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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