Desperate Danes, Poetic License (ll.146b-163) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
More feuding, less sin
Grendel kin
Closing

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Abstract

Grendel’s rule over Heorot becomes news of the world, and the Danes’ plight becomes well known.

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Translation

              &nbsp”It was so for some time,
Twelve winters of anger the friends of Scyld suffered,
each became accustomed to such hardship,
rougher sorrow; because of that they became speakers,
sons of the age, knowledge of them was unhidden,
those troubled deeds of old, that Grendel lashed
out against Hrothgar for a long time, the hateful
monster’s way, years full of failures and feuding,
a perpetual siege. That kin would not treat
with any man of the Danes for even the shortest time,
deadly evil from afar, as few did hope,
nor were there any who believed that his
hand could be stayed with a bright death price;
the fierce enemy was, after all, the pursuer,
a dark death shadow over the veterans and youths,
those who tarried and planned, night upon night
he held the misty moors, men never knew
whither the fiendish monster rapidly went.”
(Beowulf ll.146b-163)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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More feuding, less sin

Once more we’re faced with the classic phrase: “fyrene ond fæhðe ” (l.153). However, I took a bit of a liberty in its translation. Rather than go with a usual English word for “fyrene” like “transgression,” or “sin,” I went with “failure.” This word rings true here because the phrase is used as a blanket term for the Danes’ relationship with Grendel over the twelve years of his terror. Pairing “failure” and “feud” reflects this relationship pretty much perfectly.

Why?

Because those twelve years are definitely twelve years of fueding. The Danes and Grendel exchange blows (though in a rather one sided way) because of some initial offense for all twelve of those winters. At the same time, the Danes attempt to end this feud in the ways that they’re used to doing so. Ways such as trying to parlay with him (l.154-155), and paying “a bright death price” (“beorhtre bote” (l.158)). Why Grendel should be paid off with a “death price” remains unanswered, though it implies that the Danes may have killed one of his at some earlier point. Or, it could be a sign that the Danes were simply trying everything and anything.

Of course, none of the tactics that the Danes under Hrothgar try succeed. So, in their feud with Grendel, they fail.

The Danes fail to understand what it is that has turned Grendel on them, and, maybe, they fail to understand that Grendel isn’t just monstrous in appearance, but also in his nature. Grendel can’t be dealt with in the same way that some other human clan or group could be dealt with.

Thus, translating “fyrene and faedthe” as “failure and feuding” describes perfectly the Danes experience over their terrible twelve years. The phrase also gels well with the idea of a “perpetual siege” (“singale sæce” (l.154)), since both are terribly one sided conflicts in one way or another. Plus, it alliterates much more smoothly than “sin and feuding” or “transgression and hostility.”

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Grendel kin

Getting back to the Danes’ trying to pay Grendel off to end the feud, the latter half of this extract suggests that there’s a bit more to this attempt. Particularly in line 159, where Grendel is called “the pursuer” (“ehtende” (the past tense of the verb “ehtan” (“to pursue”), but I have translated it as a noun)).

Referring to Grendel in such a way suggests that the payment the Danes tried to make to him wasn’t so much to repay Grendel for some past wrong they had done to him. Instead, it seems that the Danes are trying to pay Grendel to stop him from killing their own. How exactly this is supposed to work doesn’t make clear sense. After all, it’s a bit too much of an appeal to whatever humanity Grendel may share with the Danes. It’s enough to give you a strong sense that Grendel’s not just monstrous because of his appearance and actions, but because he is completely outside of the usual civil way that people in Beowulf‘s world interact.

The Danes’ trying to pay Grendel to stop his killings could also be because of a misunderstanding on their part. However, I don’t think that’s entirely the case. The poet’s reference to Grendel as “that kin” (“sibbe” (l.154)) implies that he was regarded as some distant relation of the Danes. Maybe this is a nod back to the scop’s noting that the monsters are the kin of Cain. From there, the Danes could surmise that Grendel, a monster, is related to Cain, the son of Adam, the father of humanity, and thus (distantly) related to them.

On a more meta level, the reference to monsters being the kin of Cain and the poet’s referring to Grendel as “the kin” here could be the Beowulf poet/scribe’s own commentary on the power and influence of stories (or the gullibility of people in the past). Perhaps Grendel has no relation to the Dane’s whatsoever, and they are only trying all that they are and loosely referring to him as “kin” because the scop’s history of the world told them such was so.

