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Grendel breaks into Heorot after a feast, and seizes thirty thanes, whom he handily devours.
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“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.”
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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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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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In the next entry, the following morning finds Grendel’s gruesome visit and he strikes again.
You can find the next part of Beowulf here.