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

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Abstract

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

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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)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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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.

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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.

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Closing

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

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