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Closing

Next week, we’ll hear more about Grendel’s attacks and the Danes’ responses.

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Grendel the grim and greedy (ll.138-146a) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Confrontation, or ambush?
Grendel’s reign
Closing

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Abstract

The poet describes how Grendel has terrorized the Danes, and has the area around Heorot in his goblin grip.

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Translation

“Then was he easy to find roaming
about elsewhere seeking rest,
a place to recline and relax, to which he left a trail,
that token spoke truly of the object
of the hall-dwellers’ hate; they sought
refuge outside the hall once that fiend was running free.
So he ruled in defiance of right,
one of lesser stuff against all, until that
greatest of houses stood silent.”
(Beowulf ll.138-146a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Confrontation, or ambush?

Each of these extracts has brought up questions. The first that comes up here is why the Danes don’t track Grendel back to his resting place, or lay in wait and ambush him there. The latter of those two is out since it would be considered underhanded.

Any tactic that involved facing an enemy in an indirect way would have been considered cowardly or deceitful – both of which were traits to be avoided. On the one hand a code of honour is definitely responsible for the Anglo-Saxons’ looking down on such indirect tactics as ambush, but, at least within the realm of literature, I think the reason that Grendel isn’t merely staked out is because of the prevalence of feuds. If you were trying to minimize or avoid trivial feuds, the best way to do so would be to deal directly with friends and enemies alike – any misunderstanding, after all, could burst into a feud.

After all, on top of their inter-generational nature, feuds also involved a complex system of monetary compensation, and not every family or group in the Anglo-Saxon world had a hoard of gold to which they could turn for such payments. Also speaking from literature, it would not surprise me if some of the more astute admirers of poetry at the time considered Sigurd’s ambushing the dragon Fafnir the spark that ignites the blaze of tragedy that engulfs him and his family.

As to why the Danes don’t just follow the “token [that] spoke truly” (“gesægd soðlice sweotolan tacne” (l.141)) back to Grendel’s resting place and attack him there, all I can put forward is Grendel’s strength. He has already overpowered the Danes in their own “home turf” so to speak, and so they probably figure that facing him on his own turf would not go any better for them. Even if they didn’t have the concept of a home field advantage, Grendel’s resting place would likely be somewhere in the moors, an environment that’s less than hospitable considering its boggy ground, swarming insect life, and whatever superstitious trappings were attached to it as a place that is “Other.”

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Grendel’s reign

Grendel’s rule of Heorot is here characterized as “in defiance of right,/one of lesser stuff against all” (“wið rihte wan,/ana wið eallum” (ll.144-145)).

First, the “one of lesser stuff” is my interpretation of the lone wan meaning “lacking,” “deficient,” or “wanting.” The reason I chose to unpack the word in that way is because it underscores the poet’s overturning of the proper sense of order at this point in the poem. Grendel, the representative of devilish forces is winning, while the Danes, not exactly paragons of virtue, but nonetheless people striving to do good as far as they understand it, are brought low. So turning wan into “one of lesser stuff” makes sense.

Grendel’s rule over Heorot and its surroundings at this point is a definite low point. Not only because the Danes are without their meeting/mead hall, but because it’s a building that stands as a high point of civil achievement. It’s a place that is made to be sturdy, and that’s finished with stunning gold eaves. The specificity of the decor isn’t accidental, no doubt putting gold into a building’s roof was a way that the Anglo-Saxons tried to curry favour with their god(s). Though later scholars, and maybe even the religious who wrote down Beowulf, would see Heorot as an example of pagan pride and vanity, it nonetheless is something that stands as a sign of a people doing good as they see it.

Strangely this sort of cultural clash between pagan and Christian world views is most prevalent before Beowulf enters the story. Maybe this shift away from the clash is because his character is quite overwhelmingly proto-Christian, coming in and bragging that he’ll beat Grendel by the grace of god and so on. Whatever the case, this clash of world views becomes even more prevalent in the poem’s coming lines.

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Closing

Tongues in Jars will be updating normally again from here on out. So be sure to check back next week!

