silent dark.

Back to Top
Singing the song of creation

After our brief first glimpse of Grendel, we’re given a rundown of the story of creation. One that rolls the creation story found in Genesis into what seems like a rather close knit series of events. At the least, it cuts down the Biblical account to a few lines. But why that story? Beowulf‘s not obviously a poem about creation, and so you’ve got to wonder.

It’s possible (even probable) that halls like Heorot were figured as lights in the wilderness. Pockets of civilization where new ties were formed and old enemies could (once they were ready) talk things out over mead and meat. Or, perhaps it was an old tradition to sing stories of creation at the breaking-in parties of grand halls to reflect the beginnings that the builders and ring lords had set in motion. This rendition of creation is, after all, a very effervescent version, its wording evoking a bright, fresh scene. Maybe it’s even a kind of invocation or blessing to sing of creation over a new venture that’s the scope of a mead hall.

Looking out to other works of Old English, there’s one curious connection. This is Caedmon’s Hymn, a poem shorter than the section in this excerpt about creation on the same topic. Though Caedmon’s Hymn is also framed with a story about the shepherd Caedmon and how his inspiration to sing gave him that hymn. However you choose to read it, singing of creation just seems to be the way the Anglo-Saxons celebrated freshness and newness.

Back to Top
Closing

Next week Grendel’s formally introduced, and we get some of his background.

Back to Top

Heorot’s rise and fall (ll.74-85) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Self sabotage and suspense
Heorot and Hubris
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Heorot is raised, named, and has its end prophesied.

Back To Top
Translation

Then heard I that work a summons went widely,
to many peoples from throughout this earth,
to adorn that dwelling place. After their first meeting,
immediately amidst those assembled, it was made ready,
the greatest of all halls; the poets named it Heorot,
he whose word has widespread influence.
That boast did not lie, rings were doled out,
a continuous treasure flow. That hall rose high,
towering and wide-gabled, made to resist fierce fire,
loathe of lightning; yet it was not as such for long,
since woken sword-hate would later swallow it
after war broke out between son in law and father in law.
(Beowulf ll.74-85)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Self sabotage and suspense

For an epic poem, Beowulf has some moments where it seems to sabotage its own scope. At least on the surface. This excerpt is a prime example of such apparent sabotage, as it takes the grand idea of the world’s greatest mead hall and condenses its history into just over 10 lines.

But there’s some purpose behind doing things this way.

In speaking of the end of Heorot, the poet gives it a finite existence. On the one hand doing so could be the poetical version of the mistakes that artisans would make in their intricate weavings and carvings so as to not offend what they believed to be god’s perfect creation. On the other, it lets readers know that Heorot will not be destroyed until the time that is appointed.

To the poem’s original audience (maybe even in its written version) the reference to a feud erupting between father in law and son in law could actually be meaningful; including this detail could root this story further in history. The poet alludes to something real and gives it enough detail to frame it as the real thing. Then he is free to embellish Heorot’s history with the wild story of Beowulf and Grendel.

From a purely narrative standpoint, delineating Heorot’s existence like this also lets the reader know that Grendel isn’t the one to destroy Heorot. Once more, on the surface this seems like self sabotage. However, this moment in the poem doesn’t undercut the suspense of Beowulf’s struggle with Grendel, it strengthens it. An attentive reader knows that Beowulf must succeed for Heorot to survive to be destroyed in the manner described here. What generates much of the suspense during the lead up to and during his fight with Grendel is the question of how he does it.

Back To Top
Heorot and Hubris

Continuing in that vein, Heorot sounds like a classic embodiment of hubris. Not only is it a grand building where great treasures are doled out, it’s also built “to resist fierce fire,/loathe of lightning” (“heaðowylma bad,/laðan liges” (ll.82-83)). Its very construction is supposed to negate the natural things that are the banes of other buildings. So it sounds like something that by its nature is calling down the anger of the gods.

Yet, aside from drawing it out of a classically informed narrative analysis placed onto the poem, it’s hard to tell if the Anglo-Saxons themselves saw things this way. This sense of hubris that I’m pulling out of the poem could even be a subtle insertion on the part of the Christian scribe who put Beowulf to paper, something to show the wrong-headedness of the Anglo-Saxons before the missions came and all of that.