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Grendel’s complications (ll.126-137) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Grendel’s hesitation
“G” is for vendetta
Closing

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Abstract

In the aftermath of Grendel’s attack there is great sorrow. This sadness is amplified when Grendel shortly strikes again.

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Translation

“Then, outside the hall at daybreak,
was Grendel’s war-strength seen by human eyes;
after that was there weeping to heaven,
a morning full of mourning. Famous warriors,
long tested true lords, sorrowful sat,
the mighty moaned, the lost thanes saddened them,
until they found the faint, loathful footprints that
the evil doing fiend had made. That was helpful to
the beast’s escape,hateful and sluggish. That night
was not long alone, nigh the next night he again brought
more violent death and seemed not to hesitate as before,
bringing violence and outrage; he came down heavily upon
          them.”
(Beowulf ll.126-137)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Grendel’s hesitation

So apparently Grendel was holding back in his first visit. Based on the penultimate line of this week’s extract, Grendel “seemed not to hesitate as before” (“no mearn fore”(l.136)). But what was there to hesitate about?

The suggestion that Grendel was holding back implies that he had some scrap of humanity in him on that first night, and it was this that was picked up on in last week’s entry. So, for some reason, after that first attack Grendel descends into something worse.

Perhaps Grendel was merely testing Heorot and those that he found there. But why would he need to test them? Again, it seems that Grendel had something in him to help him to know that he had something in common with his targets. Grendel is the kin of Cain, after all.

So, even if he could feel some commonality with the thanes of Heorot, he would be feeling it from the perspective of one who has a cursed nature. It’s safe to say, then, that Grendel’s perspective, feelings of kinship/commonality aside, is different at its base. Different enough to realize that he was somehow better than them, or that they were not a threat, not something against which he would have to hold back.

As a quick aside, John Gardner’s Grendel is a great study in the ghoul’s character, and it seems that Gardner drew more from Beowulf for it than you might think.

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“G” is for vendetta

Carrying forward the ideas of the feud between god and the monsters and the distant kinship between the Danes and Grendel (from last week’s entry), there’s a curious word on line 137. This word is “fæhðe,” which means “violence,” “outrage,” or “vendetta,” according to Clark Hall & Meritt’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.

Now, a “vendetta” isn’t quite the same thing as a “feud.” The former is something that’s generally more one-sided, something that a person embarks upon because of a perceived wrong, whereas the latter is usually something where both parties are at least dimly aware of some mutual wrong(s) that are the cause for their enduring dispute.

So, since the feud between god and monsters is something limited to the songs of the scops, it’s not likely that Grendel’s striking Heorot as part of the age old feud of which they sing. Whether it’s the noise, or being god’s preferred offspring, Grendel is raining violence down upon Heorot as part of a vendetta, a one-sided feud. To modern readers this could be something rooted in Grendel’s nature as a monster. But, to the poem’s early audiences, a thing like a vendetta would seem monstrous in itself.

Before authority became centralized in the form of kingdoms and fiefdoms, one of the great laws of Northern Europe was the feud. But it was, in the ideal case, something that involved both parties, and was a means of redressing a wrong that was great enough to legitimize the bloodshed inherent in such a conflict.

To bring a vendetta against someone or some other group would be seen as a flaunting of the law of the land, and the action of an imbalanced person. Thus, Grendel’s made to be extra monstrous because of the apparently unmotivated violence that he brings to the Danes. Not simply because he’s acting so violently, but because he’s carrying a vendetta to the hall.

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Closing

In next week’s extract, Grendel’s assaults drive people away from Heorot, and word of the hall’s woe spreads across the world.

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Further words on Grendel (ll.115-125) [Old English]

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The character of Grendel
Cathartic Violence
Closing

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Abstract

Grendel breaks into Heorot after a feast, and seizes thirty thanes, whom he handily devours.

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Translation

“Knew he then what he sought, once night fell,
at the high house, how the Ring-Danes
after beer-drinking would be stayed there;
found he therein a fortune of princes
sleeping fast after the feast – they knew no sorrow,
men of the war spear. The unholy figure,
grim and greedy, was quickly enthused,
savage and severe, and at once he seized
thirty thanes; after that he went out
heading loudly home with his prey,
with that slaughter he returned to his dwelling.”
(Beowulf ll.115-125)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The character of Grendel

Grendel’s terrifying assault on Heorot is told of in these lines. But in them, there’s also something said about Grendel’s character.

First off, immediately we’re told that Grendel is capable of self-knowing. The very first clause of the extract is “knew he then what he sought” (“Gewat ða neosian” (l.115)). This self knowledge means that Grendel isn’t just a rampaging beast, but is something more. He’s the kin of Cain, sure, but that doesn’t remove a thinking brain from his body. So Grendel’s motives can be more complex than simply hunger or rage.

His enthusiasm for the slaughter also suggests some parts of his personality. Grendel is excitable and, perhaps because of the poetry used, it seems as if he glowers over the sight of the thanes. Almost as if he sees the thirty there and immediately begins to fantasize about a possible future wherein he’s devouring/stealing them all away. Unlike the Anglo-Saxons’ (likely) understanding of animals, Grendel has some degree of emotional feeling and seems like he’s capable of planning ahead. But, this emotion is tempered by something, at least in the way the poet describes it, more reasoned.

The Anglo-Saxon word for “seized” on line 122, “genam,” means just that “seized.” However, it’s not a word that was used on a day to day basis, rather, it’s from the Anglo Saxon legal vocabulary. So Grendel seized the thirty thanes in a legal way.

Perhaps this action of seizure, along with showing that Grendel is overly litigious, also suggests that Grendel is merely carrying on a feud, taking what is legally his, or doing so with the force of the law behind him. In the feud between god and the kin of Cain it’s not exactly clear how long it’s been since a blow was struck against god, and so taking thirty thanes might be Grendel’s way of evening things out.

Of course, since this is just one word, it’s entirely possible that “genam” was used merely because it fit the meter of the line. Not being bound up in the line’s alliteration (that job falls to “r” here) though, there’s not much in the way of formal reasons to use a word other than “genam.”

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Cathartic Violence

For a scene that describes such a ghoulish incident, there’s very little in the way of graphic description. No limbs are torn from bodies, no blood is drunk from wounds, no specific damage is done to any body whatever. Plus, given the way that Beowulf will describe this incident to Hygelac later on, adding in Grendel’s glove, it seems like a very clean snatching.

This clean description helps to strengthen the argument that Grendel’s actions have some force of law behind them. So long as graphic descriptions of violence are intended by the poet/writer to communicate a disruption of relations (the sort of thing that happens when warring armies meet, or rivals square off) its lack suggests the lack of a disruption of relations. So long as graphic descriptions of violence indicated such a disruption to Anglo-Saxons, this clean description of Grendel’s seizure could be read as an indication that Grendel is in the right in his stance against Heorot.

Yet, if you follow that interpretation, it would also mean that Beowulf is in the wrong. After all, the description of the fight between Grendel and Beowulf is quite brutal, going so far as to include a poetic rendering of an arm being ripped off. So if Grendel’s clean sweep of the thanes suggests his being in the right, Beowulf’s gruesome assault on Grendel suggests that he is in the wrong.

Assuming that it’s the other way around, though, Beowulf enters into the right, while Grendel’s lack of violence disempowers him. Even as this lack comes across in a wild act of violence against Heorot.

Yet, even read in such a traditional way, Grendel can still be read as a complex character. The lack of concrete physical description of the violence he perpetrates implies that his violence is unfulfilled. This violence is a desire, an urge, that has no expression.

Though ideas of the humours come centuries after Beowulf’s being composed/written, a long standing idea about the human body is that it houses certain energies. Holding these energies up generally meant that something would shortly go wrong, and some illness would result. Violence was often understood as one of the chief ways to expend this energy. Being unable to expend energy, even through violence, could be a terrible fate.

Perhaps that’s at the root of Grendel’s violence against Heorot. It’s not that he’s bothered by the noise, but the sound of others partying and expending energy, living life, reminds him of his unfulfilled urge. So Grendel lashes out, but as part of the curse of being kin of Cain, he is unable to expel his energies as he expresses his urges. Grendel can still be violent, of course, but he isn’t able to sate his urge to be so, it remains a fixed quantity.

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Closing

In the next entry, the following morning finds Grendel’s gruesome visit and he strikes again.

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