Regardless, Heorot’s description is definitely something over the top. And if that’s something that calls down the attention of the gods, then maybe it would foreshadow some sort of supernatural intervention for the poem’s early audiences. Perhaps then, the reference to the hall’s being destroyed in a feud is meant to turn readers’ suspicions away from the supernatural. Grendel still has to be introduced, after all.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, in fact, Grendel gets introduced. And the context of this introduction sets up quite the contrast.

Back To Top

Hall building but not slave trading (ll.64-73) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar – The Builder
What won’t be traded at Heorot
Closing

Back To Top
Abstract

Hrothgar sees success in battle, grows his reputation, and dreams of a fantastical hall.

Back To Top
Translation

Hrothgar was given success in war,
honour in battle, such that his kith and kin
eagerly listened, until the young one grew
into a mighty troop lord. His mind soon turned
to the glory of being called a hall lord,
a mead hall made by the work of many,
that the children of the ages would ever ask about,
and therein to dole out all
to young and old alike, such as god gave him,
all but the people’s land and lives.
(Beowulf ll.64-73)

Back To Top
Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

Back To Top
Hrothgar – The Builder

Once again, at least as I’ve translated it, we get some reference to the importance of reputation. Curiously though, the buzz around Hrothgar sounds like it was built on the foundation of his own deeds. Though, the verb phrase “eagerly listened” (“georne hyrdon”; a literal translation of which would be “eagerly heard” (l.66)) could be the poet’s way of saying that Hrothgar himself, or whatever scop he had in his employ, sang of these deeds in a most compelling way. A way that magnified exploits that might otherwise be rather paltry.

In either case, it’s interesting that the builder of a hall like Heorot would first build up his own reputation. Looking at his career trajectory, from successful warrior to troop lord, to ambitions of hall lordship, and then the fulfilment of that ambition, it seems that Hrothgar himself is a building. One built entirely on a reputation in fact; a foundation that says quite a bit about the importance of a reputation at the time.

But could it say more?

In line 69, we’re told that Hrothgar envisioned his hall as the work of many. This suggests that its building could be something like a modern Amish barn raising, but, given this description, at the very least it would be community effort. What I then wonder is if such a project wouldn’t create a further reputation of one’s being able to turn their words into physical objects. Hrothgar envisions the hall – he must have told someone of these ambitions – and then through his will and influence he brings it about. As a mythic poem would it be out of line to suggest that Hrothgar as a mythic figure could be called “The Builder”?

Back To Top
What won’t be traded at Heorot

Quite a well balanced extract, the end of this part of the poem is as rich as its beginning.

Particularly the final clause, which makes it plain that neither land nor peoples’ lives are among those things that Hrothgar will give away. This sounds straightforward enough. Hrothgar will respect his thanes’ and followers’ claims to land and not give the people themselves away. But in what way would he be giving them away otherwise? As slaves? As sacrifices? As soldiers?

It doesn’t seem likely that it’s the third of these, since soldiers would make up a healthy portion of Hrothgar’s followers as is.

The second is definitely possible, since we do later get references to rituals that the Danes try to rid themselves of Grendel. But it’s not likely that these involve human sacrifice, since the poet only mentions that the Danes called on demons (since, as at least a Christian poet, anything other than Christ (and the other members of the trinity) standing as god would be blasphemy) to save them. There’s never any real mention of ritualistic murder or the like, either.

So it seems most likely that he’s referring to treating his people like slaves. To selling them off as if they were just property – another golden cup or war outfitted horse. Actually, that’s a good way to categorize the things that Hrothgar will not be doling out to his followers: things that are not made by human hands.

Land is clearly something not made by human hands, especially since Beowulf portrays the land as a source of threats to civilization.

Grendel and Grendel’s Mother threaten Hrothgar’s little utopia, and the dragon threatens the Geats under Beowulf. Grendel and Grendel’s Mother come from the heath, and even more specifically a strange lake that opens into an underground cave. Later, the dragon comes from an ancient cave near the cliffs of a coast. Both are places that are distinctly other, and thus not at all connected to human creation.

It’s fair to say that people are held as sacred in Beowulf. Yes, parts of the poem seem like they’re just about a bunch of guys bashing another bunch of guys over the head with pointy sticks, but even in those instances, there’s something all to human at stake: honour, glory, safety for one or the other side’s leader’s family/group. Nonetheless, there is value to human life as something more than a possession in this poem, though it may seem to fluctuate more than our modern valuing of the same.

Back To Top
Closing

Next week, we see Heorot being built, named, and lurked about by Grendel.

Feel free to comment on today’s entry below and to subscribe to this blog to keep yourself up to date.

Back To Top